1872 Family Register Law

The birth of Japan's "law of the land"

By William Wetherall

First posted 1 April 2008
Last updated 28 July 2014

Meiji legal foundations   Family registers as boundaries of the nation The people | Nationals | Subjects
1871 GCS Proclamation (No. 170) Preamble | Article 1: Subjects at large | Article 32: Eta hinin etc.

Legal foundations of Meiji Japan

Law has been an important means of social organization and control in Japan for the better part of millennium and a half. Population registration has been the most effective way of shepherding local populations as part of the aggregate national population.

The first mission of the imperial order that replaced the Tokugawa Shogunate in 1868 was to nationalize the domains and their people into a nation. The second mission was to create a new system of laws with which the state could govern and protect the nation.

First the domains were replaced by prefectures. Then local polities were given a means of controlling their populations, for the sake of the nation as well as to facilitate their own governmental needs.

The Family Register Law of 1872 became the fundamental law of the new country. Fashioned on methods of population registration already in practice at the time, it gave localities the means of harnessing their inhabitants to the wagon of the new state.

Family registers also served to define the nation. If the prefectures delimited Japan's geographical territory, family registers marked the borders of its demographic territory.

Family registration is about families. Marriage and adoption are about families and therefore involve family registration. Hence Meiji laws concerning the marriage of Japanese with foreigners, and the adoption of foreigners by Japanese, rested on the foundations of family law and family registration practices.

For an overview how family law, administered through family registration, was used to resolve issues that arose when a Japanese wished to marry or adopt a foreigner, see 1873 intermarriage proclamation: Family law and "the standing of being Japanese.

For a look at later developments in the Family Register Law, and at the development of the Civil Code, which embodies the family laws that govern the Family Register Law and the Nationality Law, see the "Family Register Law" section of The Interior: The legal cornerstones of imperialism.


The people






1871 GCS Proclamation No. 170

Several proclamations were made during the early years of the Meiji period relating to social status, some concerning surveys, others about change. The first family registration law addressed the need to record data on people according to their status, and to compile and report local registration data.

Promulgated by Great Council of State Proclamation No. 170 of Meiji 4-4-4 (22 May 1871), the register law was enforced from Meiji 5-2-1 (9 March 1872).


Promulgated Meiji 4-4-4 (22 May 1871) by
Great Council of State Proclamation No. 170

Enforced from Meiji 5-2-1 (9 March 1872)


法令全書 [第6冊] 明治4年
コマ94-106 (頁114-138)
Hōrei zensho
[Complete book of laws and ordinances]
[Volume 6] Meiji 4
Frames 94-106 (pages 114-138)

This first full version of various earlier drafts includes thirty-three articles stipulating rules for registering households and tabulating demographic (census) information, followed by examples of forms and tables that were to be used by local authorities when implementing the provisions of the proclamation and reporting census information to prefectural governments.

Preamble to 1872 Family Register Law

The preamble to the 1872 Family Register Law is a remarkable statement. Japan's family registration system is often associated with social control. However, the preamble shows the importance given to domicile registration, both as a means of social control, and as a way to insure that subjects were able to benefit from the services of their government.

The Family Register Law continues to be, in many ways, the "law of land" -- upon which rest the principles of family law set down later in the Civil Code and reflected in the Nationality Law.

Here is my transcription and translation of the Japanese text, and my transcription of another (early) English version.

Preamble to 1871 Family Register Law
(Dajokan Proclamation 170)

Requiring local governments to register affiliated residents and
compile and report demographic statistics to national government

English translation, and notes and commentary, by William Wetherall, who also transcribed the Japanese text, based on the following source.

法令全書 [第6冊] 明治4年
コマ94-106 (頁114-138)
Hōrei zensho
[Complete book of laws and ordinances]
[Volume 6] Meiji 4
Frames 94-106 (pages 114-138)
Preamble: page 115

The received text is unpunctuated by either space or marks. I have added bracketed periods [。] after terminal conjugations. I have also bracketed the nominalizer "koto" as [コト] where it was abbreviated with a mark which looks like ┐.

