Social status laws in Japan

Caste, class, and titles of nobility since 1868

By William Wetherall

First posted 1 October 2009
Last updated 25 February 2010

Legal standing Local affiliation | Family ties | Social caste | Occupational class | Sources and translations
Wives and concubines Degrees of relationsip in 1871 Shinritsu koryo | Kuroiwa 2008
Eta and hinin 1871 Eta and hinin integration (GCS Nos. 448 and 449)
Servants and entertainers 1872 Human traffic and servitude (GCS No. 295) | 1872 Freeing prostitutes like oxen and horses (MOJ No. 22)

Legal standing

While not all aspects of social status are prescribed by statute or customary law, the most essential attributes of an individual's place or standing in relation to others have usually been stipulated in written codes -- at least within historical times, meaning those are understood through written accounts.

Since the adaptation of Chinese writing to the recording of accounts about the past corresponds to the adaptation of Chinese legal codes to the description and administration of society in Japan, Japan's earliest historical accounts of legal standing are as old as its oldest chronicles and chronologies.

Here I will comment mostly on aspects of legal standing related to the legal changes that essentially redefine social status in the Meiji period.

For more details about early historical records and laws, including matters related to status, see "Historical sources" in the Reports from early records feature of the Nationalism section of this website.


Local affiliation

Local affiliation begins with what would today be called "nationality". However, "nationality" in Japan today -- equivalent in the past to "allegiance" to the sovereign figurehead of the Yamato court -- remains essentially, as in the past, an extention of affiliation with a region that is part of the sovereign dominion -- today the state rather than the court.

From the earliest surviving histories of Japan, it is clear that local affiliation began with allegiance to a local authority, and the question was then whether the local authority was an allege of the Yamato court. If not, then an individual was considered an alien. Aliens became "localized" as it were by changing their allegiance to the sovereign -- the equivalent of "naturalization" today.

Allegiance change was effected by settling an alien in a region of the sovereign's dominion. The alien became an allege of the sovereign upon enrollment in a household register in the locality where the alien settled.

The status laws described here, however, were concerned with, and only applied to, people who had the "standing of being Japanese" as early Meiji laws described those who were members of household registers affiliated with Japan.

For details about affiliation based on population registers in early Japan and through the Meiji period, see several related articles under the "Nationality Law" and "Naturalization" sections of the Nationality section of this website.


Family ties

One became affiliated with a household register in a village or other such entity either through birth or child adoption, or through marriage including husband adoption. Hence every individual entered a household register naturally or through an alliance of adoption or marriage between households.

The legal status one acquired through ties with a family -- as a child or spouse -- was also affected by gender and age. Male and older siblings generally ranked higher than female and younger siblings, and a husband ranked higher than a wife.

Under some circumstances, a married man could register a woman who was his "concubine" or "mistress" as a member of his household, in which case the "second wife" and her children ranked lower than the "primary wife" and her children.

Acquiring, losing, or otherwise changing a status related to household or family registration constituted a "status act" -- meaning that an action occurs involving a change of status. Today, too, the term "status act" (g•ªsˆ× mibun kōi) is used in Japanese law.

Status acts involving an alliance of adoption, marriage, or concubinage typically involved changes of household affiliation, hence movement from one register to another. Today, too, register migration is an essential effect of adoption or marriage. It is also an effect of acquiring a register through the filing of a notification of naturalization, or of losing a register through loss of nationality, as by renunciation.


Social caste

By "caste" in Japan I mean a status that, though possibly ascribed, is essentially inherited and inheritable. I use the term to many any such status, high or low, super or sub, in or out.

Entering the Meiji era, the principal four castes of the "good people" were those of samurai, farmer, crafsman, and merchant. Ranking above the "good people" were the "nobility" or aristocracy, a super caste of families of courtiers who served the Imperial Family, and the "Imperial Family" or royalty, the highest caste, which included families of imperial lineage.

Below the "good people" were the "base people" -- usually called "outcastes" in English -- including eta, hinin, and others treated differently, and sometimes shunned, because of their occupations, living conditions, or penal status.

