March 4, 2024

The Four Occupations 士農工商 hierarchy in Edo society

Japan's class system, shaped by ancient Chinese concepts, used the 士農工商(しのうこうしょう) model to classify people's jobs into four main groups:

  • (): This originally referred to scholars or gentlemen in China, but in Japan, it represented the samurai, the warrior class.
  • (のう): The farmers, who played a vital role in food production.
  • (こう): Artisans and craftsmen, the creators of goods.
  • (しょう): Merchants and traders.


In China, these groups weren't rigidly fixed. They weren't exactly social classes, and they weren't inherited from your family; it was simply a way to generalize all types of people in society. However, when Japan adopted this system, the idea was that you were born into your class, and crossing lines, like marrying someone from a different class, was frowned upon.

Post-Meiji historians used to think this system in Edo period Japan was very strict. But modern research suggests it wasn't as rigid as previously thought. Even though there was a supposed hierarchy, there was some wiggle room, especially for lower-ranking samurai and richer farmers. The lines between classes weren't as sharp, and people could move up or down more than expected.

Because of these new insights, the traditional view of 士農工商(しのうこうしょう) is considered outdated, and it's not emphasized in current Japanese textbooks. It turns out that Japan's historical social structure was more dynamic and interconnected than simply four separate boxes.

Still, it makes for a fascinating language lesson. And so, let's go through the kanji...

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Break it Down

Let's look at the kanji and learn important words from them.

  • Kun: さむらい
  • On:
  • Meaning: gentleman; scholar

Mnemonic Story:

A true gentleman 士 stands tall and proud, representing the ideal of wisdom and respect.

Notes: Be careful to not confuse it with (つち) (dirt; earth). The samurai gentleman 士 has longer arms and the line for earth 土 has a longer line for the ground.



lawyer; attorney


samurai; warrior


expert; doctor; PhD [Also pronounced 「はかせ」]




morale (of troops or team)

  • On: ノウ
  • Meaning: agriculture; farmers

Kanji Components:

  • 曲 song; bend
  • 辰 morning; dragon

Mnemonic Story:

The agriculture 農 thrives as the farmers bend 曲 in their fields, singing songs 曲 of old, while the morning 辰 dragon 辰 watches over them, blessing their efforts with fruitful harvests.



farmer; farm family


agriculture; farming


farm; plantation


dairy farming


agricultural chemical; pesticide

On: コウ、 ク、 グ

Meaning: 工 work; labor; skill

Mnemonic Story: Work 工 requires skill and precision, as if measuring everything with a right angle for perfect craftsmanship.



factory; plant




construction work




scheme; device


workmanship; craftsmanship; handiwork

  • Kun: あきな.う
  • On: ショウ
  • Meaning: make a deal; selling; dealing in; merchant

Kanji Components:

  • 亠 lid; cover
  • 儿 legs
  • 冂 wide
  • 口 mouth

Mnemonic Story: In the world of commerce 商, a clever merchant covers 亠 his goods, creating intrigue. His strategy involves walking 儿 far and wide 冂, sharing stories 口 that captivate his audience and seal his deals.



product; commodity; goods; merchandise


merchant; trader


trade; business; commerce


trademark; brand


shop; small store

Match the Meaning

Flip two cards to match the Japanese with the English.

Flashcard Match-Up

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