Ritsuryo System (律令制)

The Ritsuryo system is the Japanese term for the system of centralized government seen mainly in ancient East Asia. It is also called Ritsuryotaisei or Ritsuryokokka.

The term Ritsuryo system refers to the system based on the Ritsuryo codes; for the Ritsuryo codes, see the section 'Ritsuryo,' and for features of the Ritsuryo codes, see the section 'Ritsuryo law.'

Basic Ideas

The Ritsuryo system was a system for embodying the idea known in Japanese as odo omin (or odo oshin) and meaning 'the sovereign's land, the sovereign's people,' where 'the land and the people are placed under the rule of the emperor,' which had been had been held as an ideal since ancient times in China. The concept of odo omin, together with the idea of ikkun banmin ('one lord, the whole nation'), where 'only one sovereign rules the country and the people are equal under the rule,' formed two sides of the same coin.

Under the Ritsuryo system, based on the ideas of odo omin and ikkun banmin, cultivated land was granted equally to the people (peasants) who, in return, had to provide taxes, labor, and military service. Furthermore, in an attempt to extend a more unified system of control over the populace, highly systematic codes, namely the Ritsuryo and Kyakushiki codes, were compiled; their promulgation created a very sophisticated bureaucratic organization whose basis lay in legal and ethical codes. This bureaucratic organization was a necessary tool for ruling the people based on the idea of odo omin.

Basic System

The Ritsuryo system specific to East Asia, although differing slightly with each period and dynasty, was generally comprised of the following four systems based on the ideas of odo omin and ikkun banmin, which became the basis of government.

System of equally allotting cultivated land
The equal-field system was carried out under the name of Juntianzhi in China and Handenshujuho (Handensei) in Japan. This system most closely reflected the concept of odo omin. The system was designed such that the sovereign would directly allot land to his people (peasants) without any intervention by powerful regional clans, the intermediate rulers between the sovereign and the people; in this, the system came very close to the Confucian ideal. In China, the system put emphasis on securing taxes rather than allotting land, whereas in Japan, the system emphasized land allotment.

Methodical tax system for taxing individuals
In China and Japan, the tax system was enforced under the name of Soyochosei (Zuyongdiaozhi in Chinese). The people were required to pay tax in exchange for receiving cultivated land. As the cultivated land was allotted for each peasants, taxes were imposed for each individual. This shows that the nations that followed the Ritsuryo codes completely ruled the people. Taxes were uniformly imposed on everyone by eliminating any chance of using discretion.

Military system of uniformly imposing military service on the people
The military system was enforced under the name of Fubingzhi in China and Gundan in Japan. The people were required to perform military service in exchange for receiving cultivated land. In fact, military service was not equally imposed on the people so that, for example, in Tang China, people in Jiangnan were exempted from almost all of their military services, and in Japan, only the people of the Kanto region were required to serve as frontier guards.

Local government system for keeping track of the people
The local government system known in China as Xianglizhi and in Japan as Ryoseikokugunrisei was adopted. To thoroughly rule the people, bureaucrats were deployed near the smallest administrative units. This system enabled the creation of the family register and yearly tax records, which were to be used as the original registers in allotting land, imposing taxes, and conscription. Conversely, the creation of the family register and the yearly tax records made it possible to enforce the three aforementioned systems.

In order to thoroughly enforce the four aforementioned systems, the nations with the Ritsuryo system needed highly refined Ritsuryo codes and an advanced systematic bureaucracy based on those codes.

Ritsuryo Codes
The Ritsuryo codes were organized as a legal system centered on 'ritsu,' a criminal code defining social standards, and 'ryo,' an administrative code defining the social system, with 'kyaku,' or amendments, for supplementing ritsu and ryo, and 'shiki' as provisions for enacting ritsu, ryo, and kyaku. The Ritsuryo codes were based on the concept of Legalism, which made the law the basis for ruling the country.

In order to realize the intentions and orders of the emperor reliably, a highly refined system was established, with orders carried out by the bureaucracy in accordance with a rigid hierarchy where each government office and official's duties and responsibilities were clearly defined. In each government office, officials were generally divided into four ranks according to the importance of their duties and responsibilities. This is called Shitokansei (Four Rank System). An imperial examination system called Kakyo (Keju in Chinese) for appointing officials based on their academic abilities was developed. In Japan, the examination system was adopted for low to mid-ranked officials, although not thoroughly carried out for all officials because of the exceptional rule called 'on-i,' whereby children of high ranking nobles were automatically promoted to government posts.

