The Edo Period Of Japan

The Edo period, also known as the Tokugawa period-taken from the name of the ruling Tokugawa family-was a long period of peace and order that lasted for about 250 years. This was a remarkable feat considering the fact that this period was preceded by devastating ordeals. The sengoku jidai (“the age of country at war”) was the Warring States Period of Japan during which numerous rival daimyos with their individual armies fought each other to gain greater jurisdiction of control over Japan, which was divided into about 260 “countries”. The term, “Warring State Period” was borrowed, among many other things, from the Chinese. But though the name was appropriate in describing the chaotic feudal warfare, it was more of a war (power struggle) among warlords. Regardless of the kind of war fought, the war took a toll on the cities and the Japanese people. “The cost for the individual daimyo was tremendous, and a century of conflict would so weaken the bulk of Japanese warlords, that the three great figures of Japanese unification, beginning with Oda Nobunaga, would find it easier to militarily assert a single, unified military government.(Washington State University. n.d.)”

A rigid political and social structure was one of the determining factors for the long-lasting peace under the Edo period. Under the leadership of Tokugawa Ieyasu, the government transitioned from being a decentralized feudal government to a military government in the form of the bakufu. This “centralized feudalism” also maintained a controlled environment among the daimyos whose rivalry greatly contributed to the Chaos of the recently concluded Warring States Period. The key policies of the Tokugawa System were “manipulating daimyo, managing the imperial court, controlling foreign relations, and sacralizing the Tokugawa legacy. (N.A. 1990)” According to Tokugawa Japan: The Social and Economic Antecedents of Modern Japan, Tokugawa Ieyasu made an extra effort to control the daimyos and minimize them in number. The adoption of the buke sho-hatto (laws pertaining to the military houses) restricted the daimyos tremendously-from the way they had to repair their castles to requiring their wives and children to stay in Edo. A similar set of laws was placed on court nobles and it was called kinchu narabi ni kuge sho-hatto. Military authorities were in charge of “keeping the court nobles in line” and assured obedience through the punishment of exile in case of non-compliance. This control over the imperial court consequently assigned the emperor with a more scholarly (rather than military) and representative role. With regards to foreign policy, Ieyasu’s ban on Christianity was said to have sparked the seclusion of Japan (sakoku) from the rest of the world. Speculations indicate that this policy was implemented to create a monopoly on foreign trade and information from abroad because in exchange for exclusive trade with Japan, the Dutch and Chinese gave annual reports about the outside world The negativity toward Christianity began with Ieyasu’s fear of the increasing numbers of Christians revolting against him. This effort to eliminate Christianity left a path of death and destruction; these Christians worshipped Christ and placed him above the shogun, which apparently threatened and angered Ieyasu, who wanted the people to worship him instead. This led to a general fear of “contamination” from Western (or non-Japanese) cultures and ideologies and the eventual closing of Japan’s doors to the world. Though it had its own share of drawbacks, this cultural isolation, coupled with steady economic development from unparalleled agricultural productivity, led to the peace and eventual development of Japan as a unified country and served as a foundation for a rich distinct Japanese culture.

The society was organized by means of a hierarchy in which movement in class was very difficult if not totally impossible. This rigidity was said to primarily be a strategy employed by shoguns to ensure their stay in power and the continuous benefits that came with it. Samurais comprised the highest class in society, followed by the peasants, then the artisans, then finally, merchants. This structure was strongly influenced by Confucian beliefs, much like many other aspects of Japanese culture, which borrowed heavily from that of the Chinese. The warrior class was headed by the Shogun, beneath him were the local feudal lords (daimyo) who were responsible for certain pieces of land. Each daimyo had a number of samurais who served as guards, advisers, and members of the private army. Some samurais carried on without the support and assistance of a master. These “masterless” samurai (ronin) became teachers, wanderers, or warriors for hire. Peasants provided the primary nourishment of the Japanese people and that earned them considerably high ranking. Differentiating artisans and merchants was a very tricky matter though; more often than not, their occupations overlapped. But despite this confusion, sword makers held a privileged position in society for their vital contribution to the samurais. The reason behind the subordination of merchants springs from the Confucian emphasis on not enriching one’s self in the expense of others-which is why the merchant’s practice of making a living out of others’ hard work (craftsmen) was looked down upon.