A person's caste, while essentially inherited, could change through a status act or judgment. Marriages and adoptions between castes, though not encouraged and sometimes proscribed, were not impossible. Money or political influence could buy a wealthy or powerful merchant samurai status, and a samurai might turn to another vocation. And some "good people" could be declared "hinin" (meaning "non-human") for a period of time as punishment for breaking certain laws.

For more about caste before, during, and after the Meiji era, see the class, caste, outcaste entry in the Minorities Almanac on this website.


Occupational class

Class is usually related to economic privilege rather than ascribed status. It is also useful to differentiate classes among castes, or even transcaste classes, in terms of occupational prestige, or prestige within an occupation.

While the caste of the family into which one was born had a lot to do with determining one's occupation, caste as a legal ascription was caste, while occupation was occupation. Some occupations ranked higher, and commanded more respect, despite a person's caste. Moreover, within some of the lowest occupations were higher ranks that could bring one more prestige and influence than someone of a lower rank in a higher occupation.

A good example was that of a woman who worked in the pleasure quarters as an entertainer if not also a prostitute. Many if not most such women were trained in their occupations as young girls bonded into servitude by parents in need of money. The their family origins were thus likely to be very low, in addition to their occupational status. Yet those with the right combination of brains, determination, personality, talent, and beauty -- not necessarily but probably in this order -- were able to form lasting concubage alliances with some very powerful and respectable men -- to judge them by the standards of their day.

The Shinritsu kōryō (V—¥j—Ì) or "Outline of new codes" was promulgated by Great Council of State Proclamation No. 94 of Meiji 3-12-27 (16 February 1871) as temporary penal provisions for a variety of offenses until a proper penal code could be written. A number of provisions related to private matters involved degrees of relationship. The new codes, modeled after Chinese laws, regarded both a man's legal wife or "tsuma" (È sai) and legal concubine or "mekake" (¨ shō) as second-degree relatives.

The 1871 codes were amended and supplemented by Kaitei ritsurei (‰ü’è—¥—á) or "Amended codes", the result of Great Council of State Proclamation No. 206 of 13 June 1873. The 1871 and 1873 laws were superseded by Japan's first "penal code" by name (ŒY–@ Keihō) from 1 January 1882.

For more about concubinage and Japanese law, see my review of Barclay 2005 in the Bibliographies section of this website.

Debt-bondage laws, historically intended to regulate human trafficking, became conspicuous during the Meiji period, when concepts of personal freedom -- if not exactly personal choice -- began to gain currency and legal recognition. Still, vestiges of such laws -- which facilitated contracted servitude generally, not just related to the pleasure quarters -- continued to be in force until the Allied Occupation of Japan following World War II.

For more about the end of debt-bondage laws after World War II, see the Konketsuji website.


Sources and translations

The ordinances reported here are found in a number of collections of late-19th-century Japanese laws. The versions shown here are based on a collection readable online through the National Diet Library (see next). Other sources are as noted.

National Diet Library Meiji era database

Early Meiji ordinances can be found through the National Diet Library Dajokan database, which links to scans of texts in NDL's Recent era digital library, officially dubbed "Digital Library from the Meiji Era". See Meiji volumes of Horei zensho in the "Legal terminology" section of the "Glossaries" feature of this website for more information about HRZS and the NDL databases.


The transcriptions are based on, and reflect my reading of, Internet images of printed versions of the original. They are either entirely mine, or began as copied and pasted texts which I then vetted against the received printed versions and edited, corrected, and supplemented as required. Most, but not all, older characters are shown in their simplified form.

English translations

The structural translations are mine. As always when showing such translations, my purpose is to cut closer to the phrasal and metaphorical bone of the original text than do most received translations, partly in order to illuminate problems with the received translations.


Wives and concubines



Five degrees of relationship in 1871 Shinritsu koryo

As the Tokugawa government had signed extraterritoriality treaties with the United States and a number of other countries, the first order of business for the Meiji government was develop a body of laws that would gain it recognition as a legally competent state in the eyes of these countries.

The law that would be the most important and enduring in terms of nationalization and imperial expansion, and which remains Japan's most essential law today, was the Family Register Law of 1872, promulgated in 1871. However, the first major social control law was a 1871 penal code and 1873 supplement.