Other systems, including a transportation system called Ekidensei for conveying information between the capital and local regions without delay, were also adopted to form the Ritsuryo system.

The national political system described above is collectively called the Ritsuryo system. In Chinese history, the Ritsuryo system was most prominent during the Sui and Tang dynasties, whereas in the surrounding East Asian countries, the system was widely enforced from the latter half of the 7th century to the 9th century as it was introduced from China. Both in China and its East Asian neighbors, the Ritsuryo system as described above disappeared or became a dead letter after the 10th century, but even after that period, it continued as a form of law in China, Japan, and Vietnam.

Brief History

It is said that the Ritsuryo system can be traced back as far as the Qin and Western Han periods; but strictly speaking, it emerged and gradually developed in China during the Wei, Jin, Northern and Southern Dynasties. Following the end of the Eastern Han Dynasty, there was a long period of war, bringing Chinese society to the brink of collapse. In order to rebuild society, the Dynasties following the Wei Kingdom ruled based on the idea of odo omin.

Wei adopted the tuntian system, where farmland deserted during the war was granted to people and the crop collected as military provisions, and the binghu military household system, where only military households were required to do military service, separating them from general households. The tax system involved the adoption of a flat-rate rice field tax levied on each piece of land, and a tax in kind imposed on each household. These systems were handed down through subsequent dynasties and formed the basis of the Ritsuryo system.

The Western Jin Dynasty that followed Wei introduced the zhantian and ketian land systems, with its military and tax systems by and large continuations of the previous systems. In 268, during the Western Jin Dynasty, the Taishi Ritsuryo was established and is considered to be the first Ritsuryo code in history.

Northern Wei, which had unified northern China through the Sixteen Kingdoms period and become the first dynasty of the Northern Dynasties, largely contributed to the form of the Ritsuryo system. At first, Northern Wei implemented a local administration system called the sanchang system to systematically govern the people. The sanchang system enabled uniform tax collection and creation of family registers. The sixth emperor, Xiaowen, implemented the equal-field system and the equal assessment system on the assumption that the sanchang system would work. These systems were for allocating cultivated land to the people and collecting taxes from them on a uniform basis, and with this, the basics of the Ritsuryo system are considered to have been complete. As the equal assessment system was targeted at married couples, the unit of tax assessment was changed from households to married couples. The Western Wei Dynasty that followed Northern Wei replaced the binghu system with the fubing system based on the principle of the farmer-soldier, and the subsequent Northern Zhou Dynasty established the Three Departments and Six Ministries administrative system based on the Confucian ritual text "The Rites of Zhou" ("Zhouli") and launched a tax system called zuyongdiao. The following Northern Dynasties continued these systems. As such, the Ritsuryo system was formed during the Northern Dynasties. The Northern Dynasties enhanced the national power based on the systems to gradually become a threat to the Southern Dynasties.

In 589, the Sui Dynasty unified China for the first time in about 270 years. In 581, prior to the unification of China, Yang Jian of the Sui Dynasty promulgated the highly systematic Kaihuang Ritsuryo, which is considered to have completed the Ritsuryo system. The ritsu part of the codes was simplified to be easily understandable, and cruel punishments were abolished. Governmental organizations such as the Three Departments and Six Ministries and the Censorate were established, and the imperial examination was launched to increase opportunities for government officials.
In the equal-field system, the target of government services and tax collection was changed from married couples to individual males (zheng: 21 - 59 of age, zhongnan: 16 -20 of age.)
It is considered that this change was caused by land shortage as the unification of China dramatically increased the number of people who received government services.

The Tang Dynasty took on the Sui Dynasty's Ritsuryo system almost as it was. Based on the Ritsuryo system, the Tang Dynasty built up the country into a great empire and expanded its influence to other East Asian countries. Accordingly, these East Asian countries accepted and absorbed the Tang Dynasty's Ritsuryo system to bolster national power. It is known that Japan, Silla, Balhae, Tuyuhun, and the Tibetan Tubo Kingdom adopted the Ritsuryo system. Although some of them did not promulgate the complete Ritsuryo codes, all of them more or less adopted some aspects of the Tang Dynasty's Ritsuryo system.

