Compilation of the Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

The Engi shiki, a legal code compiled under the orders of the emperor Daigo, represented an attempt by the imperial family to reassert its authority in the Japanese political world and to press for the more effective implementation of earlier legal concepts. It also contained important information relating to Shintō, the native Japanese faith.

Summary of Event

Since the seventh century, the Fujiwara family Fujiwara family had held a great deal of power over the imperial court through its monopolization of high posts in the central administration and close relationship with the imperial family. The emperor Uda Uda was one of the first sovereigns who attempted to assert his authority outside the administrative context that had been developed by the Fujiwara regents. The Fujiwara had pursued a strategy of intermarriage with the imperial family in order to gain authority over the throne, and Uda was one of the first sovereigns in more than one hundred years who did not have close blood ties to the Fujiwara. Uda’s confrontational attitude led to a power struggle between him and the Fujiwara regent Fujiwara Mototsune Fujiwara Mototsune . When Mototsune died in 891, Uda refused to appoint another regent, in the interest of increasing the power of the imperial family. Uda retired to a monastery in 897, and his son Daigo Daigo came to power. Daigo’s reign also was characterized by his attempt to increase the power of the imperial family. Uda, who continued to wield considerable power from behind the scenes, assisted his son in this endeavor. [kw]Compilation of the Engi Shiki (927) [kw]Engi Shiki, Compilation of the (927) Engi Shiki Laws and law codes;Japan Japan;927: Compilation of the Engi Shiki[1140] Laws, acts, and legal history;927: Compilation of the Engi Shiki[1140] Government and politics;927: Compilation of the Engi Shiki[1140] Religion;927: Compilation of the Engi Shiki[1140] Daigo Fujiwara Mototsune Uda

To increase the power of the imperial family and the central court in general, in 905, the fifth year of the Engi period (901-922), Daigo ordered the compilation of a new series of supplementary legal precepts and regulations. The undertaking was completed in 927, and the result was the code known as the Engi shiki or “procedures of the Engi era.” The Engi shiki cannot be considered an original legal work as its purpose was not to revolutionize Japanese law but rather to provide for the more effective enforcement of earlier legal codes. It contains both penal and administrative details as well as a religious focus—a reminder that religion was a central feature of Japanese administration at that time—and touched on many aspects of the lives of Japanese commoners and aristocrats alike.

Although earlier Japanese legal documents such as the Taihō code Taihō code[Taiho code] of 701 contain detailed regulations for the creation of bureaucratic hierarchies, the Engi shiki served to reorganize the institutions of government in the tenth century. Some of the most important administrative policies contained in the document consist of a detailed statement of the duties of the dajōkan, the “great council of state,” which was effectively the main policy-making organ in the Japanese government. It was through control of the great council of state that the Fujiwara had managed to usurp administrative authority from the imperial family. These regulations were, in part, designed to rectify this situation. Changes to the central government did not stop there, however. In total, forty books of the fifty total deal with procedures for the various government ministries and bureaus. It is clear that the emperor, Daigo, and his retired father were attempting to consolidate imperial control over the government through the introduction of a more detailed system of political control.

In addition to the adjustment of the legal duties and functions of the central administration, one of the main goals of this new legal code was to limit the expansion of shōen, Shōen[shoen] estates that were slipping outside imperial rule. By the early tenth century, powerful families and several influential Buddhist sects, such as the Tendai sect Tendai sect centered on Mount Hiei, had amassed large amounts of tax-free land. These tracts were organized into shōen and were directly administered by bailiffs and other extragovernmental authorities for the profit of important aristocratic families. Just as earlier legal codes such as the Taihō code had attempted to strengthen central power, Daigo’s Engi shiki attempted to curtail and reverse the erosion of that power. Although this was a brave step on the part of the imperial family to assert its authority over the entire country, the process of shōen formation continued unabated until the entire system of land control and taxation was co-opted by the new warrior government in the late twelfth century.

