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.
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!
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.
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.
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.