Myoshu (village headmen) were a class of people who were commissioned to manage the cultivation of farmland called myoden by lords of Kokugaryo (territories governed by provincial government office) and manors during the late Ancient period and the Middle Ages in Japan. They were also obligated to collect tribute and taxes (taxes in kind, public duties and labor services) for territorial rulers.
In the early modern age, and specifically the Edo period, village headmen were called nanushi, which was one of the three official positions of a provincial community. (For details, see the article about Shoya [village headman in the Edo period]).
In Japan, land had been controlled by the government under the ritsuryo legal codes in order to collect land taxes since the early eighth century. In the ninth century, however, farmers began to flee from their villages and became vagrants in increasing numbers in order to escape government control and taxation, thereby necessitating a major change in the system of administration and taxation based on the ancient ritsuryo legal codes.
From the late 9th to 10th century, the government gradually replaced the traditional system of direct rule over individual farmers with a system of rule and taxation of land, which became the source of taxation. The government established the system of rule (known as myo taisei) aimed at ensuring the collection of tax revenues by reorganizing government land (public farmland) into units called myoden and by hiring influential farmers called tato, who had accumulated considerable wealth during the period, to manage the myoden. The system, which gave tato farmers the official right to cultivate land with the acknowledgement of territorial governors, also brought considerable advantages to these farmers, who had had to maintain their land in unstable social relationships. These tato farmers who cultivated myoden land were called fumyo (subcontractors) or tato fumyo.
As the myoden system was subsequently introduced into manors, tato farmers were commissioned to manage the cultivation of myoden land within manors as well. Although some of these tato fumyo farmers managed myoden land under the rule of local territorial lords, many of them ruled land as territorial lords themselves. Tato fumyo farmers were gradually placed under the rule of territorial governors in the role of local government officers called gunji, goji or hoji within government territories, and under the rule of manorial lords in manors as their retainers called geshi or kumon. The ruling class, including territorial governors and manorial lords, granted tato farmers various rights to rule and manage land in villages in order to strengthen the myoden system supported by these farmers. Although these rights to rule and manage land varied greatly depending on the size and arrangement of myoden land, tato fumyo farmers succeeded in strengthening their control over peasants in many villages by using the authority recognized by their own rulers.
During the late 11th and 12th centuries, tato fumyo farmers came to be known as myoshu. A system composed of manors and government territories as basic units of administration and taxation, known as the manorial public territory system (called shoen koryo sei in Japanese), was established during this period, with myoshu farmers forming the basis of the system. As the manorial public territory system developed, various rights over myoden land were officially acknowledged by territorial governors and manorial lords as myoshushiki (myoshu rights).
In the myoden system, myoshu were obligated to collect taxes (taxes in kind, public duties and labor services) from peasants for territorial governors or manorial lords. Myoshu also collected kajishi (supplementary taxes) from peasants as their own income. Some of them even used unfree peasants called genin or shoju to cultivate tax-exempt land granted by the territorial governors and manorial lords or private farmland around their houses, in which case all taxes collected became their own earnings.
The position of myoshu had two different aspects. From the viewpoint of the ruling class, including territorial governors and manorial lords, they were part of the ruled class, while from the viewpoint of ordinary peasants, they were themselves rulers in village communities. Thus, the myoshu class defies simple characterization and is interpreted broadly as a class of farmers who managed the cultivation of myoden land.
In Kinai (areas around Kyoto and Osaka), myoshu were mostly influential farmers who were themselves engaged in farming, but in other areas, especially in Kanto regions (region including Tokyo), retainers of warrior class were often included among myoshu. When the Kamakura bakufu (Japanese feudal government headed by a shogun) came to power toward the end of the 12th century, some myoshu farmers, especially those in eastern regions, gained positions in the shogunate government and became gokenin (an immediate vassal of the shogunate in the Kamakura and Muromachi through Edo periods) or were appointed as jito (local landlord).