Entertainers, priests, and certain other people were not part of the class system. This detachment had its share of advantages and disadvantages. Freedom was the main benefit since the system was very limiting and strict. On the other hand, excluded from the protection of the system. Outcastes (eta) included people whose livelihoods were associated with death-leather tanners, animal carcass disposers etc-and people who were banished by their villages. The former were shunned by the rest of the Japanese community because strong Buddhist influences gave high respect to all living things. The latter were alienated for obvious reasons and will be described in greater detail later.

In conclusion, it is evident that the government had a very militaristic way of structuring things. The power of the military as a means of intimidation and instilling fear among the people is a testament to this. Given the militaristic nature of the Edo period, criminal punishment was something ultimately utilized to “discourage” the people from committing any crimes or offenses, great or small. Their government structure gave power to the village-level administration with regards to dealing with majority of the crimes committed by individuals belonging to their corresponding areas of responsibility-leaving only especially serious crimes to be dealt with by the higher bakufu. Serious crimes included everything from theft to gambling and manslaughter. Aside from the crime committed, one’s class or position in society was also a determining factor with regards to how he was sanctioned. Though regardless of class, the mode of punishment in the Edo period was harsh more often than not.

Criminal Justice during the Edo Period

Capital punishment was something only the bakufu could impose on the gravest of offenders; death penalties were in the form of beheading. On a local level, kyuri or banishment was the most serious punishment the village governments could impose. The legal system in their time affirmed the fact that a single person’s wrongdoings could lead to the torment of his entire village. This substantiates the significance of banishment in a sense that the offender’s village mates-who are presumably directly uninvolved in the criminal act-are absolved from any vicarious liability they may have incurred. Through the consent of the offender’s parents, the village officials and a bakufu representative, the offender’s name was literally erased from the population rosters. The banished (mushuku) were often marked with tattoos; non-samurais were commonly subject to Tokoro-barai, which meant that he was to be banished to a certain place and samurais were usually assigned to the post of Kofu in the mountains west of Edo. Murahachibu (Ostracism) literally translates to “eight parts out of ten”. This pertained to the disqualification of an offender from receiving any assistance from his community in eight of the ten traditional facets of community life. These eight parts include: births, coming of age ceremonies, weddings, sicknesses, memorial services, travel, floods, and building and repairs. The only two facets in which they were allowed assistance were help in case of a fire and in preparation for funeral. This loss of residence or homelessness would degrade the banished and his family to an outcaste (hinin) status in a process known as hinin teka. Unfortunately, this descent in status was not confined to the person or generation that first occasioned the original ostracism, but extended in perpetuity. Unofficial ostracism, on the other hand, occurred when the individual was “removed” from the village through a votation (irefuda) without sufficient evidence (or any evidence at all for that matter). In such cases, the individual is merely asked to leave the village, while still remaining in the population roster. Irefuda was the votation of the village people to identify a particular offender, which they believe is responsible for whatever recurring crime they may be experiencing. Honesty and participation was key in this activity to the extent that villagers would make oaths before the gods and drink holy water to keep their words pure and those who don’t vote are punished along with the “guilty” and his supporters. Another rather odd part of the Tokugawa law was the idea of rakushogisho, which means, “dropped oaths before gods”. Here, an anonymous paper with an accusation is dropped in front of the shrine and whoever picks this paper up first is obliged to implement it because this is seen as a sign from the gods themselves.

For a crime such as theft, men could be punished with banishment and additional physical mutilation (cutting off one’s nose and or ears) would arise depending on the severity of the theft. Women were forced to walk through the village naked, which was a punishment they deemed as even worse than physical mutilation. Mandatory “community service”(labor camps, gold mining, slavery), ostracism, distinct clothing, and the payment of festival expenses were other possible sanctions as well. One must note that the concealment of theft was a crime as severe as the theft itself-which means that the “victim” is treated the same way as the offender and is equally punished. Flagellation was another means of penalty for theft (and fighting). It was usually reserved for commoners of both sexes and knights and priests were exempted from it. This practice of stripping the offender to his underwear and striking his back and buttocks for, at most, 100 times, was eventually replaced by ear/nose cutting in the early Edo period.

