Chonin (“townspeople”, 町 means city ward) were a social class that emerged at the beginning of the 16th century usually settling around castles (城下町 jōka-machi, “castle towns”). They consisted mainly of merchants and craftsmen who supplied goods and services to their feudal lords and the samurai. Subsequently, other people, peasants, workers and servants followed, offering their services to the former. As peasants and samurai were not permitted to engage in commercial activities, townspeople rapidly grew rich. During Edo Period chōnin held the lowest social position subordinated to bushi (武士), peasants (nōmin) and artisans (). They were subject to restrictive legislation such as land and property confiscation or compulsory loans. Despite all those restrictions, the merchant class grew in large numbers, eventually resulting in the term chōnin being applied to all urban inhabitants who were not nobles, samurai or peasants.
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Statue of Tōkaidōchū Hizakurige next to Sumpu Castle, Shizuoka
Merchants dealing in rice (rice brokers) were called fudasashi in Edo and kakeya in Ōsaka. Some of them became wealthy to a point where they were able to lend money to impecunious local daimyō. Many peasants and samurai were heavily indebted to the chōnin, resulting in considerable resentment and social tension. On the other hand, chōnin acted as sponsors of arts and sciences. The term chōnin-bunka refers to a new style of urban and popular culture that thrived thanks to the rich merchants who contributed to the flourishing of kabuki, ukiyo-e, jōruri and literary genres such as chōnin-mono (short stories dealing with chōnin-life that emerged at the end of the 17th century), ukiyo-zōshi and haiku.

It is worth mentioning that quite a few big Japanese enterprises, many of them still in existence, were founded by rich chōnin. Despite their tremendous cultural and financial influence chōnin never managed to become a political factor and remained dependent on government sponsorship. Their influence waned after the Meiji Restoration when their position as business leaders was gradually replaced by former samurai.

References:
  • This article is based on the Japan Encyclopedia by Louis-Frédéric Nussbaum, first published in English by Harvard University Press in 2005.
  • Cover image: “Itabashi Station” in Sixty-nine Stations of the Kisokaido Road by Utagawa Hiroshige (1797 – 1858)
  • Tōkaidōchū Hizakurige (東海道中膝栗毛), abbreviated as Hizakurige and known in translation as Shank's Mare, is a picaresque comic novel (kokkei-bon) written by Jippensha Ikku (十返舎一九, 1765–1831), about the misadventures of two travellers on the Tōkaidō, the main road between Kyoto and Edo during the Edo Period. The book was published in twelve parts between 1802 and 1822. [Source: Wikipedia]