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Chonin

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  • Japanese: 町人 (chounin)

Chônin, most often translated as "townspeople" or "commoners," is one of the most standard terms used to refer to commoners (those who are not samurai, court nobles, peasants, or outcastes), especially those living in towns and cities, and particularly in the Edo period. The chônin are most commonly placed in contrast to the samurai, and the standard narrative of the Edo period emphasizes it as a period of the "rise" of the commoner class, as chônin became wealthier (more economically dominant) and as popular arts gained dominance, or at least prominence, against elite arts.

However, the term chônin can have a number of different nuances of meaning. Within the context of the Neo-Confucian shinôkôshô (士農工商) four-class system, the term chônin is often used to refer to the "artisans" (工) and "merchants" (商) combined. Based on the urban environment with which they are associated, chônin can also be defined as "townspeople," in contrast to the hyakushô ("peasants" or "villagers") who lived in rural areas.

Stricter definitions of the term, however, associate the chônin only with men (not women) who held official positions within an urban ward (a chô 町), or by another definition, only with wealthy businessmen, and not with the lower classes of urban dwellers. After all, if we are to speak of the Edo period as a time when the chônin as a class grew in wealth and influence, that only refers really to a particular (sub-)strata of society - those who did obtain official positions and/or run their own business - and not to the myriad sorts of laborers and workers who did not see such gains.

References

  • Tom Gaubatz, "A Barbershop on Every Corner: Urban Space and Identity Performance in the Fiction of Shikitei Sanba," guest lecture, UC Santa Barbara, 7 Jan 2016.
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