Asia-Pacific Blog

Virtuous Governance: Popular Notions of Noblesse Oblige in Medieval Japan

Thomas Booth

The late thirteenth century was a period of acute vulnerability for the Kamakura shogunate. The preceding century was commonly known as ‘the century of disaster’, and for good reason. Three devastating famines – the Yowa famine (1180-1183), the Kangi famine (1229-1232) and the Shoga famine (1257-1260) – had wreaked havoc on the Japanese countryside, causing the deaths of tens of thousands.1 The archipelago was also beset by two separate invasions by the Mongol forces under Kublai Khan. The first in 1274 was relatively small scale, but the second in 1281 posed a more serious threat and was only repelled by the fortunate appearance of a typhoon off the west coast of Tsushima, celebrated as ‘divine winds’ (kamikaze 神風) by Japanese commentators, which destroyed the Mongol navy.2

However, perhaps the most pressing issue came from within the ranks of their own vassals (gokenin 御家人). In the latter half of the thirteenth century Japan experienced an economic revolution. Innovations in agricultural technology, such as ready access to iron tools, waterwheels, improved fertilisers, and new variants of flood and drought-resistant rice seed, helped transform farming from a speculative, uncertain occupation into a stable and above all profitable undertaking. Agriculturalists were increasingly able to branch out away from rice and other staple crops into the production of cash crops such as indigo. New highways and rural markets connected rural communities and provided new opportunities for trade. This was all facilitated by the importation of copper coins from Song China, which saw a shift in the payment of tribute and dues from rice to cash, opening the door to diversified commercial enterprise.3 The shogunate’s vassals, constrained by rice-based stipends provided by the shogunate, were the major losers of this newly commercialised, cash-based economy, and they increasingly directed their dissatisfaction towards the Kamakura shogunate.4

Faced with crisis, drastic action was necessary. In 1297, the Kamakura shogunate issued a nation-wide edict that gave vassals of the Kamakura shogunate the right to freely reclaim land that had previously been pawned, sold, or donated to a non-vassal. This edict was known as a tokusei edict (tokusei rei徳政令), literally translated as a ‘virtuous governance’ edict. From a modern perspective, the 1297 virtuous governance edict was an astonishing piece of legislation that seemingly went against legal and economic principles. How could the Kamakura shogunate effectively implement, enact, police, and adjudicate evenly upon such a far-reaching piece of legislation? What impact would the mass retrieval of previously sold and pawned land have on Japan’s newly market-oriented economy? How could the free reclamation of land be justified to the pawnbrokers and landlords who were to be forced to give up their land without repayment? For these reasons, scholarship on pre-modern Japan has traditionally interpreted the 1297 virtuous governance edict as an unmitigated disaster; a desperate act by a despotic regime enacted as a last-ditch attempt to win back the favour of its disaffected vassals.5

Figure 1 The shogunate’s 1297 virtuous governance edict. Tōji hyakugō monjo, box kyō, doc. 48/2.

What immediately stands out about the 1297 virtuous governance edict is the speed at which it was disseminated and adopted across Japan. The communication and enforcement of new legislation in the medieval period was invariably a piecemeal affair. There was always a time lag between the enactment of a law in Kamakura and its reception in west Japan, and the exact content of the law was also rarely known or understood. As such, when disputes arose it was the responsibility of each party to prove the existence of a law.6 However, in the case of the 1297 virtuous governance edict, within weeks of its promulgation it was being referenced in lawsuits and conveyance documents not only in Kamakura but also in Kyoto and even as far afield as Kyushu.7 First, allow us to consider travel times during the Kamakura period. As a wayfarer, travelling from Kamakura to Kyoto would take around two weeks. By horse, the average time was around one week, although a fast horse could perhaps cross the distance in three or four days.8 Second, we should think about the time taken to draw up land deeds. Handing over the deeds was the final stage in the transfer and would have been preceded by negotiations between buyer and seller. Even if we take a conservative estimate that negotiations started one month before the deeds were finalised, it means the residents of Kyoto and Kyushu were invoking the law almost as soon as it was promulgated.9 This is almost unheard of in the context of pre-modern Japanese law.

