This information was originally taken from Tatsushu's notes on Yamato that were up on his website before it disappeared. Most of this was just cut and paste, however, certain parts have been edited.
This article uses some Japanese characters, which may not render properly unless proper support has been installed on your computer.
Yamato is basically Japan set in the Sengoku Jidai (Warring States Period). Currently, most of the 'countries' on the island are at war, fighting battles at least once a year, often two or three times depending on the lord.
There is a class system set up, but it is not as rigid as later Japan; there are ways to go up and down the social ladder, but not just on a whim.
(公家 - くげ kuge koo-geh?)
There are nine classes of nobles in Yamato, each one is noted with a different color. This color is the color of the hat that they usually wear. The first class of nobles are those related to the emperor directly, with the diffusion of blood and distance from the throne one of the largest (but not necessarily only) factors in determining your level. The emperor is technically above this class and all other classes as he is, it is claimed, a descendant of the sun goddess (which may or may not be true in MK)
Kuge were the first to dilute the Imperial power by setting up regents for young emperors, thus giving themselves more power. The Yamabara clan (based on the Fujiwara of Japan) became very powerful through such political methods. For centuries they controlled the Imperial household from behind the scenes, and they paved the way for second party rule in Yamato. (Second party rule: Technically the regent is subject to the whims of the emperor, but in practice they have all the power, controlling the emperor's household, stipend, etc. There have been times when uncooperative emperors or those with unscrupulous regents found themselves begging on the street, quite literally. They were still Emperor, though.)
(武家 - ぶけ buke boo-keh?)
These are the samurai. However, it should be noted that the samurai are not necessarily warriors and the warriors are not necessarily samurai. What this means is that you belong to a 'warrior house', so there are female samurai (some who fight, but most are just wives and daughters.
'Samurai' has its roots in the word 'saburau' which means to serve. Originally, they were the bottom-wrung of Kuge who got thrown out to the provinces on the edge of the 'civilised' portions of Yamato. They were given land in exchange for defending the borders. There were two main houses of kuge-descended samurai before: Miyamono and the Daiwa (Directly taken from the Minamoto and the Taira families of Japanese history) The two fought and the Miyamono triumphed, gaining enough power that they earned the right to be called 'Shogun' (an abbrv. of a much longer title that means something like 'General of the Armies Against the Outside Barbarians') This title can only be passed through Miyamono lines (basically, anyone born into a samurai family).
Samurai also have quite a number of mages in the MK world, although most people in Yamato fear and distrust magic in general.
Merchants are seen as vulgar because they use money and often are treated with contempt. However, the merchants rarely care because they can lead a wonderful life themselves, and if they get rich enough they can even control some samurai lords through the loans and debts they owe. Occassionally, a merchant's family will merge with a samurai family—usually a poor one. This gives the samurai more money, and the merchant's family gains status.
Merchants are a lower class and are forced to dress like it—they may not wear comfortable silk garments. However, many forego this ban and line their garments with silk, not caring for such restrictions. They also have the most contact with foreigners, since they often go abroad; technically there is usually a samurai with them, leading any expedition. In fact, however, the samurai is only the nominal head, often with little knowledge of what to actually do. On sea-going vessels, the appointed samurai can often be found below decks, trying to keep himself steady against the rocking of the boat. The merchants conduct the business and he just signs off on it.
The artisans are considered the lowest class of people, with no 'real' job and seemingly they are only a drain on the system. Whores and prostitutes are lumped in with this category of 'entertainers'. The Geisha are also part of this class, as are the schools of artists of all kinds. The Geisha are entertainers—they are not strictly prostitutes, but they are not strictly not prostitutes. Like modern day 'escorts', they are to help samurai have a good time. They are almost all women.
Occassionally, artisans can marry up or down the social ladder, but not always. They can usually lead a better life than peasants, but are looked down on by just about everyone.
Also, there are 'artists' who are not part of this category. If a noble or samurai feels like writing a poem, learning an instrument, or even writing a novel (they had many novels as well as illustrated stories) they are not considered an 'artisan'. This title only applies if this is your way of life.