Drafting the sort of penal code befitting a state that the Euro-American powers would recognize as legally competent would take many years. The short-term solution was to adopt parts of China's codes and adapt them to Japan's needs, in the light of Tokugawa practices. The result was a penal code called "Shinritsu kōryō" (V—¥j—Ì) or "Outline of new codes" -- more literally "New-measures main-parts [neck of main rope of fishing net]".

The "New codes" were promulgated by Great Council of State Proclamation No. 94 of Meiji 3-12-27 (16 February 1871). These codes were supplemented by "Kaitei ritsurei" (‰ü’è—¥—á) or "Amended codes" -- more literally "Revised-determinations measures-rules" -- the result of Great Council of State Proclamation No. 206 of 13 June 1873.

The 1871 law and its 1873 supplement were replaced from 1882 by the first Penal code by name (ŒY–@ Keihō). Promulgated by Great Council of State Proclamation No. 36 of 17 July 1880, this original Meiji law came into effect from 1 January 1882.

The 1871 "New codes" and 1873 "Ammended codes" contained a dozen or so "Household and marriage measures" (ŒË¥—¥ ko-kon ritsu), a classification taken directly from the 7th-century Tang codes that inspired Japan's 8th- and 9th-century codes. The measures provided punishments for offenses regarding land and households.

Essential to definitions of offenses and punishments related to households, or families, was the degree of relationship between an offender and the offended. To facilitate such definitions, the 1871 code included a chart showing five degrees of relationships.

The "Five degrees of relationship chart" in the 1871 "New codes", which also applied to the 1873 "Amended codes", grouped "wife" (È sai, tsuma) and "concubine" (shō, mekake) together as second degree relatives (“ñe“™ nishintō).

Though "concubine" did not survive for long as a legal status in Meiji Japan, the practice among especially the aristocracy but also in some other families of a husband establishing a relationship with a concubine or two, whether for pleasure or producing heirs, continued for many decades (see review below of Kuroiwa 2008).

Similar relationship charts, though somewhat different, are essential today for understanding family law in Japan. The legal administration and control of people is still essentially faciliated through family registers which record particulars of birth, adoption, marriage, divorce, death, and other vital matters.

See The Interior: The legal cornerstone of the Empire of Japan in "The Empires of Japan" feature of this website for more details on Japan's penal codes, civil codes, and family registration laws past and present.

Japanese text

The following Japanese text is my transcription from an undated folio leaf edition, consisting of six chapter (Šª) bound in five volumes (û). The chart comes at the end of the introductory or "head chapter" (ŽñŠª), which constitutes the whole of the first volume. The chart appears on pages 30a-32b (3 leaves, 6 pages). Scans of this edition can be found through the National Diet Library's Meiji era database (see "Sources" above).

Five degrees of relationship in 1871 Shinritsu koryo
Wife and concubines share same status as second degree relatives

–@—ß‘S‘ (–¾Ž¡3”N‘æ944†)

Outline of new codes
Meiji 3-12-20 (9 February 1871)
Hōrei zensho (Meiji 3, No. 944)


Five degrees of relationship chart


1st degree


father and mother [Note 1]
adoptive father and mother [Note 2]
adopted children

Note 1   Recognizing biological father, and biological mother as father's principal wife.

Note 2   Non-biological parents.


2nd degree

”Œf•ƒŒÆ (ƒ’ / ƒaƒ’ƒo)
–Ã (ƒAƒjƒIƒgƒEƒgƒmƒR)

Grand fathers and mothers
biological mother [Note 1]
step mother [Note 2]
uncles and aunts [Note 3]
brothers and sisters
husband's father and mother
wife and concubines
nephews and nieces [Note 4]
wives of sons

Note 1   As woman, other than father's principal wife, and other than adoptive mother, to whom one was born out of wedlock, but who has been recognized by father.

Note 2   As father's principal wife who is not biological mother or adoptive mother.

Note 3   Parenthetic gloss gives reading of characters as "wo / dziwoba" -- i.e., "oji / oba" -- meaning "uncle / aunt" but possibly referring only to father's siblings.

