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

Towards the end of the 1600s, Japan experienced one of its most unusual laws, explained in LAWMazing 7 under The Dog Shogun.

Japanese law engendered miserable conditions for the commoners. Yosiyuki Noda in Introduction to Japanese Law quotes from an anonymous 1720 Japanese book:

“... the (Japanese) peasants ... 80 percent of the population ... were treated by a pitiless government like domestic animals and were borne down by heavy taxes and demanding service. Furthermore, they were not allowed to change their place of residence or their occupation.”

Tokugawa TsunayoshiIn 1742, a further development of Japanese law occurred when a new comprehensive national code of law, the Kujikata Osadamegaki was enacted.

Oda adds:

“[T]he second part of the Osadamegaki was a secret code which was accessible only to three commissioners and other senior officials of the Shogunate. It was considered unnecessary to let ordinary people know the contents of the Code.”

The secretive second part of the Osadamegaki was larger than the first part, 103 articles to only 81 in the public part. In the second part was contained Japan’s penal code.

As an example of the autonomy of some local shoguns, some declined Part 2 of the Kujikata Osadamegaki and instead, brought in the Chinese Ming Code.

Still, the fate of the peasant knew no sympathy in Japanese law, so wrapped up as it was in the class system and the outright Confucian style prohibition against any peasant in speaking out against the government. For example, when Oshio Heihachiro (1793-1837) led an ill-fated rebellion, the formal charge against him was:

“The accused did wrong to criticize policy because he was a man of humble origin.”

When another rebel, Yoshida Shoin (1830-1859), was sentenced to death in 1837, his warrant read:

“Whereas the accused who is only a person of low rank was wrong to have criticized state policies....”

When the American Navy arrived in 1853 under Commodore Perry (adjacent painting is of his landing and return voyage a year later, in 1854, at Yokohama), intense political pressure was applied upon the shogunate (see Landing at Yokohama in the Law Gallery). The shogunate folded under the pressure and the political power of the emperor restored. The strict class system of the shogunate was eased; commoners were now enabled to have surnames.

Modernization and the effects of sudden exposure to the rest of the world exerted a constant pressure on the new imperial government and upon the law of Japan. It all began with a Charter Oath of the Five Articles.

Resigned to reinvent themselves, they toyed with a variety of government models and rolled out a series of modern codes: Criminal Code (1880), the Constitution of the Empire of Japan (1889); Commercial Code, Criminal Procedure Act and Civil Procedure Act (1890) and the Civil Code in 1896. The latter was modeled on the developing German Civil Code and, to a lesser extent, on the older Civil Code of France.

► 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; and this final page, Japan: A Legal History, Part 5, which includes References, below.




  • Akiyama, Kenzo, The History of Nippon, translation: T. Shimanouchi (Tokyo: Kokusai Bunka Shinkokai, 1941)
  • Brinkley, F., A History of the Japanese People (London: Encyclopedia Britannica Co., 1915)
  • Duhaime, Lloyd, 1868: Charter Oath of the Five Articles
  • Duhaime, Lloyd, China: A Legal History
  • Duhaime, Lloyd, Ieyasu Tokugawa (1542-1616)
  • Duhaime, Lloyd, Kamatari Fuguwara (614-669)
  • Duhaime, Lloyd, Landing at Yokohama
  • Duhaime, Lloyd, Seventeen Article Constitution of Japan
  • Hall, J. and others, editors, The Cambridge History of Japan (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993).
  • Kodansha Encyclopedia of Japan, "Legal System" (Tokyo: Kodansha Ltd., 1983)
  • Noda, Yosiyuki, Introduction to Japanese Law (Tokyo: University of Tokyo Press, 1976), translated by A. Angelo, pages 14-39.
  • Oda, Hiroshi, Japanese Law (London: Butterworths, 1992), pages 14-25
  • Steenstrup, Carl, A History of Law in Japan Until 1868 (Tokyo: Brill Publishers, 1996)