► 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; Japan: A Legal History, Part 4 (below); and Japan: A Legal History, Part 5 and References.

Samurai Law

Emboldened but also isolated again from the mainland of Asia, the Japanese rulers, in 1336, put together yet another moral code in the guise of a code of law. The Kemmu Shikimoku was also comprised of 17 articles.

An excerpt:

“Economy must be universally practised. Drinking parties and wanton frolics must be suppressed. Crimes of violence and outrage must be quelled.”

Civil war again broke out between 1467 and 1477 resulting in the surrender of all arms by the dominant warrior class. Again, all land was taken from the private ownership of samurai and local shoguns, and given to the state, to be administered by local governors.

Europeans - the Portuguese - discovered Japan in about 1543, an event that would have consequences, especially the import of Christianity.

But in 1600, the warrior class was again able to have their leader Ieyasu Tokugawa appointed emperor (for more on him, see Tokugawa Ieyasu, 1542-1616; pictured, left). He moved his seat of government to Tokyo (then called Edo), and a 15-generation run of his successors continued military, shogun government firmly in Japan. Such a government ruled firmly and held a tight control and authority over local governors.

Japanese law reflected the samurai simplicity. One code called the Taiko Shikimoku consisted of 73 articles including:

  • Free yourself from the thralldom of passion.
  • Avoid heavy drinking.
  • Be on your guard against women.
  • Be not contentious or disputatious.
  • Rise early.
  • Beware of practical jokes.
  • Do not tire of things.
  • Stand in awe of the law.
  • Set up fences in your hearts against wandering or extravagant thoughts.

From this point on, and for three hundred years, the shoguns were formally recognized in law for what they had become: not just local military captains but also local governors.

And yet they allowed the territorial shoguns to enact their own laws subject only to any national law which may have issued from Tokyo such as a prohibition of Christianity.

In 1615, the national shogun government issued a new Law of the Military Houses and Rules for the Imperial Court and Court Nobles; both of which applied to every single Japanese, anywhere on the territory. The laws were the work of Ieyasu Tokugawa.

The Law of Military Houses was innovative mostly as it controlled the lives of the lords; their marriages, the  number of strongholds it could maintain and the requirement that they spend every second year in Edo. It required that "samurai ... practice frugality."

The latter Rules were a novel constitution with a creative system of separation of powers, severely limiting the authority of the emperor. The shogun spoke for the Emperor and was the commanding officer of all samurai.

Most importantly was, finally, a provision that government appointments be based on merit and not birthright. Ultimately, this decision rested with Ieyasu Tokugawa and successor shoguns.

1635 saw the publication of Iemitsu code, the Buke Sho-hatto, re-issued in 1665. The Buke Sho-hatto started off by stating that reading and weapon handling were the most important occupations and prohibiting private quarrels between samurai.

Isolationist Policy

In 1638 came the best known of all Japanese law, at least to the outside world: the isolationist laws. The arrival and popularity of Christianity had caused a number of riots and the government decided that Japanese could not leave Japan and no Catholics were allowed into Japan. Trade was limited to the port of Nagasaki and then only with Chinese or Portuguese merchants. No ocean-going vessels were to be built on the soil of Japan.

But soon, even the Portuguese were banned and the policy of isolation began in earnest.

In 1640, When the Portuguese sent a ship laden with presents and ambassadors to plead for renewed trade, the visitors were decapitated and only a few left alive to return a terse diplomatic message to the Portuguese:

“So long as the sun warms the earth, any Christian bold enough to come to Japan, even if he be King Philip himself or the God of the Christians, shall pay for it with his head.”

► 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; Japan: A Legal History, Part 4 (above); and Japan: A Legal History, Part 5 and References.