In 1603, the head of the Tokugawa Clan proclaimed himself shogun, thus starting the rule of the clan in Japan. Having set up a complete military dictatorship of the samurai by the 17th century, the Tokugawa Clan managed to completely centralize and augment its authority.

The Tokugawa’s strong central authority put an end to feudal fragmentation and resulted in the minimization of wars between feudal lords. Now, samurai served only to put down peasant and civilian revolts.

As for the samurai’s social status, by then, they were at the top since the shogunate closely monitored the estate system of power and subordination. The following hierarchy system was developed: samurai – peasants – artisans – merchants. Of course, the samurai ranked the highest as they were a support of the Tokugawa regime and were considered the core of the nation and the best people. There was a separate group of court aristocracy. Even though officially, it ranked above samurai, in fact, it was deprived of any political and economic power.

Although the samurai estate was considered single on paper, the Tokugawa regime clearly divided the samurai by their ranks. In addition to the gokenin, the existing samurai of the highest military nobility, feudal lords whose status depended on the size of their lands, a new samurai class of hatamoto was established. Hatamoto, translated from Japanese, means the standard-bearer, and this class of samurai was directly subordinate to the military government and the shogun.


The hatamoto samurai had the powers that the gokenin did not have. They had the right to a private audience with the shogun and could enter the building from the main entrance. In the event of war, the hatamotos formed the shogun’s army and were part of the shogun’s administration.  According to the social hierarchy, the hatamoto and gokenin samurai were followed by baishin (a vassal of vassal), and the lowest samurai estate was ashigaru, ordinary soldiers.

Separately from the samurai estates, there were ronin. Ronin is a samurai who has let his master die or has been cast out from the clan or has left the suzerain voluntarily, for example, for a blood feud, and could return to service after. Many ronin who were unwilling or unable to be engaged in farming, handicrafts or trade, since they had no livelihood, gathered in gangs and robbed small villages or bystanders on the road. Ronin often became hired killers who would stop at nothing for money.

By the 17th century, the number of samurai reached approximately 400,000 and about two million together with their families. Japan’s population itself at that time was about 16 million. 

The number of samurai varied by region, depending on the wealth and the size of the lands of the feudal lords. This means that the richer the feudal lords in a particular province are, the more samurai lived there.

The majority of the samurai did not own lands and were rewarded rice for serving. The unit of measurement of this payment was koku, rice ration. The extent of the payment depended, of course, on the samurai status. With the received rice, the samurai could keep their families, buy clothes, household items, etc.  In fact, it was the only source of income since the Tokugawa shogunate prohibited samurai to be engaged in crafts, trade, and usury, considering it shameful for them. However, the samurai were exempt from taxes. 

As for the samurai’s conduct during the Tokugawa shogunate’s rule, they were to be guided by the “Buke hatto” code written by Tokugawa Ieyasu in 1615.  The code listed the rules of samurai’s conduct on service and at home, how samurai must treat their weapons, serve the feudal lords and address the feudal lords whom they serve, what clothes must be worn by each samurai class, what literature they must read, and it also explained marriage matters.


In addition to the rules and duties, the Buke hatto strictly protected the samurai’s honor. One of the articles of the code stated that a samurai could kill a peasant or citizen on the spot if they insulted him. Peasants, once they notice a samurai, had also to take off their hats and go on their knees, no matter where they were – on the roadside or at work.  Every such meeting with a samurai could have ended in death for a peasant. A peasant or citizen could also be punished for that a samurai could consider it excessive. However, a samurai could also be punished by death for violations that would have not resulted in death for a peasant. For example, for disobeying an order or breaking their promises, samurai had to commit hara-kiri.


The reign of the Takugawa Family was a period of supreme development for samurai. During this period, the samurai’s culture, customs and rules were fully developed.

See also

  • Yasuke


    Yasuke, an African page, arrived in Japan in 1579 as the attendant of the Italian Jesuit missionary Alessandro Valignano. Before the arrival of the Englishman William Adams, it is thought that Yasuke was possibly the inaugural non-Japanese samurai, arriving about twenty years earlier.

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  • Yamanami Keisuke


    Yamanami Keisuke, the second in command of the Shinsengumi, a special police force during the late Edo period, shocked many when he performed seppuku on March 20, 1865, at the age of 32.

    Read more: Yamanami Keisuke

  • Yamamoto Kansuke


    Yamamoto Kansuke, renowned as a samurai strategist and one of Takeda Shingen's esteemed 24 Generals, hailed from the Mikawa region, known for breeding formidable warriors. Despite physical challenges—blindness in one eye, lameness in one leg, and a malformed hand—Kansuke embarked on a warrior's pilgrimage in his twenties. Traveling across the land, he honed his skills in strategy, tactics, castle construction, and warfare, engaging in various swordsmanship schools and forms.

    Read more: Yamamoto Kansuke

  • Yamaga Soko


    Yamaga Soko was a multifaceted figure in Japanese history, renowned as a strategist, philosopher, and scholar. Later in life, he became a ronin, leaving a significant mark on the understanding of the Tokugawa period samurai.

    Read more: Yamaga Soko

  • William Adams - Miura Anjin


    William Adams, also known as Miura Anjin, holds the distinction of being one of the few non-Japanese individuals granted samurai status. Born in Gillingham, Kent, England in 1564, Adams embarked on a remarkable journey that led him to become an influential figure in Japanese history.

    Read more: William Adams - Miura Anjin

  • Wakisaka Yasuharu


    Wakisaka Yasuharu held the position of daimyo over Awaji Island before ruling over Ozu in Iyo Province. His significance in the Battle of Sekigahara in 1600 cannot be overstated.

    Read more: Wakisaka Yasuharu

  • Ukita Hideie


    Ukita Hideie was born as the second son of Ukita Naoie, the ruler of Okayama Castle. Tragically, Hideie's father passed away when he was just nine years old, thrusting him into the responsibilities of leading the castle, clan, and domain. Prior to his father's demise, the Ukita clan had aligned with Oda Nobunaga. After Nobunaga's assassination during the Honno-ji Incident, Hideie remained loyal to Toyotomi Hideyoshi, whose ties were further solidified through marriage.

    Read more: Ukita Hideie

  • Uesugi Kenshin


    Uesugi Kenshin stands out as one of the most formidable daimyo of the Sengoku period, presenting the sole substantial challenge to Oda Nobunaga's quest for dominance.

    Read more: Uesugi Kenshin