Shitokan (four classifications of bureaucrats ranks) (四等官)

Shitokan, also known as Shitokan-sei system, is a term that refers to the fact that core officials of government offices were comprised of people of four ranks under the Ritsuryo system (a system of centralized government under the Ritsuryo code). It was originally introduced in the Chinese Ritsuryo system and functioned as the basis for the sophisticated bureaucracy of the Ritsuryo system. Japan also introduced Shitokan-sei when it established the Ritsuryo system.


Shitokan-sei system was based on Chokan (minister), Nitokan (second-rank official), Santokan (third-rank official) and Shitokan (fourth-rank official), and their respective responsibilities were determined by Ryo (administrative code).

Shitokan-sei in Tang

Under the organization based on the Ritsuryo system in Tang, officials were classified into four ranks, such as Chokan (minister), Tsuhangan (vice minister), Hangan (inspector) and Sakan (secretary). In addition to the above, jian-gou-guan (inspector under Chinese Ritsuryo system) was established as the post to inspect clerical jobs. The above names of Shitokan and jian-gou-guan were not standardized at the central government and various names were used depending on the government bodies. At the local governments, however, names were standardized to a certain extent.

According to the Ryo of Tang, responsibilities of each Shitokan were determined as follows. Sakan, the lowest official (fourth-rank official), was engaged in clerical jobs, such as the preparation and sorting out of material and documents, and they never participated in political judgments. Hangan, the third-rank official, held the authority to decide (it was called 'Han'), and more than one hangan made decisions for part of the case (called Bunhan) and passed it to Tsuhangan, the second-rank official.
Tsuhangan made a decision for whole of the case (called Tsuhan) and Chokan made a final decision (called Sohan)
This three-stage decision-making system by Chokan, Tsuhangan and Hangan was called Sanhan-sei system.

While Chokan, Tsuhangan and Hangan were formal officials called 'Ryunaikan,' most of Sakan were 'Ryugaikan' (miscellaneous posts to which ordinary people were appointed), who were not formal officials and were not included in Kuhonkan (nine official posts). As seen previously, there was a big gap in the status between Hangan or higher and Sakan.

Table of Shitokan in the Tang

Table of Shitokan at the principal government bodies in the Tang

Shitokan-sei system in Japan

Shitokan-sei system was introduced into Japan around the end of seventh century to the beginning of eighth century when the Ritsuryo system, which was based on the Ritsuryo of Tang, was established. According to the Kaninrei (code of officials) of Taiho Ritsuryo (called Shokuinrei in Yoro Ritsuryo [a code promulgated in the Yoro period]), Shitokan of Kami, Suke, Jo and Sakan were set as the basis for the government organization. It is considered that official posts were put in order in the Shokuinrei of Yoro Ritsuryo starting with Shitokan followed by Honkan (professional officials). As with the case of Tang, various names were used at the central government.

The responsibilities of each Shitokan were quite different from those of Tang. Sanhan-sei system, which was the basic principle of Tang's Shitokan-sei system, was not introduced into Japan. According to Taiho Ritsuryo and Yoro Ritsuryo, Kami's responsibility was as the same of 'Sohan' of political cases as that of Tang. However, while the responsibility of the second-rank official (Tsuhangan) was 'Tsuhan' of political cases in Tang, that of Suke, the second-rank official in Japan, was the same with that of Kami. As for the responsibility of the third-rank official Hangan, it was 'Bunhan' according to Yong Hui Code of Tang Dynasty while it was 'Kyuhan' (to accuse and judge lawbreaker) according to Japanese Ryo. The fourth-rank official Sakan was a clerical staff who was not given the authority to decide as with the case of Tang. One point different from Tang was that Sakan was supposed to read the draft orally (dokushin kobun) when seeking the approval of Kami.

The court rank system was behind the definition that the responsibility of Kami and that of Suke was same. Actually, when the court rank of both Kami and Suke were Goi (the Fifth Rank) or higher, Suke made decisions on most of miscellaneous or ordinary matters without Kami, while Kami made decisions only on important matters. In the case of more important matters, Suke directly reported to Daijokan (councilor of state) without Kami's involvement. When the court rank of Suke was below Goi, Kami made decisions on all matters in principle. Whether the court rank of final decision maker was above Goi or not was the index for decision-making procedure. When the court rank of Kami was Rokui (the Sixth Rank), such Kami sometimes asked a person of Goi or higher to act for him in supervising important matters, although he had the authority to supervise miscellaneous matters.

Unlike the case of Tang, there was no distinction of Ryunaikan and Ryugaikan in Japan and the lowest official Sakan was also conferred the court rank. During the eighth century to the beginning of ninth century, however, most of ishi (legitimate children of persons from Goi to Hachii [the Eighth Rank]) and hakucho (people without court rank) were promoted only to Toneri (a servant), Shisho (a person doing miscellaneous clerical jobs) or Sakan and few were promoted to Hangan or higher. On the other hand, inshison (descendants of people of Sanmi [the Third Rank] or higher, children of persons of Shii [the fourth rank] and Goi) were promoted to Hangan without experiencing Sakan.
As previously mentioned, there was a strict gap by the birth such as the people came from the family of Goi or higher were able to become Hangan with the authority of 'han,' while the people came from the family of Rokui or lower were able to become only Sakan without the authority of 'han.'

Each of Shitokan was called 'Kami,' 'Suke,' 'Jo' and 'Sakan' respectively regardless of the Chinese characters used. It is said that 'Kami' referred to the highest, 'Suke' to a deputy, 'Jo' derived from the pronunciation of 'Jo' (丞), the third-rank official of the government body in the Tang, and 'Sakan' derived from 'sakan' (左官), which means an assistant.

Table of Japanese Shitokan

Table of Shitokan based on the Yoro-rei (Kanirei [court ranking law])


After the Meiji Restoration, Japanese bureacratic system was established under the tendency to revert to the old ways and the official posts whose names were same with those of the Ritsuryo System were set. The organization of newly created ministries was also designed after the model of Shitokan, but their names and so on, were not necessarily same with the traditional ones.

For example, the military ranks of 'sho, sa, i, so' (11 ranks from Rikukaigun taisho [general of Army and Navy]) to Rikukaigun gon no socho [Deputy Sergeant Major of Army and Navy]) which were established at Hyobusho (Ministry of Military) by Dajokan Futatsu (promulgate of Grand Council of State) No. 604 issued on October 12, 1870, were not seen in the military system of Ritsuryo system. However, these were continuously used as the title of military ranks established by the Dajokan Futatsu No. 154 issued on May 8, 1873 as well as for the Japanese translation of the title of military ranks of Western Modern army. That's why the title of Self Defense Force officials remind us of Shitokan.

[Original Japanese]