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The ch?nin emerged in joka-machi or castle towns during the sixteenth century. The majority of ch?nin were merchants, but some were craftsmen. N?min (, "farmers") were not considered ch?nin. Later, peasants, servants, and workers were also considered members of the social class.
While ch?nin are not as well known to non Japanese as other social classes in Japan, they played a key role in the development of Japanese cultural products such as ukiyo-e, rakugo, and handicrafts. Aesthetic ideals such as iki, ts?, and inase[check spelling] were also developed among the ch?nin. This association with cultural development emerged as a way for members of the class to break the strict social barriers that prevented individuals to ascend in the social hierarchy. Members of the ch?nin opted to develop culture within their communities, allowing members of such community to rise as "cultured individuals". This phenomenon is said to be behind the popularity of the iemoto system in the Edo period.
The socioeconomic ascendance of ch?nin has certain similarities to the roughly contemporary rise of the middle class in the West. In the latter part of the Tokugawa period, the social class wielded the real power in the society although the warrior class still dominated the political sphere.
By the late 17th century the prosperity and growth of Edo had begun to produce unforeseen changes in the Tokugawa social order. The ch?nin, who were theoretically at the bottom of the Edo hierarchy (shin?k?sh?, samurai-farmers-craftsmen-merchants, with ch?nin encompassing the two latter groups), flourished socially and economically at the expense of the daimy?s 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 ch?nin with their ready cash supply.
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