In theory, peasants are wonderful, happy people who's place in this world has assured them a beautiful existence later if only they work hard and don't try to change their position. In practice, they are dirty and live in squalor most of the time. They work the land and hope that someone doesn't come along and take a dislike to them. Those who are talented enough try to find a way out of their class system do so. This can be through the army, where they join as ashigaru (foot soldiers) and may be promoted up until they become an officer and a low-ranking samurai. Or they can take up art or become a merchant. The latter are both difficult because they require an amount of capital to begin with.
Despite this there are a few 'wealthy peasants'; usually village headmasters or some such. As they are responsible for reporting the yield and taxes to the lord, they can occasionally stash and save some of it. They then may make deals with wandering merchants in order to sell the food for money. This takes a lot of effort to do, however, and often makes them unpopular with the rest of the villagers, who are being more than taxed enough. These wealthy peasants might escape their situation by having their children marry into a merchant household, thus freeing their family (although the headmaster remains a peasant until he dies).
Groups outside (or beside) the social system
There are groups in Yamato that either are outside the social system, or at least sidestep it.
For instance, a ninja clan may have members who are treated as peasants, samurai, nobles, merchants, or artisans. In general, however, they operate as secret bands, outside of the system. Some ninja make up entire villages, hidden in the mountains of Yamato. Others are simply small bands. They are used by the samurai and noble lords as spies, special forces, and the like. They place the honour and survival of the clan before all else, and you cannot, usually 'join' a ninja clan. It would take something very special to show you had that kind of devotion or loyalty.
That being said, ninja are no more evil than the samurai are good. Their tactics are usually seen by the samurai as cowardly, but they get the job done. Samurai can be evil and ninja can be good, although both have a personal sense of honour and devotion to their roles that they will usually place before their own moral codes. This doesn't mean that their interpretations can't be a bit flexible, however.
Another group generally outside is the priesthood. Almost anyone can join the priesthood, although there are many samurai and nobles which has helped pay for the large temple complexes as well as given many what amounts to a private army as the samurai didn't necessarily leave all of their weapons at home. Often temples used a combination of military and religious threats to influence the politics of the capital. Defiant samurai learned, however, that the gods did not always favor the monks, and their power has dwindled. Still, there are occasionally zealous uprisings.
Perhaps these monks have no faith, or perhaps they are working for false gods. It could even be that their gods simply don't care. The truth is a mystery to most mortals.
The main two 'religions' of Yamato are the native religion, which has no name. It is the worship of spirits of the land, and worships all such beings with equal reverence. Their 'gods' include both greater and lesser beings, often worshipped at shrines, with a few larger Great Shrines.
The second one is known by many names, and has many variations, but all preach individual enlightenment. Often this is done by secluding themselves away from the rest of the world, attempting to find their way to be one with the universe. Interestingly, these two religions do not often conflict with one another, so many practice both. Often temples will have shrines to local deities on the grounds or nearby.
There are also wandering ascetics, many of them whom are mages or holy men. They are treated with respect for their powers, but are often looked down upon as charlatans and tricksters because of their cryptic ways.
Still, equality is not often found in Yamato. Even within ones own class there are superior and inferior people. The language reflects this and varies depending on both the level of the person you are talking to (below, above, far above, Imperial) and the distance from you (how intimately you know them). Insults are usually made by varying the politeness with which you address someone, and through implications.
Martial arts in Yamato focus mainly on tactics and battlefield arts. Some people have picked up unarmed fighting styles from OVK and the mainland, but these are not extremely widespread as most of the warriors focus on weapons and wrestling techniques, rather than punches and kicks. Some of the hidden clans — especially the ninja clans — make good use of these techniques themselves, as weapons are forbidden to them. Still, it is not widespread nor widely known.
The way of horse and bow and the way of the sword are the most common schools of training, although in times of war numerous schools spring up including such weapons as the axe, the ball-chain-and-sickle, and others.
The most prestigious schools are said to have been originally taught by the Tengu, a bird-people that live in the mountains of Yamato. They only train those they feel are worthy and often set difficult and deadly test s for those who wish to train with them. Their techniques are said to be legendary, and seemingly magical effects can be harnessed through proper use of blade and spirit. Those trained by the Tengu have historically become the greatest warriors the island has ever seen.