It is considered that the Ritsuryo system reached its zenith during the early to mid-Tang Dynasty, although it was not always strictly enforced. For example, as the equal-field system before the Sui period was enforced only in the Northern Dynasties and not in the Southern Dynasties, it is considered that the it was enforced only around the North China in the early Tang Dynasty. Even within the framework of the Ritsuryo system, it was possible under various pretexts to privately own large tracts of land, so that there existed private estates, owned mainly by families of noble rank. Moreover, records from the mid-Tang Dynasty state that 'the people have become wealthy in the Jiangnan region because the peasants in this region are exempted from military service,' proving that the fubing system was not strictly enforced throughout the country.

Still, the Ritsuryo system worked as a government system until the middle of the Tang Dynasty, but it began collapsing during the reign of Xuanzong in the middle of the 8th century. First, the fubing system stopped functioning, and the mubing mercenary system and Jiedushi military governors were adopted. Allotment of cultivated lands to the peasants which had been the basis of the equal-field system, was gradually neglected, leading to the zuyongdiao system becoming neglected and, in 780, being replaced with the liangshui system. In 758, state monopolies on salt and iron were established to provide new revenue for the troubled national finances. The bureaucracy that operated the Ritsuryo system changed drastically so that a lot of posts not prescribed in the Ritsuryo system were established. Against the backdrop of these changes, there occurred developments such as the emerging regional landholders gaining large tracts of land and the rise of the bureaucrats. This led to the start of large-scale social changes, which caused the existing government system, the Ritsuryo system, to become dysfunctional and eventually collapse. During the latter half of the Tang Dynasty, almost anything that related to the Ritsuryo system disappeared.

Similar circumstances were seen in the East Asian countries that had absorbed the Ritsuryo system from the Tang Dynasty. In all of these countries, the Ritsuryo system began disappearing or became a dead letter from the latter half of the 8th century to the early 9th century.

Ritsuryo system in the Sui and Tang Dynasties

During the reign of Yang Jian of the Sui Dynasty, the "Kaihuang Ritsuryo" was implemented. During the reign of his successor, Emperor Yang, the revised "Daye Ritsuryo," which differed only slightly from the "Kaihuang Ritsuryo," was promulgated.

Li Yuan, the founder of the Tang Dynasty, promulgated the "Wude Ritsuryo" based on the "Kaihuang Ritsuryo." The Ritsuryo system was revised during the reign of every successive Tang emperor, and "Kaigen nijugonen Ritsuryo" distributed in 737 during the reign of Emperor Genso was followed in the East Asian countries.

In reality, the regulations of the Ritsuryo system were becoming estranged from the real world, and more importance came to be placed on the Kyakushiki, which supplemented the Ritsuryo. Therefore, although the original texts of the Ritsuryo were dispersed and lost early on, the ritsu penal code was recorded in the commentary "Tanglu Shuyi" written by Linfu LI and others, and the ryo administrative code was recorded in "Torei Shui" written by Noboru NIIDA, a Japanese historian of Chinese legal history, in 1933 by collating missing writing from Japanese and Chinese classical books.

Brief History

The Ritsuryo system in Japan was generally enforced from the latter half of the 7th century (the latter half of the Asuka period) to the 10th century. During that period, the Ritsuryo system was at its zenith from the beginning to the middle and latter half of the 8th century.

According to some theories, attempts were made to adopt the Ritsuryo system during Empress Suiko's reign, from the end of the 6th century to the beginning of the 7th century. Constitutional reforms such as the establishment of the twelve cap rank system were carried out during this period, although they were not so influential as to drastically change the political and social systems. The Imperial Court of the time had the opportunity to learn about the Ritsuryo system and its basic concepts through talks with the Sui Dynasty (envoys to the Sui Dynasty, including Einichi, returned Japan in 622 and reported to Empress Suiko on the Tang Dynasty's Ritsuryo system) but they were not capable enough to put this knowledge into practice.

In the political reforms known as the Taika Reforms advanced by Emperor Kotoku and Emperor Tenji from 646, four Action Plans were shown. The plans were largely influenced by the Chinese Ritsuryo system. They were as follows.

