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.

  • 2
    The samurai class was abolished in the beginning of Meiji, and the whole country / government was restructured. Meiji and Edo are very very different. So I would recommend either split the question or contrast it Also, you may want to clarify what details, levels of burocracy you are interested in. The simple answer they didnt use printed forms in Edo, and they were using kanji/kana to write.
    – Greg
    Aug 23, 2020 at 20:05
  • 2
    I've edited out the Meiji period and added some more description to my question. I'm mostly looking into this for worldbuilding inspiration, so I'm not looking for particular facts as much as I'm looking for a better concept of what the bureaucracy was like.
    – KitKatKit
    Aug 23, 2020 at 20:13
  • I don't know enough to offer an answer, but modern bureaucracy is the result of the technology of paper and filing systems; I suspect for worldbuilding purposes, you could research any pre-modern bureaucracy. I suspect the key features are embedding "tradition" and "stability" and resistance to innovation in a faceless institution where no individual is accountable for any negative outcome. The alternative to bureaucracy is probably autocracy.
    – MCW
    Aug 24, 2020 at 8:58
  • 1
  • I also rather suspect this paragraph from Wikipedia:Edo Society is revealing, "There were social stratifications within the samurai class: upper-level samurai had direct access to their daimyō and could hold his most trusted positions, with some achieving a level of wealth that allowed them to retain their own samurai vassals. Mid-level samurai held military and bureaucratic positions, and had some interactions with their daimyō if needed. Low-level samurai could be paid as little as a subsistence wage and worked as guards, messengers and clerks. "
    – MCW
    Aug 24, 2020 at 12:41

1 Answer 1


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 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 .

  • "samurai" is both singular and plural.
    – gktscrk
    Aug 25, 2020 at 4:58

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.