Note 4   Parenthetic gloss translates "Children of older and younger brothers" hence apparently these are only fraternal nephews and nieces.

[ 3rd-5th degrees omitted ]


Kuroiwa on concubines

Kuroiwa Hisako, a non-fiction writer, has published an interesting account of "honorable daughters" of aristocracy of the Meiji period, who were trained from the time they were born to become the respectable wives of the wealthiest and most influential men -- if such marriages could be contrived.

Špì‘I‘ 441

Kuroiwa Hisako
Meiji no ojōsama
[Proper daughters of Meiji]
Tokyo: Kadokawa Gakugei Shuppan, 2008
270 pages, softcover (Kadokawa Sensho 441)

Chapter 4 is dedicated to "Continuance of the family and the 'concubine' problem" (‰Æ‚Ì‘¶‘±‚Ɓu¨v–â‘è, pages 88-106).

Kuroiwa writes that "[the Meiji law in which] the graph ¨ (shō) first appears, is in the 'Shinritsu k!ryō' of 1870 (Meiji 3)" (Kuroiwa 2008:93) -- though the late Meiji 3 lunar date on which this penal code was promulgated corresponds to early 1871. She then describes debates which took place in the Chamber of Elders and other venues, circa 1876, in which the expression "abolish concubines" (”p¨ haishō) was tossed around.

Kuroiwa then writes this (ibid.).

Following that [this], with the establishment of the Penal Code in 1880, the graph ¨ finally came to be deleted from household registers. However, though in law [they] were [no longer] officially approved (Œö”F), the existence of concubines, may be said to have been silently [tacitly] approved (–Ù”F) by society.

The Penal Code she refers to came into force from 1882. How this code resulted in the deletion of "concubines" from family registers is not at all clear.

Kuroiwa then segues back in time to the problem of sexual activities in the Yoshiwara pleasures quarters (—VŠs yūkaku), where "shōgi" (©‹W), receiving money from guests, sold their bodies. Whereas "geigi" (Œ|‹W) in Shinbashi and Akasaka sold "entertainment" (Œ| gei) and not their bodies -- at least in appearances -- though actually authorities and others, with the power of money, had sexual relations with the "entertainers" (Œ|‹W geigi). (Ibid. 84.)

Criticism -- mainly, Kuroiwa implies, from some foreigners -- stirred debate in the government and other circles, which led, she says, to the "Shōgi emancipation order" (©‹W‰ð•ú—ß Shōgi kaihō rei) of 1872. She points out that the order did not deny [disavow] prostitution (”„t baishun) itself, since shōgi, though emancipated, could, if they themselves desired, be granted a license, and continue to "engage in business" as usual. (Ibid. 95.)

Kuroiwa caps this part of her discussion of "concubines" by attributing the government's measures -- its clarification of monogamy by removing the graph ¨ from laws, and the issuance of the Shōgi emancipation order -- to its bending to political interests, out of concern for the eyes of foreigners, in relation to its desire to revise unequal treaties it had signed with the United States, the United Kingdom, and other such governments. Without such "outside pressure", she contends, it is untenable that the Meiji government would have possibly advanced such measures. (Kuroiwa 2008:96.)

This is pretty much orthodox Meiji social history.




Eta and hinin

Eta was a category of outcastes defined by law in Japan until 1871, when an emancipation edict abolished outcaste status. The eta caste was hereditary. Historically, eta are supposed to have been engaged in occupations that resulted in them becoming ritually polluted. Some slaughtered animals or did leatherwork. A few served as executioners. Yet others were ordinary farmers whose families had been stigmatized as eta in earlier generations.

Hinin was another outcaste status abolished by the 1871 edict. Hinin consisted mainly of itinerant craftsman and entertainers. A non-outcaste convicted of a certain crime, such as a merchant who survived a suicide pact he had entered into with a female employee who died in the attempt, would be sentenced to hihin status for a period of years, after which he would revert to his former status.


