Social status laws in Japan

Caste, class, and titles of nobility since 1868

By William Wetherall

First posted 1 October 2009
Last updated 5 January 2023

Legal standing Local affiliation Family ties Social caste Occupational class Sources and translations
Wives and mistresses Degrees of relationsip in 1871 Shinritsu kōryō Kuroiwa 2008
Privately-born children Status of child not born to a wife or mistress
Eta and hinin 1871 Eta and hinin integration (GCS Nos. 448 and 449)
Kazoku, shizoku, and sotsu 1872 Nobility and gentry migration to general registers (GCS No. 115)
Servants and entertainers 1872 Human traffic and servitude (GCS No. 295) 1872 Freeing prostitutes like oxen and horses (MOJ No. 22)

Legal standing

In Japan, not all aspects of social status are prescribed by statute or customary law. But in historical times, the most essential attributes of an individual's place or standing, in relation to others, have been stipulated in written codes.

Officials in early Japan, when adopting and adapting Chinese writing to the recording of accounts of the country's past, also adapted the language of Chinese legal codes to the description and administration of society in Japan. Consequently, Japan's earliest historical accounts of legal standing are as old as its oldest chronicles and chronologies.

By the Meiji period, Japanese status laws had undergone many changes, but personal registration, linked with the household where one lived, remained the foundation of belonging, in a nested hierarchy of belonging -- first to others in the household (a wife to her husband, a mistress to her master, a child to its father and/or mother, everyone in the register including live-in servants to the head of household -- then the household to the village, the village to the province, and the province to the country -- in this order.

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 today would 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 extension of affiliation with a region that is part of the sovereign dominion -- today the state rather than the imperial 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" 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 applied only 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 a 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" -- any action that involved 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 (mistress-keeping) 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 one's status in a register through loss of nationality, whether by voluntary renunciation or involuntary loss of nationality.


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 mistress (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

On this page, as elsewhere on this website, I endeavor to cite and transcribe primary or virtually primary sources. And all structural translations are mine.


The laws and regulations examined here are found in a number of collections of late-19th-century Japanese laws. The versions shown here are based mainly on an official comptemporary compendium of laws that can be read online and downloaded through National Diet Library and other websites (see next).

National Diet Library Digital Collections

Early Meiji proclamations of laws and regulations can be found through the Nihon hōrei sakujin (“ú–{–@—ߍõˆø) or "Japan law index" on the National Diet Library Dajōkan server ( Returns from searches using keywords or titles of laws show lists of relevant laws with particulars on the laws and links to scans of texts on NDL's "Digital Library" server (, which it calls "Digital Collections".

National Diet Library Digital Collection (‘—§‘‰ï}‘ŠÙƒfƒWƒ^ƒ‹ƒRƒŒƒNƒVƒ‡ƒ“)

Note that NDL's ‹ß‘ãƒfƒWƒ^ƒ‹ƒ‰ƒCƒuƒ‰ƒŠ[ (Kindai ["recent era"] Digital Library), officially dubbed "Digital Library from the Meiji Era", was integrated into Digital Collections on 22 July 2015. However, older links on Yosha Bunko to NDL's "" server will redirect to the "" server.

Hōrei zensho

The most important nearly contemporary Meiji source is an official multi-volume compendium of Meiji laws and orders called "Hōrei zensho" (–@—ß‘S‘), which I abbreviate HRZS. Most volumes are dedicated to a single year.

Publication particulars somewhat vary with the year but are generally similar.The "Meiji 5" volume particulars are as follows.

–@—ß‘S‘ (–¾Ž¡ŒÜ”N)
1•Å (•W‘莆)A1•Å (•ÒŽ[—á)A93•Å (–ÚŽŸ)A1394•Å (–{•¶)A1•Å (³Œë)

Naikaku Kanpō Kyoku
[ Cabinet official gazette bureau ]
Hōrei zensho (Meiji 5)
[ Complete book of laws and ordinances ]
Published 26 January 1889
About 1490 pages -- 1 (title)A1 (compilation conventions)A
93 (contents), 1394 (main text), 1 (errata)

See Meiji volumes of Hōrei zensho in the "Legal terminology" section of the "Glossaries" feature of this website for more information about HRZS and NDL's digital archives.