Punishment for murder was dependent on the manner in which it was executed, one’s involvement in the aforementioned crime, and the status of the person murdered. Accomplices to murder, execution of contractual murder, and the murder of inferiors were punishable by banishment. Premeditated, self-enriching, delivering the initial “blow” (even if it is not the fatal blow) and the masterminding of murder on the other hand were punishable by the death penalty. Through the bakufu’s discretion, additional additions such as gibbeting (hanging), crucifixion (for murder of a parent/husband), confiscation of property, or one’s corpse being the sword practice dummy for a local samurai could be incorporated into one’s sentence.

Other variations of the death penalty include boiling, burning for those guilty of arson, decapitation, sawing, and cutting the accused in half. This was usually preceded by the parading of the accused around town, and then concluded with the public display of the severed head or body part/s. Torture was an accepted means of obtaining a confession, although a confession was a requisite for the death penalty and the central focus of a trial, it was not something that could be done on a whim (required approval of several levels of authority) and therefore, was hardly ever performed.

Even in punishment, one’s class is still taken into consideration; special distinction is especially given to samurais. The beheading of a samurai was called zanzai, whereas it is called shizai when done to a commoner. Seppuku, suicide by disembowelment, is also a “special option” reserved only for the warrior class. It is considered as a better alternative because if one performs seppuku, he dies with his honor intact.

The Legal and Judicial System

Japan’s modern legal and judicial systems trace their roots back to 1232 when the Kamakura shogunate (1185-1333) created uniform guidelines the Goseibai Shikimoku (Formulary of Adjudications) for its samurai, or warrior vassals. Drawn from the laws and procedures of such other older institutions as the imperial and provincial governments, private estates and religious orders, the bukeho (warrior house law) was not a legal code in the modern sense but, rather, a compilation of the most common and important court disputes settled by the shogunate. The Goseibai Shikimoku provided the foundation of Japan’s legal system for the next 400 years.

The legal system of Japan evolved when it was unified by the Tokugawa shogunate . Iyesu Tokugawa strengthened the centralization of militaristic and economic power on the shogunate’s hands, but also replaced the laws issued by regional warlords with standard codes. Two important laws were made during this time, the 13-article Buke Shohatto(Laws for Military Houses) and the Kinchu Narabi ni Kuge Shohatto (Laws Governing the Imperial Court and Nobility). The final contribution of the Tokugawa or Edo period was the 742 Kujikata Osadamegaki (Official Provisions). For the first time a set of rules was made for the commoners and lesser samurais and not for those in the elite class. This had two parts. One was the administrative procedures and civil rules composed of 81 articles. The second, which composed the bulk is on criminal laws and penalties which is made up of 103 articles. This was the first time that the commoners who were under the shogun had to answer to a codified set of laws.

Japanese Values behind the System

The Japanese valued social responsibility and obligation very much. This can be translated as giri. Giri implies that people should behave according to what society dictates of you. The Japanese see this as very important that is why anyone who deviates from the law or from the expectations of society is punished for it. There is also a strong sense of community seen in the valuing of human relations and empathy because even those that are not the criminals are subject to be punished if they do not report the offender. More people will get hurt as crimes increase especially in the villages where there is voting on who the culprit is. If you want it to stop, then community as a whole must stop because everyone is affected. Confessing immediately is best rather than getting tortured to admit the fault or whose fault it is. Ninjo which is they psychological factor refers to a person’s feelings and reactions which may or may not be in line with the giri. If one experiences conflict with these interests, one may suppress his feelings, close his eyes from all of these or worst case scenario, commit suicide. Samurais are known to do the last because of the common practice of seppuku. If a samurai does not reach the expectations society has for him he feels the need to kill himself for losing his honor. Here we see another important Japanese value, honor. The Japanese highly value this that some of the punishments just mainly strip away one’s honor and dignity. Women parading naked, being proclaimed a criminal and many more are just some of the ways that the old penal system has stripped away the honor of many individuals. Loyalty and obedience not only to one’s master, but society as a whole is also very important. Those who disobey may be executed or be tortured just for not following the law. Harmony and order is so important for them that they would do anything to maintain this.

