► JAPAN - A LEGAL HISTORY is set out in five parts as follows: Japan: A Legal History, Part 1; Japan: A Legal History, Part 2; Japan: A Legal History, Part 3 (below); Japan: A Legal History, Part 4; and Japan: A Legal History, Part 5 and References.


Japan, too, began a fascination for national legal codes adopting both its first ritsuryô: ritsu (criminal code) and ryô (civil or administrative code).

One, a 22-volume Omi Administrative Code, was published in about 670; the other, the Asuku No Kiyomihara Code, also in 22 volumes and modeled on the Chinese Yung-hui Code of 651.

No copy of either publication has survives.

Codification continued unabated with the Taihô Code (Taihô Ritsuryô) of 701 and the Yôrô Code of 718. Both were created under the guidance of Fujiwara Fuhito, who chaired a drafting committee made up of nobles and scholars.

The Yôrô Ritsu (criminal code) was divided into 12 chapters and had about 500 articles. It was very similar to the criminal law codes of China except only that the punishments were not as harsh. In particular, the Japanese prided themselves in minimal use of capital punishment.

The Yôrô Ryô (administrative code) had about one thousand articles in 30 chapters. One of the novelties of these reforms; a Department of Justice (Gyobu-sho). It was very similar to the Chinese Tang Code except that the status of women was greater in Japanese codes. The Yôrô Ryô was inspired by, but not a verbatim copy of, the Tang Code.

According to the Encyclopedia of Japan:

“The Yôrô Code, parts of which survive (ryô), contained approximately 1,500 articles in 10 chapters that comprehensively regulated the central administration of the growing national government.”

But no copy or extract of the civil law document has been found. Even its criminal law counterpart, the Yôrô Ritsu, is only known by process of extensive reference in other documents, mostly Chinese sources.

The new Japanese codes were not just modeled on Chinese laws, they were written in Chinese. 

The fascination with Chinese law also caused the emergence of Japan’s first jurists (bengoshi) who were essentially experts in Chinese laws, not that different from the popularity of Roman law jurists throughout mainland Europe at the same period in regards to the prevalence of Roman law and canon law.

A first law school in Japan was set up, known as Myôbôda, with 400 students. The university at Nara (Daigaku).

This was a golden age for law in Japan. The Taihô and Yôrô codes were implemented and became the subject of written legal commentaries. One, called the Ryô-no-gige (translation: Commentary of the Ryô), was written by twelve imminent Japanese jurists and was so authoritative that in 833, the government of Japan gave the book force of law.

Shoguns & Shogunates

In 1192, a civil war between samurai factions led to an emergency military government but once the threat gone, the successful general Yoritomo Minamoto became de facto ruler, the Shogun. Warriors, also known as samurai or buke, came to rule throughout the land much like knights in Britain.

The form of government became known as a shogunate; but what we would call, simply, martial law.

The regional shoguns lent land to locals in exchange for a commitment to military service at the Emperor’s command.

Abuses led to further revolt of the peasantry, which were ultimately unsuccessful.

But in the result, new military governments began a new set of laws known as buke or what Oda calls the law of military households, but which set the all-important law as to ownership of private property:

“An important example of the law of military households is the Joei-shikimoku, which was enacted in 1232....

"This Code comprised of 51 articles ... (and) embodied the basic moral principles of the warriors....”

As stated in the Kodansha Encyclopedia, the Joei Shikimoku:

“... reflected the widening range of military jurisdiction in local economic and criminal affairs.”

In many ways, it was a partial rejection of the heavy Chinese flavor of the previous law codes and a recognition that Japan was different, and on that basis, an important reform of the aging Taisha Reforms and edicts. With the socialist tendencies of Confucianism falling into disuse, private property rights were increasingly asserted.

Reports of the ravages of the Mongolian conqueror, Ghenghis Khan, throughout China would have arrived in Japan at this time and heightened the population’s acceptance of a military-bent government.

By 1237, the army of Khan’s son Ogedei (1186-1241) was invading Korea, with Japan within sight.

The Joei Shikimoku was put together mostly by the Hokkyo Enzen and parts of it remained in force until 1868. It is also known as Goseibai Shikimoku.

On two separate occasions, with the Mongolians of Ghengis Khan firmly established as the new imperial leaders of China, the Mongols tried to invade Japan, in 1274 and 1281. Korea had become a vassal to the new China from which, Japan was but a boat ride away.

But it was the sea that did the invaders in; storms caused more loss of soldiers and weaponry than the Samurai ever did.

The two storms which destroyed the invaders was a stroke of luck but luck which would exacerbate the span of the Sea of Japan and further distance Japanese society and law from the rest of the world.

► JAPAN - A LEGAL HISTORY is set out in five parts as follows: Japan: A Legal History, Part 1; Japan: A Legal History, Part 2; Japan: A Legal History, Part 3 (above); Japan: A Legal History, Part 4; and Japan: A Legal History, Part 5 and References.