Perhaps even more surprising is the fact that, despite the law specifying that only lands belonging to vassals of the Kamakura shogunate were subject to reclamation, the 1297 tokusei edict was adopted by a far wider section of the population than was initially anticipated. From 1297 onwards farmers, merchants, and townspeople across the land invoked virtuous governance and launched lawsuits for the return of sold and pawned lands. The peasants of Shimokuze下久世, a privately managed estate in southern Kyoto, are a notable example. In 1297 the peasants reclaimed all sold, pawned, and donated land within the boundaries of the estate on the basis of the 1297 Kamakura virtuous governance edict. When a legal challenge was mounted against the peasants by one of the purchasers, the peasants cited from the section of the edict detailing ‘Pawning, Buying, and Selling Lands’ in support of their case:

‘The Kantō tokusei document and directive (enclosed) dated to the sixth day of third month 1297 and the twenty-second day of seventh month of the same year states: “land that has been sold and purchased by non-vassals and commoners, regardless of the duration of the right to possession, can be repossessed by the seller.”‘

However, the peasants’ citation is slightly different from the wording of the original edict. The original reads:

‘Land that has been purchased by non-vassals and commoners, regardless of the duration of the right to possession, can be repossessed by the seller.’10

The peasants changed the wording of the edict from lands purchased (baitoku 買得) to lands sold and purchased (baibai 売買). This subtle alteration radically broadened the potential application of the edict and allowed the peasants of the Shimokuze estate to invoke the 1297 tokusei edict to reclaim ownership over sold or pawned lands.11

Figure 2 A map of Shimokuze and neighbouring estates located along the Katsura river in Kyoto. Tōji hyakugō monjo, box tsu (katakana), doc. 341.

Was this misquotation of the virtuous governance edict merely a crime of opportunity by shrewd peasants looking to improve their lot? Or was it simply an honest mistake made by semi-literate farmers? Neither proposition is particularly convincing. Instead, this slight alteration to the wording of the edict represents the division between the reality of a virtuous governance edict as represented in the 1297 edict and popular expectations of what ‘virtuous governance’ would and should entail. For the peasants of Shimokuze, a virtuous governance edict would allow all people, irrespective of social standing or class, to reclaim lands that had been previously sold, pawned, or donated without cost. As a result, when the Kamakura virtuous governance edict arrived on the estate and was limited to the return of lands belonging to Kamakura vassals, it failed to meet popular expectations of what a virtuous governance should be. And so, the peasants reinterpreted the edict to fit into their own understandings of virtue; a ‘popular’ virtuous governance order in contrast to the virtuous governance edict of the shogunate’s design.


  1. William Wayne Farris, Japan’s Medieval Population: Famine, Fertility, and Warfare in a Transformative Age (University of Hawaii Press, 2006), 30-57. ↩︎
  2. Wm Theodore De Bary et al. Sources of Japanese Tradition: From Earliest Times to 1600 (Columbia University Press, 2002), 280-83; Thomas Conlan, In Little Need of Divine Intervention (Cornell University Press, 2001). ↩︎
  3. More detail on these socio-economic changes can be found in Farris, Japan’s Medieval Population, ‘Chapter 2: Change within Basic Continuity: Agriculture, Labor, Commerce, and Family Life, 1150-1280’; Ethan Segal, Coins, Trade, and the State (Cambridge MA: Harvard University Asia Center, 2011), ‘Chapter 2: Making Change: The Spread of Money and Markets.’ ↩︎
  4. Segal, Coins, Trade, and the State, 108-147. ↩︎
  5. Segal, Coins, Trade, and the State, 108-109. ↩︎
  6. Kasamatsu Hiroshi, Tokusei rei: Chūsei no hō to kanshū (Tokyo: Iwanami shoten, 1983), 7-10. ↩︎
  7. Tōji hyakugō monjo, box hi (katakana), doc. 22/3; Kamakura ibun doc. 19331; Kamakura ibun, doc. 19426. Discussion found in Kasamatsu Hiroshi, Tokusei rei: Chūsei no hō to kanshū (Tokyo: Iwanami shoten, 1983), 7-10. ↩︎
  8. For discussion on medieval travel, see: Shinjō Tsunezō, Kamakura jidai no kōtsū, as part of Nihon rekishi shisōsho (Tokyo: Iwanami kōbunkan (shinsōban), 1995), 274; Ebara Masaharu, Chūsei no tōkaidō o yuku: kyō kara kamakura e, tabiji no fūkei (Tokyo: Chūō kōronshinsha, 2008), 34-37. ↩︎
  9. This estimate of one month to draw up the deeds to a plot of land derives from Kasamatsu, Tokusei rei, 29. ↩︎
  10. Original edict: Tōji hyakugō monjo, box kyō, doc. 48/2. ↩︎
  11. Analysis originally in Kasamatsu, Tokusei rei, 14-22. Also in Yasuhiro Nishimura, ‘Moratorium in Japanese Law’ in Hosei Gakkai (Institute for Law and Politics) Kyushu University 83, no. 3 (15th December 2016): 639-58. ↩︎

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