Today, we're leaving the modern world for a tour of "justice" in samurai-era Japan.
The medieval Japanese justice system was actually two parallel systems: one for commoners, and the other for samurai.
By the 16th century—the era when my Shinobi Mysteries take place—Japan had a highly developed system of courts and law enforcement.
|Ashikaga Yoshiteru, shogun of Japan and a great supporter of the Japanese justice system|
Magistrates presided over the courts in every major city (and many towns had magistrates as well). Magistrates acted like modern judges, resolving disputes and conducting trials when commoners were accused of crimes. Although the magistrates themselves were members of the ruling samurai class, their official law-enforcement activities generally focused on commoners. By law, the noble samurai class had the right to resolve their legal disputes themselves.
Beneath the magistrates, the yoriki or “assistant magistrates” acted as supervisors for the “beat cops” (known as dōshin) who patrolled the cities and arrested commoners accused of crimes. Like magistrates, yoriki and dōshin were always members of the samurai class. However, policemen usually came from low-ranked samurai families, whereas the magistrates were appointed from among the more noble, educated clans.
Although the police force was composed entirely of nobles, samurai rarely used the justice system to resolve their own disputes. Samurai families generally tried to resolve minor issues through negotiation, but where that failed, samurai justice was delivered on the edge of a sword. On rare occasions, samurai did resort to the magistrates, but for the most part the official justice system existed to manage the lower classes rather than the ruling elite.
Like the justice system itself, punishments meted out to criminals often depended on the social class or rank of the convicted (or condemned).
|Samurai delivering an order to commit seppuku|
As the highest-ranking social group, samurai had special privileges when it came to punishment. For serious crimes, samurai often had the right (and, occasionally, the obligation) to commit seppuku – a form of ritual suicide in which a samurai disemboweled himself with a dagger. The "self-determining" samurai was usually allowed a “second,” called the kaishakunin, who ended the samurai’s life with a merciful strike to the neck as soon as the fatal stomach cut was completed.
A skillful kaishakunin would not completely sever the head; instead, he would leave it barely attached to the body, hanging by only a narrow strip of skin. The thinner the strip, the more respect the kaishakukin--and, by association, the samurai committing the seppuku--received.
Ritual suicide by seppuku restored a samurai’s honor, and that of his family, preventing the need for a feud between the wrongdoer’s clan and the clan of his victim. However, only samurai were allowed the option of seppuku (and the “honor” was not extended to every samurai who committed a crime.)
Among commoners, the sentence for serious crimes was generally death by hanging. In contrast to seppuku, which restored a condemned man’s honor, hanging was a degrading and defiling form of death. It shamed the convict and also his (or her) family. Hangings often took place in public, sometimes followed by decapitation and display of the criminal’s head as a warning to the population at large.
|19th century woodblock showing a beheaded criminal (the clothing indicates|
he's a commoner)
In an ironically “modern” twist, the Japanese justice system treated women as equal to men, at least where punishment was concerned. Female criminals went to the gallows alongside their male counterparts, and female samurai who committed crimes were often allowed the option of suicide (though usually by poison rather than seppuku).
Prisons existed in medieval Japan as well, but mostly as holding areas for commoners awaiting trial. Unlike modern prisons, medieval Japanese prisons were neither designed or intended for long-term incarceration.
For people in medieval Japan, crime and punishment were inseparable from the larger ideals of honor, respect, and social class. Serious crimes were an unforgivable disrespect for the law and the social order. A major crime created a debt that could only be “repaid” with the criminal’s life—a truth that transcended even the sharp class lines that pervaded every aspect of medieval Japanese culture--and one that provides a limitless source of fodder for a mystery author interested in justice as well as crime.