Abolish powerful clans' private ownership of land. Establish a uniform local government system under the control of the central government. Establish family registers, yearly tax records, and a law for rice field allotment. Reorganize the tax system. Until the second half of the 20th century, it was understood that the Taika Reforms were an epoch in the introduction of the Ritsuryo system into Japan, but since the latter part of the 20th century, they have not necessarily been considered an important epoch in the history of the Ritsuryo system as it has proven that the measures of the Taika Reform were later embellishments. For example, although the establishment of state ownership of both land and people was recognized as the first objective of the Taika Reform, the view that this was merely a proclamation of the concept of odo omin and that the system of state ownership of land and people was not established at the time of the reforms has been gaining prominence. It is now widely held that the Taika Reforms were not so epoch-making as to have been depicted in the "Nihon shoki" ("Chronicles of Japan") and that the movement toward reform later stagnated.

The movement toward the introduction of the Ritsuryo system accelerated in the 660s. Due to the fall of Baekche in 660 and Japan's defeat in the Baekche restoration war (the Battle of Hakusukinoe) in 663, antagonism with Tang and Silla worsened irrevocably and the Imperial Court of Japan faced a serious international crisis. As a result, the Imperial Court began to build up national defenses. The ruling classes shared the sense of crisis and began to unite and reconcile with each other, while the emperor at the time, Emperor Tenji, energetically pushed forward nationwide constitutional reforms by reorganizing powerful clans and rapidly organizing the bureaucracy.
Consequently, power became concentrated in the Okimi (Emperor.)
It is believed that the Omi Code, which is said to have been compiled in this period, was a general name for the group of laws enforced for promoting the constitutional reforms. The constitutional reforms led by Emperor Tenji extended throughout the country, with administrative districts called ryoseikoku being formed in this period. Accordingly, rule over the people was strengthened throughout the country and around 670, against the backdrop of increasing control over the provinces, the ancient family register system, which is considered to be the first family register in Japan, was created. As the family register was an essential element for implementing various elements of the Ritsuryo system, the widely-accepted view is that the rice field allotment system was started after Emperor Tenji's reign and not at the time of the Taika Reform.

Following Emperor Tenji's death, Emperor Tenmu, who usurped the throne in the Jinshin War, placed priority on military affairs and implemented an autocratic style of government. Emperor Tenmu appointed princes, instead of the usual powerful clans, to major political posts and established laws for regulating the appointment, evaluation, and selection of officials working under the princes. This trend resulted in the establishment of a systematic Ritsuryo code, and in 681, Emperor Tenmu issued an Imperial edict ordering enforcement of the Ritsuryo. Although the Ritsuryo was not completed during Emperor Tenmu's lifetime, the ryo administrative codes were completed and enforced in 689 during the reign of Empress Jito. This was the Asuka Kiyomihara Code. It is considered that the ryo anticipated enforcement of the Ritsuryo system, and not full-scale enforcement of the Ritsuryo system. Details of the ryo are unknown as the text no longer exists, but it is believed that the framework of the Ritsuryo system including the creation of family registers every six years (rokunen ichizo), the local government system grouping 50 households into units called ri, and the regulations of the rice field allotment system was formed in the ryo.

In 701, the Taiho Ritsuryo was established and put into practice. The Taiho Ritsuryo was the first full-scale Ritsuryo code in Japanese history and with it, the Japanese Ritsuryo system was consolidated. Even in those days, it was considered that the enforcement of the Taiho Ritsuryo was an epoch-making and historical project, and almost at the same time, the name 'Nippon' and the first official era name 'Taiho' were formally promulgated. Furthermore, soon after the establishment of the Taiho Ritsuryo, Heijokyo, a walled city on an unprecedented scale was constructed over nine years. All of these things show that the enforcement of the Ritsuryo was likened to the founding of a dynasty (or the establishment of a country). FUJIWARA no Fuhito, who played a key role in compiling the Ritsuryo, was promoted to Dainagon (Major Counselor of State) and then to Udaijin (Minister of the Right), becoming the most influential person in the political center and laying the foundations for the prosperity of the Fujiwara clan.

Along with the establishment of the Ritsuryo system, other projects carried out included the compilation of an authorized history, the "Nihon shoki," the compilation of 'fudoki' (descriptions of regional climate, culture, etc.), the defining of weights and measures, and the minting of coins. Although these projects were not directly based on the Ritsuryo, all of them were indispensable to the Ritsuryo system.

