WAS CHONIN CLASS IN EDO PERIOD ALLOWED TO WEAR/CARRY SWORDS?*
S. Alexander Takeuchi, Ph.D.
Department of Sociology
University of North Alabama
October 26, 2003
I. Popular Misconception About Chonin and the Swords in Feudal Japan.
Many Japanese swords enthusiasts in Japan and in the U.S. already know that the only samurai class was given the privilege of wearing/carrying a pair of dai-sho (i.e., katana and wakizashi) by the Shogunate laws in feudal Japan. However, when it comes to what kinds of swords that chonin (i.e., commoner) class was allowed to wear/carry, there still is a misconception widely shared. The most popular thus well accepted misconception of the kind is that "chonin class was not allowed to carry any swords at all." This misconception is very plausible because in popular Kurosawa movies and TV jidai-geki dramas, one does not see any chonin or peasants wearing a sword of any kind. What is very misleading is that the stereotypical portrayals of the non-samurai class citizens of feudal Japan in Edo period are in fact rather accurate. That is, historically non-samurai class citizens of feudal Japan in Edo period did not actually wear/carry any swords in their everyday life - regardless of what the laws, which many of them could not read, said.
Then why the notion that "chonin class was not allowed to carry any swords at all" is still a misconception when in fact that virtually no chonin class citizens wore/carried any swords in Edo period? To understand this, one must examine the sword control laws of feudal Japan for civilian class and actual cultural practice of the civilian class in the past.
II. The Sword Regulations of Feudal Japan.
Feudal Japanese government issued several orders to regulate the types of swords that are allowed to be carried by different classes of people. One thing consistent among all these orders was the fact that chonin (i.e., commoners) were prohibited from wearing long swords (i.e., katana) unless specifically given permission to do so by the government, while there was no regulation prohibiting the commoners from carrying short swords such as tanto.
However, until many years after the end of the Japanese Civil War (1600) those old laws regarding swords were not always followed by the people. This was partially because many of those older laws had different definitions of katana, wakizashi and tanto in terms of their lengths. As the result, in the beginning of the Edo period (early 1600s), there were still some chonin class commoners and many Yakuza gangs who openly carried long wakizashi that were virtually equivalent to prohibited katana (Iiyama, 1995; Kukubo, 1993).
In the mid 1600s when the Tokugawa Shogunate restored peace and order in society, the government also issued different orders to prohibit chonin from carrying long swords. One of such orders was "Dai-sho katana no Sumpou oyobi touhats futsumou no Sei" [The Order Regarding Dai-sho Paired Swords and Hair Style] issued in July, Shoho 2 (a.d.1645). This law also specified the maximum blade length of katana to be 2 shaku 8 sun or 9 sun (= 84.84cm - 87.87cm) and wakizashi to be 1 shaku 8 sun or 9 sun (= 54.54cm - 57.57cm) (Kokubo,1993; Ogasawara,1994b).
Then in March, Kanbun 8 (1668), the Tokugawa Shogunate once again issued "Muto Rei," [No Sword Order], an executive order to firmly prohibit chonin class from carrying any swords longer than "ko-wakizashi" (i.e., small wakizashi) unless specifically permitted by the government (Iiyama,1995). According "Mutou Rei," "ko-wakizashi" is a sword whose blade length is shorter than 1 shaku 5 sun (i.e., 45.54cm). However, after seven decades had passed since the Japanese Civil War and when the social structures of the Tokugawa Shogunate was stabilized in the peaceful capital city of Edo, the Shogunate amended the old executive order "Muto Rei" to add some exceptions to the prohibition. These exceptions included the permission for chonin to carry regular length wakizashi (but not katana) when they are traveling or when there is a fire (Iiyama, 1995).
III. Actual Cultural Practice of the Chonin Class in Edo Period.
As seen in above, historically the feudal government of Japan tried to control its civilian class subjects by prohibiting them from wearing/carrying long swords (e.g., katana). In fact, due to the continuous legal and political pressure to prohibit chonin from arming themselves, it has since become the shared cultural norm among law abiding chonin class in Edo period not to carry any swords other than some exceptional occasions, despite the fact that the laws did not specifically prohibit them from carrying relatively short "ko-wakizashi." In this sense, the most popular misconception about chonin and swords in feudal Japan is virtually supported in terms of the actual cultural practice among the civilian class, even though it is not supported in terms of the judicial history of feudal Japan.
While most law abiding chonin seemed to have stopped carrying virtually any swords casually (whether legally prohibited or not), carrying "ko-wakizashi" (that were still legal) when they were traveling was not an uncommon practice. In fact, as seen in some of the famous wood block prints or read old story books in the late Edo period (such as Toukaido chu Hizakurige), there are many descriptions of chonin carrying legal length "ko-wakizashi" during their travel (Iiyama, 1995). Therefore, Suke-san and Kaku-san characters in popular Mito Komon TV series carrying wakizashi in their chonin disguise is not historically inaccurate.
IV. Wealthy Chonin and Famous Osaka Shinto Era Wakizashi.
In the mid Edo period when wealthy merchants in the city of Osaka started gaining power, some of them ordered legal length wakizashi from famous Osaka Shinto era smiths for their personal use. Some wonder if the existence of large number of antique wakizashi made by some of those Osaka Shinto era smiths is an indication that those merchants either collected or regularly wore those wakizashi. However, Nihon-to experts in Japan tend to argue that such a practice among wealthy merchants was not historically substantiated (see Ogasawara, 1994a).
Iiyama, Yoshiaki. (1995). "Edo jidai no tousou to fuzoku." ["The customs and sword furnishings in the Edo period."] In Shibata, Mitsuo. Shibata Mitsuo no Touken Handbook. [The Handbook of Japanese Swords by Mitsuo Shibata.] Pp. 120-125. Tokyo, Japan: Kogei Shuppan. ISBN4-7694-0094-2.
Kokubo, Kenichi. (1993). Zukan Tousou no Subete. [The Complete Book of the Japanese Sword Furnishings, Illustrated.] Tokyo, Japan: Kogei Shuppan. ISBN4-7694-0094-2.
Ogasawara, Nobuo. (1994a). Nihon-to no Kanshou Kiso Chishiki. [The Fundamental Knowledge of Japanese Sword Appreciation.] Tokyo, Japan: Shibun Do. ISBN4-7694-0053-5.
Ogasawara, Nobuo. (1994b). Nippon no Bijutsu 1, No. 332: Nihon-to no Koshirae. [The Art of Japan 1, No. 332: The Koshirae of Japanese Swords.] Tokyo, Japan: Shibun Do.
Edited and reprinted from the author's original posts on old Bugei
Copyright © by S. Alexander Takeuchi, Ph.D.