戸數人員ヲ詳ニシテ猥リナラサラシムルハ政務ノ最モ先シ重スル所ナリ[。] 夫レ全國人民ノ保護ハ大政ノ本務ナル[コト] 素ヨリ云フヲ待タス[。] 然ルニ其保護スヘキ人民ヲ詳ニセス何ヲ以テ其保護スヘキ[コト] ヲ施スヲ得ンヤ[。] 是レ政府戸籍ヲ詳ニセサルヘカラサル儀ナリ[。] 又人民ノ各安康ヲ得テ其生ヲ遂ル所以ノモノハ政府保護ノ庇蔭ニヨラサルハナシ[。] [PARAGRAPH BREAK IN RECEIVED ENGLISH VERSION] 去レハ其籍ヲ逃レ其數ニ漏ルヽモノハ其保護ヲ受ケサル理ニテ自ラ國民ノ外タルニ近シ[。] 此レ人民戸籍ヲ納メサルヲ得サルノ儀ナリ[。] 中古以來各方民治趣ヲ異ニセシヨリ僅ニ東西ヲ隔ツレハ忽チ情態ヲ殊ニシ聊カ遠近アレハ志行ヲ同フセステキ隨テ戸籍ノ法モ終ニ錯雑ノ弊ヲ免レス[。] 或ハ此籍ヲ逃レ或ハ彼籍ヲ欺キ去就心ニ任セ往來規ニヨラス[。] 沿襲ノ習人々自ラ度外ニ附スルニ至ル[。] 故ニ今般全國總體ノ戸籍法ヲ定メラルヽヲ以テ普ク上下ノ通義ヲ辨ヘ宜シク粗略ノ[コト] ナカルヘシ[。]

戸數人員ヲ詳ニシテ猥リナラサラシムルハ政務ノ最モ先シ重スル所ナリ[。] Clarifying [ascertaining] the count of households and the number of people and not allowing [these figures] to be disorderly [corrupt] is [the] most prior and weighty [== first and most important] place [part, aspect] of government work. 夫レ全國人民ノ保護ハ大政ノ本務ナル[コト] 素ヨリ云フヲ待タス[。] That the protection of the people of the entire country is the primary work of the Great [Imperial] Government [of Japan] from the start does not wait to be said [== of course does not need to be said] [== Needless to say the primary work of the Government is to the protection of all the people in the country]. 然ルニ其保護スヘキ人民ヲ詳ニセス何ヲ以テ其保護スヘキ[コト] ヲ施スヲ得ンヤ[。] Whereas by not clarifying the people who [it = the government] is to do this protection, with what [how] can [it] not not perform the doing of this protection? [== If the government does not ascertain the people who it is to protect, how can it perform its work of protection?]

To be continued.

是レ政府戸籍ヲ詳ニセサルヘカラサル儀ナリ[。] 又人民ノ各安康ヲ得テ其生ヲ遂ル所以ノモノハ政府保護ノ庇蔭ニヨラサルハナシ[。] [PARAGRAPH BREAK IN RECEIVED ENGLISH VERSION] 去レハ其籍ヲ逃レ其數ニ漏ルヽモノハ其保護ヲ受ケサル理ニテ自ラ國民ノ外タルニ近シ[。] 此レ人民戸籍ヲ納メサルヲ得サルノ儀ナリ[。] 中古以來各方民治趣ヲ異ニセシヨリ僅ニ東西ヲ隔ツレハ忽チ情態ヲ殊ニシ聊カ遠近アレハ志行ヲ同フセステキ隨テ戸籍ノ法モ終ニ錯雑ノ弊ヲ免レス[。] 或ハ此籍ヲ逃レ或ハ彼籍ヲ欺キ去就心ニ任セ往來規ニヨラス[。] 沿襲ノ習人々自ラ度外ニ附スルニ至ル[。] 故ニ今般全國總體ノ戸籍法ヲ定メラルヽヲ以テ普ク上下ノ通義ヲ辨ヘ宜シク粗略ノ[コト] ナカルヘシ[。]

Received English version

It is the utmost importance in the administration affairs of a country to keep accurate account of the number of its families and individuals, for, unless this number is accurately known, the state can hardly attend to its primary duty of extending protection to its subjects. The subjects will also, on their part, enjoy peace and prosperity and can pursue their business unmolested only when they are under the protection of their government, so that should it ever happen that their domicile is absent from the official record, owing either to their own negligence or evasion or from an oversight on the part of the government officials, those people will be practically non-existent in the eyes of the government and will therefore be excluded from the enjoyment of the protection universally extended by the government to its people.