An example of a deed of sale of myoshu rights (Muromachi Period)
Deed of sale of the myoshu rights of Shokin (承瑾), a Buddhist monk'
I hereby certify that I sold my myoshu rights over the land in Tokihisa Myo village. The land sold covers a total area of 1 cho and 3 tan (approximately 13,000 square meters). A house is also included as part of the property.
The land is located in Umezu-sho in Lord Konoe's territory, in Kadono no kori in Yamashiro Province.
Items to be sold and taxes collected from the land are listed in the attached document.
Myoshu rights over the above land were inherited by Shokin, a Buddhist monk, from his ancestors. However, due to circumstances beyond my control, I hereby sell my property rights forever for the sum of 41 kan-mon. If any third party should file complaints about this sale of myoshu rights in the future, I hereby agree to negotiate with the third party to refund the payment in full. If any such negotiation should fail, I will work together with my guarantors to settle all problems. I will fulfill my obligation without making any further complaint. I hereby certify that the above sale was properly concluded.
March 6, 1417 Seller: Shokin (seal)
Guarantor for the next 6 years: Keison (桂孫) (seal)
Shiro UKON (seal)
Toward the middle of the 13th century, a far-reaching change started to occur within rural society in Japan. With the development of new fertilizers and agricultural tools, along with the improvement of rice varieties through selective breeding, agricultural production increased remarkably as a result of various circumstances, such as the spread of double-cropping in Kinai and Sanyo regions. An increase in agricultural production brought about not only dramatic progress in manual industry and commerce over a wide area but also the development of a monetary economy.
Under these social conditions, ordinary peasants, who had been engaged in farming under the rule and control of myoshu farmers, gradually gained economic power. Having accumulated considerable wealth, these peasants purchased myoden and other properties, thereby gradually achieving freedom from the control of myoshu farmers. Some of these peasants were even appointed as myoshu by territorial governors or manorial lords and became members of the myoshu class. In this period, myoshu rights were already recognized as rights that could be inherited or sold, and as rural society became more and more homogenized the position and rights of myoshu were split into smaller elements. In other words, myoshu rights, which had been inalienable and hereditary, were now regarded as being transferable or non-hereditary rights, whose ownership changed from one generation to the next.
Myoshu farmers, whose rights were divided up and became non-hereditary, nevertheless became more and more independent of territorial governors and manorial lords during this period. As the farming class improved its economic status and became more homogenized, peasants learned to act together led by myoshu farmers. It is generally accepted that self-governing village communities were formed within manors and government territories in Japan from the late 13th to the early 14th century. Against the background of the increasing solidarity among farmers, some myoshu farmers even refused to obey their rulers. It is believed that those who were called villains during this period may have included some of these disobedient myoshu farmers.
Around the middle of the 14th century, villages within manors and government territories increased their autonomy and grew into self-governing communities, which were called soson in Kinai and western regions and goson in eastern regions and Kyushu. As a result, the relative status of myoshu declined, causing myoshu farmers to assume roles as leaders (with such titles as otona) in these village communities. During the Muromachi period, manorial lords lost much of their control in eastern regions, causing myoshu rights to deteriorate considerably. However, manorial lords maintained their control in western regions and continued to impose taxes based on the myoden system, thereby allowing myoshu to maintain their status.
Decline and extinction
During the Muromachi period, shugo (military governors of provinces) gradually established control over different regions (known as shugo ryogoku system), thereby weakening the authority of myoshu. During the Sengoku Period (Period of Warring States), daimyo (Japanese territorial lords) established absolute control over their regions (known as daimyo ryogoku system), causing a further weakening of the authority of myoshu. And finally the land survey conducted by Hideyoshi TOYOTOMI resulted in the elimination of the position and authority of myoshu.
Nevertheless, due partly to the fact that self-government had already taken root in village communities, the Edo bakufu government and feudal lords chose to place villages under civil administration, allowing them a certain degree of self-government. Villages were given administrative leaders during the Edo period, called murayakunin (village officers) or shoya (the village head), and these positions were often assumed by former myoshu. In many eastern regions, the custom of calling village heads myoshu persisted and the chief village officer was called nanushi in many of these regions.