An emperor heads the nation, aided by his court (which is made up both of hereditary nobility and functionaries who hold high positions—like cabinet ministers). The court is divided ‘laterally.’ That is, there are two separate groups performing two sorts of functions, yet they are considered to be more or less equally ranked. The nobles care for the land and those who live on it. The functionaries are responsible for the structures of society—the bureaucracy, if you will. The functionaries are usually brought from the scholar caste.
Society is stratified and mostly fixed. Those who are born noble are always noble (barring extreme actions), while those who are common-born will always be seen as commoners. The castes of society are as follows:
Emperor/Empress—also considered a high priest(ess) with special ceremonial powers. Though others may technically outrank the emperor in the priesthoods, the emperor holds an equal position under all gods and in some circumstances the gods use him as a mouthpiece. His person therefore is ceremonially sacred. Also, his life is bound up in ritual, as he must make certain that in all actions he properly represents the appropriate god.Vidai, Hereditary nobility—the hereditary noble families each have a tract of land that is considered theirs to care for. They have responsibility to the people and to the gods of that place to keep it prosperous and beautiful. Also, the nobility are responsible for maintaining armies to protect the nation, and their own lands. As such only the ranks of nobility may be trained in the use of weaponry, tactics, the creation of items of war, and so on. Engineering is a gray area, since it is necessary in war, but is important for peaceful uses as well. Generally nobly bred engineers are expected to focus on military uses, while commoner engineers can get into trouble if they seem to have studied that area. Noble engineers are, however, expected to put their skills to use for the good of their house and their lands as well. They are considered especially honored (though this does not necessarily mean they get extra deference or rank). The nobility answer to the emperor.
Tamoyo, Scholars--the most flexible of all the castes. Each scholar begins as little more than a commoner, and rises in the caste’s own esoteric ranking system as he proves himself and gathers knowledge and skill. Normally one who is born to a scholar family is a scholar, and no other. The scholar families generally mingle among themselves, so a child is exposed to many fields of study as they grow. The child is expected to explore whatever fields interest him and eventually pick one to make his particular study. If this is one that another scholar already pursues (which is usually the case), arrangements are made for fosterage and apprenticeship. Due to this situation, members of other castes are handicapped if they wish to pursue a true education. However, occasionally a commoner of some sort will find a way to do so, and can be accepted into this rank. Also, most artisans are of a caste lower than the scholars. However, the most skilled are adopted into this caste, basically by popular agreement. However, this is a one-time arrangement, unless that person should then marry into a scholar family. If he marries a commoner, then his children and wives will not share the same benefits.Sindho, Artisans—These are the skilled craftsmen, those whose trade requires some training. The wealthier merchants are also accepted in this group. The niche society of artisans is quite similar to that of scholars, except that in most cases, a youngster in a family is expected to follow the family trade. If special talents or interests are displayed, then sometimes alternate arrangements can be made. As with scholars, occasionally a commoner may find a way to learn a trade and be accepted into the artisan caste. However, while a person can in fact educate themselves with enough effort, it is extremely difficult to learn carpentry without someone to show you how. So commoners rising to the artisan caste are in fact rarer than commoners rising to the scholarly caste. Furthermore, in one of this culture’s few open displays of the power of money, wealthier merchants and farmers are accepted into the artisan caste as well. Poorer merchants, farmers, shopkeepers, and such, are still relegated to the ranks of commoner.
Homa, Commoner—the largest caste, and the backbone of society, is still the commoner. These are people more often than not born into poverty, who require a lifetime of hard work just to support themselves. The well-off commoners are shopkeepers, some of the middling merchants, farmers who can at least afford to own their own land, with large families to work it. The poor commoners are as low as you can get without being enslaved—and that’s cutting it. Serfs, laborers who will do the most menial labor in return for the money for dinner, merchants whose luck has broken… It is not uncommon for these people to take on an itinerant lifestyle, traveling to find work wherever it may be. In wartime, commoners (except for some farmers) are the ones who form the backbone of any military. The trick is, by law they are not allowed to have weapons training. Many commoners have gotten around this by learning how to wield farming implements. While this may sound amusing, the sickle, kama, flail, nunchaku, hammer, pitchfork, dagger, and staff can all be deadly weapons in the proper hands. Simple bows are allowed as well, for the purposes of hunting. Also, a certain amount of skill in hand-to-hand fighting is not unusual.
