Taihō Laws Reform Japanese Government Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

The Taihō laws revised earlier legal codes and formed the basis for the ritsuryō system, the foundation of Japanese legal and governmental practice until the tenth century. In addition, the bureaucratic system created by the Taihō code continued to provide the basis for the organization of the Japanese aristocracy until the nineteenth century.

Summary of Event

The Taika reforms Taika reforms of 645-646 transformed the Japanese state and produced the legal foundation of centralized government. The legal precepts put forward in the Taika reform edict of 646 were limited in scope, however, and some scholars believe that even these were later inventions designed to make the Taika reforms seem to be more important than they actually were. In any case, a more detailed legal code known as the Asuka Kiyomihara code Asuka Kiyomihara code was promulgated in 689 as a way to restore order after a period of domestic strife. At this time, Japan’s political system was relatively undeveloped and the Japanese administration looked to Tang China for inspiration. [kw]Taihō Laws Reform Japanese Government[Taiho] (701) [kw]Laws Reform Japanese Government, Taihō (701) [kw]Japanese Government, Taihō Laws Reform (701) Taihō code[Taiho code] Law;Japan Japan;law Japan;701: Taihō Laws Reform Japanese Government[0520] Laws, acts, and legal history;701: Taihō Laws Reform Japanese Government[0520] Awata no Mahito Fujiwara Fuhito Prince Osakabe

China’s Tang Dynasty (T’ang; 618-907) was at its height in the second half of the seventh century, and Chinese law, philosophy, and religion, three important components of good government during this period, were held in great esteem by the Japanese nobility. China;influence on Japan Many scholars believe that in the years after the fall of the Roman Empire, Tang China was the most complex and advanced society on earth. The Tang state consisted of a highly centralized court supported by an elaborate and efficient bureaucracy. Order was maintained through the enforcement of a complex body of penal law, and the entire system was buttressed by a system of conscription and taxation by which the productive might of the lower classes was harnessed. Japan, which had yet to establish a permanent capital when the Taihō code came into effect in 701, clearly looked up to the great continental civilization. As a result, Tang legal concepts came to exert a dominant influence over the Asuka Kiyomihara code and the more important legal developments that followed.

In the early eighth century, the decision was made at the Japanese court to strengthen imperial legal authority, and a commission was appointed to produce a revised code of laws. Notable courtiers such as Prince Osakabe, Osakabe, Prince Fujiwara Fuhito Fujiwara Fuhito , and Awata no Mahito Awata no Mahito all had a hand in the compilation of the new document. The code went into effect during the second year of the Taihō era from which it took its name. Including both penal and administrative laws, the Taihō code consisted of seventeen volumes in all. No original copies of the code survive, but other sources have given scholars an idea of its contents.

The penal sections of the work were very elaborate. A wide variety of punishments, including beatings and public execution, were allowed. This level of detail is an indication of the Chinese influence on Japanese legal history. In addition, it is also obvious that the criminal sections of the Taihō code show the unmistakable mark of the influence of continental philosophy, in particular, Confucianism Confucianism;Japan . For example, Confucian philosophy is famous for the weight given to the values of loyalty and filial piety. As a result of Confucian ideology, the Taihō code prescribed severe punishment for crimes such as patricide, while injuries inflicted on children by a parent were less severely punished. An aristocratic bias is also evident. There were many clauses that exempted those of high rank, including courtiers and influential monks, from corporal and capital punishment.

The administrative sections of the Taihō code were about twice as long as the penal ones. The main preoccupation of this side of the code was the structure of the imperial court and the bureaucracy that existed within it. It articulated an elaborate system of ranks and duties that governed almost every aspect of aristocratic life. It also established widespread systems of conscription and taxation.

Clearly, the Taihō code served to entrench the privileges of the aristocratic class that compiled it. Under the system created by the code, courtiers served in the imperial government as part of an elaborate bureaucracy modeled after that of Tang China. Scholars have pointed out, however, that there were notable differences between the Chinese system and the one that developed in Japan under the guidance of the Taihō code. Unlike the meritocracy that existed at the Tang court, the Japanese system played up inherited privilege. Although there was potential for advancement for members of the aristocracy, only members of the most powerful and influential families could hold the most important offices in the new system. This aspect of the Taihō code had a notable impact on Japanese political life and relations between different social classes.

Another important aspect of the Taihō code was its entrenchment of the economic obligations of the lower classes. A large measure of economic control was necessary in order to end the period of civil strife that preceded the consolidation of central power in the hands of the imperial court. The system of laws collected in the Taihō code enforced an elaborate system of taxation, conscription, and forced labor that enabled the establishment of a dominant political center. Although the imperial Japanese state was never able to establish a system of taxation Taxation;Japan as efficient as that which existed in China, scholars currently acknowledge that the system established in the Taihō legislation was important in Japanese economic and political development as it allowed national production to be harnessed in the interests of defense and created the circumstances by which an elaborate capital city and an equally elaborate aristocratic culture were created.


In 718, the second year of the Yōrō period, Fujiwara Fuhito, one of the authors of the Taihō code, and his assistants, compiled a new legal code that came to be known as the Yōrō code Yōrō code[Yoro code] . Scholars believe that it was similar both in content and character to the Taihō code. The Yōrō code was not put into effect until 757, but from that time until the tenth century, its influence, patterned on the legal foundations set by the Taihō code, remained strong.

Aside from its importance in a legal sense, the obvious Chinese and, more specifically, Confucian character of the Taihō code and the revisions that followed is also important within the context of Japanese intellectual and philosophical history. While Confucian philosophy was studied by the small minority of Japanese raised in the aristocratic circle, the vast majority of the population was not literate and had no significant contact with philosophical ideas. However, because the morality that underlies the penal section of the Taihō code is Confucian, ideas of this philosophy were inculcated among the population at large by a spread in the awareness of the central legal precepts as well as the obligations spelled out in the administrative sections of the code. To this day, Confucian thought continues to have a significant impact on Japanese socialization and political life, and the Taihō code is significant in that it played a leading role in diffusing these ideas throughout the Japanese population.

Even after the seizure of power by the warrior class in the twelfth century, the administrative laws originally promulgated in the Taihō code continued to have great influence. The system of government, law, and land distribution adopted by the government of the Minamoto shogunate took several cues from the earlier Taihō code. In additon, the Taihō code continued to be the most important legal document at the now relatively powerless imperial court and continued to spell out the hierarchy that lasted until the modernizing reforms of the nineteenth century.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Aston, W. G., trans. Nihongi: Chronicles of Japan from the Earliest Times to A.D. 697. 1896. Reprint. Tokyo: Charles E. Tuttle, 1972. The standard translation of one of the earliest works of Japanese history. Provides accounts of the compilation of the Taihō code and details concerning the cultural and political background of its creation.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bentley, John. Historiographical Trends in Early Japan. New York: Edwin Mellen Press, 2002. The historiography of ancient Japan in general with a particular focus on the era of the Taihō laws and the way in which surviving accounts of their enactment may have been manipulated for political purposes.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Brown, Delmer, ed. Ancient Japan. Vol. 1 in The Cambridge History of Japan. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1993. The most up-to-date collection of articles by leading scholars on pre-Heian Japanese history. The work contains a great deal of information on legal traditions and the political circumstances that led to their foundation.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    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.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Friday, Karl. Hired Swords: The Rise of Private Warrior Power in Early Japan. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1992. Contains details of how the laws established in the Taihō code contributed to the rise of warrior society.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    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 detailed and authoritative work on the subject.

Categories: History