Lack of uniformity in the local administration from about the time of the Middle Ages has, among other irregularities for which it is accountable, reduced the business of keeping personal register to a state of disorder; people were allowed to remove their abodes without giving notice to the authorities, and even to evade with impunity the duty of registering themselves in the census record. Accustomed for ages to these irregular practices, people are prone to regard the duty of registration with perfect indifference. It was in view of this circumstance that the rules of keeping census records throughout the country have now been provided, and that the local authorities and the people are hereby enjoined to duly regard the points herein set forth and to carefully attend to them.

Commentary on received version

Readers of both Japanese and English will observe that the received version, published over a century ago, may reflect the spirit of the Japanese version -- but also manifests the common practice then (and not entirely unseen today) to inflate and embellish lean, lucid, well constructed Japanese phrases -- in the interest of placating a god shelf laden with verbose and even pompous English deities. Note that none of the keywords or phrases in the original text are accurately reflected in the English version.

The received version was transcribed from the following source.

The Department of Agriculture and Commerce, Japan
[農商務省御編纂 Nōshōmushō go-hensan]
Japan in the Beginning of the 20th Century
Tokyo: Tokyo-Shoin 東京書院, 1904
viii, 828 pages, plus 14 pages of ads in back
Printed at the "Japan Times" Office [ジャパン、タイムス社]
Preamble: pages 48-49

Japan in the Beginning of the 20th Century is actually a very interesting and important publication. Its chapter on Population (pages 47-70) begins with rather detailed "History Relating to Census Returns" (pages 47-49).

The census overview gives special attention to the preamble of "Notification No. 170 issued in April of 1871 by the then Dajokan, now corresponding to the Cabinet, by which notification thirty three rules were provided for making census returns" (page 48).

The chapter also includes year-by-year population figures for 1872-1899 (pages 50-51), and breakdowns by social classes (peers, shizoku, heimin) for 1879, 1882, 1887, 1892, 1897, and 1898 (pages 57-58), and many other statistics on Meiji demographics not readily available in a single volume elsewhere, in either Japanese or English.

Notes and commentary

zenkoku jinmin no hogo
protection of the people of the entire country
The writers of the preamble of Japan's first population registration law understood that the primary rationale for the existence of any state is the protection of its people. A state incapable of protecting its people is practically by definition not a state. A state that delegates its foreign affairs and defense to another state becomes a dependency of the other state, and ceases to be a state in its own right. Here, of course, we are talking about "protection" in the form of administration of governmental policies related to the social organization and lives of the people, as well as policies related to the rights and duties of subjecthood.

people, person
The term "jinmin" was not widely used in later Japanese laws to refer to the people of Japan either collectively or individually. Later it was used -- and today it continues to be used -- mainly in treaties between Japan and and another country, in which reference is made to "the people" or "a person" of Japan or the other country. In other words, it came to be used as a "generic" term in "international" contexts in which it was necessary to conflate terms in domestic laws like "subject" (臣民 shinmin) and "national" (国民 kokumin) or "citizen" (公民 kōmin, 市民 shimin). In the 1876 Kanghwa treaty between Japan and Chosen, the official Japanese and Chinese versions speak of "a person of the country of Chosen" (朝鮮國人民 Chōsen-koku jinmin) and "a person of the country of Japan" (日本國人民 Nippon-koku jinmin), whereas the unofficial English version has respectively "a subject of Chosen" and "a Japanese subject". See 1876 Kanghwa treaty between Japan and Chosen for the texts of the treaty and commentary.

Literally a "person" or "affiliate" of a country. This would become the most general reference in Japanese in domestic laws, when referring to them as affiliates of the state as opposed to "loyal people" or "subjects" (臣民 shinmin) of the emperor. And "national" would become the primary term for the "people" of Japan after 1945, when "shinmin" -- the term used in the 1890 Constitution -- was replaced by "kokumin" in the 1947 Constitution.

jinmin koseki
household registers of the people
Structurally, this term compares with "minseki" (民籍), or population registers. The Sinific term "minseki" was used to describe population registers in the Empire of Korea, and then in Chōsen as Korea was called from 1910 when it became part of Japan. The registers were essentially household registers, or family registers, of the "people" affiliated with Korea and then Chōsen. See Affiliation and status in Korea: 1909 Population Register Law and enforcement regulations for the text and translations of this Population Register Law, the purpose of which was similar to that of the 1872 and later versions of the prefectural Family Register Law.


Article 1 of 1872 Family Register Law

Subjects at large



Article 32 of 1872 Family Register Law

Eta hinin etc.