Enhe, Casteless—Lowest of the low, the casteless are those who have fallen through the cracks of society. The crippled, the diseased, convicted criminals, those who have simply fallen on such poverty that they have lost all their friends and allies, as well as unmarried women and their children, those who have broken the strongest tenets of society, and slaves are all considered casteless. These people are still basically recognized as human, and as such, some gods encourage a certain amount of charity. However, they are barely protected by law. Basically, those of higher caste can treat these people as slaves. Doing so implies a taking on of responsibility. The law is that, if one of higher caste offers room or board to one of the casteless, then that casteless is expected to serve him. If the room or board is withdrawn, then the casteless is no longer required to serve. ‘Room’ has been legally defined as ‘a roof that keeps most weather off, and walls that block wind on three sides. In cold weather, measures to prevent the casteless from freezing to death are expected.’ This law means that most members of society below the scholarly caste cannot afford to keep casteless for any length of time, but it also effectively defines the casteless as slaves. Still, their lot is usually so bad that they will actively seek out and compete for such positions. As can be imagined, it makes for an extremely effective entrapment for prostitution.
Shimenawa, Priests—in many ways the priests stand outside of society. At various times of their careers they may be of all castes or none. There are times when a priest may be considered as low as the casteless, and others when they may possibly have the right to oppose the emperor himself. To join the priests, a person is individually selected by a current priest, who takes them on as an apprentice. The family is expected to accept this, since the priests say that they choose their successors based on the advice of the gods. Priests fulfill many roles. They are often trained as healers. They dwell in or near shrines to protect them. They serve and honor the gods, especially at such shrines. Some priests simply travel, honoring gods as they find them, providing aid in small priest-less communities, and performing whatever other duties come their way. Priests sometimes act as the devil’s advocate, opposing trends in society or advancing causes and suggestions. Some of these seem to have a point, while others appear to simply be tests. Some priests are little more than housemaids for small shrines. Others are highly-respected yogis, walking fonts of wisdom and direct mouths of the gods. A number of priests are all these things and more, sometime during their lives. All priests are considered to serve all the gods. However, many specialize in the ways and ceremonies of a particular god or group of gods (with so many, it’s hard not to). Sometimes a priest will come across a god who has not been properly honored before, and take on a quest to learn how to do so.
This is a society that reveres knowledge. Education is seen both as a mark of rank, and as a commodity to be traded and awarded. Those of lower castes who are chosen as favorites by those of higher caste can be granted at least partial education. While this may not raise their caste (that is an honor given only to those of the highest merit) any addition to a person’s learning is likely to raise them in the esteem of those around them, which will in turn increase their wealth, influence, and prosperity. Since it is so important, learning and education are also carefully controlled. While society would never dream of telling someone ‘you may not learn this,’ it is structured in such a way that people are naturally kept in line. They must fight to better their position beyond what is seen as ‘their place’, and those above them tend to cleave together in a way that makes it difficult for an outside to insinuate themselves. At the same time, this makes for a very fluid, adaptable society, and a very rigidly structured one.
Tradition is also considered very important for various reasons. The elderly are usually more knowledgeable. Therefore, they are respected and tend to have more power. Since they understandably prefer that things don’t change and become hard to understand, this inhibits change somewhat. Also naturally, all those in power prefer a certain amount of stability, since rampant change could disturb their positions. Furthermore, the depth of religion and ceremony in day-to-day life creates an unchanging foundation upon which the rest of society is built. Even when things change, they must not change in a way that could disrupt proper behavior.
New things and new ideas are expected to be brought to the nobility and the scholars for consideration and proper assimilation into society. In fact, though this might seem a good way for them to simply make certain that everything stays static, there is just enough mobility within the castes to encourage a gentle flow of ideas. Oddly enough, when rampant or drastic change occurs in society, it almost always comes from the priests. For this reason, priests are generally slightly feared as well as respected.
As an outgrowth of this, honor and propriety are given great weight. These are seen to be integral to a stable society. Respect for those who rank higher than you, understanding and acceptance (or observance of proper ways to resist) your place in society, proper observance of the gods, observance of the laws, and generally not embarrassing others in public are all important aspects of honor and propriety. Though naturally somewhat arbitrary, these concepts are so embedded in this culture that they have been codified and upheld in the nation’s laws. Some things that are seen as taboo are adultery (as in, sleeping with someone else when you’re married), incest, public humiliation by another, unfaithfulness to your superiors, treason, blasphemous behavior toward the gods, flagrant disrespect of the emperor, pregnancy without an acknowledged father (if he will come forth, or the woman can identify him with evidence, then they will be forcibly married if it does not break caste laws; otherwise the family may judge her as it sees fit—death or being cast out are both fairly common. If the man is of lower caste, then he may be subject to criminal trial).
