Click here to jump straight to the text of the 604 Seventeen Article Constitution.

Introduction

The 604 Constitution shaped morality and law in Japan, a country which had just begun to develop and become literate. In it, one can observe that the emphasis of Oriental law which seeks to prevent disputes, whereas Western law seeks to resolve disputes.

Timetable of Legal History logoAuthorship of the document is often attributed to Prince Shotoku Taishi (574-622). It was formally issued by the government of Japan in 604, then known as Wa.

Shotoku is also credited with the invention of sushi and his authorship of the 17 article constitution is the subject of some controversy. Some modern Japanese historians believe that Shotoku did not have the writing skills to write the Constitution. In any event, it has long been the practice everywhere to give credit for a legal document to the reigning monarch rather than to the actual scribe.

The history of Shotoku’s constitution has always been tagged with controversy. As a national treasure, in 1949, the Japanese government struggled with the existence of several different versions of the 604 Constitution and finally chose one as authentic. However, in 1974, some Japanese historians publicly alleged that it was a forgery pointing out that some of the institutions it refers to only came into existence some hundred years later.

The 604 Constitution, known in Japanese as Jushichijo Kenpo, was certainly not in the form of contemporary law. Indeed, it more closely resembles biblical passages or the Muslim law style of governing social behavior and conduct, rather than prescribing official conduct and prohibiting crimes. As such, it is a typical Buddhist/Confuscius law, especially the latter in insisting on moral standards by government officials.

Nonetheless, it is the first document in Japanese legal history. According to some jurists, the 604 Constitution remained in force until it was replaced by a new constitution in 1890. Other even claim that since the 1890 law did not expressly repeal the 604 Constitution that where it is not inconsistent, it continues to apply to this day. However, on a any reading of the Constitution (see below), it is doubtful if any of the 604 document could now be used in a court of law.

Here is the translation prepared by W.G. Aston. There have been several translations but this is the most popular. However, upon occasion, the English appears stilted, likely a necessary evil in an attempt at Japanese to English translation in 1896. Still, one can imagine with delight the solemn and historic moments of reflection of Japanese scribes circa 604 as they crafted the nation's first law to fit their era.

One last word: it is not really a constitution in the legal sense of the word as the document does not purport to establish any form of a parliament. However, it is a national law, albeit moralistic in style, and does support the concept of a centralized state and in that sense, you really have to want to pull hairs to deny it the title of constitution.

Article 1

Harmony is to be valued, and an avoidance of wanton opposition to be honoured. All men are influenced by class-feelings, and there are few who are intelligent. Hence there are some who disobey their lords and fathers, or who maintain feuds with the neighbouring villages. But when those above are harmonious and those below are friendly, and there is concord in the discussion of business, right views of things spontaneously gain acceptance. Then what is there which cannot be accomplished!

Article 2

Sincerely reverence the three treasures. The three treasures,  viz. Buddha, the law and the priesthood, are the final refuge of the four generated beings, and are the supreme objects of faith in all countries. What man in what age can fail to reverence this law? Few men are utterly bad. They may be taught to follow it. But if they do not betake them to the three treasures, how shall their crookedness be made straight?

Article 3

When you receive the Imperial commands, fail not scrupulously to obey them. The lord is Heaven, the vassal is Earth. Heaven overspreads, and Earth upbears. When this is so, the four seasons follow their due course, and the powers of Nature obtain their efficacy. If the Earth attempted to overspread, Heaven would simply fall in ruin. Therefore is it that when the lord speaks, the vassal listens; when the superior acts, the inferior yields compliance. Consequently when you receive the Imperial commands, fail not to carry them out scrupulously. Let there be a want of care in this matter, and ruin is the natural consequence.

Article 4

The Ministers and functionaries should make decorous behaviour their leading principle, for the leading principle of the government of the people consists in decorous behaviour. If the superiors do not behave with decorum, the inferiors are disorderly. If inferiors are wanting in proper behaviour, there must necessarily be offenses. Therefore it is that when lord and vassal behave with propriety, the distinctions of rank are not confused. When the people behave with propriety, the Government of the Commonwealth proceeds of itself.

Article 5

Ceasing from gluttony and abandoning covetous desires impartially with the suits which are submitted to you. Of complaints brought by the people there are a thousand in one day. If in one day there are so many, how many will there be in a series of years? If the man who is to decide suits at law makes gain his ordinary motive, and hears causes with a view to receiving bribes, then will the suits of the rich man be like a stone flung into water, while the plaints of the poor will resemble water cast upon a stone. Under these circumstances the poor man will not know whither to betake himself. Here too there is a deficiency in the duty of the Minister.

Article 6

Chastise that which is evil and encourage that which is good. This was the excellent rule of antiquity. Conceal not, therefore, the good qualities of others, and fail not to correct that which is wrong when you see it. Flatterers and deceivers are a sharp weapon for the overthrow of the State, and a pointed sword for the destruction of the people. Sycophants are also fond, when they meet, of dilating at length to their superiors on the errors of their inferiors. To their inferiors, they censure the faults of their superiors. Men of this kind are all wanting in fidelity to their lord, and in benevolence toward the people. From such an origin great civil disturbances arise.