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 mistresses

Serial monogamy appears to be the dominate modal spousal relationship in human societies, but there are some examples of polygamy and a few examples of polyandry. In most nominally monogamous societies, however, married men, especially those with means, have been able to keep a mistress, whether legally or extralegally, publicly or privately, openly or secretly, accepted or tolerated. And in some societies, men generally more than women -- regardless of their marital status -- have had more opportunities to indulge in casual sexual relations with the opposite (or same) sex.

While such conditions still characterized the 18th century, the 19th century began to see challenges to the sexual permissions accorded men. By the 20th century, all kinds of legally or socially sanctioned polygamy -- multiple wives, and domestic or off-premise mistresses -- were being outlawed. Now, in the 20th century, sexual relationships outside the bonds of marriage, or in violation of expectations of exclusiveness and fidelity in a non-marital relationship, are more likely than in the past to destroy or end the marriage or relationship.

Any study of social and political history in Japan, down to the latter half of the 20th century, will reveal a number of mistresses in the backgrounds, and sometimes in the foregrounds, of the lives of public figures -- often with tacit public consent. Numerous emperors down to Taishō -- have been the sons of imperial consorts or concubines. And some prime ministers have been the sons of their father's mistress.

Emperor Meiji (Mutsuhito 1852-1912) had a wife and 5 concubines. His wife bore no children, but his concubines bore 15 children -- 5 princes and 10 princesses. Emperor Taishō (Yoshihito 1879-1926), whose mother was a concubine, had only a wife, who bore him 4 children, including Emperor Shōwa (Hirohito 1901-1989), who like his father had only a wife.

Emperor Meiji was the last monarch of Japan to have official concubines. The Members of the Imperial Family are subject to its own family law and enrollment in an exclusive Imperil Family register. While concubinage ended de facto by Emperor Taishō's time, it did not end de jure until 1924 -- nearly three decades after the registration of mistresses by commoners and peers -- as mistresses -- was no longer possible.

Phasing out "mekake" recognition

The 1871 Shinritsu kōryō, a penal code, gave a man's wife and mistress the same 2nd-degree status in its "5-degree skinship chart" (see below.

The 1880 Penal Code, enforced from 1882, had no articles concerning mistresses.

The 1898 Family Register Law discontinued the uses of "mekake" as a status in household registers.

The enrollment of a mistress in a household register was with a wife's acceptance -- which is not mean that she liked it. The family might not publicize the fact that one of the women living under the same room was a mistress, yet her status might be publicly known and acknowledged. Or she might be "sister" or a "cousin" or an "aunt".

A mistress might help care for the wife's children and vice versa. The wife might be infertile and the mistress taken to provide the family with children. Whatever her role and treatment in a family, her world was different than that of a casual or patronized lover.

Two cases

I have heard testimony from members of 2 families in which a woman who was the head of household's wife figured in his family affairs. In one case, the woman lived with the man's family and bore all his children, which his infertile wife helped raise. In the other case, the woman did not live with her lover, but he adopted her into his family and she shared its name while having a child with another man.


Five degrees of relationship in 1871 Shinritsu kōryō

Because 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 to 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 "Keihō" (ŒY–@), the first "Penal Code" by name. 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.

Relationship between offender and offended

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 "mistress" (shō, mekake) together as second degree relatives (“ñe“™ nishintō).

Though "mistress" (mekake ¨) 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 mistress 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).

See Aoki and Takasaki 1877 in the article on the "1872 Famly Register Law" in the "Nationality" section for an example of how the "5 degree kinship chart" in "Shinritsu kōryō was cited in an early Meiji Family Register Law handbook.

Five degrees of relationship in 1871 Shinritsu kōryō
Wife and mistress 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)

3rd-5th degree relatives omitted


1st degree relatives


2nd degree relatives


Father, mother (Note 1)
Adoptive father, mother (Note 2)
Adopted child

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

Grandfather, grandmother
Biological [legitimate] mother (Note 1)
Step [legitimate] mother (Note 2)
Uncle, aunt (Note 3)
Brother, sister
Husband's father, mother
Wife, mistress
Nephew, niece (Note 4)
Wife of son

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

Note 2   Non-biological parents.

