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Merchants at an Edo market


The merchant class grew in influence during the Edo period

During the Edo period, the merchant class enjoyed a rise in social and economic status. Increasingly able to afford an education and the trappings of luxury, merchants broke social barriers, hobnobbing with samurai at the popular haiku and literary clubs. The clubs afforded the two classes a rare opportunity to mingle on an equal basis. Previously considered the dregs of society for their dealings with money, the merchants' new affluence encouraged the growth of art and helped spawn a culture more attuned to the common man.

Merchants dressed in cotton kimonos, and were barred from wearing silk. Laws prohibiting the wearing of silk by the merchant class were issued repeatedly (suggesting that rich merchants tended to ignore the shogun's edicts). By the early Edo Period, many merchants were emulating the samurai hairstyle, shaving the tops of their heads and pulling back the sides into a similar (though not identical) topknot. Since classes were not allowed to inter-mingle, it was important that one be able to differentiate among people.

Top: An Edo marketplace/Mitsui Bunko
Left: Merchant/National Museum of Ethnology, Leiden
Right: Merchant/Goldfarb-PlugIn


Under the Tokugawa shogunate, merchants were members of the "shomin" caste, at the bottom of the social order. For their dealings with money, they were scorned as parasites of society.

Many prominent families became merchants after the samurai class was dissolved in the 1870's. Today, Japan is one of the world's economic powerhouses.

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