Article 7

Let every man have his own charge, and let not the spheres of duty be confused. When wise men are entrusted with office, the sound of praise arises. If unprincipled men hold office, disasters and tumults are multiplied. In this world, few are born with knowledge: wisdom is the product of earnest meditation. In all things, whether great or small, find the right man, and they will surely be well managed. On all occasions, be they urgent or the reverse, meet but with a wise man, and they will of themselves be amenable. In this way will the State be lasting and the Temples of the Earth and of Grain will be free from danger. Therefore did the wise sovereigns of antiquity seek the man to fill the office, and not the office for the sake of the man.

Article 8

That the Ministers and functionaries attended the court early in the morning, and retire late. The business of the state does not admit of remissness, and the whole day is hardly enough for its accomplishment. If, therefore, the attendance at court is late, emergencies cannot be met. If officials retire soon, the work cannot be completed.

Article 9

Good faith is the foundation of right. In everything let there be good faith, for it there surely consists the good and the bad, success and failure. If the Lord and the vassal observe good faith one with another, what is there which cannot be accomplished? If the Lord and the vassal do not observe good faith toward one another, everything without exception ends in failure.

Article 10

Let us cease from wrath, and refrain from angry looks. Nor let us be resentful when others differ from us. For all men have hearts, and each heart has its own leanings. Their right is our wrong, and our right is their wrong. We are not unquestionably sages, nor are they unquestionably fools. Both of us are simply ordinary men. How can any one lay down a rule by which to distinguish right from wrong? For we are all, one with another, wise and foolish, like a ring which has no end. Therefore, although others give way to anger, let us on the contrary dread our own faults, and though we alone may be in the right, let us follow the multitude and act like men.

Article 11

Give clear appreciation to merit and demerit, and deal out to each it’s sure reward or punishment. In these days, reward does not attend upon merit, nor punishment upon crime. Ye high functionaries who have charge of public affairs, let it be your task to make clear rewards and punishments.Shotoku Taishi

Article 12

That not the provincial authorities or the Kuni no Miyakko (ancient local nobles) levy exactions on the people. In a country there are not two lords. The people have not two masters. The sovereign is the master of the people of the whole country. The officials to whom he gives charges are all his vassals. How can they, as well as the government, presume to levy taxes on the people?

Article 13

Let all persons entrusted with office attend equally to their functions. Owing to their illness or to their being sent on missions, their work may sometimes be neglected. But whenever they become able to attend to business, let them be as accommodating as if they had cognizance of it from before, and not hinder public affairs on the score of their not having had to do with them.

Article 14

Ye Ministers and functionaries! Be not envious. For if we envy others, they in turn will envy us. The evils of envy know no limit. If others excel us in intelligence, it gives us no pleasure. If they surpass it in ability, we are envious. Therefore it is not until after a lapse of 500 years that we had last meet with a wise man, and even a thousand years we hardly obtain one sage. But if we do not find wise men and sages, wherewithal shall the country be governed?

Article 15

To turn away from that which is private, and to set our faces toward that which is public - this is the path of a Minister. Now if a man is influenced by private motives, he will assuredly feel resentments, and if he is influenced by resentful feelings, he will assuredly fail to act harmoniously with others. If he fails to act harmoniously with others, he will assuredly sacrifice the public interests to his private feelings. When resentment arises, it interferes with order, and is subversive of law. Therefore in the first clause it was said, that superiors and inferiors should agree together. The purport is the same as this.

Article 16

Let the people be employed (in forced labour) at seasonable times. This is an ancient and excellent rule. Let them be employed, therefore, in the winter months, when they are at leisure. But from Spring to Autumn, when they are engaged in agriculture or with the mulberry trees, the people should not be so employed. For if they do not attend to agriculture, what will they have to eat? If they do not attend the mulberry trees, what will they do for clothing?

Article 17

Decisions on important matters should not be made by one person alone. They should be discussed with many. But small matters are of less consequence. It is unnecessary to consult a number of people. It is only in the case of the discussion of weighty matters, when there is a suspicion that the many miscarry, that one should arrange They should be discussed with many. But small matters are of less consequence. It is unnecessary to consult a number of people. It is only in the case of the discussion of weighty affairs, when there is a suspicion that they may miscarry, that one should arrange matters in concert with others, so as to arrive at the right conclusion.

References:

  • Duhaime, Lloyd, Japan: A Legal History
  • Duhaime, Lloyd, Timetable of World Legal History
  • Lee, K.D.Y., The Prince and the Monk: Shotoku Worship in Sinran’s Buddhism (New York: State University of New York press, 2007)
  • Nihongi, Chronicles of Japan from the Earliest Times to A.D. 697 (London: Keagan and Co., 1896), vol. 2, pp. 128-133 (translated by W.G. Aston)
  • Steenstrup, Carl, A History of Law in Japan Until 1868 (Tokyo: Brill Publishers, 1996)