Even today these values are still practised in society. Honor for the Japanese is just as important before as it is today. One example would be how students study so hard to get into a good university that failing leads to a lot of suicides in Japan. By not passing one has not only disgraced his name, but more importantly, disgraced his family. This is why they would prefer death, similar to how the samurais would think. Japanese highly value social obligation that your responsibility to the community is far greater than to a transcendent god. From the past, Japan has relied on social rather than supernatural sanctions and they have always emphasized the benefits of having a harmonious society. They are also very disciplined people today and there is more often than not, fear of authority. The hierarchies present before are still present now. There are still people who have a higher status than you such as your parents. Loyalty and obedience has always been emphasized before and just like now any disloyal act against your parents is frowned up by society. Here the strong influence of Confucianism is seen and by following one’s roles, order can finally be obtained. Although punishment today may not be as harsh before, the Japanese have kept these in their minds and have worked very hard to keep the order in their society which has made them one of the strongest and most influential countries today.

From past to present: The Yakuza

The militaristic nature of Edo period in Japan gave importance towards the use of physical might as well as more strict control over the people. The context during that time forced people to resort to more dire measures for survival and people were under pressure on a daily basis. Some people conformed to the harsh settings but others sought escape and lived defiantly, away from society. This strict way of living entailed the first beginnings of the formation of various groups that eventually led to a more famously known group in Japan: yakuza.

Currently, yakuza are more popularly known as an organized crime syndicate in Japan, similar to the Mafia. They are known to be an extremely large and influential group in Japanese politics as well as business; having direct or hidden control over several businesses and political figures. The yakuza are infamous for their ruthlessness and for being forceful in their dealings with people, Japanese or foreign. The pop culture depiction of yakuza members varies from tattooed hoodlums and thugs to the high class suit-and-tie figure.

They are infamous for their activities that range from political activities and assassinations to “protection rackets” and shady business dealings including drugs, weaponry, gambling, smuggling, etc. These income generating activities are generally called shinogi. Admirably, the yakuza are also famous for having a strong sense of honor and loyalty amongst themselves. They strictly follow a structure similar to that of a family, even referring to their superiors as oyabun or “father” and the followers as kobun or “child.” This structure allows the yakuza to have a systematic way of carrying out their work and helps in creating loyalty to the “family.”

The early origins of the Yakuza during the Edo-period can be traced back to the emergence of two groups. First we have the kabukimono (“crazy ones”) which include people that are peculiarly dressed, have odd hairstyles and have volatile, violent behavior. Kabukimono groups usually consist of unemployed samurais or ronins that have resorted to violence, banditry and other vigilante acts instead of enlisting in other jobs. Another name for the members of this group is the hatamato-yakko, which means “servants of the shogun,” referring more to their previous affiliation with the shogun than their more recent deviant nature. Their constant harassment of local towns forced the townsfolk to find protection of their own, as the daimyos were less concerned over the common town and townsfolk. This led to the rise of the other group so called machi-yakko, also came to be known as “servants of the town” or “local town heroes”. These machi-yakko comprised of local people who have banded together to repel the assaults of the invading bandits. The members of the machi-yakko were usually weaker than the kabukimono, seeing as they were usually untrained individuals. A remarkable aspect of both groups that is still associated with yakuza is the developed sense of family trust and loyalty among the members.

The more common notion of most people would be to identify yakuza gangsters to have come from the line of the kabukimono or hatamato-yakko. However, from the yakuza’s point of view, their claim is that they are descendants from the machi-yakko faction. We can note that the yakuza seem to have taken characteristics from both of these groups. However, it is unclear and erroneous to directly link the modern yakuza to any of the two groups.