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.

The 5 degree kinship chart makes room for practically everyone who has some sort of familial relationship with the head of household.

Note that a wife (tsuma È) and a mistress (mekake ¨) -- while probably not having equal social standing in a family (either could have more privileges than the other) -- are side by side as "2nd-degree kin" in the "5 degree kinship" reckoning.


Kuroiwa on mistresses

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 'mistress' 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 mistresses" (”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 mistresses, 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 "mistresses" from family registers is not yet clear to me.

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 from some foreigners, Kuroiwa implies -- 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 "mistresses" 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.

Concubinage and mistress keeping

To be continued.


Privately-born children

Status of child not born to a wife or mistress

1872 Great Council of State Proclamation No. 29
Former-soldier "sotsu" become either gentry or commoners

‘¾­Š¯’B‘æ“ñ\‹ã† (–¾Ž¡ŒÜ”N) (³ŒŽ“ñ\‹ã“ú) (•z)
Great Council of State Proclamation No. 29
(Meiji 5-1-29) [8 March 1872]

Provided that people former soldier-samurai of "sotsu" would become "shizoku" if of the 2nd or greater generation, or "heimin" if of the 1st generation.

Še•{ãpŠÑ›¢‘²ƒm內œn‘O”Ô‘ãƒm節•ø‘Ö“™ƒmâiƒ’ˆÈƒe‘´˜ä“™ƒwâR‚ƒ’‹‹äoƒVŽ©‘R¢PƒmŽpƒj‘Š¬‹Œó•ªƒnŽ©¡Žm‘°ƒj‰Â”í ‹Â•tŒóžŠ’²‘ƒ’ˆÈ‘ååUÈƒw‰ÂŽfo–Þ‰ÆâRƒm‹Vƒnœn‘Oƒm’ʉ‘ŠS“¾Ž–

Add 2nd-generation and above "sotsu" (former soldier or local samurai) to shizoku (gentry), and restore 1st-generation to heimin (commoners).

I have several times pointed out that the evolution of nationality-related status laws in Japan reflect the extension of domestic family law to family matters between people who belong to Japan and people who belong to other countries. If patrilineality determined status of a child born within a marriage between a man and woman who belonged to Japan, then the same principle would apply to the status of a child born between a Japanese and a foreigner. Ditto for changes in status brought about by alliances of marriage or adoption. The same adopted heir rules that applied to Japanese men who married into a Japanese woman's family would apply to a foreign man marrying into to a Japanese woman's family.

Status prior to 1873 marriage proclamation

Japanese were not legally permitted to enter into alliances of marriage or adoption with foreigners until Proclamation No. 103 of 1873. Even then, alliances had be made in accordance Japanese legal procedures, which required the approval and initiative of the head of the household that would be affected by a marriage or adoption.

Some foreign fathers, like Nicolas Phillipps tried but failed to gain recognition of marriages, and tried but failed to of a Japanese partythe man or woman who would with legal procedures recognized by JapanThe Great Council of State did not permit allianwould apply to the statuses of indivduals between


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 (GCS Proclamations Nos. 448 and 449)

On 12 October 1871 (Meiji 4-8-28), the Great Council of State issued two proclamations (Dajōkan fukoku), which abolished eta, hinin, and other such statuses. These proclamations are often collectively 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, however, speaks of ‰ð•ú (kaihō) -- which means "unbind and release" hence "liberate" or "emancipate" -- although the term was contemporary and was used in other proclamations involving freeing people from a condition of actual or virtual captivity.

Together, the proclamations make the following general provisions.

1. The appellations eta, hinin and such are abolished.

2. The statuses and occupations of eta, hinin and such will now be treated the same as those of commoners (heimin •½–¯ "ordinary people").

3. Eta, hinin and such will be enrolled in general peoples (population) registers (ippan minseki ˆê”Ê–¯Ð), and their statuses and occupations will be treated like those of others in such registers.

4. There had been a convention of exempting such people from land taxes and other such obligations, but the Treasury Ministry will examine how to revise this convention.

