Karo (chief retainer) (家老)

Karo was the highest post available for the retainers of a samurai family, and more than one person occupied the post to consult with and assist the master with political and economical affairs.


Such a post already existed in the Kamakura period, the start of samurai-based society, and was called Toshiyori (or Otona), Shukuro or Shitsuji. Ordinarily, powerful retainers called senior vassals were appointed to the post. It was customary that people whose family had been retainers of the master's family for generations were appointed to the post, and people who belonged to a branch family of the master's family were not appointed in principle.

However, over time this rule came to be broken and for financial or other reasons, it was not rare for an illegitimate child of a lord not adopted by a family to be appointed as a Karo or forced to leave the master's family, generating a branch family with territory. When a person from a branch family assumed the role of Karo or other retainer post, it meant that the person changed from a relative to a retainer of the master's family, and when there were succession disputes they were not considered to have any claim to heirship.

After the Edo period began, residences of domains and of Hatamoto (retainers) of the shogun family were placed in Edo where the Edo bakufu was located, and the Karo officers who worked in these residences were called Edo-garo or Edozume-garo.

On the other hand, Karo officers who worked in chigyo-chi (the lord's territory) were called Kuni-garo or Zaisho-garo. When a lord had a castle but did not reside there, a Jodai-garo (Karo in charge of the castle) was installed, but when a lord resided in a castle or jinya (his regional government office), naturally jodai-garo were not installed.

When both Kuni-garo and Jodai-garo were appointed, it was customary for the Jodai-garo to be placed in a higher rank than Kuni-garo. The head of the Karo officers was called Hitto-garo, Karo-shuza, or Ichiban-garo. Karo officers who were mainly in charge of political and economical affairs were called Shioki-garo in some domains. When both Jodai-garo and Shioki-garo were appointed at the same time in a domain, there was no conclusive definition of which held higher rank.

Except for the Otsuke-garo (the Karo assigned directly by the shogun) and the Karo for gosankyo (three privileged branch families of the Tokugawa family), there was a fundamental rule that ordinary Karo officers were not entitled to have an audience with the shogun as they were not direct retainers of the Tokugawa shogun family.

However, there were also exceptions: Karo officers of Shinpan (whose lords were in the male lineage of the Tokugawa shogun family) and Karo officers whose families were Karo to Fudai daimyo (daimyo who were retainers of the Tokugawa family from before the Battle of Sekigahara) were given the status of Hatamoto of the shogun family for generations, being entitled to have an audience with the shogun and to not alight from their horse at checking stations. Some of the Karo officers of the families of Tokugawa-shitenno (four generals who served Tokugawa Ieyasu) were also given Karoku (hereditary stipend) by the bakufu in addition to Hatamoto status.

On the other hand, in the case of families who had been Karo to a Tozama-daimyo (the daimyo who became to belong the Tokugawa side after the Battle of Sekigawara) for generations, only those with a 10,000 koku (approx. 180 litres/koku) or more of rice crop or those of special lineage (of whom there were very few) were entitled to have an audience with shogun.

Until the early Edo period, the posts of Karo and Toshiyori were still not clearly differentiated in many domains. However, over time, the upper class officers in Toshiyori posts came to be distinguished as Karo officers, and generally, most Toshiyori did not become Karo itself but the next post down. In some domains, the Toshiyori and Churo posts were used to mean the same thing.

In most small domains, there was no Toshiyori post following Karo.

Karo in large domains
Some Karo officers in large domains were provided with 10,000 koku or more of rice crop and possessed a castle or jinya in their own territories. Retainers with a territory of 10,000 koku or more of rice crop were called Daimyo-bun.

The family that earned the highest hereditary stipend as Karo officers in the Edo Period was the 50,000-koku Honda family in the 1million-koku Kaga domain. Masashige HONDA (with a 5,000 koku rice crop), who became an adopted son of Kanetsugu NAOE with 300,000 koku, a Karo officer of Kagekatsu UESUGI with 1.2 million koku, left the Uesugi family when his salary was drastically cut after the Battle of Sekigahara, and began to work for the Maeda family in the Kaga domain, restoring his original family name. This was the origin of the Honda family in the Kaga domain.
After forcing a retraction of the order: "Part of the Kaga domain territory (Echizen Province) should be returned to the bakufu," he had his stipend raised considerably for this distinguished contribution to the domain,

Karo in small domains and Karo in the Hatamoto of the bakufu
In small (10,000-koku) domains, most of the Karo officers whose families had occupied the Karo post for generations earned around 300 koku of kuramai (rice crop given as salary). In some domains where more farm land was given as Kyujin-chi (see below), the hereditary stipend was less than that.

