Law Enforcement in the Edo Period
This year marks the 130th anniversary of Japans modern police system. On January 15, 1874, six years after the Meiji Restoration, a metropolitan police department was established on the basis of European models to serve as the law enforcement organ for Japans new modern capital, Tokyo (formerly Edo). But what system of law enforcement existed before the adoption of modern, Western-style institutions in the Meiji era? In the following, I will attempt to provide a general overview of law enforcement in the Edo period (16031868).
A COMPLICATED PATCHWORK
The system for maintaining law and order during the Edo period differed fundamentally from our modern system in that law enforcement and criminal justice were carried out by the same organs. That is to say, one agency or office carried out the functions that are today performed separately by police, prosecutors, and the courts. This means that the administrative and judicial functions of government were merged rather than deliberately separated as they are in modern democratic states.
Although the Tokugawa shogunate held sway over the daimyô (lords) of all the countrys domains, the administration of each of these domains was left to the individual daimyô; in principle, the shogunate administered only its own domains. However, since the administrative apparatus of each domain, including law enforcement and criminal justice, closely resembled the system established by the shogunate, an examination of the latter system should be sufficient to provide an overview of law enforcement in the Edo period.
The top administrative post under the shôgun was that of rôjû, or senior councillors. (At times a tairô, or chief councillor, was appointed as a superior to the rôjû, but this was not a permanent post.) Typically, the shogunate appointed four or five rôjû from among the fudai daimyô, lords of the domains that Ieyasu, the first Tokugawa shôgun, had originally granted to his loyal vassals in the early seventeenth century. The rôjû generally took turns managing the shogunates administrative affairs according to a monthly rotation system, although they came together to confer on matters of importance. Ranking just below the rôjû were the wakadoshiyori, or junior councillors. They were also chosen from among the fudai daimyô and likewise served according to a monthly rotation. Since the rôjû and wakadoshiyori together made up the top administrative organ of the Tokugawa government, they were inevitably involved in matters pertaining to law enforcement and criminal justice, whether directly or indirectly.
Next in importance in the central administrative apparatus were the metsuke (inspectors) and ômetsuke (inspectors general), whose main job was to monitor and control the activities of the ruling warrior class. The ômetsuke, reporting directly to the rôjû, monitored the daimyô, while the metsuke, who were under the supervision of the wakadoshiyori, focused on the shôguns direct retainersthe hatamoto, or bannermen, and the gokenin, or housemen. Both were selected from among the hatamoto. With its reliance on peer monitoring, the metsuke system might be compared to the military police of a modern army or the internal affairs bureau of a police department.
The highest offices with direct police and judicial authority were the three bugyô, or commissioners, who reported to the rôjû. While many of the positions within the vast shogunal bureaucracy had originated as military posts in the era of civil unrest prior to the Edo period, the posts of the three bugyô were created after the shogunate was established in Edo, and they had a distinctly civilian flavor.
The first and highest-ranking of the three was the jisha bugyô (commissioner of temples and shrines), who had authority over the lands of all the temples and shrines in the country, the priests and monks attached to those institutions, and the people living within their precincts. In addition to wielding general administrative authority over these lands and people, the jisha bugyô also adjudicated civil suits, investigated crimes, and tried suspected criminals associated with the temples and shrines.
The central job of the kanjô bugyô (commissioner of accounts) was fiscal management, but the holder of this post also wielded police authority with regard to serious crimes carried out within most of the shogunates direct holdings. This is because the authority of the gundai or daikan who directly governed those areas (the name depended on the size of the holding) extended only to the collection of taxes from local farmers and the prosecution and adjudication of civil cases and certain minor criminal cases; in all other criminal cases, the accused, together with the record of the preliminary investigation, was sent to the higher court in Edo, namely the kanjô bugyô. Since the kanjô bugyô thus combined the authority of a finance minister and a chief justice, only the most capable people could fill the post, and they were kept very busy. Four people ordinarily filled it on a monthly rotating basis.
A PREMODERN POLICE COMMISSIONER
The third commissioner was the machi bugyô, literally “town commissioner,” sometimes translated as magistrate. The machi bugyô was the top law enforcement official of the most important shogunal domain of all, the city of Edo. If one were forced to choose a corresponding contemporary post, it would have to be that of police commissioner, but it would be more accurate to call the machi bugyô a combination of metropolitan governor, police commissioner, and district court chief justice, since his duties included the adjudication of civil and criminal cases and general administration, as well as administration of the citys police functions. For this reason, separate police organs were established from time to time to supplement the functions of the machi bugyô. One of these was a special police force called the hitsuke tôzoku aratamekata, which was set up to crack down on vicious gangs of armed robbers; its chief was also selected from among the hatamoto.