1871 Eta and hinin integration order (GCS Proclamations Nos. 448 and 449)

On 12 October 1871 (Meiji 4-8-28), the Great Council of State issued two proclamations (Daijōkan fukoku) which abolished eta, hinin, and other such statuses. These proclamations are variously referred to in literature today as ‰ð•ú—ß (Kaihōrei) or "Emancipation edict" or æˏ̔pŽ~—ß (Senshō haishi) or "Base appellation abolishment order".

Neither proclamation actually speaks of ‰ð•ú (kaihō) -- which means "unbind and release" hence "liberate" or "emancipate" -- although the term is contemporary and is used in other proclamations involving freeing people from a condition of actual or virtual captivity.

Together, the proclamations make the following general provisions.

1. Appellations like Eta and Hinin are abolished.

2. The statuses and occupations of Eta, Hinin, and the like will now be the same as those of commoners (heimin).

3. Eta, Hinin, and the like will enrolled in general population registers (ippan minseki), and their statuses and occupations will be treated like those of others in such registers.

Here are transcriptions and structural translations of both proclamations. The transcriptions are based on printed versions in HRZS, Volume 6, Meiji 4, page 337.

Proclamation No. 448 is the general proclamation, similar a basic law that everyone might read. Proclamation No. 449 expands in the provisions in No. 448 in the manner of what today would be called an enforcement law, which the officials responsible for carrying out the provisions of basic law would be more likely to read.

1871 GCS Proclamations Nos. 448 and 449
Abolishing the appellations of Eta, Hinin, and the like
and enrolling them in general registers the same as Heimin

–¾Ž¡Žl”N”ªŒŽ“ñ\”ª“ú (•z)

Great Council of State Proclamation No. 448
Promulgated Meiji 4-8-28 (12 October 1871)


Article abolishing the appellations of Eta, Hinin, and the like:

From now it shall be possible for both the statuses and occupations [of Eta, Hinin, and the like] to be the same as Heimin [Commoners].

–¾Ž¡Žl”N”ªŒŽ“ñ\”ª“ú (•z)

Great Council of State Proclamation No. 449
Promulgated Meiji 4-8-28 (12 October 1871)


Articles abolishing the appellations of Eta, Hinin, and the like:

[Eta, Hinin, and the like] shall be enrolled in general population [affiliation] registers.

It shall be possible to treat [their] statuses and occupations both entirely identically with [others in such registers]. Though [of course] [RESUME].


Servants and entertainers



1872 Human trafficking ban, terms of servitude limitations,
and prostitute emancipation order (GCS Proclamation No. 295)

The so-called Œ|©‹W‰ð•ú—ß (Geishōgi kaihō rei) or "Entertainer and prostitute emancipation order" is actually not a stand-alone ordinance but part of a larger proclamation that embraces bonded servitude generally. Not only are "entertainers" and "prostitutes" not exceptionalized in the law, but they are merely listed as a further example of a previosuly stipulated class of servant.

This ordinance, called Great Council of State Proclamation No. 295, was promulgated on Meiji 5-10-2, a lunar date which corresponds to 2 November 1872.

The fuller title of the proclamation, its provenance, provisions, and a structural translation, are as follows. The Japanese text is my transcription of a printed version in HRZS, Volume 7, Meiji 5, pages 200-201 (see "Sources" above).

1872 Great Council of State Proclamation No. 295
Banning human trafficking, limiting terms of servitude,
and freeing entertainers and prostitutes from debt bondage


Jinshin baibai o kin ji sho hōkōnin nengen o sadame geishōgi o kaihō shi kore ni tsuite no taishaku soshō wa toriagezu no ken

Matters concerning prohibiting human barter, determining year limits of all servants, emancipating entertainers and prostitutes, and not taking up debt-claims regarding these

‘¾­Š¯’B‘æ“ñ•S‹ã\ŒÜ† (–¾Ž¡ŒÜ”N\ŒŽ“ñ“ú)
Great Council of State Proclamation No. 295
(Meiji 5-10-2) [2 November 1872]

