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  • Japanese: 家 (ie)

The ie, meaning "house" or "household," was an important unit of social organization, especially for samurai, though functioning too for those commoners and wealthy peasants with a significant patrimony, trade, or family reputation to pass down, as well as in other similar contexts, such as the position of abbot of a given temple being passed down within a family lineage. Generally, the well-being of the ie, the household, took priority over the needs or desires of the individual. The iemoto system followed in schools of traditional Japanese arts also bears a strong connection to the concept of the ie.

The ie was the household in the sense of the sum total of the members of the household, i.e. one's relatives, but it was also an abstract concept of patrimony, encompassing material, territorial, and monetary inheritances as well as privileges, titles, or rank, and reputation. It was seen as greater than the head of household, or of the sum total of its living members, and was, rather, something to be cared for, to be maintained, to pass on to one's heirs as one inherited it from one's ancestors. Generally speaking, property belonged not to the individual (e.g. the head of household), but to the household itself, to the ie. Samurai stipends were paid not to the head of household, but to the ie , and similarly profits earned in a townsman or villager household were accrued to the household. Thus, for a daimyô or other land-holding samurai, this patrimony included the domain itself, and its economic prosperity, stability, and health otherwise, along with the stability, wealth, and reputation of the family name (gomyôji)[1] and of the warrior household itself. For a merchant family, similarly, this patrimony might include the shop and its reputation, among other aspects. The maintenance of the wealth, stability, reputation, or other aspects of the household was of chief concern over pursuits of personal, individual, wealth or power. This was the case for myriad decisions made by the head of household, including decisions regarding marriage prospects for their children.[2]

Thus, policy discussions within a village, or within a merchant guild, were really discussions between corporate entities - the households, with the head of household as representative - more so than they were simply between individuals.[3]

The ie was passed on to a single designated heir, and was not partible. In the majority of cases, the heir was the eldest son, or an adopted son, with other sons going on to form separate, branch households (ie). Though the sense of kinship ties played a strong role in the conceptual nature of the ie, adoption was rarely seen as diluting or weakening the line of inheritance, or the legitimacy of the household.

Under the Tokugawa shogunate, shogunal vassals (the daimyô), shogunal retainers (hatamoto), and daimyô retainers were to some extent, or in some respects, seen as subordinate members of the lord's household, even as they were at the same time seen as heads of their own ie. This manifested in various ways, including in the politics of omote and uchi. Retainers were sometimes able to resist daimyô policies by arguing that a given policy would infringe upon, or damage, the retainer's patrimony, something each ie was entitled to defend, and something other ie were not meant to be able to infringe upon. It was as a result of this respect for the patrimonial rights of their retainers that many daimyô consulted with their chief retainers, and ran their domains based on retainers' counsel, rather than ruling autocratically.

However, daimyô could also nullify challenges based on retainers' patrimonial authority by subsuming the retainers into their own household; as members of the daimyô's ie, not only were the retainers now subject to the directives of the head of the household of which they'd become a member, but as members of that household, the household's interests had now become their own.


  • Mark Ravina, Land and Lordship in Early Modern Japan, Stanford University Press (1999), 37-39.
  • Chie Nakane, "Tokugawa Society," in Nakane and Shinzaburô Ôishi (eds.) Tokugawa Japan: The Social and Economic Antecedents of Modern Japan. University of Tokyo Press, 1990, 216-222.
  1. Ravina, 43.
  2. Gary Leupp, Interracial Intimacy in Japan: Western Men and Japanese Women, 1543-1900, A&C Black (2003), 101.
  3. Nakane, 226.
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