In Honor’s Shadow: Social Structure

Since I am doing a bunch of work pre-writing for my next book and a few other projects this seemed like a good time to share some of my world building. There are actually a bunch of different things I could talk about on that now, however with all the effort I’ve put into getting things ready to publish, I’ve been in a mood to share details that aren’t really explicitly addressed in the story.

I’ve actually got this whole notebook full of notes. Some of it isn’t usable, either because it spoils the story itself or reflects ideas I’ve moved away from, however one thing that has remained more or less consistent is my image of the social structure of the society.

The Emperor/Empress

Unsurprisingly, the Emperor (less commonly, the Empress) stands at the top of the social structure. Although the Emperor’s personal advisers (and his Imperial Court) often set policy, any decree made by the Emperor himself is law. In practice this authority is rarely exercised, however there is no doubt that the Emperor’s power is absolute as his clan (the Bear) possesses the most powerful military.

It is important to note that only the individual who inherits the position becomes Emperor (or Empress). Although their spouse may be referred to as the Empress or Emperor this is merely a matter of courtesy. In actuality their position is that of Royal Consort and has no inherent power beyond their influence over their spouse. Often their sway rivals that of the Imperial Advisers or even members of the Royal Family (especially during social events), however this is not always true.


The Royal Family

The Royal Family consists of the Emperor (or Empress) and his/her children. The Royal Consort is not considered a member despite being related by blood to the children. Upon the current Emperor/Empress’s death the child that is the chosen successor becomes the new Emperor/Empress.

Their siblings have several potential paths, all intended to remove them from the line of inheritance. Most often they marry into another noble family in the Bear Clan, taking a new name in the process. Some male siblings choose to retire to a monastery instead and become monks. Less commonly, the new Emperor/Empress will grant their siblings the opportunity to start a new family within the Bear Clan. Finally, there have been rare circumstances where one or more siblings have been permitted to keep their place in the Royal Family—a step that is generally only taken when the child who inherited is of poor health and may not survive to produce an heir.


The Imperial Advisers

These individuals are appointed by the Emperor with the Imperial Court’s advice. Although there are no restrictions on who can be appointed, in practice they are often members of The Imperial Families, or from a clan in the Emperor’s favor. Imperial Advisers serve at the Emperor’s pleasure and can be replaced at any time, but traditionally are permitted to hold office until they choose to retire.

The individuals that hold these posts make most decisions for day-to-day business, in accordance with the Emperor’s wishes. Imperial Advisers have their own hierarchy, however their ability to interfere in another adviser’s area of responsibility is generally limited and doing so is strongly discouraged.


The Bear Clan*

The Bear Clan is theoretically no different from any other clan within the empire, however since the Emperor is functionally the clan’s daimyo they are more powerful and influential than would otherwise be expected.


The Imperial Families*

These families are not members of the Bear Clan, however they are closely associated with the Emperor as early supporters of his rule. They have the privilege of administering some of his more desirable holdings and are under his personal protection, making them able to focus more on economics and politics than most other families. Non-imperial families often request their help in handling delicate matters. Because of these factors, they carry a lot of influence even though there is no legal distinction between the Imperial Families and their peers.



The daimyo are leaders of their respective clans, and thus are the most powerful individuals of their clan. All daimyo are not considered equals, however. The exact status of any daimyo depends on his clan’s strength, the opinions of the Emperor, and their influence over the Imperial Court. It isn’t unheard of for a daimyo of a lesser clan to find himself with less influence than a regular noble from a greater clan.


Noble Families

Below the daimyo are those born into the various noble families. The exact status of individuals from this level of society is quite complex as it takes into account not only their capabilities and deeds, but also their social contacts and ancestry. Older houses naturally carry more prestige than those established more recently, and recognized bastards suffer a noticeable stigma (especially those where one parent is a commoner). That said, this is perhaps the most internally-fluid caste as distinguished service is enough to improve social standing.



Within my setting, ronin are nobles who have no family, generally due to being disowned. Although such individuals technically remain nobles, they quickly find themselves shunned by their peers and are forced to make their way through life without the social connections most would take for granted. This stigma generally only exists when interacting with other nobility; as far as non-nobles are concerned a noble is a noble and thus such distinctions do not matter.



Normally the term “bushi” would be synonymous with “samurai,” however I have chosen to make the two distinct with bushi being professional soldiers rather than samurai. As warriors they stand above non-warriors within the social strata, however they are of common blood. Any peasant with enough martial skill may become a bushi provided they can get the equipment. It isn’t uncommon for some peasant families to take pride in having served their local lord as bushi for generations. In order to become a bushi a peasant must be recognized as such by someone with the authority to do so, often a military commander or noble lord. More recently some dojos have been established catering specifically to bushi. Those who graduate are often recognized as bushi.



In practice most commoners are treated the same, however farmers and hunters are granted a special level of respect because they produce the food everyone eats. Because of this, they are seen as the foundation the empire is built upon. Many nobles treat their farmers with more leniency than they would with other commoners, provided they bring in an adequate harvest.



While not viewed as critical as the farmers, those who have learned a craft are still granted respect—especially if they have mastered it—because the goods they produce are useful. Naturally, those who produce goods most demanded by the nobility receive the most prestige.



Most nobles (and by extension, most of the empire) view merchants as parasites who make their living by exploiting the hard work of others. They are tolerated only because the goods they move can be taxed, and because they can obtain resources that would be difficult to acquire otherwise. Despite this successful merchants are careful not to flaunt their wealth for fear of reprisal.


Monks and Priests*

Although listed last, Monks and Priests aren’t at the bottom of the Empire’s social order. Instead, they exist outside it under their own internally maintained hierarchy. Anyone, noble or peasant, may choose to join this caste. By doing so they cut all ties with their former life in pursuit of a higher calling. While they theoretically have no power over others, those who take the aesthetic oaths are generally viewed favorably by the common people. This fact alone encourages most nobility to treat them with respect to avoid potential unrest.

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