What did the Edo samurai bureaucracy actually look like?

What did the Edo samurai bureaucracy actually look like?


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While researching the Japanese Edo period, the Samurai class are frequently described as bureaucrats and the government is described as a "sophisticated bureaucracy", often with detailed descriptions of the kind of information collected.

What did the Samurai bureaucracy/paperwork physically look like? I've had trouble finding any details like what I'm looking for. What form did the paperwork take? Were there memorized "forms", prepared stationery, signatures (or chops like in China)? Did the bureaucrats do all the paperwork, or did they also manage paperwork received form ordinary folk (farmers and artisans)? What kind of writing was used?

For example: 90s style Western bureaucracy revolved around flat sheets of paper pre-printed with standard blank, labelled fields to collect data, as well as contracts, which recorded stated legal agreements. These were organized by form type or alphabetically and often stored in colorful folders, then placed in large blocky filing cabinets.


It is definitely not a full answer but may help you to have a general feel about the Edo era. Some basic facts to help with the perspective:

  • The samurais appeared much before Edo, and had several functions, mostly carrying out military tasks. The Tokugawa-shogunate (Edo era) brought several changes: 1) the class system was created, therefore you had to be born a samurai to be a samurai; 2) civil wars were eliminated and also expeditions toward Korea/China stopped. As a result, Japan had a large warrior class (5-10% of all population), and no war to fight. Samurai was one of the highest class (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Edo_period#Society; peasants, artisans, merchants far below) with good education and fiercely loyal to their lord, so they become bureaucrats, administrators, diplomats, etc. that can raise to the top via meritocracy, as we see with many famous samurais at the beginning of Meiji, too: Sakamoto Ryouma (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sakamoto_Ry%C5%8Dma) or Saigo Takamori (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Saig%C5%8D_Takamori).

  • The literacy rate in Japan was very high in historical standards, but it is still not 100%. There is a great variety region by region, in towns and villages ("Literacy in Tokugawa Japan", https://www.jstage.jst.go.jp/article/kyoiku1932/70/4/70_4_524/_article), but it is as high as 50% (males) / 20%(females) as the national average ("EDO: City spirit of an era", https://www.japantimes.co.jp/community/2003/08/10/general/edo-city-spirit-of-an-era/). Note, literacy was counted as abl e to write down her/his own name.

The paperwork one person had to do was far less than nowadays. No tax papers, no insurance, no banks (most people kept money hidden), most people didn't even have family names before Meiji (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Japanese_name). Registration of citizens have carried it four major systems: "the ninbetsuchō (人別帳) (Registry of Human Categories), the shūmon jinbetsu aratamechō (宗門人別改帳) (Religious Inquisition Registry) also called the shūmon aratamechō, the gonin gumichō (五人組帳) (Five Household Registry) and the kakochō (過去帳) (Death Registry)" (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Koseki). You can find examples to Religious Inquisition Registry online archives: https://www.fujita-gyousei.com/index.php?%E5%AE%97%E9%96%80%E4%BA%BA%E5%88%A5%E5%B8%B3%E8%AA%BF%E6%9F%BB ; https://www.pref-lib.niigata.niigata.jp/?page_id=666, https://www.archives.pref.gunma.jp/course/course-3/gunma-course_16 . As you see these are handwritten on a Leporello-like foldable paper bind into a book, and still kept in the archive after centuries. There were no printed forms but they extensively used stamps (hanko or inkan, still commonly used in Japan, https://www.nippon.com/en/features/jg00077/; https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Seal_(East_Asia)) to substitute signature. As you see all written with kanji/kana using brushes. These are some more images of how these family registries looked like in Edo, early Meiji: https://senzo-kakeizu.com/komonjyo.html .


Watch the video: Saya-zamurai. Scabbard samurai. さや侍