Soson (a community comprising a self-governing association of peasants) (惣村)

A soson meant a community (in the form of a village) organized through autonomous, territorial connections among peasants in medieval Japan. It was also called a so (so village).

Brief History

Under shoen koryo sei (The System of Public Lands and Private Estates) in the early medieval period (from the late Heian period to the mid-Kamakura period), the 'myo' (rice-field lot under the charge of a nominal holder), which was managed by a lord of public land qualified as Gunji (a local government official), Goji (a local government official under the Ritsuryo system) or Hoji (an officer governing public land), shokan (an officer governing a shoen (manor)) often overlapped that of a lord of public land or some powerful myoshu (owner of rice fields) who was concurrently a peasant (they instead officially held peasant status in the early age) was mixed in a mosaic-like manner. Peasants, or other workers engaged in a small industry such as general agriculture who didn't even have peasant status were subordinate to a lord or a myoshu, respectively, as retainers or people of low rank. Because the peasants' livelihoods and economic activities depended on the myo, which were located in a mosaic-like manner, their residences spread thin and there was no community in the form of a village where residences were densely packed.

However, in the late Kamakura period, since Jito (a manager and lord of the manor) moved into the governance of the manor and public land, the livelihood and economy that had been dependent on the myo rapidly disappeared, and the conventional shoen koryo sei began to change. Under those circumstances the peasants strengthened their territorial connections through the distribution of water supplies, the construction and repair of channels and roads, and self-defense from border conflicts, wars and robbers. First, villages in which residences separated from cultivated lands gathered together gradually formed in parts of the Kinai region (the provinces surrounding Kyoto and Nara) and around the Kinki region. These villages, which consisted of all (惣て)members within range, came to be called soson (惣村) or so (惣).
(The term soson or so was also used during the medieval period.)

Through nationwide wars in the period of the Northern and Southern Courts (Japan), a new style of connection called a village, which appeared in the Kinai region, spread to other regions. Within range of the manor or public land (Go, Ho, etc.) which was a governing unit, sosho (the autonomous village community) and sogo (a village community), which were formed by unifying more than one soson, sometimes appeared. In sosho and sogo, the peasants had a high tendency toward unity and self-reliance, and a number of sosho and sogo appeared in the Kinai region where the soson were most developed. In the Tohoku, Kanto and Kyushu regions far from the Kinai region, moderately unified villages were formed within a range larger than that of a soson (as a unit of manor or public land), and such villages were called goson (autonomous villages). In the Kanto region, the existence of sosho or sogo was not identified; however, as an exception the 'Katori monjo' (Katori document) contained information that a community close to a sosho or a sogo existed in Sahara, Shimousa Province.

During the Muromachi period the authority of the shugo (provincial constable) was strengthened, and the intervention by the shugo in the governance of the manor and public land increased. To secure the right of self-government, the soson increased their tendency to build relationships with the Shugo or Kokujin (local samurai), not with a lord of the manor or a lord of public land. Consequently, some persons of great influence in soson became samurai by entering into the relationship of master to servant with the Shugo or Kokujin. Such persons were called jizamurai (local samurai). Soson reached the mature stage in the mid-Muromachi period (around the fifteenth century), and it is said that the self-governing capability was very enhanced so as to respond to conflicts such as the Onin War.

In the Sengoku period (the Warring States period), the governance of entire region by the warring lords became stronger, and gradually the soson's autonomy was usurped. Some soson maintained their limited autonomy under the approval of the warring lords. As a result of heinobunri (a separation of the warrior class in this domain from the soil) (Sword Hunt) and the confirmation of land ownership (Taiko-kenchi (the land survey by Hideyoshi TOYOTOMI), which had been implemented by Hideyoshi TOYOTOMI, the style of connection called the soson finally disappeared, and there emerged early-modern villages that survived in the Edo period. However, the soson's predisposition toward self-government was passed down to early-modern villages mainly in terms of religious service and water supplies, and it is considered that such a characteristic was instrumental in unifying and maintaining the village under the murauke system (village-wide, collective responsibility for tax payment) and Bungo (system of governing the Go).

Members

Titles of the leaders of soson were Otona, satanin (an officer collecting that which was rendered, conveying the order of the lord of the manor, etc.), etc. Among the members of soson, young people prior to becoming Otona were called wakashu (young members of the soson village system).

Otona
The title, Otona, was also called choro (patriarch), shukuro (chief vassal), roju (elder) or toshiyori (head), and was given to a member of the soson who ranked higher in terms of age and experience. The Otona originally meant a representative of miyaza (organization of shrine parishioners in a hamlet), which executed religious services in a village; however, as the soson was connected mainly through a ceremony held at miyaza, Otona came to mean the leader of the soson. The title of Otona wasn't given to one person but was instead given to a group comprising two or more persons, such a group being in charge of soson operations, coordination and negotiations. Only people of great influence who had been myoshu or had cultivated lands could be members of Otona.

