How 17th Century Edo Japan Kept Its Peace

Recently, archaeological researchers at Japan’s Kumamoto University made a startling discovery: A beautifully preserved 17th century document, detailing the rules and regulations that preserved the prosperity of the realm. This document is a rare glimpse into the dynamics of Feudal Japan.

The document in question. Image Credit: Professor Tsuguharu Inaba.

This document is a letter written by a man named Tadaoki Hosokawa, lord of the Hosokawa clan. He adressed this to four vassals of the Hosokawa, detailing what rules are to be enforced. These rules give us a very interesting glimpse into what life as a Japanese citizen would have been like back in the 17th century. Being helpfully dated by Tadaoki Hosokawa himself, this document can be confidently traced back to a specific date: January 8th, 1608 AD. Analyzing Japan’s past from a historical perspective, the Edo Period began only 5 years before the writing of this letter, in the year of 1603. The orders written in this manuscript were indicative of the large-scale changes that were occuring during the period.

Tadaoki was very conscious of making sure that no conflicts erupt within his realm. He wrote 13 articles of law, which were divided between laws that apply to the public and laws that apply to the military. They were to be followed without fail:

Section 1 (Public):

Article 1 – The Hosokawa workforce must follow the orders of the superintendent, Masazumi Honda (Aide to the Shogun) in disciplinary matters.

Article 2 – Fighting or otherwise breaking out into physical conflicts is strictly prohibited and punishable by death.

Article 3 – Watching a fight, even in another clan, is a punishable offense.

Article 4 – If a servant escapes to another household, the servant will be returned not by their own master, but by the police.

Article 5 – Lodging fees are to be paid in accordance to Gohatto Law (A Japanese economic policy in place during the Shogunate).

Section 2 (Military):

Article 6 – Soldiers have freedom to choose their own diet, but consumption of alcoholic beverages is strictly forbidden and punishable.

Article 7 – If a soldier must go to the town, they are required to state their intentions clearly to the magistrate, and obtain a permit for their intention.

Article 8 – Meetings of any kind with outside clans or Shogunates were strictly forbidden.

Articles 9 & 10 – The responsibility of the Shunpu Castle construction site is to be placed upon the 4 vassals mentioned in the document.

Article 11 – Hot baths are strictly forbidden if conducted in an outside clan.

Article 12 – Sumo wrestling and spectating of sumo wrestling matches is forbidden during periods of construction.

Article 13 – If traveling between settlements, workers and soldiers must not travel alone.

An Edo Period diorama of the police force that was employed by the Japanese during this era. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Just seven years before this document, the Hosokawa clan and the Mori clan were at war, cluminating in the Sekigahara. These rules, when taken into their broader historical context, are highly indicative of the political climate in Japan around the dawn of the Edo Period. It was a time of rebuilding, and a time of peacekeeping. The focus of the Hosokawa Clan according to this document seemed to be on prioritizing construction projects and building laws around the prioritization of rapid development. When Tadaoki Hosokawa wrote this letter, it’s safe to assume he envisioned a safer, more stable version of Japan.


  • Kumamoto University. “No Drinking! No Fighting! The Laws of Early Edo Japan to Keep the Peace.”, November 18, 2020.





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