Here are transcriptions and structural translations of both proclamations. The transcriptions are based on printed versions in HRZS, Volume 6, Meiji 4, page 337 (see "Sources" above). The transcriptions, translations, and comments are mine.

1871 GCS Proclamations Nos. 448 and 449
Abolishing the appellations of eta, hinin and such
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 such:

From now it shall be possible for both the statuses and occupations [of eta, hinin and such] to be [treated] the same as [those of] commoners (heimin).

–¾Ž¡Žl”N”ªŒŽ“ñ\”ª“ú (•z)

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


Article abolishing the appellations of eta, hinin and such:

[Eta, hinin and such] shall be enrolled in general people's [affiliated population] registers (ippan minseki).

It shall be possible to treat both [their] statuses and occupations entirely the same [as others in such registers]. However, because there is the convention of exemption from land taxes et cetera [for those who have been regarded as eta, hinin and such], the Treasury Ministry will be asked to examine the prospects of how to revise [this convention].


Equality of status at the price of equal social obligations.

Proclamation No. 448 stipulated only that the said statuses were to be abolished.

Proclamation No. 449 stipulated that those whose said statuses had been abolished were to be enrolled in commoner registers, and their status and occupation in such registers were to be treated like those of others in such registers -- i.e., their status will be "commoner" and their occupation will be duly noted in the same manner as the occupation of any commoner.

However, Proclamation 449 went on to note that the Financy Ministry would be examining how to revise the convention whereby people who had been eta, hinin, and other statuses were exempt from land taxes and other such obligations. Treatment as commoners in matters of household registration was at the time under the People's Ministry (Minbushō –¯•”È). The Finance Ministry was in charge of taxes.

Household registers were needed in part to know who to tax. It made sense to some that registration and taxation be under the same authority. The leaders of the two ministries were political and bureaucratic rivals. At times the two ministries were merged. The bureaucratic turf war continued until the People's Ministry was dissolved into the Finance Ministry, and a new Interior Affairs Ministry was created to oversee all prefectural affairs other than those concerning financial and military matters. Registers ended up under the overall supervision of the "Register Department" in the "Police Bureau" of the Ministry of Interior Affairs.

Some popular and academic accounts of the above proclamations characterize them as "emancipation edicts" -- though they were neither "edicts" nor really about "emancipation". The proclamations merely abolished the appelations, faciliated the enrollment of those who had been subject to them as commoners, and initated the change in their tax status. Not only did this not relieve them of the social convention of treatment them as an underclass, but it stripped them of such privilages as came with such treatment.


Nobility, gentry, and soldiers

After the implementation of family registers, pursuant to the 1871 Family Register Law, everyone reached by local registrars were duly entered in a household register. Each register noted the "clan/lineage register" (zokuseki ‘°Ð) status of the head of the household -- the first listed in the register -- in the form of the head's "clan/lineage appellation (name)" (zokushō ‘°Ì) -- whether of noble, gentry, soldier, or commoner status.

The problem then arose as to how to formally facilitate changes in status. In the past, status changes were determined by the clans or families of the individuals who migrated from one clan or family to another, most commonly through marriage or adoption. Ordinary, marriages and adoptions took place within the same class or caste, but affected individuals migrated from one family to another, and acquired their new family's identity, beginning with the change of their family name.

In some cases, however, a samurai might give up his "buke" (warrior family) status and become a farmer (nōmin ”_–¯), craftsman (kōnin Hl), or merchant (shōnin ¤l). And at times, a farmer, craftsman, or merchant might join the ranks of another status, including samurai. Marriage and adoption were probably the most common avenues of status migration, even among influential farmers and merchants who aspired to be samurai retainers.

As the pre-Meiji class/caste system gave way to the new lineage status system, domain lords and a few other higher-ranking samurai became members of the new nobility (kazoku). Some lower ranking samurai were given stipends and the nominal status of gentry (shizoku). Soldier-class samurai became soldiers (sotsu), and everyone else -- farmers, craftsmen, and merchants -- became just "ordinary people" or "commoners" (heimin). As seen in the 1871 GCS proclamations concerning eta and hinin (above), these and other outcastes and subcastes were also mainstreamed into the ranks of commoners.