A second, but not entirely exclusive explanation as to the formation of the yakuza is that the yakuza derive from the two classes of tekiya (peddlers) and bakuto (gamblers). Basically, the tekiya is a group comprised of small-time peddlers that banded together. Although in the Edo period, they were considered to be of low social standing, their organized mass activities eventually gained them influence on commercial dealings and administrative duties. Tekiya’s business activities were considered legal at the time and were eventually allowed by the Edo government for their oyabun (leaders) to have surnames and to carry swords, which was previously only available for samurais and nobles.

Bakuto, or gamblers, were considered lower than tekiya, primarily because gambling was frowned upon and considered illegal. Gambling houses were present in more or less deserted areas in town, or on the outskirts and were looked down upon. Bakuto also dealt in loan sharking businesses and held their own security force. The bakuto’s way of doing business is what is more commonly associated for the negative image of the yakuza today. In fact, the term yakuza is said to have originated from a card game. “Ya-ku-sa” or the most useless hand in the game, caught on as a term to refer to the bakuto, seen as derogatory to society. It is also from bakuto that the infamous yakuza tattoos originated from, as the members of this group usually had on their bodies. To the yakuza, tattoos were a symbol for toughness and most yakuza had majority of their bodies tattooed.

It is from the history of the tekiya as well as the bakuto groups that we can see how the structure of the yakuza began to form. Knowing the backgrounds of the tekiya, bakuto and kabukimono, we can see how the yakuza are also known to allow misfits and rejects of society into their organization. It is also from the four previously mentioned groups that we see the early stages of the kinds of transactions and dealings that the yakuza do. Basically, we can see how and why the yakuza are said to have origins from all of these different groups.

The yakuza evolved into a larger, more organized and structured group after the Meiji Restoration period, which ushered in a more formal political format as well as military might. The yakuza also made motions to modernize their organization but they still held on to their former activities: businesses and gambling rings. They expanded recruitment and began to take interest in and dealt in politics.

The yakuza were also vital during the American occupation years in Japan. During the occupation years, Japan was in a sunken economic state and the black market emerged as a more viable option for the people to survive. The yakuza, especially the tekiya group, took advantage of the black market. They proved to be an extreme difficulty for the Americans in controlling Japan. Eventually, another cluster of yakuza, called the gurentai emerged, who also dealt in the black market. The gurentai group is what is more closely associated to the organized and violent side of the yakuza (similar to the Italian Mob in America), portraying the more stereotypical gangster image. After the war, the yakuza continued its black market transactions and started to use more direct violence, which resulted in the group entitled boryokudan (violence gang).

Post-war Japan started improving economically and dependency on the black market declined. As such, the yakuza continued to adapt and were able to prosper. The yakuza began to grow in number, but the yakuza also began to fragment into regional sub-organizations. Much of the post-war regaining of strength for the yakuza are attributed to Yoshio Kodama, an extremely wise and powerful man who worked his way through industry and politics to empower the different yakuza groups. The many opportunities in the market also bred competition amongst the yakuza subgroups. The existence of different yakuza gangs led to gang wars and has troubled both the yakuza structure as a whole and the law enforcement. There was a spike in the number rate of boryokudan arrests, which consisted of a lot of physical violence against other groups. These subgroups are usually headed by a single family. An example is one of the most famous and powerful yakuza clans to have existed: the Yamaguchi-gumi. This particular group is said to have been able to dominate a good majority of its territories. One particular head of this clan was Kazuo Taoka, known to be one of the most, if not the most effective leader of this clan. During his period as the kumicho (family boss), he was able to empower the Yamaguchi-gumi clan into one of the most powerful clans in his time.

In the latter part of the 20th century, Japanese government has worked towards the stoppage of the violent and criminal acts performed by the yakuza. More specifically, they have even passed a law against the boryokudan; this law is called the Botaiho (passed in May 1991). Despite this, the yakuza are still at large in many other aspects and are usually conducting their work within the law. Their influence on business and politics is still significant but clandestine to most. Again, the modern day yakuza has evolved and has been able to adapt to the current context of the world today, and not just in Japan.

In the end, the yakuza has always had an influential role on the lives and culture of the Japanese, even if their actions were never stated explicitly in the history books. Their early existence began during the Edo period and throughout Japanese history, they have evolved into what they are today: a formidable force in everyday Japanese life.

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