Despite the abundance of secular content, the Engi shiki had important religious aspects as well. In fact, the first ten books of the work are devoted to the conduct of festivals and worship related to Shintō Shintō[Shinto] , the native Japanese faith. In essence, the Japanese imperial family owed its privileged position to its claim of direct descent from the sun goddess Amaterasu. By promoting the native faith and organizing its various festivals and ceremonies into a coherent system, Daigo and his legal assistants were effectively working toward the increase in the power of the Japanese imperial family and the concept of the legitimacy of its rule.


The compilation of the Engi shiki is a significant moment in Japanese legal and social history because it represents a direct challenge by the imperial family to the system of regency by which the Fujiwara family had managed to control the throne. Despite the fact that the Fujiwara managed to reassert their power after the death of the emperor Daigo, this early tenth century challenge formed the basis for a tradition of emperor-centered thought that proved to be a very important stream in the Japanese intellectual tradition. When the code was compiled, the assertion of the importance of the role of Shintō in the government of the state represented a challenge to the continental philosophical and religious systems of Buddhism and Confucian thought.

The Engi shiki, as a revision of earlier aspects of the law of the Japanese court, continued to have an impact on the conduct of court life even after the power of the old capital was eclipsed by the rise of warrior clans in the east. The procedures for worship as well as details concerning the court hierarchy continued to have a great influence on court life throughout the period of warrior rule and until the modernizing reforms of the nineteenth century. The ceremonial details and the regulations concerning the religious role of the imperial family continue to have an influence on Shintō and are still considered to be part of the sacred text of that religion. Elements of the religious functions carried out by members of the imperial family at present can be traced back to the religious guidelines laid out in detail in the Engi shiki. Religion;Japan Japan;religion

Although the Engi shiki’s importance as a legal document was overshadowed as a result of later developments, its status as a philosophical and cultural statement continued to be important. Although the Engi shiki did not bring about a restoration of imperial authority, and the Fuijwara—who later would be eclipsed by the power of provincial warrior families—maintained their authority, the code came to be considered a high point in the political and cultural history of classical Japan. During the Tokugawa period (1603-1867), scholars who were dissatisfied with orthodox Confucian scholarship began to look more closely at Japan’s own classical traditions. Influential authors such as Motoori Norinaga (1730-1801) launched a kokugaku (“national learning”) movement that popularized the study of the ancient chronicles as well as documents such as the Engi shiki. This provided the basis for a stream of thought in Japanese intellectual culture that stressed the desirability of imperial restoration and the primacy of Shintō as a national religion. These developments provided the intellectual and philosophical foundation of the Meiji Restoration of 1867 and had a great influence on the subsequent development of Japanese civilization.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Crump, Thomas. The Death of an Emperor. London: Constable, 1989. A discussion of the maintenance of the Shintō rites described in the Engi shiki in modern Japan.
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    xlink:type="simple">De Bary, William Theodore, et al., comps. Sources of Japanese Tradition. 2d ed. Vol. 1. New York: Columbia University Press, 2001. Contains abridged translations of Japanese legal documents as well as other important documents relating to early Japanese political life.
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    xlink:type="simple">Littleton, Scott. Shintō: Origins, Rituals, Festivals, Spirits, Sacred Places. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002. Traces the history of Shintō and includes both a detailed discussion of the origins of the religious sections of the Engi shiki and the impact that it had on subsequent Japanese traditions.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ono, Sokyo. Shintō: The Kami Way. Tokyo: Charles E. Tuttle, 1997. An excellent general account of the Shintō faith touched on in the Engi shiki.
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    xlink:type="simple">Sansom, George. A History of Japan to 1334. Vol. 1. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1958. The first volume of Sansom’s three-volume study of Japanese history remains a highly detailed and authoritative work on the subject.
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    xlink:type="simple">Shively, Donald, ed. Heian Japan. Vol. 2 in The Cambridge History of Japan. Cambridge, Mass.: Cambridge University Press, 1999. A detailed history of the period written by leading scholars. Particular attention is paid to the development of legal traditions.

Categories: History