Jul 24, 2015

The Rope and the Sword: Medieval Japanese Justice, an article by Susan Spann

Justice Play

THE ROPE AND THE SWORD: Medieval Japanese Justice

article and photos by Susan Spann

Today, I’d like to take you on a whirlwind tour of Medieval Japanese justice—a topic close to my heart, and one I explore in the newest Shinobi Mystery, Flask of the Drunken Master.

Medieval Japanese justice actually followed two different, but parallel systems: one for commoners, and the other for the samurai nobles who sat at the top of the social ladder.

By the 16th century—the era when my Shinobi Mysteries take place—Japan had a highly developed system of courts and law enforcement.

Magistrates presided over the courts in every major city (and many towns), resolving disputes and conducting the trials of commoners accused of crimes. Although the magistrates themselves were members of the ruling samurai class, their jurisdiction extended mostly to commoners. By law, the samurai had the right to resolve their legal disputes without the magistrate’s intervention (although samurai could agree to submit their problems to magistrates for review).

Beneath the magistrates, a handful of yoriki (“assistant magistrates”) conducted investigations and acted as supervisors for the medieval Japanese version of “beat cops” (called dōshin) who patrolled the cities and arrested commoners accused of crimes. Dōshin were easy to recognize, because they carried a forked truncheon, called a jitte, in addition to a sword:

Like magistrates, yoriki and dōshin were always members of the samurai class. However, policemen usually came from low-ranked samurai families, whereas magistrates almost always belonged to powerful, influential clans.

Despite the fact that their social group controlled and composed the police force, samurai rarely used the justice system to resolve their own disputes. Samurai families generally resolved their minor issues through negotiation, and where that failed, they delivered their justice on the edge of a sword. For the most part, the official justice system existed to manage the lower classes.

Like the justice system itself, the punishments meted out to criminals often depended on the social class or rank of the convicted (or condemned).
As the highest-ranking social group, samurai had special privileges with regard to punishment. For serious crimes, samurai often had the right (and sometimes the obligation) to commit seppuku – a form of ritual suicide in which the offending samurai disemboweled himself with a dagger. During my recent trip to Japan, I visited Sengakuji, a temple in Tokyo where the famous “47 Ronin” are buried. These famous samurai, whose adventure is memorialized in the famous epic Chushingura, avenged their master and then committed seppuku en masse. Here’s a photograph of that temple:

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 didn’t sever the head completely; instead, his skillful stroke resulted in a head that hung from the owner’s body by only a narrow strip of skin. The thinner the strip, the more respect the kaishakukin—and the now-deceased samurai atoning for a crime--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 not only the convict, but his (or her) family as well. 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.

In an ironically “modern” twist, the Japanese justice system treated female criminals as equals of their male counterparts where punishment was concerned. Females went to the gallows alongside male criminals, and female samurai who committed crimes were often allowed the option of suicide (usually by poison but occasionally by seppuku).

Doshin-style truncheon
My first two Shinobi Mysteries, Claws of the Cat and Blade of the Samurai, involved medieval Japanese ideas of crime and punishment—ideas which the Japanese considered inseparable from the larger ideals of honor, respect, and social class—but the plots of those novels didn’t give me the chance to show a criminal on trial. Flask of the Drunken Master shifts the investigation to a crime against a commoner, which gave me an opportunity to explore the issues of justice—and punishment—from a significantly different point of view. The trial scene at the end of the book is one of my favorites in the entire series.

Sandaime Onoe Kikugoro no Oboshi Yuranosuke
Regardless of the criminal’s social status, major crimes like murder were considered unforgivable not only in their own right but also because they demonstrated disrespect for the Japanese 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 medieval Japanese culture--and one that my ninja detective, Hiro Hattori, understands all too well. 

Thanks to Susan Spann, author of the three Shinobi mysteries, Claws of the Cat, Blade of the Samurai, and Flask of the Drunken Master, for this guest post.

See my review of The Flask of the Drunken Master.

For other reviews/guest posts/giveaways of the Flask of the Drunken Master, visit the tour schedule at Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours.  


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