Sunday, March 1, 2015

The Rope and the Sword

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.


  1. Wonderful post, Susan. A question: were there Japanese equivalents of felonies and misdemeanors? Was there a punishment short of oblivion?

    1. For samurai, there were punishments which fell short of death - mostly formal apologies and payment of restitution.

      For commoners, the options were far narrower, at least once things reached the magistrate. During most of the medieval era, the shoguns felt that harsh justice prevented additional crimes. A magistrate could exercise discretion and offer some lesser punishment, like whipping or payment of restitution, and during some eras they did it more than others. For the most part, though, if a magistrate found you guilty of anything serious, it was a Red Queen-type situation (off with his head!)

      Yet another reason many commoners preferred to handle small misdemeanors and disagreements within their guilds rather than resorting to the magistrate! (I'll talk about the guilds next month.)

    2. This is absolutely fascinating, Susan. I am really looking forward to hearing about the guilds!

    3. Thanks Lisa! The guild structure in medieval japan was labyrinthine, but also fascinating. In particular, the role women played in the artisans' culture was far more involved than most people realize.

  2. Fascinating, Susan. I've heard of seppuku, but not kaishakunin. I have a question too. You mentioned female Samurai. What was their role compared to their male counterparts?

    1. Female samurai were awesome, Zoë. Technically, any female born to a samurai family was a samurai, and most of them did learn at least some basic fighting skills (usually with a naginata - a halberd). Most of them were also highly literate, because the female's role in a samurai family often involved managing the estate while the husband was off at war.

      In some, fairly rare but documented, cases, females of the samurai class became warriors and fought in battle alongside their male counterparts. The term for them is "onna-bugeisha" - "woman warrior" - and they often dressed and acted like the men (down to hairstyle and wearing swords in public), even though the historical record shows they behaved as women in other respects.

      I have a samurai woman (an onna-bugeisha) in my series, and the research on them is fascinating. I'll have to write about that here some time too...

  3. As it's always been, "those with the gold" rule and are set apart from all those gold-less (as opposed to god-less) common riff-raff. I sometimes wonder if there's hope of us EVER outgrowing that time-worn trope. Probably not.

    1. Doubtful. In an ironic twist, the 16th century, many Japanese artisans and merchants were far wealthier than the samurai who ruled them--yet another reason the warriors insisted on a dual system of justice. (To keep the commoners in their place.)

      It's definitely a sad truth, though, that history seems to recycle this duality (those who have oppressing those who have not or have less) over and over again. It's one trope I wish we could eliminate.

  4. Like Zoë, Susan, the head chopper-offer is new to me too. The closest I ever got to a "kaisha" was the kasha varnishkes at the former 2nd Avenue Deli in NYC's East Village. Though come to think of it, both were pretty good attendants to disembowelment.

    1. LOL...

      I've always thought the kaishakunin was one of the more fascinating historical figures who fell through the translations when certain Japanese ideas came to the West. One of my favorite things about writing a medieval Japanese series is the ability to bring some of these fascinating characters back to life.

      Remind me to avoid those at the deli, however...

  5. This is fascinating. Did the magistrate also act as the investigator of a crime (as they did in China)? If so, did the accused have any opportunity to challenge their guilty status?

    1. Pam, the magistrates generally acted as judges in Japan - there were assistant magistrates (known as "yoriki") who investigated the crimes. The Chinese magistrates did a lot more hands-on investigation than their Japanese counterparts.

      The accused generally didn't have the opportunity to challenge their guilty status, unless they had proof (real evidence) to support the claim. On rare occasions, an accused person might have a chance to request further investigation, but for the most part the justice system in medieval Japan was more concerned with punishment than investigation of commoners' claims. Investigations did happen, however, especially where the evidence wasn't clear.