Religion is considered so important that to outsiders, it may almost seem to be missing. This is because people do not offer their worship merely by attending festivals and holy days, or going to the temple to pray. Every family, and most individuals, has their own private shrine to their favorite god located in their own home. It is considered appropriate for normal daily rituals and worship to be done here, thus attracting the god’s attention to the person and the home. Priests visit the home to give standard blessings and rites.
There are many, many gods. Some are large, powerful, and well-known all over. Others are small gods, popular only in a region or town. Some gods are even confined (or at least dwell) to a specific area, or even a single location, shrine, or object. These are usually the smallest gods, though there are exceptions. For example, a god of a volcano is very powerful, but area-specific. Some towns have specific gods that sponsor them (some of these may even be powerful ancestor-spirits). Sometimes a small god is well-known for something. A god who dwells in a particular forest grotto may be known to heal anyone who suffers from asthma.
Visiting a local shrine is considered appropriate in various cases: days holy to that god (if a person wishes that god’s attention), to petition for a favor, or simply to build a little ‘karma.’ Also it’s a way to get out and let people see you being pious (a popular pastime for some). Visiting a distant shrine or holy place (in other words, making a pilgrimage) is useful when one needs special intervention, has committed some sin that must be atoned for, or for those who wish to become a priest or gain wisdom and education. Most people have made at least one pilgrimage by the time they die, usually to one of the popular pilgrimage sites of the most powerful gods.
Gods are seen as living all around. A person is being observed every moment by a god. There are gods in the bedroom, in the living room, the kitchen, outside in the yard. Pet dogs have patron gods, as do the chickens that people eat. Most activities have patron gods, and anyone walking through the woods is probably wading through them. Every animal, plant and stone is seen to have at least a small spirit. Perhaps it isn’t big enough to be considered a ‘god,’ per say, but it is still there, and most people believe it should be respected.
Because of this view, gods are seen as individuals. When people speak of them or ‘interact’ with them, gods are generally treated as if they were elder members of the family. Gods that are specifically associated with a different group (another town, a river far away from a person’s native home, etc) are dealt with as if they were respected strangers. Remember, they may or may not be friendly toward you, but they are wise elders nonetheless!
Natural beauty is considered highly important. Pillaging the countryside for wealth is considered a crime, because natural beauty indicates a home of gods. If such a place MUST be used for another purpose, certain ceremonies must be observed to placate the god, ask for permission, and either adapt the new construction for its use or else find a new location for the god to move to.
Gender has a large bearing on societal roles. Men are the ones who run things. Women are expected to teach children, care for the household and extensions of it (such as a shop), and lend aid in the community. However, they are also expected to be deferential to men, obedient to fathers and husbands. Women are expected to be able to entertain guests and carry on informed and engaging conversations. Women also have distinct ceremonial roles in religion, and in fact there are certain gods who are appropriately only worshipped or served by women. A woman's strength and devotion to her family is considered to give her a special position in the family, and often saves the family from disaster. She leads a pure life, has an unblemished character and sets an example to her children and to those younger than herself, ensuring the continuity of values and cultural traditions both within the family unit as well as the larger community.
Given all this, women are often actually better-educated than men of the same caste are, especially in the lower castes. This creates a dichotomy in a culture that reveres knowledge as a sign of rank. As such, women do in fact sometimes take on roles in society. There is a roughly accepted way of going about this. A woman doing so is expected to dress and act like a man, giving up her role of marrying and having children. Women who do this are believed to be weighed and judged keenly by the gods, and are given less leeway for mistakes. Also, women will sometimes rise to a position of power in their own right, since laws of inheritance occasionally fall in their favor, and laws of marriage and widowhood can often prove very beneficial. Then again, in a culture where knowledge is the most priceless commodity, gender can only count for so much. Female priests are exempt from all normal laws and mores regarding women, except that they are governed by their own special rules regarding family, marriage, and children.
Adventurers have an understandably awkward position in society. Their standing in society is made up of a number of things. What class they are, how knowledgeable they seem to be, and on what topics, their sex, their parentage (if known), their behavior toward others all play roles in this. If the adventurer comes from this society, then classifying them is easy. If they come from another culture or nation, it becomes harder. There can be fine lines between a person who seems easy to classify, one who is confusing enough to simply be accepted as an ‘outsider,’ and one who acts so barbarically (so far as the people are concerned) that they must be casteless.