As before, though, there were situations in which an individual's status had to be changed, whether elevated or reduced. And so regulations were needed to facilitate status changes in household registers.

The day before the Family Register Law came into effect, a Grand Coucil of State proclamation provided that 2nd-generation or greater former-soldier "sotsu" would become "shizoku", while 1st-generation "sotsu" would become "heimin" -- thus abolishing the "sotsu" status.

And two months later, a proclamation provided that "kazoku" and "shizoku" who lost their status were to be enrolled as "heimin".


1872 folding of former-solder "sotsu" status into
gentry or commoner status (GCS Proclamation No. 29)

Great Council of State Proclamation No. 29, promulgated on Meiji 5-10-2, a lunar date which corresponds to 2 November 1872, abolished the former-soldier "sotsu" status.

The wording of the proclamation, and my structural translation, are as follows. The Japanese text is my transcription of a printed version in HRZS, Volume 7, Meiji 5, pages 52-53 (see "Sources" above).

1872 Great Council of State Proclamation No. 29
Former-soldier "sotsu" become either gentry or commoners

‘¾­Š¯’B‘æ“ñ\‹ã† (–¾Ž¡ŒÜ”N) (³ŒŽ“ñ\‹ã“ú) (•z)
Great Council of State Proclamation No. 29
(Meiji 5-1-29) [8 March 1872]

Provided that people former soldier-samurai of "sotsu" would become "shizoku" if of the 2nd or greater generation, or "heimin" if of the 1st generation.

Še•{ãpŠÑ›¢‘²ƒm內œn‘O”Ô‘ãƒm節•ø‘Ö“™ƒmâiƒ’ˆÈƒe‘´˜ä“™ƒwâR‚ƒ’‹‹äoƒVŽ©‘R¢PƒmŽpƒj‘Š¬‹Œó•ªƒnŽ©¡Žm‘°ƒj‰Â”í ‹Â•tŒóžŠ’²‘ƒ’ˆÈ‘ååUÈƒw‰ÂŽfo–Þ‰ÆâRƒm‹Vƒnœn‘Oƒm’ʉ‘ŠS“¾Ž–

Add 2nd-generation and above "sotsu" (former soldier or local samurai) to shizoku (gentry), and restore 1st-generation to heimin (commoners).


1872 Nobility and gentry who lose their status
become (GCS Proclamation No. 115)

Great Council of State Proclamation No. 115, promulgated on Meiji 5-10-2, a lunar date which corresponds to 2 November 1872, facilitated the migration of nobility and gentry to an ordinary person's register.

The wording of the proclamation, and my structural translation, are as follows. The Japanese text is my transcription of a printed version in HRZS, Volume 7, Meiji 5, page 87 (see "Sources" above).

1872 Great Council of State Proclamation No. 115
Those who forfeit noble or gentry status
can be enrolled in general registers

‘¾­Š¯’B‘æ•S\ŒÜ† (–¾Ž¡ŒÜ”NŽlŒŽ‹ã“ú)
Great Council of State Proclamation No. 115
(Meiji 5-4-9) [15 May 1872]

Provided that people of noble or gentry status, who gave up or otherwise lost their elevated status, could be enrolled in an ordinary people's register.




Servants and entertainers

Many people were subject to differential treatment on account of their occupations, including servants, laborers, and entertainers, especially those who were bonded to their employers by debts they passively incurred when their parents sold them into servitude. Certain kinds of bonded labor contracts would be legal in Japan until after the Pacific War. But efforts were made in the early Meiji period to end human trafficking of the kind that amounted to slavery.

While the term "emancipation" (kaihō ‰ð•ú) was not used in the 1871 GCS proclamations concerning eta and hinin (above), it was used in the following proclamation concerning the relief of servants and entertainers, among others, from debt bondage.


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–

ˆê ”_H¤ƒm”‹ÆKnƒmਃ’íŽq•òŒöਓžŒó‹VƒnŸŽèƒjŒó“¾‹¤”NŒÀ–žŽµ”Nƒj‰ßƒN‰ÂƒJƒ‰ƒTƒ‹Ž–

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–



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–