- Japanese: 百姓 (hyakushou)
Hyakushô (lit. "one hundred surnames") is a term generally used to refer to peasants or villagers, especially of the medieval and Edo periods. The definition of the term and its best translation have been the subject of considerable scholarly debate, along with debate as to understandings of the lifestyles led by hyakushô and their level of economic well-being.
The term is most often translated as "peasants," with the implication of hyakushô being farmers, i.e. that they relied primarily on agricultural activity for subsistence and economic well-being. However, many scholars, Amino Yoshihiko perhaps chief among them, have argued that many hyakushô were craftsmen, merchants, traders, landowners, or fishermen, and/or earned a living engaging in other commercial, artisanal, or maritime activities. This is a key element of Amino's broader argument, that pre-modern Japanese society was not nearly as exclusively based upon agricultural production, and that regional rural areas were not so isolated, as is most commonly believed. In his translation of Amino's work, Alan Christy translates hyakushô into English not as "peasants," but as "villagers."
In the Edo period, hyakushô comprised roughly 80 percent of the population. Villages varied widely in size and layout, and in the chief products they produced. However, a village of roughly four hundred people, producing roughly four hundred koku worth of whatever they were producing, might be taken as average or representative.
In modern/contemporary Japan, the term hyakushô has come to take on a feudal connotation, much as the word "peasant" has in English. The term is thus sometimes seen as derogatory, and is avoided, with the term nômin (lit. "agricultural people," or farmers) used instead; the equivalence between hyakushô and nômin is strongly ingrained in the common collective consciousness, despite scholarly attempts to reexamine the character and activities of the medieval or early modern hyakushô.
Villages took many forms, ranging from relatively large farming villages, to smaller coastal fishing villages and mountain villages (where the main products might be timber/lumber, firewood, charcoal, mountain vegetables, etc.). Most were organized fairly haphazardly, in contrast to larger cities, and were rarely organized around any particular center. Shinto shrines or Buddhist temples present in the village were often located on the outskirts, or even if more centrally located were rarely if ever the center around which everything was organized; to the contrary, most villages were organized in a fashion that resulted from organic growth, as families built homes as they wished, in whatever locations were most desirable, either topographically or for other reasons. A single village often shared water rights, access to the forest and forest products (e.g. firewood and charcoal), and sources of fertilizer communally, and while farmers' plots were divvied up by household (and were generally not communal), they were often scattered across the village, and were not necessarily grouped together near that farmer's home.
Villages were largely self-governing in the Edo period, managing their own affairs under the authority of a headman or a small council, who served as the intermediary with samurai authorities, both for taxpaying and for legal and policy matters. Many villages gradually came to restrict membership in their village, with certain families or factions (often those families resident there the longest) securing power and discriminating against other families or factions (often those who had migrated to the village in more recent generations), granting them a lesser share of resources, privileges, or access, or denying them membership in the village entirely. While villages thus had a certain degree of hierarchy within them, there were no formal hierarchical relationships, nor necessarily any formal political relationships at all, between villages. Marriages, too, were often arranged amongst families within a village, and not between different villages. The village headmen of neighboring villages did not necessarily work together in any formal fashion, nor did any sort of neighborhood groups or young men's associations, between one village and another - rather, political/social associations were typically restricted to each village separately, though informal, personal, social interactions, as well as trade & barter, presumably happened quite regularly.
- Amino Yoshihiko, Alan Christy (trans.), Rethinking Japanese History, Center for Japanese Studies, University of Michigan (2012), 15-16 passim.
- Chie Nakane, "Tokugawa Society," in Nakane and Shinzaburô Ôishi (eds.) Tokugawa Japan: The Social and Economic Antecedents of Modern Japan. University of Tokyo Press, 1990, 215-216.
- Nakane, 224-225.
- Mizunomi - one of a number of terms referring to hyakushô with no taxable land (i.e. no significant agricultural production)