Here, Kyujin-chi differs from that of the Chiho-chigyo system (in which the right to land control was given to Hatamoto or others), in that farm land was supplied depending the social status of the family.

In the small domains involved in this system, most of the upper class, including even the Karo officers, earned only a humble stipend. Therefore, when the commodity economy continued to expand and prices of goods became higher in the latter half of the Edo period, they engaged their retainers (called Baishin) in farming. Consequently, the middle or lower class feudal domain retainers were engaged in farming together with their family members, making them virtually farmers.

For the Hatamoto of the bakufu, it was custom for no Karo to be appointed, except for large Hatamoto with 3,000 or more koku of rice crop, special cases such as lineage to the Matsudaira family, masters of the Tokugawa shogun family, who although only possessing roughly 400 koku of rice crop, had kotaiyoriai status,
For Hatamoto with a rice crop of between 500 and 3,000 koku, the highest post available for their retainers was called Yonin. The number of Hatamoto families who appointed Karo was roughly 250 (less than 2%), and the earnings of these Karo officers was from 80 to 100 koku.

Tsuke-garo (see below)
Karo officers sent from a main family to its branched family to inspect and supervise was called a Tsuke-garo officer. Some Tsuke-garo officers earned their stipend from both the main domain (honke=main family) and the branch domain (bunke=branch family), whilst others earned theirs only from the branch family where they were sent, being gradually taken into the branch domain side.

The Tsuke-garo officers who were sent to the Tokugawa gosanke families earned their hereditary stipend from both the bakufu and the domain. Some Tsuke-garo officers, for example, the Naruse family in the Owari domain and the Mizuno and Ando families in the Kii domain, became castle lords with a governmental rank and post. It is said that these Karo officers were given a status equivalent to that of daimyo: for example, even in when travelling with the family they served for Sankinkotai (a system under which feudal lords were required to spend every other year in residence in Edo) they were granterd the status and prestige equivalent a daimyo.

The Karo for the gosankyo, together with Edo-jo-rusui (the officer in charge of the Edo castle while shogun was absent), were said to be the highest posts available for Hatamoto of the shogun family, because gosankyo were treated as members of the shogun family. However, it was not rare that competent Hatamoto with an earning of 3,000 koku or less were appointed to the post.

Karo-kaku (see below)
In the Edo period, the Karo post was inherited by the families of prominent Fudai retainers, or was occupied alternately by powerful Fudai retainers themselves (who had the status to appoint Karo officers).

However, even people who were not Fudai retainers were sometimes appointed to a post equivalent to Karo due to their abilities, and were called Karo-kaku, Karo-nami, or Karo-retsu.

Also, people who were selected as Karo despite their family status having been lower for generations, were called "Ichidai-garo" (first-generation Karo).

The term Karo-kaku is used to indicate either the family status able to produce a Karo officer (the family line for the Karo class) or Ichidai-garo. In a large domain, for example, the Maeda family in the Kaga domain, the number of the families with status high enough to produce Karo officer reached up to 70.

Over the years in the Edo period, the examples of an Ichidai-garo officer being appointed increased little by little, and in contrast to these Ichidai-garo officers, the Karo officers from families that had produced a Karo officer for generations were called Eidai-garo (permanent Karo).

Shissei or Sansei were also used sometimes to indicate Karo.

The following were typical examples of Ichidai-garo officers who were appointed to the post due to their abilities: Tsugunosuke KAWAI of the Echigo-Nagaoka domain, Hirosato ZUSHO of the Satsuma domain, and Seifu MURATA of the Choshu domain, all of whom played an active part in the abolition of the bakufu system, and as an older example, Tomofusa ONO of the Ako domain who became famous for launching a raid during the Ako Incident in the Genroku era (1688 - 1704).

Malpractice in the Karo system

Even though with two or more Karo officers were installed, except in especially large domains, factional strife still occurred in relation to political reforms and succession issues. Such strife caused "family feuds," leading in the worst cases to the abolishment of the family.

It has also been pointed out that the Karo post was had the feature of taking responsibility instead of one's master, and actually, some Karo officers took the blame in place of their masters. In the worst cases, some Karo officers completed their duties as far as Seppuku (suicide by disembowelment) or decapitation.

Karo in the Tokugawa family

In the Tokugawa clan, the post corresponding to Karo was called Roju. Even after the Edo bakufu was established, this title continued to be used for the highest post available to cabinet officials of the Shogunate. A post called Tairo was also placed temporarily above Roju. Incidentally, when Tokugawa was still a local daimyo in Mikawa Province, the Sakai family took the post of Karo (Roju) for generations. Having gained Ieyasu's trust, Kazumasa ISHIKAWA was promoted to this post.