Satanin
The word satanin originally meant a person who executed the order or judgment on site, on behalf of the lord of the manor or the shokan. Along with the weakening of shoen koryo sei and the development of the soson, the satanin strengthened the relationship with the soson and sometimes became a leader of the soson. A point of differentiation between the Otona and satanin was that the members of the Otona were selected by seniority from among the members of the soson, but the satanin was selected from among people who acted as executers on behalf of a lord or a shokan, and its position was transferred by heredity.

Wakashu
Wakashu played a central part in the work of the community, such as police, self-defense, firefighting, construction and cultivation. Females were not regarded as members of soson. However, a widow who inherited the assets of her deceased husband was sometimes recognized as a member of the soson.

Early in the period in which a soson was formed, only the members of the Otona could be recognized as members of the soson. With the change of the times, since the governing system by myo collapsed and many general peasants (jigenin (a lower rank of ancient Japanese nobility)) attained economic self-sufficiency, such jigenin came to be recognized as members of soson. A peasant who was allowed to participate in the miyaza, or the center of the connection of soson, was called Sobyakusho (member of the soson village system) and was recognized as a member of the soson.

Autonomy

The members of the soson associated with one another based on equality and community. The soson was unified around the miyaza, which held various events (annual events, Mujin-ko (beneficial association), Tanomoshi-ko (beneficial association), etc.) at a shrine in the village. When a problem to be resolved or a matter to be decided arose in the soson, a meeting called a yoriai was held and attended by members of the soson, and the decision was made by the soson.

To maintain the unity of the soson, the independent rules called so okite (rules) were specified in yoriai, and if a member violated the rules, a jikendan (voluntary ruling and judgment) was sometimes implemented by the soson for the purpose of carrying out banishment, forfeiture of property, a bodily penalty or the death penalty. The banishment and forfeiture of property were sometimes extinguished when a certain period of time passed; however, kendan (ruling and judgment) for theft or injury was carried out very strictly, and the death sentence was often handed down. A major feature was that the laws and customs of the medieval period specified that a lord or a Jito who had the right to rule should have the right of kendan, but the soson under control had such a right.
(Also refer to Kendan-sata (criminal cases).)

Although the nengu (land tax) paid to the lord of the manor or the Jito was conventionally collected by the lord or the Jito, the jigeuke (under which soson undertook the payment of nengu in a lump sum) prevailed after the soson was formed. The implementation of jigeuke meant that a lord trusted the soson, and also that the responsibility of soson would be questioned strongly if it failed to pay the nengu. The tradition of jigeuke was passed down in and after the Edo period, when the soson disappeared and early-modern villages took shape.

The soson specified forests, woods and mountains required for production as assets owned by the soson, and designated such assets as iriaichi (common land) in order for the village people of the soson to use them. To maintain a shrine, the Chinju (local Shinto deity), which was the spiritual center of the soson, a shinden (or kanda) (sacred rice field) was established, and joint cultivation prevailed. The soson also worked voluntarily on matters that were necessary for daily life, such as adjustments in the distribution of agricultural water, the construction or repair of channels and roads, the operation of the ferry at Okawa, etc.

Solidarity and Uprising

When making a request to a ruler or a neighboring rival soson, the soson achieved strong solidarity or, in other words, an uprising. An uprising (combination or alliance) originally meant the unification of people, whereby the participants strongly associated with a common purpose, doing so on equal footing.

The uprising of a soson was called a Tsuchi uprising (peasants' uprising); such uprisings began to occur in the early fifteenth century but became more frequent in the middle and late portions of the century. It should be considered that the peasants' uprisings took place because the soson, which had enhanced their awareness of autonomy, insisted on their rights, not because people in the soson had become poor. Most peasants' uprisings assumed the character of a Tokusei uprising, which demanded the issuance of Tokuseirei (ordering the return of land sold and the dissolution of debts). Under the social conventions of the time, there was the prevalent idea that land or an article should be returned to the original owner concurrent with a change in the reign of the Emperor or the rule of the shogun; this idea was called tokusei (benevolent rule). Therefore, the peasants' uprisings demanding tokusei would often occur along with the change in imperial reign or shogunate rule, as exemplified by the peasants' uprising of the Shocho era, the Tokousei uprising in the Kakitsu era, etc. A peasants' uprising demanding the deportation of a vassal of Shugo, who was a ruler, also occurred in Harima Province. Additionally, an uprising requesting that the lord of the manor reduce or decree an exemption from the nengu due to a bad harvest took place. For the soson, such uprisings represented the act of demanding their legitimate rights.

The Sengoku period was one in which, along with the strengthening of governance of the entire region by the warring lords, the soson's predisposition toward self-government was weakened, and gradually the occurrence of peasants' uprisings decreased.