Besides the Tengu, there are other prominent non-humans on the island empire. The Tanuki and Kitsune are two of the more famous.
(See the creatures page on Tanuki for more information.)
Tanuki are raccoon-like shapeshifting tricksters who are fond of fond of sake (酒 - さけ - pronounced sah-keh) and other forms of liquor.
(See the creatures page on Kitsune for more information.)
Kitsune are often deceptive fox people and typically use their powers to cause damage or harm to humans. However, there is a group of Kitsune called the Inari which are almost their polar opposite, believing themselves to be servants and messengers of the gods.
The land of Yamato is long and thin, about the size of RL England. It is mostly mountainous and highly volcanic. The larger cities have grown up mostly on large, volcanic plains and river deltas. The main capital is near the center of the island, with a few large roads that span the length and breadth of the island going to all the major cities and towns. The mountains hold many smaller villages and lords, but are often the realm of magic and monsters.
Being an island, the people have little contact with the outside world other than OVK. There are some merchants who brave the waves for the mainland, but they are quite adventurous (some say suicidal) in their extremely poorly built ships. Most of the fighting and politics keeps people on the island.
Rice. This is the main staple of the people and it can be used in many ways: steamed, mashed, fermented, and even turned into vinegar. Sea food is also a fairly ready source of food, and easy to get even in the mountains. Fruits and vegetables are eaten in great quantities, and are often pickled as well. Soy products are also prevalent. Most sweet items are made from a red bean paste. Nobles and the wealthy people of Yamato might occasionally have pork, chicken, or beef, but it is a delicacy for most of them.
Recently, adventurous explorers brought back other dishes such as Tempura and Kaare (Curry), but both are very rare. Another innovation was made in Yamato with a better production of rice vinegar which has allowed the traditional sashimi (raw fish) and other foods to be prepared in a new and flavourful way. This has been around for quite a few years and has already become a favorite food for those who can afford it. It is interesting to note that there is sushi found in OVK, to the south, but whether it was first developed in OVK and imported to Yamato or vice versa is unknown.
(Ed note: Probably meaning current as of the timeframe of Tatsushu's stories involving his character Ryuo)
Recently, the shogun has died (some say he was assassinated). This has led to a general chaos that seems to quickly be engulfing the land as lords try to vie for power. Everyone wants to become the ultimate ruler. For some this means becoming shogun, and for others it means manipulating a decent candidate into position so that they can pull the strings from behind. In the provinces, eager young samurai see this as a time to make a name for themselves, while in the capital there is a web of murderous intrigue.
Interestingly enough, everyone is still cordial with one another, despite what they do on the battlefield. Everything is, of course, for the glory of the Emperor and Yamato, and not for personal gain.
In the chaos of the time, there are many atrocities that are taking place as well, but they are largely ignored by those in power who are too busy with more immediate threats. Rumors have trickled in that there is a definite threat from the west, but it has been dismissed as paranoid delusions.
Final notes from Tatsushu
I think that about covers it. For a student of Japanese history, most of this stuff may seem redundant. I am blatantly stealing parts of Japanese history in order to add a depth that I do not really wish to spend the effort detailing myself, I will admit. Unfortunately, saying simply 'A Fantasy Medieval Europe' clicks with most people, but a 'Fantasy Medieval Japan' is much more sketchy. (Ed Note: For a great example of a "Fantasy Medieval Japan", set in the Sengoku Jidai, see the anime series InuYasha)
Other authors are more than welcome to add to the land of Yamato; there are many places open to explore and avenues to choose. I just want to warn people ahead of time that there is going to be a definite progression of stuff going on at court, in the provinces, and with the mythical beings of the land. If you want a more definite time table let me know and I will try to draw one up for you (it has some spoilers, though, so I don't want to post it publicly). (Ed note: Tatsushu is back, so bug him if you want it. However, he might not be able to immediately oblige, since he's still getting his 'sea legs' back, as it were.)