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During the Meiji Restoration, the previously powerful samurai class was abolished. What did all the former samurai become?

I have heard often that many former samurai joined the new conscription army and took up positions as officers, but the samurai class constituted something like 5% of the population of Japan. No military needs that many officers. Samurai were not only well-trained but well-educated, enjoying great social mobility, so I imagine most would have transitioned to various roles in the upper strata of the modern society; some samurai became notable businessmen, such as the founder of Mitsubishi.

Are there any statistics or records on where the samurai ended up and in what professions or roles?

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Short Answer

Roughly speaking, in the early decades after 1867:

  • ~7% became educators
  • ~16% became public servants
  • ~25% became corporate employees
  • the rest became unemployed or farmers

Overview

Most of them actually did not do particularly well. After the Meiji Restoration, the samurai became the new shizoku class and initially received stipends from a naive government. This proved an unsustainable financial burden, however. Almost immediately the government began eliminating their benefits and privileges.

The majority of the shizoku blended into the general population in the process. With strong government encouragement, many former samurai families reverted to farming or trading, occupations not entirely alien to them[1]. Some led the push to settle Hokkaido's frontier. A few organised businesses and factories, where others became corporate employees in relatively large numbers.

As a class, however, the shizoku continued to fulfill their traditional roles[2]. In addition to forming the backbone of the police, army and naval forces, the shizoku also continued to dominate the public sector. Not only did they fill a large majority of government positions, much of Meiji Japan's schools were staffed by former samurai.

Public Service

In the 1881 Imperial Census, about 16% of the shizoku worked government jobs. An additional 7% were employed in education. While this amounted to less than a quarter of the total shizoku population, they dominated both sectors, especially in the higher echelons.

  • Government Officials: 53,032 (out of 78,328)
  • Local District Chiefs: 380 (out of 531)
  • Local District Secretaries: 4,289 (out of 6,620)
  • Local District Registrar: 8,502 (out of 40,908)
  • School Principals: 320 (out of 504)
  • School Teachers: 30,469 (out of 72,169)

Farming and Trading

In 1873 the government began offering the shizoku a lump sum payment and government bonds, in exchange for surrendering their perpetual stipends. The measure was intended to simulate economic growth by providing investment capital, as well as to reduce the heavy burden of stipends on government expenditures. About 135,800 members of the shizoku accepted the offer.

Many of them used this money to purchase land (the Ehime Prefecture recorded 70% declared intent to buy land for farming in their applications) and became farmers. The government provided assistance in buying forest or abandoned lands cheaply. Some however chose to going into commerce (from the same Prefecture, 18%) but due to their inexperience tended to be less successful. Things were particularly difficult for those caught by the Matsukata Deflation.

Hokkaido Settler

During the Meiji era, Japan began actively colonising Hokkaido, a project in which many samurai participated. The earlier waves came from Northeastern Japan, which was the primary centre of opposition to the Meiji Restoration. After a brief war from which government forces emerged victorious, the Tokugawa loyalist domains were heavily penalised. The rebel domains had their territory confiscated by the new government, and could no longer support their samurai retainers. Many returned to farming, but some decided to seek better fortunes by settling Hokkaido.

For example, Date Kunishige of the Sendai Han saw his territory reduced from 23,853 koku pre-war to a mere 58 koku. That was far too small to support his retinue, whose members plus their family numbered 7,800. Thus, Kunishige sold his heirlooms and funded nine expeditions to Hokkaido, settling 2,600 of his samurai at what would later become the City of Date. Similar efforts from the rest of the Sendai Han sent about 4700 shizoku in total. Other domains such as the Tokushima Han and the Aizu Han also sent out smaller bands of samurai colonists.

Military Colonists

The second type of shizoku settlement in Hokkaido emerged after the Meiji government converted all stipends to government bonds forcibly in 1876. To alleviate the ensuing hardship, various schemes to provide the shizoku with property, called shizoku jyusan were devised. In addition to selling them government land cheaply (à la those who voluntarily surrendered their stipends earlier), one project was to colonise Hokkaido using the shizoku as armed settlers. They would serve the dual purpose of both establishing settlements on the frontier, as well as forming the first line of defense against Imperial Russia.

A total of 7,337 families, or some 40,000 military settlers, took part in the resulting tondenhei system. The government began recruiting civilians in later years, but participation was limited to the shizoku until 1893. By that stage around 3,000 former samurai families had been settled. Other shizoku families also migrated to Hokkaido as civilians under favourable government arrangements, but that was ended in favour of the tondenhei by the early 1880s

Commerce and Industry

Setting the samurai to work on reclaiming farmland was a major plank of the government's relief programme. Another major component of the shizoku jyusan policy, however, was to encourage them to start businesses and participate in industry. To this end the Meiji government made available cheap[3] loans and provided advice on setting up businesses. By 1882, the shizoku had created almost 200 commercial or industrial entities.

Some became leaders in profitable export products such as tea or silk. Others became producers of their regional speciality goods. Still others assisted in the national westernisation effort by transplanting foreign technology into Japan, such as the example of Onoda Cement. These companies would employ some 100,000 shizoku, who would have been a valuable source of educated[4] workforce.


Notes:

  1. During the Edo period, many feudal domains were financially stressed due to the Shogunate's policies. Clans who had been punished with territorial reductions were especially hard hit, particularly if they refused to lay off their samurai staff (resulting in higher ratios of samurai to peasants). Many of the lower samurai thus worked the fields as farmers despite nominally holding samurai rank, since their lords could not afford to pay them decent wages. Many domains also expended much energy in promoting trade and commerce as a source of additional revenue, which fostered the development of regional speciality goods in modern Japan.

  2. The samurai had largely lost their military purpose since the Genna Armistice in 1615 ushered in two-and-a-half centuries of peace. Instead, they turned towards the more peaceful side of being the ruling class, and became administrators, scholars, and educators. Post-Restoration, the samurai continued to perform their old roles, but now alongside former farmers, merchants and craftsmen.

  3. Which became even cheaper a decade later, when the Imperial Government forgave the loans.

  4. After the Restoration, the shizoku would go on to dominate higher education as well as being generally overrepresented in the elite schools of Japan. Although their numbers declined substantially after the first years, as late by 1900 they still represented half of the student body at the Imperial Universities.


Sources

  • Halliday, Jon. A Political History of Japanese Capitalism. New York: Pantheon, 1975
  • 園田英弘, 濱名篤, and 廣田照幸. 士族の歴史社会学的研究: 武士の近代. 名古屋大学出版会, 1995.
  • 高橋哲夫. 明治の士族 歴史春秋社, 1980.
  • 北海道の開拓と移住
  • 近代日本の礎 - 水土の礎
  • 北海道開拓政策の変遷
  • Yonekura, Seiichiro. "The Samurai Company: Double Creative Response in Meiji Japan ― The Case of Onoda Cement." (2012).

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