Law Prohibiting Cruelty to Animals (Ordinances of Animal Protection) (生類憐れみの令)

The Law Prohibiting Cruelty to Animals refers to a large number of proclamations and ordinances issued during the Genroku era in Edo Period.


The "Law prohibiting cruelty to animals" does not refer to a single statutory law with that name, but is a general term for a number of proclamations. It is thought that these laws were only aimed at "dogs", but in reality they also covered many living things such as cats, birds, and even fish, shellfish and insects. However, as the Shogun Tsunayoshi was born in the year of the Dog, one of the twelve animals of the Oriental zodiac, dogs were treated with special care (he himself was especially fond of dogs and it is said that he owned 100 of them).

This law has been recognised as a "seriously wrong law" and an "evil, autocratic law", but as the Edo Period subject to review, the rule of Tsunayoshi TOKUGAWA and this law are also under re-examination.

In 1687, Seii Taishogun, Tsunayoshi TOKUGAWA established a law to prohibit the taking of life.

As for why the law was promulgated, it is said to have been issued by Tsunayoshi TOKUGAWA on the recommendation of Ryuko, high Buddhist official favoured by Tsunayoshi's mother Keisho-in, dues to worries he had no successor. However, as Ryuko had still not arrived in Edo by the time the law was issued, the theory that denies his involvement is more convincing. There is another theory that it was issued for the prayer of longevity, but this theory also states the law was issued on Ryuko's recommendation therefore is hard to believe.

At first, it was a spiritual law simply carrying the message "refrain from taking lives", however the number of offenders did not decrease. Therefore, a registration system for Dogs was established, dogs were protected from cruel treatment by appointing inspectors, and from 1696 the shogunate offered rewards to people who informed on cruel treatment towards dogs. In this way, the law went beyond the spiritualism, the society was put under surveillance, and as the result, it is thought that dissatisfaction with the bad law among people in general was heightened against government.

The warrior class was also partially subject to punishment, although this was limited to the lower classes and in the highest ranks only the vassals were punished (however there was a case of a warrior being sentenced to death, see below.)
As for greater vassals and feudal lords, they were basically removed from the objects of punishment. Therefore, executives in the Shogunate seemed not to view this law as important.

There is also a tale that Mitsukuni TOKUGAWA (from one of the three privileged branches of the Tokugawa family) who hated the law sent Tsunayoshi 20 pedigree dog skins as an ironic symbol.

In the countryside, it seems that the law was not so strictly enforced. According to the diary of Shigeaki ASAHI, a feudal retainer of Owari domain, he was fond of fishing and in the short period until the law was abolished on Tsunayoshi's death, he broke the ban and went to fishing sites as many as 76 times. It is said that people had the freedom to at least go fishing, providing it was not done too openly. Moreover, in Nagasaki pigs and chickens had been commonly used in cooking for a while and it is clear the law was not pervasive. Since the prohibition on killing animals was not thorough enough, the ward head in Nagasaki issued a circular notice to preserve the law among ordinary people twice, in 1692 and 1694, but the notice made an exception of Chinese and Dutch residents who were allowed to eat chicken and pork.

Among cabinet officials who supported the law, Shigemasa KITAMI, a lord chamberlain, established doghouses in his own domain after Tsunayoshi built large-scale kennels in Nakano (Nakano ward), Yotsuya and Okubo (Shinjuku ward). Some people insist that lord chamberlains including Kitami issued ordinances distorting the spirit of the law.

It is said that when Ienobu TOKUGAWA (Tsunayoshi's nephew who became his adopted son) took the office of Shogun's assistant, he demanded the abolition of the law. Although Tsunayoshi had no heir, he refused demands to abolish the law and in his last moments he begged "At least keep the law for protection of cruelty to animals." However after Tsunayoshi's death in 1709, when Hakuseki ARAI took the office of Shogun Ienobu's assistant, he abolished this law before even holding a funeral ceremony for Tsunayoshi. It is said that at that time some residents of Edo kicked and mistreated dogs to make up for all the times they had been unable to up till then. From then on, among common people in Edo, the eating of meat including pork and wild boar rapidly spread and changed from 'medicine' for the purpose of nourishment to something to be enjoyed. In this period, specialist meat shops which remain even today appeared.

