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The Laws of Medieval Japan

Medieval Japan came under a new system of government after the Taika reform edicts. All of the provinces were unified under the central, imperial government, and the emperor, who ruled by the dictates of the Heavens, was the central figure of this government. In the unification of Japan, the main idea that was stressed was efficiency through the removal of wasteful spending, strict laws punishing corruption in government officials, and the advocacy of rights for common people.

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The idea of an emperor who had the right to rule handed down to him from the Heavens also helped to cement this push for efficiency by deriving the right to rule from divinity as it trumped all arguments that could be made against these new laws. This efficiency would prove to be necessary to rule over an empire made out of fragmented islands.

In order to make the empire run as smoothly as possible, wasteful spending had to be removed immediately. Japan had previously been ruled by fragmented provinces, and the culture of these provinces had many superstitious holdovers that were, strictly speaking, anachronistic. For instance, bodies were buried with riches that the person had possessed in life. Often the horse of the deceased would be sacrificed as well1. These sorts of practices were considered unenlightened and wasteful, and they were far too burdensome on the living to allow to continue: “The poverty of our people is absolutely owing to the construction of tombs2.“ This can be seen as an effort to not only increase efficiency but to thoroughly modernize Japan through the removal of entirely superstitious rituals.

Wasteful spending was also eliminated by placing limits on the numbers of government officials and the number of people allowed to travel with these government officials: “When they come up to the capital they must not bring large numbers of people in their train.3” There was to be a proper census and accounting for the people in villages, and the proper way to define what constituted the size of rice patties and villages was defined as well. These definitions were provided so that the central government could name the number of government officials to serve in various areas so that there were not more people than needed in order to run local governments appropriately.

The biggest challenge to making sure that a government runs efficiently is to make sure that the officials are properly following the laws that have been provided for them. As such, corruption in government was dealt with strictly. If an official took a bribe in order to allow a person to bypass any of the new laws, the official was punished by being fined twice the amount of the initial bribe4. The efficiency of the government was ensured by the harsh punishment of any official not adhering to the laws. The common people were also more likely to be in favor of and enthusiastic towards the government if they felt that there were not people in the government who were unfairly using the government to their own advantage. With the common people behind the system of government, the government could run more efficiently.

There were also various abuses amongst the common people which were outlawed. For example, people who cooked rice along side of a road were forced to do purgation by those who lived alongside the road. There were also laws enforcing the proper conduct among people who took new spouses, outlawing the attempts of previous husbands to demand property from the former wives‘ new husbands5. These kinds of practices were outlawed in order to prevent to increase harmony amongst the common people and reduce the number of complaints that the government had to deal with.

Ideas that were pushed through this was that “Harmony is to be valued,6” and that people were to “Chastise that which is evil and encourage that which is good7.” By outlawing these various practices, the number of complaints that the government would be forced to deal with would be reduced, making the whole system of government more efficient. These edicts to promote peace, harmony, and understanding amongst everybody not only would be in the best interest of the people, but it would help the government itself run more smoothly by not being bogged down by petty squabbles. Once again, it is easy to see how what is good for the common people was good for the government as well.

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The government realized that in order for it to rule effectively, it had to appeal to the common people. Laws that punished corruption and wastefulness in the provincial governments were meant to show the common people that they were being looked out for. The common people would not be in favor of a government which allowed their taxes to be squandered. The emperor, and the government in general, realized that the best thing that they could do to ensure their own longevity as rulers was to ensure that the common people were taken care of. What was best for the government was what was best for the people.

This was accomplished through efficiency, and this is an idea that can be found to be at the heart of any government which is looking out for the best interests of its citizens still today. While deriving the power to rule the country through divine right is not something that modern people can really understand, the attempt to make government efficient and to work for the best interests of the people is.


  1. “Taika Reform Edicts.” Trans. W.G. Aston. Web.
  2. Ibid
  3. Ibid.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Ibid.

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StudyCorgi. "The Laws of Medieval Japan." December 13, 2021.


StudyCorgi. 2021. "The Laws of Medieval Japan." December 13, 2021.


StudyCorgi. (2021) 'The Laws of Medieval Japan'. 13 December.

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