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Samurai as a caste were initially perceived as soldiers protecting the state order and serving the lords. However, in the course of time they received privileges and were able to create their own autonomies with inner legal and economic orders. The philosophy that formed the basis of Bushido had a significant impact on the historical development of the country. The legacy elite affected the governmental structures that promoted several reforms, which increased the rights of merchants, gave land to peasants, regulated tax policy and provided new currency. The administrative order, which had been destructive before, was also renovated, but Edo and Meiji allowed modernizing the corporations and verifying the production in Japan.

In feudal Japan, Samurai were secular lords r anging from large sovereign princes to small nobles. In a narrow sense, it is a military-feudal class of petty nobles. During the feudal period, Japan was an isolated state with its own caste division. Samurai played a significant role in terms of two aspects: ideological and reforming. Japanese economy improved after the Ieyasu agrarian reform, which improved tax policy and developed privatization. Analyzing different factors, the paper proves that samurai elite supporting governors had useful privileges until the Meiji reform, which was important for the development of market relations. Consequently, Japanese economic model brought about production and technological success with no analogues in the world.

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Bushido as a Founder of the Japanese Economy

Bushido is a samurai code of ethics and behaviors established in the Middle Ages. The code proclaimed morale of soldiers and contempt for the working segments of population, while those who disrespected the honor of samurai had to commit suicide. Even though Bushido is an ethical code, but not an economic doctrine, it highly contributed to the prosperity of postwar Japan. According to Inazo Nitobe (2008), “it fills the same position in the history (of Japan) that the English Constitution does in political history” (p. 11.). The evidence of it is loyalty and devotion as a basis of attitudes to the Japanese corporations.

Going back to historical perspectives, in feudal Japan, samurai were the secular lords, ranging from the shallow owners to the nobles. Thus, Bushido was based on what was considered the only acceptable occupation for the samurai, namely military service. Any other occupation generated disrespect for them and resulted in racial conflicts. In fact, this document reflected all points regarding samurai: it served only their caste and was available exclusively for the military service member nobility.

Bushido did not extend its principles to the lower castes that were de-facto beyond the morality of samurai. The analysis of relationship between the samurai and lower social castes of the Japanese feudal community (peasants, artisans, and others pariahs) revealed a discriminative tendency. Bushido principles were equivalent to the ruling class and the common people, which in their turn had an impact on the land and property owning rights. The impact of samurai’s principles on the period between the 20 – 21st centuries is strong since it established a deep feeling of national debt to the people. The Japanese companies have employees who work equally hard when wages rise or fall. They consider themselves bounded by the sense of duty as inborn diligence, which is one of the reasons of supernatural productivity and consequently, a strong economy.

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Samurai Prosperity in 14th-16th Centuries

In the 14th century, the Hojo clan initiated a policy of power centralization, which caused outrage among the samurai caste in provinces. Later on, a second government of samurai called Muromachi was formed. In contrast to previous regimes, the new one pursued the policy of decentralization. In the regions, military governors could collect half of the taxes per each province. The low-land samurai gained an additional privilege for their service and loyalty to the governors as they were sponsored by them.

In the first half of the 16th century, the ruling positions in the provinces belonged to the lords of old samurai dynasties, who overthrew the military governors. These rulers, called daimyo, broke relations with the city governors and began to create personal ancestral states. They appropriated private and public land holdings without paying taxes to the central government. Samurai created powerful armies consisting of the provincial nobility . A stronghold of the samurai elite were located in the mountain fortresses, which were built in the trade and craft settlements and cities. Some tribal governments introduced their own laws and decrees that had values of the state Criminal and Land Codes. The positive specifics of the samurai’s ruling revealed in the fact that the crafts acquired regional specialization, and metallurgical production was divided into foundry and forging.

The artisans working under the command of secular and spiritual nobility created separate unions. They paid taxes to the owner and acquired exclusive rights to produce and trade their own goods. The trade was stimulated due to the growth of agriculture and production of different goods. Later, frequent fairs took place on the main roads and in the parks in front of churches and monasteries. Along with the development of trade and production, the merchants have formed a community of sea and land carriers.

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The growth of production and transportation led to the creation of special villages for artisans and merchants who mainly lived in the fair trade areas. Samurai who ruled the richest cities maintained autonomy, and possessed collegial government and army. However, sometimes samurai were on two opposite sides: while one side struggled against anarchy and break of laws, the other one committed crimes in form of robbery and burglary. Several samurai groups united with the wealthy farmers and established their own municipality within rural communities. They frequently sparked rebellions against reforms or restrictions they received from the provincial governors.

Economic Renovations

The second half of the 16th century in Japan is perceived as an era of long and exhausting civil war, which began in the 1470s and ended at the beginning of the 17th century. At the time of economic dissonance that did not allow any alternatives, samurai frequently supported opposite camps. The power was decentralized, and nominally official government of shogunate was not able to control the country at all. There were no guarantees of civil rights and freedoms, while the criminal groups covered markets and had tight relations with politicians who relied on their support for their own purposes.

The Ieyasu agrarian reform was aimed to maintain the production in the field of agriculture. It helped to demarcate the castes and make farmers aware of their rights on land property. In turn, it guaranteed that the state had a constant source of taxes collected among peasantry. According to Michael Auslin (2009), “Leading samurai lords also carefully invested in public works that promoted both their control as well as economic growth.” These measures became possible due to the formation of large economic regions. Apart from this, the establishment of the territorial specialization was a result of the development of commodity economy. This interdependence was increasingly deepened with the termination of the civil war between the feudal lords.

