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Chōnin (町人?, "townsman") was a social class that emerged in Japan during the early years of the Tokugawa period. The majority of chōnin were merchants, but some were craftsmen, as well. Nōmin (農民, farmers) were not considered chōnin. The socioeconomic ascendance of chōnin has certain similarities to the roughly contemporary rise of the middle class in the West.
By the late 17th century the prosperity and growth of Edo had begun to produce unforeseen changes in the Tokugawa social order. The chōnin, who were theoretically at the bottom of the Edo hierarchy (shinōkōshō, samurai-farmers-craftsmen-merchants, with chōnin encompassing the two latter groups), flourished socially and economically at the expense of the daimyo and samurai, who were eager to trade rice (the principal source of domainal income) for cash and consumer goods. Mass-market innovations further challenged social hierarchies. For example, vast Edo department stores had cash-only policies, which favored the chōnin with their ready cash supply.
Despite their importance, chōnin are not as familiar outside of Japan as popular notions of samurai and ninja — however they played a key role in the development of Japanese cultural products such as Ukiyo-e, rakugo, and contemporary handicrafts. Aesthetic ideals such as iki, tsū, and inase were also developed among chōnin.
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