Among the men who at one time or another served as magistrate or as chief of the hitsuke tôzoku aratamekata, the most famous evolved into legendary heroes glorified in Japanese novels, movies, and television seriesa phenomenon recalling the depiction of Marshall Wyatt Earp in American novels, movies, and TV shows about the wild West.
In Edo there were at any given time two appointed magistrates referred to as the minami (south) and kita (north) bugyô. However, these names are misleading, giving rise to the misconception that each was in charge of half of the city. In fact, the two alternated on active duty, rotating each month; the south and north merely refer to the location of the two magistrates offices.
Working beneath the magistrates were supervisors called yoriki and lesser officers known as dôshin. Each magistrates office generally had 25 yoriki and somewhere around 120 dôshin (the exact number fluctuated over time). Thus, with the staff for the north and south combined, the entire Edo police force amounted to a mere 50 yoriki and 240 dôshin for a population estimated to have been at least 1 million from the eighteenth century on. To be sure, the magistrates office also employed low-ranking officials called chûgen and komono, but these merely provided supporting clerical and other services; only the yoriki and dôshin had police authority. Moreover, as noted above, the magistrates office handled not only the investigation and adjudication of criminal cases but also civil suits and general administration. Under the circumstances, how was such a small force able to maintain law and order in such a large city? In the following section, we will examine two important factors.
One factor that allowed the machi bugyô to get by with such a meager staff was the use of unofficial assistants. The dôshin, who handled the criminal investigations, all had working under them community informants known as meakashi or okappiki. These were common townsfolk, not samurai, with no official connection to the magistrates office. In many cases they were themselves criminals or even yakuza gang leaders. But they were useful resources for the dôshin because their familiarity with Edos underworld often put them in a position to provide information critical to a crime investigation.
Most of these undercover informants ran a business of some type as a means of supporting themselves and, in some cases, their henchmen; many owned restaurants or neighborhood vaudeville theaters. For their services, the dôshin paid them a small amount out of their own pockets. Of course, the use of underworld characters in criminal investigations was problematical in many ways, and the shogunate frequently issued edicts prohibiting the practice, but it seems the dôshin were unable to do without them. (1)
The second factor facilitating the maintenance of law and order in Edo was the important role of community self-government associations. Each neighborhood (called machi or chô) in Edo had an organization made up of the areas property owners and their managers or superintendents, and headed by someone referred to as the nanushi. The superintendents, known as ienushi or ôya, were in frequent contact with the tenants, who regarded them as powerful authority figuresa relationship frequently portrayed in the comic rakugo monologues of the period.
Working out of an office called the jishinban, the ienushi was charged with settling all kinds of disputes in the neighborhood, at least on a temporary basis, and otherwise keeping order within the community. This sort of self-governing capability no doubt contributed significantly to the maintenance of law and order in Edo. Of course, the communities were only autonomous within the limits set by the shogunate, and the system could be criticized for fostering an atmosphere of suspicion in which peoples activities were continually monitored by their neighbors. However, it also seems clear that it helped keep the peace in Edo by supporting the work of the citys very modest police force.
We might also note that when the dôshin went on patrol, the jishinban was one of the regular stops along their route. The jishinban was also where suspects were temporarily taken into custody and questioned. All of this suggests that the jishinban was in fact the forerunner of the kôban (police boxes) for which the modern Japanese police system is known.
PUNISHMENTBOTH CRUEL AND ENLIGHTENED
Suspects arrested by the Edo police were subsequently tried, and as previously noted, the investigation and trial were carried out by the same organ, the machi bugyô. It should not be assumed, however, that trials were simple or perfunctory affairs. Let us trace the process beginning from the point where the dôshin brings a suspect to the jishinban, as reconstructed by Inagaki Shisei. (2)
After initial questioning at the jishinban, the suspect would be taken to a jail called the ôbanya for further questioning. If the second interrogation produced firm evidence that the suspect was the perpetrator, the dôshin would apply to the magistrates office for a permit to incarcerate the suspect. A yoriki and the dôshin in charge of such applications would review the documents and issue the permit if they judged that the facts warranted it. The suspect would then be transferred to a large-scale jail. At that point, the suspect became the accused, in todays parlance.
The trial was carried out in a courtroom called the shirasu in the magistrates office. In name, the judge was the machi bugyô himself, but in fact the bugyô appeared only for the first hearing and the final verdict, while a yoriki handled the rest of the examination.
Much of the trial focused on whether the suspect had confessed to a crime. In fact, a confession was required for any death sentence, and torture was not ruled out as a means of extracting such a confession. However, the bugyô did not have the independent authority to approve the use of torture; he first needed to receive the approval of the rôjû. In practice, torture seems to have been used at most once or twice a year.