As soon as samurai and the peasants got involved in the commodity-economic relations, they became impoverished being dependent on farming and its products. Along with this, “ As a further strategy of control, […] Ieyasu’s successor required the domainal lords, to maintain households in the Tokugawa […] and reside there for several months every other year” (The Editors of Encyclopedia Britannica, n.d.). Later, most of the princely houses (daimyo) began to decline, while their wealth and power diminished. Since the institution of samurai was deprived of the necessary financial support, it started decomposing. Difficult conditions pushed peasants to leave villages and move to the large cities. Some of them were forced to join the urban economy through the diffused manufacturing system.

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The Japanese Economy between 17–19 Centuries

To clarify the economic tendencies by which samurai were living, there is sense to describe general social and economic background to depict the situation through an objective comparison. The Japanese society of the Edo epoch strictly separated 4 major castes: the samurai warriors, peasants, merchants and artisans. The samurai elite exclusively ruled the entire state defining separate privileges for the selected groups. The pariah who executed the role of black labor were not included into the caste system. As a rule, the pariah had no prestigious occupation (waste management, prison service, cleaning) which was frequently disrespected by the higher classes. Furthermore, the system presupposed the procedure for registration of the citizens and their class relations on the basis of Buddhist monasteries within the definite districts of residence.

During the Edo epoch, Japanese economy was half-natural. The national currency included silver and golden coins, but a tribute and wages were paid by rice. Therefore, the role of villages was extremely important as it was the main supplying source of rice and tribute payments. The Japanese villages were controlled by the chairmen, but the most important decisions were approved collectively. The settlements had adopted the system of mutual responsibility and mutual support. Thus, to support villages, the government did not allow peasants to sell their lands, property or to move to the cities. For this reason, in the 17th century the peasants expanded the size of all arable territories of the state by two times. They invented new tools and began to cultivate technical plants: hemp, tea, cotton, rapeseed and various dyes.

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The transportation and industrial progress promoted prosperity of agriculture as well. The main areas of production were steel, forestry, pottery, salt production, and various consumer goods. The government improved the system of land and sea routes, and the single network of state-sample mail couriers was founded. Based on the fact that economic conditions satisfied the majority of people, no social disturbance happened during this time. In contrast, the cities united all political, trade and cultural life in Japan. The largest cities were considered the capitals of the self-governing territories. The social class dominating in these large cities was samurai, who were served by the burgers: artisans and merchants. Even though this inequality was passed on to generations, the rich samurai tried to follow their attitudes based on Bushido ethics.

Japanese Economy Tendencies in the 19th Century: The Meiji Reform

The period of Meiji was characterized by numerous reforms that were accepted ambiguously among different social clusters, including samurai. For example, the government unified the country and abolished the division of Japan into separate principalities, which were ruled mostly by old samurai elite having image and physical power. According to Harry Harootunian (1960), “Certainly, the presence of the samurai class, numbering approximately 1,800,000 or 400,000 families, […] constituted an acute problem” (p. 433). At the same time, the politics issued a decree on the new administrative divisions: the principalities were cancelled, and the area was divided into prefectures. Samurai militia turned into a regular army with social and financial guarantees from the government. However, the new decree issued the establishment of the armed forces on the basis of universal conscription. An additional law abolished class privileges and officially proclaimed equal rights of all citizens. The next step was elimination of internal tariffs, as well as proclamation of the freedom of trade, travelling and transportation of goods.

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Because of the implementation of reforms, samurai slowly started to be considered as equal as others (excluding the ones serving in the military). According to Harrotunian (1960), “ The samurai were to provide a pool of uncommitted manpower from which financiers, managers, and workers were to be recruited for the new Western-style industries” (p. 434). For instance, the government revised almost all old legislations and presented improved alternatives for all Japanese people. To create favorable conditions for trade and industry, the reformers introduced a single currency – the Yen. 

The agrarian reform of Meiji is another aspect that raised ambitions of rich samurai and simultaneously gave them an opportunity to experience Western economic system. The government abolished princes and feudal ownership of the land, and officially permitted sale of land. The land ownership was recognized as a property of those who de-facto disposed it. As a result of these reforms, Japan had started the development of the capitalistic economic system in its countryside, simultaneously saving the landlordism. Additionally, since the 19th century, the Japanese market has become interesting to the United States, especially after the governmental attempts to develop these relationships. Thus, “Since Commodore Perry’s black ship opened the door of Japan in 1853, the United States and Japan have developed […] relationship” (Shin, 2010, p. 1065). However, in both economic and national ethics, the collaboration of bipolar states was confronting.

 As a result of Meiji reforms, a significant part of the samurai could name themselves new landlords. Even during the Tokugawa ruling, they owned a lot of land being de-facto and de-jure owners of these territories. Some of the former samurai replenished the teams of former officials, mainly consisting of officers serving in the army and navy. The Bushido code, which was the source of glorification of the samurai valor and traditions, was the attribute that maintained Japanese military ideology until World War II.

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In feudal epoch, the Japanese economy was prevailingly small-peasant and based on hereditary land ownership. It was a property of the feudal lord, and the rent was paid in form of rice. The national economy was functioning within the feudal fragmentation that produced a unique multiplicity of feudal class worth of the samurai. The Ieyasu agrarian reform was a successful deal between agrarians and the government as it presupposed privatization for taxes. The Edo epoch was characterized by industrial and production progress attracting Westerners. Until the middle of the 19th century, Japan had been closed to foreigners who later tried to develop capitalism and own markets there. However, Meiji reform empowered capitalistic tendencies through abolishing of the feudal ownership.