On the other hand, due to the influence of Buddhism there was still a tradition for disliking the consumption of animal flesh and it was only from the Meiji Period onwards that people began to eating meat on a wide scale.
In addition, the custom of eating dog meat almost became obsolete
While in Korea and in China, they usually eat dog meat, in Japan dog meat is not regarded as a common foodstuff.

It is said that the 'law prohibiting cruelty to animals' was intentionally deleted from the collection of laws compiled by the Shogunate, so as not to damage the Shogunate's authority.

Great Famine in Genroku Era and the Law Prohibiting Cruelty to Animals

It is said that the Great Famine (1695-1696) of the Genroku era was caused by cold-weather damage in the Tohokoku region which lead harvests to drop to 30% of the average, and in Tsugaru Domain over 50,000 people (one third of the domain's population) died. The following is recorded in 'Jimokushintsuuki' which describes the state fo the famine: "Walking along the road, I saw people who died of starvation left to rot, and in villages the number of empty house was increasing day by day. "Even if one's immediate family died, the remaining family had no strength to perform religious rites and dead bodies were left as they were. "In November of 1695 the snow was too heavy to gather shoots of plants and the number of casualties increased. "Even among the families remaining, family joint suicides and killing of children are constantly happening."

Moreover, it is said that the ordinances of animal protection added to the misery of these tragic scenes. This was because they were neither allowed to hunt animals or birds for food, nor kill pests. In addition, due to the persevering law, birds and animals were not afraid of humans and men wandering around due to famine were attacked by crows and kites, becoming the prey of stray dogs if they fell. The criticism that "Everything is the wrong way round, and there is neither a way nor law" stemmed from this state of affairs.

This famine affected the entire country and the increase in rice prices lead to destructive urban riots by farmers in Izushi Domain, Tajima Province. However even during the famine the Shogunate accommodated 80,000 wild dogs in the kennels in Nakano and gave them 3 go (0.18L) of polished rice, 50 moon (187g) of bean paste and 1 go of sardines daily. Citizens of Edo were furious about how well dogs were treated by the Shogunate.

The Argument for Reviewing the Law

However, there are calls to critically review the accepted view of these ordinances.

Kyoko YAMAMURO, who is in favour of a review, estimates "The aim of the ordinances was to wipe out violent tendencies of the Civil War Period which still remained in Tsunayoshi's time. However, as the contents of the law were surprising, people in Edo made fun of them, to which the Shogunate responded by issuing further detailed instructions in succession, entering a viscous circle which lead to future generations hearing of them as 'curious tales' which differed greatly from the reality. In addition, she also approximates that Ienobu, the 6th Shogun, and his assistant Hakuseki ARAI must have intended to make their policies look much better.

Furthermore, there is another theory that the ordinances aimed to promote the exposure of hidden Christians by discovering the slaughter of animals, as Christians of the time ate meat. Those who support this theory insist there is no clear evidence to support the idea the "The law prohibiting cruelty to animals was an evil law aimed at minor killings to inflict severe punishment on the offender."

According to investigations into punishment records of the time, although there are cases of severe punishment for lawbreakers among very small numbers of samurai, the punishment was not for violation of the law but for violation of the official notice, which can be interpreted as severe punishment being more linked with 'rebellion' and 'treason' than law-breaking. Some insist that there were very few cases of townspeople being severely punished for breaking the law against cruelty to animals. Moreover, there are few records regarding the law in the diary of Yoshiyasu YANAGISAWA, lord chamberlain of Tsunayoshi TOKUGAWA, suggesting that there is a high possibility that the law did not have a high importance attached to it. However, Tsunayoshi left a will "to keep the law for 100 years". Other people insist that if the law was not important, Tsunayoshi would not have left such a will and there was no need for the Confucian scholar Hakuseki ARAI to declare the abolition of the law.

Further, there is an argument to support the law on the basis the call for severe punishment was justified. Although it appears an evil law from the viewpoint of the offender, there was still a persevering custom from the Civil War Period of "Achieving promotion (monetary gain) by killing others", as well as a tendency to leave sick people, oxen and horses in fields and on mountains and of driving sick travellers out of inns. Therefore, if the aim of the law was to improve these bad customs and practices, it is not possible to make a hasty judgment whether the severe punishment was right or wrong. Additionally, there is a theory that the custom of common people keeping dogs started with the introduction of this law.