The penal system of the Edo period differed from our modern system in several key respects. First, whereas in modern societies the most common form of punishment by curtailment of liberty is penal servitude, this was unknown in Edo Japan. The most common punishment in this category, rather, was banishment. This gave rise to a class of people referred to as mushuku, or vagabonds, which posed its own threat to law and order.
Second, there were numerous types of death penalty, and the rules governing them were extremely complex. For one thing, the means of execution varied according to crime (including cruel methods, such as death by burning for those convicted of arson). In addition, the penalty and the name given it could vary according to the class and status of the criminal. For example, beheading was called zanzai when applied to a samurai but shizai when applied to a commoner. The penalty of seppuku, or suicide by disembowelment, was reserved for members of the warrior class.
The primary purpose of punishment is something that has been much debated by legal scholars. One way the issue can be posed is as a choice between “particular prevention” and “general prevention.” The former refers to incarceration or other punishment of convicts so as to prevent them from committing additional crimes, while the latter refers to publicizing the punishment of convicts so as to deter others from committing such crimes in the future. (This writer believes that in our contemporary society, punishment should be designed to perform both functions.)
What was the prevailing attitude regarding the purpose of punishment during the Edo period? According to the noted legal historian Ishii Ryôsuke, “The penal philosophy of the Edo shogunate was unquestionably preventive. At the beginning, the philosophy of general prevention dominated, but after the adoption of the Osadame-gaki, it was increasingly concerned with particular prevention.” (3)
This focus on particular prevention was especially apparent in the ninsoku yoseba, a special facility for criminals regarded as capable of rehabilitation. The ninsoku yoseba was opened in 1790 at the recommendation of hitsuke tôzoku aratemekata chief Hasegawa Heizôwho was also its first directorand the approval of rôjû Matsudaira Sadanobu. Its inmates were those convicted of minor crimes, as well as mushuku, people whose names had been removed from the family register and were excluded from lawful social activities (including people who had been banished for earlier crimes). At the ninsoku yoseba, these people received lessons in ethics and vocational training of various types. Moreover, the inmates were actually paid for the products of their labors, a practice virtually unheard of at the time.
The Tokugawa shogunate fell in 1867, and the Meiji Restoration of 1868 established a new system of government directly under the emperor. Emperor Meiji moved from Kyoto to Edo, which was renamed Tokyo, or “Eastern Capital.” During the final years of the shogunate and early years of the Meiji era, law and order deteriorated dramatically as the police system fell into disarray. In 1871, the Meiji government hurriedly implemented a new system that used 3,000 officers called rasotsu (later renamed junsa) to patrol Tokyo and maintain order there. But the establishment of a modern police force remained an unfinished and urgent task. The key figure responsible for completing it was Kawaji Toshiyoshi, a former samurai of the Satsuma domain.
In September 1872, Kawaji joined a government mission to study police systems in Europe. He visited France, Belgium, Germany, Holland, and Austria, spending a particularly long period in Paris studying the French system. Returning to Japan after one year, he played a central role in designing a system for the new Meiji state. On January 15, 1874, the Tokyo Metropolitan Police Department was established, with Kawaji as its first commissioner, to serve as the basic law-enforcement organ of the nations capital. Using the knowledge he had gained from his studies in Europe, Kawaji worked to lay a foundation for the organization, the police system, and the systems day-to-day implementation. He was, in short, the father of Japans modern police system. (This author had the honor of serving as the seventy-ninth police commissioner, counting from Kawaji Toshiyoshi.)
When viewed in the light of this modern system, law enforcement in the Edo period is certainly open to criticism, and some historians have tried to portray it as an unmitigated evil. But the Edo administrators deserve credit for the caution with which they treated serious cases, requiring approval by the rôjû and other procedural safeguards before carrying out a severe sentence. They also developed the earliest form of Japans modern kôban system, which has attracted such international attention in recent years. And finally, as we have just seen, the Edo-period penal system broke new ground with the institution of the ninsoku yoseba, focusing on the rehabilitation of criminals and outcasts. All of this argues for the need to acknowledge the diligence and creativity of our predecessors in their efforts to maximize the fairness and efficacy of law enforcement working within the established administrative framework of the Tokugawa shogunate.
Translated from an original article in Japanese written for Japan Echo.
(1) Concerning the meakashi, I have referred to Mitamura Engyo Zenshû (The Collected Works of Mitamura Engyo) (Tokyo: Chûô Kôron Sha, 1975), vol. 13.
(2) Inagaki Shisei, Jidai kôshô jiten (Dictionary of Historical Sources) (Tokyo: Shin-Jinbutsuôraisha, 1971).
(3) Ishii Ryôsuke, Nihon hôsei shi gaiyô (Historical Overview of Japanese Law) (Tokyo: Sôbunsha Publishing, 1952).
© 2004 Japan Echo Inc.