Crime and Punishment a la Medieval Japan

Samurai being arrested
Halt! You are under arrest.
Historical mystery novels serve as a reminder that the good old days weren’t always that good. Especially for the folks accused or convicted of crimes. My Sano Ichiro samurai mystery series is set in 17th – 18th century Japan, occurring later in Japan’s 700-year “medieval” era. As I research and write my books, I constantly marvel at how harsh the justice system was, and how different from our legal system in the United States.

The United States is a democracy, while medieval Japan was a police state ruled by the shogun. That accounts for many of the differences in law and order, crime and punishment. In medieval Japan, there was not even a pretense of equal justice for all. Civil rights didn’t exist. That makes it easy for me as an author. If Sano wants to torture a suspect he’s interrogating (FYI, he never actually does), the suspect can’t file a complaint and Sano won’t get in trouble. He also never needs a search warrant. There was no such thing as lawyers, jury trials, or “innocent until proven guilty.” A magistrate was judge and jury. If you were arrested for a crime, you would almost certainly be convicted. Incarceration in jail was usually brief, a mere waiting period before a trial soon followed by punishment.

Portrait of  Samurai Warrior in Medieval Japan
Portrait of Samurai Warrior in Medieval Japan
The samurai, who were the ruling class, enjoyed many privileges. They could kill a peasant to test a new sword and walk away. (Unless they killed too many peasants, which was considered a disgraceful atrocity for which they might be reprimanded.) If they committed a serious crime, such as the murder of somebody important, they were put under house arrest instead of thrown in a hellish prison with the commoners. If convicted of a capital crime, they were allowed to commit seppuku instead of being decapitated at a public execution, although I think that was a dubious favor. How to commit seppuku: Stab yourself in the gut with your sword.  Cut a zigzag pattern through your innards. Then your assistant lops off your head, to limit your pain and suffering. I’d rather not!

Vintage photo of Samurai committing seppuku
Nothing ruins a white shirt like seppuku.

I’d also rather not have my severed head stuck on a post for the birds to peck at and the citizens to ridicule. This was a custom.

I’m always fascinated by the difference in what was considered a crime in medieval Japan versus the United States. Murder was a crime in both societies. Also treason.  Those were capital offenses, the most serious. But treason was more broadly defined in medieval Japan. Criticizing or insulting the shogun would get you the death penalty as surely as plotting to overthrow or assassinate him would. By the way, there was no such thing as freedom of speech. Also, no religious freedom. Christianity was outlawed because of its association with foreigners and imperialism. To persuade Christians to renounce their faith and reveal the names of fellow Christians, government persecutors hung them upside down in pits and forced the women to crawl naked through the streets and then threw them into tubs full of snakes that entered their orifices. Forget bans on cruel and unusual punishment. Penalties for other crimes were harsh, too. Arsonists were burned at the stake. Women convicted of theft or other petty crimes were sentenced to work as prostitutes. The double standard was alive and well. Men got away with adultery, whereas cheating wives had their heads shaved and their husbands were granted automatic divorces. Rape wasn’t considered a crime. Neither were incest or child abuse, molestation, or prostitution.

Christian being tortured in Medieval Japan as punishment for their fatih
Illustration of Christians being tortured in Medieval Japan

This was not a cozy world.

It is great territory for crime fiction.

As an author, I revel in the differences between Japan then and the United States now. I can escape from the police and court procedures we’ve seen a million times in Law and Order episodes. (And no one in medieval Japan ever talks on a cell phone or reads e-mail.) As a reader, I like going to new places where society operates along different lines, events aren’t always predictable, and justice wears an alien face. But although many things are different in medieval Japan, some things remain constant across time and cultures.

There, as well as here, crime doesn’t pay if you get caught.

Images courtesy of Ferdyonfilms, Okinawa Soba, and AllPosters.com


Laura Joh Rowland is the best-selling author of the mystery series set in 17th century Japan that features samurai detective Sano Ichiro. Her fourteenth and latest book in the series is The Cloud Pavilion. Her next, to be released in September 2011 by St. Martin’s Press is The Ronin’s Mistress.

Comments

  1. Terrie Farley Moran

    I’ve read a couple of your Sano Ichiro books and this post reminds me that you effortlessly place the reader in an era where the rules of the game are very different.

    • Lauren McCormack

      bruhhhhhh, shut up

      • pursey

        ching chong chang don’t burry me asain brudors

  2. Briana

    I was researching some feudal Japanese criminal punishments for a project, and imagine my delight when I found this article and who wrote it! Ms. Rowland, I’ve enjoyed your Sano Ichiro mystery series since high school. As a history enthusiast with a particular focus in the Warring States and Edo periods of Japan, your novels are a particular delight! You craft characters believable in context of the time period and beliefs they grew up in, which is a very tricky thing few authors pull off.

    Just wanted to let you know on the off chance you see comments on this article, that I love your series and appreciate the care and research you put into them.

  3. Phil Mckrackin

    don’t wanna get me cut in half dog

  4. Ashleigh

    This website is not accurate what so ever, samurais did not kill themselves by seppuku in white gowns… no they wore their samurai uniform without the amour, this way they would die in a honorable uniform. :/

    • Rebecca

      Well if you know everything, why are you researching the subject at hand.

  5. Fjdkdk

    There’s a bunch of spelling errors

  6. noah

    stfu faggot

  7. Perplexed Pete

    USA is Constitutional Republic, NOT a Democracy. The word, “Democracy” does not appear in the US Constitution or Declaration of Independence.

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