Medieval Japanese Society


There are many things to be learned about Japanese society and government from the documents which are said to be the “…two most important political innovations in ancient Japan”. These writings are entitled Chronicles of Japan and Taika Reform Edicts and are documents which were written in the 7th century by Japanese leaders seemingly for the purpose of setting about rules as to how society would be run.

The first of the two writings was a constitution but contained fairly informal laws drawn up by Prince Shotoku in 604 A.D. which primarily dealt with how the citizens of Japan would behave in order to ensure that harmony was prevelant throughout Japanese society. The second contains more detailed edicts, addressing primarily the way in which the government system would work and again the rules people would follow in Japanese society.

The two pieces of writing are different from one another and were written years apart but it is the similarities that the two documents share which allow conclusions to be drawn about society and government in medieval Japan. Based on these documents, it would seem the native ideas of Heaven, Earth, the Sun-Goddess and Harmony combined with the foreign Buddhist ideologies which initiated in China provided a platform for society and government in medieval Japan.

The seventeen article constitution created by Prince Shotoku contained laws which were prepared for the first time and seemed to deal mainly with how the people of Japan could live harmoniously with one another and their government. These ideas would seem to be native to Japanese society at the time and the foundation of these ideologies could be said to be derived from the idea of Heaven and Earth.

The constitution addressed the Prince as being equivalent to Heaven and the Vassal (landlord) as being equivalent to Earth and that the realization by the citizens of Japan that Heaven and Earth are superior to any one person would allow for harmony to exist throughout society. That the words “harmony is to be valued” are the first words contained within these chronicles is a testament to how important it was to the Prince that Japanese society was one in which individuals lived in harmony with one another and their surroundings.

It is also apparent that it was of great importance to the Emperor that society was governed by a few wise individuals who took office not because people needed to fill those roles but because it was for the good of society that Japan was run by not only the Emperor himself, but as well by individuals who demonstrated the ability to praise the good, reprimand the bad, and make decisions which would benefit the Japanese people as a whole, and not just one individual.

It was important that those in charge of public affairs acted in such a way which would benefit society as a whole, and that those individuals would never be a threat to Japanese government. These seventeen laws gave no specific instructions as to how individuals would be rewarded or punished for their actions and seemingly acted simply as an early guideline to a growing Japanese population as to how these individuals were to treat their superiors and one another on a daily basis and what these individuals’ priorities were to be. There would, however, be further laws developed to ensure the people of Japan continued to follow the principles of the higher powers.

The Taika Reform Edicts of the Emperor Kotoku (645 A.D.) is considered to be the other political innovation of major importance in medieval Japan. These edicts saw the creation of the Japanese Imperial system of government which got rid of the old idea of having clan leaders and introduced a single Emperor who had a sort of totalitarian authority and ruled by the Decree of Heaven.

Combined with the Decree of Heaven, an aspect of Japanese belief which was native to the country, the Emperor had the intention of incorporating the ideologies of foreign societies, those of China in particular, into the laws of Japanese society in the mid 7th century. We can use this document to understand that while Buddhism had been introduced to Japan about a century earlier by previous leaders, it was Emperor Kotoku in 645 A.D. who had truly established Buddhism as a major aspect of Japanese society.

Under Kotoku’s rule, ten individuals were appointed to be Chief Priests of temples to help keep Buddhist principles alive in a society which had struggled to fully understand these foreign ideologies. These individuals were to teach Buddhism to the people of Japan so that it could become a major part of Japanese society. The rest of the edicts deal with the restructuring of the Japanese government.

Whereas the Constitution brought about by Prince Shotoku appeared to be more suggested guidelines as to how the people of Japan could live in harmony with one another by obeying their superiors and doing what was best for society as a whole, the edicts of Emperor Kotoku seem to have a lot more to do with the shaping of a new form of government, a monarchy. It was to be known by every citizen of Japan that this new Imperial way was the only way and anyone who disobeyed the central government was to be killed. The new aspects of this government could again be linked to harmony, Heaven, and Earth in a variety of different ways.

Similar to the constitution drawn up by Prince Shotoku, the edicts of Emperor Kotoku seemed to be aimed at bringing society together as a whole. Whereas before there existed no strict government control of the Japanese citizens, which led to individuals lying, slaves running away, wives remarrying, men demanding others’ daughters in marriage, and even government leaders exercising their authority to take over large plots of land for their own personal profit, the edicts aimed to rid Japanese soceity of these bad social rules and government leaders would be used to ensure that would happen.

The new Imperial system saw the country of Japan divided into provinces with individual leaders for each of those areas so that both people and land could be accounted for, and steps could be taken to collect money from the Japanese people and then distribute it equally amongst the citizens in a communist sort of way. A final edict was issued to state that “the Empire was entrusted to the Sun-Goddess by her descendants, with the words ‘My children, in their capacity as Deities, shall rule it.”

With that, a Japanese monarchy was established which saw a government take stricter control of soceity than had been seen before in medieval Japan in order to ensure that both the native ideologies of Heaven, Earth and the Sun-Goddess, as well as the principles of Buddhism adopted from China, were practiced by all of the citizens of a growing Japan.

From these documents we find that governments in medieval Japan were developed and changed over time in such a way that the citizens could be controlled by a central governing body, which ruled on behalf of the Sun-Goddess, but that they would still be allowed the freedoms necessary to live happily and harmoniously with one another. The primary purpose of governments at this time seemed not to be to enforce strict controls upon the citizens of Japan, but to relay both native and foreign ideologies onto the Japanese people, so as to allow these individuals to follow these principles and be positive contributers to society as a whole.

While the structure of government in Japan became more complex over time, it seemed to be mainly to ensure all citizens were following the principles of the wise and doing what was best for the public good. Even today, Japanese society is said to be full of individuals who obey the law and put others before themselves, and it is evident from what are called the two most important political innovations of ancient Japan that putting the whole before the individual dates back to the ideologies which governments imposed upon the people of Japan during the medieval times.