Abrogated by Civil Code Enforcement Law (–¯–@Ž{s–@), Law No. 11 of 21 June 1898

ˆê lgƒ’æ̔ƒ’vƒVIg–”ƒn”NŠúƒ’ŒÀƒŠ‘´ŽålƒmÝˆÓƒj”CƒZ‹sŽg’vƒVŒóƒnl—σj”wƒL—Lƒ}ƒVƒLŽ–ƒj•tŒÃ—ˆ§‹Öƒm™|œn”N‹G•òŒö“™ŽíXƒm–¾–Úƒ’ˆÈƒe•òŒöZ [sic ] ਒v‘´›‰æ̔ƒ“¯—lƒmŠ‹ÆƒjŽŠƒŠˆÈƒm [sic] ŠOƒmŽ–ƒj•tŽ©¡‰ÂਚŽ‹ÖŽ–

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ˆê •½íƒm•òŒölƒnˆêƒP”Nˆ¶ƒ^ƒ‹ƒwƒV–Þ•òŒöŽæ㔌óŽÒƒn暕¶‰Â‘Š‰üŽ–

ˆê ©‹WåY‹W“™”N‹G•òŒölˆêØ‰ð•ú‰Â“ž‰Eƒj•tƒeƒm‘ÝŽØ‘i×ã`ƒe•sŽæãŒóŽ–


ˆê lgƒ’æ̔ƒ’vƒVIg–”ƒn”NŠúƒ’ŒÀƒŠ‘´ŽålƒmÝˆÓƒj”CƒZ‹sŽg’vƒVŒóƒnl—σj”wƒL—Lƒ}ƒVƒLŽ–ƒj•tŒÃ—ˆ§‹Öƒm™|œn”N‹G•òŒö“™ŽíXƒm–¾–Úƒ’ˆÈƒe•òŒöZ [sic ] ਒v‘´›‰æ̔ƒ“¯—lƒmŠ‹ÆƒjŽŠƒŠˆÈƒm [sic] ŠOƒmŽ–ƒj•tŽ©¡‰ÂਚŽ‹ÖŽ–


[This proclamation] shall limit the end-of-life or year-period for which one buys or sells a person. As for the the cruel use [of such people] left to the wishes [whim] of their master, . . . shall from now be strictly prohibited.

Item: As for the case of doing apprentice-service for the purpose of learning and mastering the various skills of farming, industry, or commerce, [the period of service] shall be free but shall not exceed a full seven years.
     However, as for further extending the period [of service] through bilateral amicable discussion, [the parties] shall be free [to do so]. [ == Provided, however, that the parties shall be free to further extend the period of service through bilateral amicable discussion. ]

Item: As for ordinary servants [their term of service] shall be for one year. Though [of course] as for the service continuing, it shall be possible for a testimonial document [written agreement] [between the parties] to change [renew] [the period of service].

Item: Prostitutes and entertainers and the like, and year-term servants [servants who have completed their terms], shall completely be able to attain emancipation. [Courts] shall not take up any debt-claims regarding the [matter to the] right [above].

The articles determined in the notification [to the] right [above] must be mutually observed.

The essentials of the proclamation are summarized by the four clases of its title.

1. Prohibits the selling and buying of people's bodies (lgæ̔ƒƒ’‹ÖƒV jinshin baibai o kin ji)

This is the principal provision, within which the other three provisions are nested. This is sometimes misrepresented as a proscription of slavery or prostitution, but it is not quite either.

"Jinshin baibai" (lg”„”ƒ) is often translated "human trafficking". The prohibition appears to ban only transactions in which a child or adult is treated as a commodity. It does not explicitly outlaw contracts for labor servitude. Bartering services performed by people, including hard labor and sexual acts, would also remain legal, so long as those performing the services were willing parties to the transaction.

2. Determines [for] all servants limits of years [of service] (”•òŒöl”NŒÀƒ’’胁 sho hōkōnin nengen o sadame)

The purpose of this provision was apparently to limit the period that a person from one household, who entered the service of another household, typically as a result of some sort of agreement between the households, could be expected to serve the other household.

3. Releases and frees [liberates, emancipates] entertainers and prostitutes (åY©‹Wƒ’‰ð•úƒV geishōgi o kaihō shi)

"Geishōgi" (Œ|©‹W) refers to both Œ|‹W (geigi) and ©‹W (shōgi). Geigi are nominally singers, shamisenists, and dancers who performed before but also mingled with and served guests at banquets and on other occasions. Shōgi, who might also perform and serve, were also understood to be available for sexual pleasures. The latter often designated a licensed prostitute, but the former could be a euphemism for a prostitute.