Also, as it had come to the stage where dogs given free reign in the gardens of feudal lords would run stray and were often found wandering around town, 40,000 dogs were given accommodation due to the law. Nonetheless there is a view that there were nearly 100,000 dogs in Edo at the time and if they become feral, order in Edo could not be maintained.

As for Tsunayoshi's reign itself, he governed well at first but towards the end his public estimation was low because of this law. However, there is a movement to revalue Tsunayoshi TOKUGAWA, started by Yoshihiko AMINO and others.


As mentioned above, the law covered a series of ordinances for animal protection in the following order:

On February 27th, 1687, the consumption of fish and birds (including chickens, turtles and shellfish) was prohibited.

On April 9th, 1687, deserters of sick horses were ordered to exile (10 villagers in Musashi Province).

On April 30th, 1687, a lower class government official was ordered to change his behaviour after throwing stones at doves.

On June 26th, 1687, Jintayu TATARA, a vassal of the AKITA family, was sentenced to death because Kihin AKITA (the heir of Suehisa AKITA, middle inner page, a direct retainer of Edo bakufu) shot a dart with a blowgun at a swallow.

On February 1st, 1688, the use of crane as a trade name or family crest was prohibited.

On May 29th, 1688, Hisataka DAIRUI, a direct retainer of the Shogunate, was punished for a violation of the ordinance.

On October 3rd, 1688, villagers in Niiha-mura Village, Musashi Province were punished for cutting trees on which birds built nests.

On February 27th, 1689, 14 indirect vassals and 25 farmers were exiled to Kozu island due to abandonment of sick horses.

On October 4th, 1689, Masanao SAKAI, a direct retainer of the Shogunate, was sentenced to house arrest, because dogs had a fight and were killed in front of a conference chamber.

On October 24th, 1691, it was prohibited to teach dogs, cats and mice to do tricks for shows.

On May 23th, 1691, large doghouses were constructed in Okubo and Yotsuya. Residents in those areas were forcibly ordered to move out of their homes.

On October, 16 th, 1695, 11 people including a police sergeant, were ordered to commit Seppuku (suicide by disembowelment) due to a violation of the law. Their children were exiled.

On October 29th, 1695, during the great famine of Genroku (1695 to 1696), doghouses in Nakano were completed. They had grounds of 160,000 Tsubo (1 Tsubo=3.3㎡). Food expenses for the dogs cost 98,000 Ryo per year. Residents were forcibly ordered to move out of their homes. More than 100,000 dogs were nurtured there. Denpachi AMANO and Chozaemon NAKABO were appointed to managers of doghouses, and a general administrator, administrators of dog houses and dog doctors were established, in addition, residents in Edo were ordered to make payment of 30 koku (91.74 cubic meters) of rice, 10 barrels of bean paste, 10 bags of dried fish and 56 faggots of firewood.

On August 6th, 1696, it was announced that a reward of 30 Ryo would be paid to anyone who informed on a dog killing.

On July 24th, 1700, the trade of live fish was prohibited.

Policies on the Protection of Living Things in History

In East Asia, several policies for the protection of living things had been established and there is a discussion which points out their influence on the law prohibiting cruelty to animals.

In 5th century China, the eating of meat was completely prohibited, because it involved taking lives of animals, based on the commandment to abstain from meat-eating in apocryphal scripture of Mahayana Buddhism. Moreover, in Northern Song Period in China, So KI issued the prohibition of meat-eating in 1102.

In addition, in Japan also, laws and ordinances to prohibit destruction of life appeared here and there after the latter half of 7th century.

Nihonshoki "Chronicles of Japan" (675 and 691)

Shoku Nihongi "Chronicles of Japan continued "(11 times during the period from 732 to 794)

Not only in Japan, but equally in the Korean Peninsula where the influence of Mahayana Buddhism was strong, a similar law was promulgated.

In Silla, prohibition of killing animals (in 529, in 711)

In Baekje, prohibition of killing animals in 599 (prohibiting hunting and hawk-breeding, ordering fishermen to burn up fishing nets).

In Goryeo, prohibition of slaughter of animals (in 968 and 998)

[Original Japanese]