The Taiho Ritsuryo was compiled based on the Tang Dynasty's Yonghui Ritsuryo (established in 651). As the Tang Ritsuryo did not exactly match the social conditions of Japan, alterations were made in a good number of places to match Japanese conditions. After the establishment of the Taiho Ritsuryo, the compilation of the Ritsuryo was kept to match it the Japanese conditions, and the achievements were established as the Yoro ritsuryo and enforced in 757.

The Japanese Ritsuryo system is considered to have been at its zenith from the beginning to the middle and the latter half of the 8th century. It was during this period that implementation of the Ritsuryo system conformed closest to the laws. There are several opinions on how thoroughly the Ritsuryo system was enforced during its peak. The ideal was for the Ritsuryo system to be uniformly enforced across the country, but this was not necessarily realized. There are various opinions about the enforcement of the Ritsuryo system, with some theories claiming that the stipulations of the Ritsuryo system were strictly enforced, and others that common law was still used in ruling the country.

Towards the end of 8th century, some systems were becoming ineffective and others had fallen out of use. They remained unaltered though, which placed a heavy burden on the Ritsutyo government both from the viewpoint of finances and human resources. Therefore, the reigning Emperor Kanmu carried out large-scale administrative reforms to replace these systems with simpler and more effective ones. Though aimed at restoring the Ritsuryo system, these reforms, ironically, significantly transformed it. During Emperor Kanmu's reign, the capital was relocated to Nagaoka-kyo and then to Heian-kyo, and aggressively pursued the conquest of Ezo. It is generally accepted that the aim was to establish a system of government different from the one that had existed up till then by reorganizing the Ritsuryo system, although there is another opinion that Emperor Kanmu's reign marked the end of the Ritsuryo system.

From the first half to the middle of the 9th century, momentum toward re-establishment of the Ritsuryo system accelerated. After the enforcement of the Taiho Ritsuryo, a number of kyaku, the amendments to the Ritsuryo, and shiki, the regulations for enacting the ritsuryo and kyaku, still remained and in 820, these were collected and compiled into the Konin Kyakushiki Code. In 830, the Tencho Kyakushiki Code was compiled, and in 834, "Ryonogige" an official explanatory manual of the ryo, came into effect. All this shows that the government was trying to maintain the essence of the Ritsuryo system. However, over time, the Ritsuryo system was losing its teeth, in other words, it was transforming into another system, the most obvious sign of which was the breakdown of the rice field allotment system. Under these circumstances, in 870, the Jogan Kyakushiki Code was compiled and distributed, and in 868, "Ryonoshuge," a private explanatory manual that collected various commentaries on the provisions of the Ritsuryo, was compiled by KOREMUNE no Naomoto.

In the 10th century, the Engishiki, the last kyakushiki, was compiled. However, the Ritsuryo system would lose most of its effectiveness during the period. Most people accept that the Ritsuryo system became extinct no later than the end of the 10th century. It is widely maintained that the Ritsuryo-based state changed into an Imperial Court state (the earlier Imperial Court state) that relied on a form of contracted out government. The extinction of the Ritsuryo system does not necessarily mean the extinction of the Ritsuryo codes or Ritsuryo law and, although the time when the Ritsuryo ceased to exist in name is also important, it should be noted that it was the system based on the Ritsuryo that collapsed. This is because part of the provisions of the Ritsuryo still remained effective after the 11th century. In fact, there were several movements toward revival of the Ritsuryo system, such as the Kenmu Restoration of Emperor Godaigo. However, the concepts of odo omin and ikkun banmin, which were the basis of the Ritsuryo system, were incompatible with the feudal system, which was the basis of the samurai government and therefore it could not be denied that the Kenmu Restoration was, in a sense, an outdated political system.

Interestingly enough, some of the Ritsuryo remained effective until the Meiji Restoration. One example is Dajokan system (the Departments of State system), which continued until it was abolished in 1885.


The extant Yoro Ritsuryo Code does not contain any provisions regarding the Emperor (this is considered to have been the same for the Taiho Ritsuryo Code). This shows that the status of the emperor was considered to transcend the Ritsuryo. But the Ritsuryo system contained regulations concerning Imperial edicts and their handling, meaning the emperor's conduct was in fact restricted. Moreover, unlike the Tang system, the emperor had no direct control over those organizations that corresponded to the Tang's Three Departments and Six Ministries (i.e., the Two Departments and Eight Ministries), since the Grand Council of State existed between them, which meant the emperor's authority was limited by the Grand Council of State.

