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Social Mobility and Its Effects on Tokugawa Japan’s Economic Growth

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As the market and money economies came to replace the predominant agricultural society, social mobility began to develop within Tokugawa Japan. Those from social classes lower than the samurais as peasants, artisans, and merchants, who were formerly restricted by the class tradition, were now opened to the world of business, and, therefore, to the roles of employee and employer as well as to the new patterns of relationship. Although such a shift demonstrates the common belief that economic development creates social mobility, the mobility could also, in the other way around, potentially support economic growth as well. Therefore, this essay aims to exhibit how social mobility of different class contributed to the economic growth of Tokugawa Japan.

Perhaps to understand the connection between improving social mobility and Tokugawa’s economic productivity, one should begin with how social mobility operated within Japan’s proto-industrial society. To start with the farmer class, basing primarily on the case of cotton and silk textile industries, the expansion of domestic market acted as an agent of social change as it “reorganized rural relations of production” (Houston and Snell 473-474). As the market expansion was accompanied by the need for additional income from non-agricultural tasks, farmers or rural producers no longer bonded to monopolized middlemen. They became more independent on the occupational options as well as on formerly limited capital sources and entrepreneurial commission. To participate in the non-agricultural market, the villagers began to develop handicraft skills that were embodied mostly in cotton processing, which, later, helped to turn cotton textile production into a village-centered industry. With such skills, they also became the targeted labors that the factories wanted to incorporate into their businesses, bringing them into labor-management relations. Cotton processing skills become a significant factor in transforming the demand for labor and consequently contributed to the increased employment rate, wages, and income potentiality for female agricultural workers who were capable of weaving. Therefore, the villagers’ social mobility can be concluded as a more variety of career’s choices and new sources of capital.

For the artisans and merchants, despite the economic success of their enterprises based on the developed agricultural production, the uncultivated lands also became beneficial as well. In the same time that their financial power extended into agrarian villages, their social status was also significantly increased by their becoming landlords (Honjo 72-73). In local cotton villages, merchants and artisans earned both by loaning out raw materials and tools to weavers which they collected interest in exchange, and by owning rice fields to get the annual stipends of rice, although did not engage in farming. Besides, apart from the possessing of farmer’s status, the merchants saw another opportunity to socially elevate themselves from the Tokugawa’s strict establishment of classes’ duties. Since the samurais were not allowed to operate any form of business, merchants turned themselves to be moneylenders, and so created the samurais’ financial dependency upon them (Sheldon 478-481). While the merchants’ businesses continued to do well, the samurais came to suffer from the government’s policy that required them to reside in the castle town where the rental prices would be added upon their expenses. The merchants, thus, were able to perform the farmer’s role and to be superior to the samurais in certain extents in the meantime. Therefore, although the outward forms of social discrimination were still carried on, their substance became void.

Both the farmers and the merchants, thus, were socially advanced in their own ways, illuminating how the account of economic development brought about social mobility. However, while the relationship between the two accounts is usually studied in the above direction, how the improving social mobility, in return, also facilitates economic growth is frequently remained undiscussed. 

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Social Mobility And Its Effects On Tokugawa Japan’s Economic Growth. (2021, Jun 09). GradesFixer. Retrieved March 23, 2023, from
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