Note that the provision stipulates ©‹WåY‹W (©‹WŒ|‹W) or "prostitutes and entertainers" -- which puts "prostitutes" first.

The provision appears to release such women from the conditions of bondage that were typically created when their parents consigned them to houses of entertainment as collateral for an amount of money given the parents in the form of a loan. The woman was held responsible for paying back the debt with service. Someone, including a patron, might be allowed to secure her freedom by paying the person who had claims to her servitude at least the balance of the debt.

4. Not taking up debt-claims regarding these [matters] (”Vƒj•tƒeƒm‘ÝŽØ‘i×ƒnŽæãƒPƒX kore ni tsuite no taishaku soshō wa toriagezu).

"Debt" (‘ÝŽØ kaishaku) reflects "loaning and borrowing" and "claims" (‘i× koshō) reflects "suing and appealing". In other words, creditors cannot legally pursue recovery of money still owed them should, say, a person who has been bonded to them for service not want to remain in their service.


The effects of this proclamation regarding human trafficking, in the form of dept bondage or peonage, were mostly cosmetic. Creditors resorted to other means, including contractural, of keeping women and others working off debts in their servitude. Those who ran off were likely to be hunted down and forced to return.

Contractural debt-servitude, whether related to general labor or prostitution, was not unequivocally and forcefully proscribed until after World War II.

Article 18 of 1947 Constitution

Article 18 of the 1947 Constitution provides that "No person shall be subject to any kind of slave-like restrictions. And, except for cases of punishment owing to [conviction for comitting] a crime, no one shall be made to perform excruciating service against their will" (‰½l‚àA‚¢‚©‚È‚é“z—ê“IS‘©‚àŽó‚¯‚È‚¢B–”A”ƍ߂Ɉö‚鏈”±‚̏ꍇ‚ðœ‚¢‚ẮA‚»‚̈ӂɔ½‚·‚é‹ê–ð‚É•ž‚³‚¹‚ç‚ê‚È‚¢B). The English version reads "No person shall be held in bondage of any kind. Involuntary servitude, except as punishment for crime, is prohibited."


1872 Freeing prostitutes like oxen and horse (MOJ Notice No. 22)

Seven days after the Great Council of State promulgated the above proclamation, the Ministry of Justice issued a notice related specifically to the debts of shōgi and geigi, called Ministry of Justice No. 22. The date of the notice is Meiji 5-10-9, which corresponds to 9 November 1872 on the solar calendar.

The notice, though about debts of "prostitutes" and "entertainers" and other matters related to human trafficking, is also dubbed "Freeing oxen and horses order" (‹”nØ‚è‚Ù‚Ç‚«—ß Gyūba kirihodoki rei) and "Notice on 'Freeing oxen and horses'" (u‹”nØ‚è‚Ù‚Ç‚«v‚Ì‚¨G‚ê "Gyūba kirihodoki" no o-fure) -- alluding to the manner in which it compares the treatment of prostitutes and entertainers to that of oxen and horses.

The notice does not, as my provocative title implies, equate prostitutes and entertainers with oxen and horses, but suggests that the beasts are sometimes treated better than the women.

The following Japanese text is my transcription of a printed version in HRZS, Volume 7, Meiji 5, pages 1337-1338 (see "Sources" above).

1872 Ministry of Justice Notice No. 22
Debts of prositutes and entertainers and other kinds of human traffic

Japanese text


Shōgi geigi ni kakawaru taishaku sonota [no] jinshin baibai ni rui suru shogyō no shobun

Disposition of debts concerning prostitutes and entertainers and other actions akin to human trafficking

Ži–@È‘æ“ñ\“ñ† (–¾Ž¡ŒÜ”N\ŒŽ‹ã“ú)
Ministry of Justice No. 22
(Meiji 5-10-9) [9 November 1872]