The Ritsuryo system also stipulated that an emperor who abdicated while still alive was to be the Daijo Emperor (or Joko [the Retired Emperor]), which was an original aspect of the Japanese Ritsuryo system and not seen in the Chinese one. Under the Ritsuryo system, it was generally accepted that the status of the Daijo emperor was equal to that of the reigning emperor, although in fact, the Daijo emperor was often ranked higher than the reigning emperor. For example, in the Nara period, Emperor Shomu was ranked higher than Empress Koken, and it was the same in the cloistered governments that started at the end of the Heian period.

For further details, see the sections 'Emperor' and 'Retired Emperor.'

Government Organization

The structure of government established under the Ritsuryo was largely divided into two departments, the Department of Worship, responsible for religious affairs, and the Council of State, responsible for general political affairs. In the Chinese Ritsuryo, the agency responsible for religious services was placed in the same category with the agencies responsible for general affairs, but in the Japanese system, the creation of the Department of Worship clearly separated religious and political affairs. Under the Council of State, eight ministries were placed in charge of actual administration, and in each ministry, the work was divided between agencies known as shiki, ryo, tsukasa, and tokoro. All of these organizations are collectively called the Two Departments and Eight Ministries.

The Daijokan (Council of State) was the most important decision-making organization of the government and consisted of a legislative department composed of the Daijo Daijin (Grand Minister), Sadaijin (the Minister of the Left), Udaijin (the Minister of the Right), and Dainagon (the Major Counselorof the state) (later, Chinagon [vice-councilor of state] and Sangi [minister] were added), and the departments that assisted them in their work, Shonagon (lesser councilor of state), the Left and Right Benkan's (Controller) Offices, and the Gekikyoku's (Secretarie) Office.

The Giseikan (legislative department) deliberated on the most important government matters before they were sanctioned by the emperor. Less important matters were discussed by the giseikan only. As such, the giseikan had very important duties and virtually controlled political decision-making. Matters approved by the emperor or the sanctioned by the giseikan following its deliberations were sent to the benkan who drew up the official documents to be issued by the daijokan (Grand Council of State) and put into practice. Since the office of the benkan took charge of the practical business at the center of political affairs, it too was considered an important post. When the emperor proposed a motion, he ordered the Nakatsukasasho (Ministry of Central Affairs) to draw up an imperial edict, the draft of which was then checked by the gekikyoku's office and sent to the emperor or the office of benkan and therefore the gekikyoku's office was also considered an important office. Approved policies were put into practice by the eight ministries, of which the Left Benkan's Office and the Right Benkan's Office were in charge of four each..

The above-mentioned organization of the daijokan was adapted with many changes from the Tang Ritsuryo system. In the Tang Ritsuryo system, the government's decision-making organization consisted of the Secretariat that planned and formulated policy by order of the emperor, the Chancellery that discussed the plan formulated by the Secretariat, and the Department of State Affairs that executed the policy approved by the Chancellery. The Secretariat was closely connected with the emperor, whereas the Chancellery represented the intentions of the noble class; the Secretariat competed with the Chancellery for influence. When compared with Japan, the Secretariat corresponds to the Nakatsukasasho, the Chancellery corresponds to the Giseikan, and the Department of State Affairs corresponds to the Left and Right Benkan's Offices and the eight ministries under them; therefore, it is clear that the Daijokan had considerable influence in that it served concurrently as both the Chancellery and the Department of State Affairs and also controlled the Nakatsukasasho, which corresponds to the Secretariat, and above all, the Giseikan, i.e. the nobility, corresponding to the Chancellery, played a very important role in Japan.

For further details of the central governmental organization, see the section Japan's governmental organization, the Ritsuryo system (the Taiho Ritsuryo) and after.

As for local government, the five provinces close to the capital, Yamato Province, Yamashiro Province, Kawachi Province, Izumi Province, and Settsu Province were grouped into the Kinai and the other provinces were divided into seven 'Do' (circuits). This was known as the Go-ki Shichi-do (five provinces and seven circuits). There were three tiers of administrative districts, province, county, and village (township), with a provincial governor deployed in each province, a local magistrate deployed in each county, and a village chief (township head) deployed in each village. The provincial governor was sent from the central government, whereas the local magistrate or village chief was appointed for life from local powerful clans who had ruled the area, which virtually meant that they were approved to govern the areas they originally ruled as administrative districts of the central government. This has led to the view that the Japanese Ritsuryo system included the ruling of the people by local powerful clans in parallel with the ruling of the people by the state based on the Ritsuryo system.