Imperial court ranks for baishin (retainers of shogun's retainers)

A specified number of Karo officers of the gosanke families of the Owari family, Kii family and Mito family, and of the Kaga-Maeda family were awarded Shodaibu at Jugoinoge (Junior Fifth Rank, Lower Grade). When a Karo officer with rank died or retired from the post, generating a vacancy, a Karo officer was recommended for the rank post from the family to the bakufu. When awarded the rank, the Karo officer retained it until he died or retired from the post. In the case of gaining ordinary shodaibusei rank, an officer from a koke (a privileged family under the Tokugawa Shogunate), who went to the Imperial court for New Year's greetings, put together a Guzenchodaihosho (a document to solicit an order from the emperor) and brought it to the court, bringing back a Guzen-an (Imperial order for solicitation) to Edo. However, in the same way as in cases for instance where an imperial court rank of Shihon or higher was to be awarded, the master family sent the Imperial court a messenger to have the rank awarded, after getting approval from the bakufu.

The Owari family
Six Karo officers
(The Takegoshi family and the Naruse family, both Otsuke-garo officers, were treated preferentially, with the usual Shodaibu rank permitted. In addition, the Watanabe family was also awarded a rank.)

The Kii family
Six Karo officers
(The Ando family and the Mizuno family, both Otsuke-garo officers, were treated preferentially, with the usual Shodaibu rank permitted. In addition, each of the Awamasaki family and the Okano family were also awarded a rank.)

The Mito family
Five Karo officers
(The Nakayama family, the Otsuke-garo officer, were treated preferentially, with the usual Shodaibu rank permitted. In addition, each of the Saiga family and the Yamanobe family were also awarded a rank).

The Maeda family
Four Karo officers
(The Honda family and the Maeda Tosa no Kami family, both retainers of the Maeda family, were treated preferentially, with the Shodaibu rank permitted ordinarily for each of them.)

In addition, ranks were also given to baishin (retainers) of the Suruga-Tokugawa family, of the Kofu-Tokugawa family, of Tatebayashi-Tokugawa family, of the Echizen-Matsudaira family and of the Fukui domain.

Famous Karo officers

Kanetsugu NAOE (a Karo officer of the Uesugi family in the Yonezawa domain. A busho [Japanese military commander] of the Uesugi family in the Sengoku period [Period of Warring States].)

Yoshio OISHI (the chief Karo officer of the Asano family in the Ako domain. He became famous due to the Ako Incident in the Genroku era, becoming the main character in the Chushingura story [a story of loyal retainers].)

Sanekake TAKO (A Karo officer of the Kamei family in the Tsuwano domain. It is said that he protected the lord of his domain from being bullied by Kira Kozuke no Suke.)

Munesuke HARADA (A Karo officer of the Sendai domain. The central figure in Date Sodo [the Date family disturbance].)

Toshiakira KURIYAMA (A Karo officer of the Fukuoka domain. The central figure in Kuroda Sodo [the Kuroda family disturbance].)

Masanori OGURI (The chief Karo officer of the Matsudaira family in the Takada domain, Echigo Province. The central figure in Echigo Sodo [a disturbance in Echigo].)

Tamichika ONDA (A Karo Officer of the Matsushiro domain. He made efforts to rebuild domain finance.)

Hiroomi KAWAI (A Karo officer of the Sakai family in the Himeji domain. He reformed the administration of the Himeji domain government, successfully completing payment of all domain debts.)

Kazan WATANABE (A Karo officer of the Miyake family in the Tahara domain. He was the only one to receive an official commendation from the bakufu in the movements to reform domain government administration in the Tenpo era [1830 - 1844]. He is famous as a Rangakusha scholar [a person who studied Western sciences thorough the Dutch language] as well.)

Hirosato ZUSHO (A Karo officer in the Satsuma domain. He reformed the administration of the Satsuma domain government.)

Tatewaki AJIMA (A Karo officer in the Mito domain. He was forced by Naosuke II to commit ritual suicide by disembowelment in Ansei no Taigoku [suppression of extremists by the Shogunate in the Ansei era (1854 - 1860)]. Later, his reputation was restored by an Imperial order.)

Kiyokado KOMATSU (A Karo officer in the Satsuma domain. He was a person who rendered distinguished services in Meiji Restoration.)

Tanomo SAIGO (A Karo officer in the Aizu domain. In Boshin Civil War, he was one of the main figures from the Aizu domain.)