ˆê lgƒ’”„”ƒƒXƒ‹ƒnŒÃ—ˆƒm‹Ö§ƒmˆ”N‹G•òŒö“™ŽíXƒm–¼–Úƒ’ˆÈƒe‘´ŽÀ”„”ƒ“¯—lƒmŠ‹ÆƒjŽŠƒ‹ƒj•t©‹WŒ|‹W“™ŒÙ“ü [sic > l] ƒmŽ‘–{‹àƒnæًàƒgŠÅ˜ôƒXŒÌƒj‰EƒˆƒŠ‹êîƒ’¥ƒtƒ‹ŽÒƒnŽæâûƒmã‘´‹àƒm‘SŠzƒ’‰ÂŽæ—gŽ–

ˆê “¯ãƒm©‹WŒ|‹WƒnlgƒmŒ —˜ƒ’Ž¸ƒtŽÒƒjƒe‹”nƒjˆÙƒiƒ‰ƒXlƒˆƒŠ‹”nƒj•¨ƒm•Ô•Ùƒ’‹ƒ€ƒ‹ƒm—ƒiƒVŒÌƒj]—ˆ“¯ãƒm©‹WŒ|‹WƒwŽØƒXŠƒm‹à‹â•Àƒj”„Š|‘Ø‹à“™ƒnˆêØÂƒ‹ƒwƒJƒ‰ƒTƒ‹Ž–

ˆê lƒmŽq—ƒ’‹à’kãƒˆƒŠ—{—ƒm–¼–Úƒjˆ×ƒV©‹WŒ|‹WƒmŠ‹Æƒ’ˆ×ƒTƒVƒ€ƒ‹ŽÒƒn‘´ŽÀÛã‘¥ƒ`lg”„”ƒƒj•t]‘O¡Œã‰Â‹yŒµdƒmŠ’uŽ–


Regarding the circumstances that are to be in Council of State No. 295 of the 2nd day of this month, the items to the left [below] shall receive consideration [be observed].

ˆê lgƒ’”„”ƒƒXƒ‹ƒnŒÃ—ˆƒm‹Ö§ƒmˆ”N‹G•òŒö“™ŽíXƒm–¾–Úƒ’ˆÈƒe‘´ŽÀ”„”ƒ“¯—lƒmŠ‹ÆƒjŽŠƒ‹ƒj•t©‹WŒ|‹W“™ŒÙ“üƒmŽ‘–{‹àƒnæًàƒgŠÅ˜ôƒXŒÌƒj‰EƒˆƒŠ‹êîƒ’¥ƒtƒ‹ŽÒƒnŽæâûƒmã‘´‹àƒm‘SŠzƒ’‰ÂŽæ—gŽ–

Item: The selling and buying of humans [RESUME].

ˆê “¯ãƒm©‹WŒ|‹WƒnlgƒmŒ —˜ƒ’Ž¸ƒtŽÒƒjƒe‹”nƒjˆÙƒiƒ‰ƒXlƒˆƒŠ‹”nƒj•¨ƒm•Ô•Ùƒ’‹ƒ€ƒ‹ƒm—ƒiƒVŒÌƒj]—ˆ“¯ãƒm©‹WŒ|‹WƒwŽØƒXŠƒm‹à‹â•Àƒj”„Š|‘Ø‹à“™ƒnˆêØÂƒ‹ƒwƒJƒ‰ƒTƒ‹Ž–

Item: [RESUME].
     However, as for cases on or before the 2nd day of this month, there shall not be this limitation. [ == Provided, however, that this provision shall not apply to cases on or before the 2nd of this month. ]

ˆê lƒmŽq—ƒ’‹à’kãƒˆƒŠ—{—ƒm–¾–Úƒjˆ×ƒV©‹WŒ|‹WƒmŠ‹Æƒ’ˆ×ƒTƒVƒ€ƒ‹ŽÒƒn‘´ŽÀÛã‘¥ƒ`lg”„”ƒƒj•t]‘O¡Œã‰Â‹yŒµdƒmŠ’uŽ–

Item: Those who would effect the XXX adoption of a person's daughter through money discussion [loaning money in return for the woman's custody] and cause actions [work] of prostitutes or entertainers, shall [RESUME].