Special organizations were set up in important districts. These were the Left and Right Capital Offices, responsible for the capital, the Kyoto area; the Settsu Office, responsible for Naniwa, the capital's gateway for foreign diplomacy; and the government's Kyushu Offices, responsible for the Saikaido Road, the state's gateway for foreign diplomacy.

A transportation system was established for quickly and smoothly transferring information between the central and local governments, and based on the transportation system, a road system was developed. The road system was a highway in ancient Japan with long, wide straight sections, some of which can be seen today.

For further details on local governmental organization, see the section of 'Local government of ancient Japan: Local government under the Ritsuryo system.'

For further details on the road system of ancient Japan, see the section on 'Japan's ancient roads.'

Bureaucrats belonging to the above-mentioned government organizations were appointed to government posts and ranks. Government post' refers to the positions in the government office, which were generally divided into the four classes of Kanikan (director), Sukekan (assistant director), Jokan (secretary), and Sakan (clerk). This rank system is called the Shitokansei. Rank' refers to grades representing the hierarchy of government officials. According to the Ritsuryo system, all government officials were given ranks, which was known as the Kani-Soutousei system. For example, the Left and Right Chuben (the middle posts of benkan), which were the assistant directors of the Benkan's Office, were given the Shogoinojo (Senior Fifth Rank, Upper Grade) and as such, the Left and Right Chuben were selected from those who held the Shogoinojo. Those at the Fifth Rank or above received a number of privileges such as being granted fields, fiefs, stipends, and servants, and developed into a special social class. This is called the nobility.

For further details, see the sections 'Official Rank' and 'Rank.'

Governing the people

According to the Japanese Ritsuryo system, government of the people was based on the creation of the ancient family register system (detailed records of the people registered for each household) and yearly tax records (a register for collecting taxes of tributes and tax in kind), which were updated every year.

The national government uniformly allotted rice fields of the same area, known as 'kubunden,' to people who met certain requirements, based on the family register, and when the person died, confiscated the allotted fields. This system is called the rice field allotment system. Under the Ritsuryo system, kubunden were defined as private land, not public land (a fact that repudiated the existing concept of state ownership of both land and people).

Types of field other than kubunden were fields given to those at the Fifth Rank or above, fields given specially by the emperor, fields given to those who did meritorious deeds for the state, fields allotted according to government post, fields given to temples for maintenance and operation costs, fields given to shrines for maintenance and operation costs, and fields left over after allotment of the above. Residential land and parks were also allotted but not confiscated, and selling and buying at the owner's discretion were permitted.

Generally, those who were allotted rice fields were required to pay land tax, tax in kind, and tributes, although some of people were exempted. Rice fields subject to rice tax were called Yusoden, and rice fields exempt from rice tax were called Fuyusoden; kubunden, fields given to those at Fifth Rank or above, fields given by the emperor, fields given for meritorious deeds for the state, and fields given to local magistrates were treated as Yusoden, and fields allotted to government posts other than local magistrate, fields given to temples, and the fields given to shrines, were treated as Fuyusoden. The rice tax was paid to provincial government offices to provide financial resources for administration.

At that time, a government loan system called suiko existed, where provincial governors or provincial magistrates partly forced peasants to borrow rice from the rice tax and charged them interest on it. This interest was called public suiko or shozei, and was as important a resources as the rice tax.

The peasants were obliged to pay tax in kind and tributes as well as rice tax.

The tax in kind was imposed on male peasants, and paid with local specialties including silk, cloth, salt, paper, dye, seaweed, and oil. The tax in kind was paid directly to the capital to provide financial resources for the central government. For that purpose, laborers were selected from among the peasants to deliver the taxes to the capital, Kyoto. There is a view that the prototype transportation industry started in this period.

The tributes were originally paid as labor to be carried out in the capital, but were later substituted with cloth, rice, salt and the like.

The irregular corvee was labor carried out on public works or miscellaneous work at government offices within a province and ordered by the provincial governor. In China, there was a labor obligation called 'saka,' separate from the irregular corvee, and there are various opinions about the relationship between the saka and the irregular corvee.
The labor was divided into 'jicho' and 'koeki.'
(For further details, see each relevant section.)

The peasants were also required to perform military services in addition to the above-mentioned tax requirements. The military system in the Ritsuryo system was based on the 'gundan' military service. Soldiers were conscripted from the adult male population and assigned to 'gundan' (army corps), which were deployed every three to four counties. After training in the gundan, soldiers were transferred to the central Kinai region and served as guards called 'eshi' in the area around palace for one year. Soldiers from the Kanto region were deployed for three years as guards in northern Kyushu to defend the coast.

For further details on the rice field allotment system, see the section 'rice field allotment system.'

For further details on the family register and yearly tax records, see the section 'ancient family register system.'

For further details on the rice tax, tax in kind, and tributes, see the section 'rice tax, tax in kind, and tributes.'

For further details on military service, see the section 'military service' (ancient Japan).

Class System

Class under the Japanese Ritsuryo system was roughly divided into 'ryomin' (good citizens) and 'senmin' (low citizens).
The ryomin included the nobles, who were high-ranking officials; low-ranking officials; general peasants, who were sometimes called 'public people'; and lower level functionaries, including semi-free skilled craftsmen known as 'shinabe' and 'zakko.'
The senmin were known as 'the five lowly kinds,' which were 'ryoko,' families of the keepers of imperial tombs; 'kanko,' servants belonging to government offices and involved in government work; 'kunui,' government-owned slaves; 'kenin,' slaves owned by nobles or powerful people for odd jobs; and 'shinui,' private servants.

Among the senmin, kunui and shinui were treated as slaves and could be bought and sold. As such, slavery existed under the Ritsuryo system.


It is considered that the formation of the ancient Japanese state was completed with the establishment of the Ritsuryo system. The construction of the state was not triggered internally, but chiefly by external factor of tension in East Asian international relations, mainly with the Tang Dynasty. For this reason, the Ritsuryo system, on which the construction of the state was based, was introduced from China basically to attempt to reproduce the Chinese system in Japan, although Japan added a lot its own original amendments.

There were two opposing opinions about the Japanese Ritsuryo system; one that it was a political system led arbitrarily by the emperor and the other that it was a republican political system for the nobles led by the nobles in the Kinai region. However, the most popular view now is that it was a political system operated by the emperor and the nobles based on mutual dependence.

From a certain period around the war, it was considered that the Ritsuryo-based Japanese society was based on slavery due to the existence of slaves. That idea complied with a historical view of European development, particularly Karl MARX's historical materialism, that classifies human history as primitive society to slavery society to villeinage and so on. In particular, historical materialism, which strongly influenced the Japanese post-war historical school, further advanced the historical view of development to consider that ancient Asian society was generally based on slavery in the Asiatic mode of production. In those days, the biggest theme of Japanese historians was how to apply Japanese history to the European historical view and therefore they evaluated the Ritsuryo system from that historical point of view.

There is an opinion that the government of the people under the Ritsuryo system was simply nothing but a structure of exploitation based on oppression on the people. In fact, it was taught that the burden on the people increased, while the ruling class, i.e., the noble class, continued living luxuriously and had less to do with the politics. That was about the time the regency government began to appear. Recently, the most popular current theory is that the above-mentioned view emphasizes the wrong points because it adapts Japanese society based on the Ritsuryo system to the historical view of European development, merely to match that Japanese society with the realities of the Western powers' colonial rule. In fact, although it was argued that the Law Permitting Permanent Ownership of Newly Cultivated Land was very much like the main cause of the Ritsuryo system collapse by allowing the development of the manorial system, it has been proved that the law was for reinforcing the Ritsuryo system as part of the land policy, which was undertaken to guarantee the livelihoods of the people. The system where soldiers were garrisoned at strategic posts in Kyushu was replaced with the 'kondei' system of military service for the purpose of lightening the burden on the people, and only peasants from northern Kyushu were conscripted.

By studying the reality of the society based on the Ritsuryo system, it has become apparent that slavery did not generally exist in society because the essential slave class was limited to the nui and other senmin. Accordingly, the idea of 'the Ritsuryo system equals slavery' or 'the Ritsuryo system equals a system of exploitation based on a dictatorship' was refuted and, instead, the concept of villeinage that views the peasants as serfs, has been suggested.
As seen in these examples, the Ritsuryo system has gradually been re-evaluated from an East Asian, rather than a European, viewpoint

[Original Japanese]