Ritsuryō (律令), pronounced [ɾitsɯɾʲoː], is the historical law system based on the philosophies of Confucianism and Chinese Legalism in Japan. The political system in accord to Ritsuryō is called "Ritsuryō-sei" (律令制). Kyaku (格) are amendments of Ritsuryō, Shiki (式) are enactments.

Premodern Japan
Imperial seal of Japan
Part of a series on the politics and
government of Japan during the
Nara and Heian periods
Minister of the LeftSadaijin
Minister of the RightUdaijin
Minister of the CenterNaidaijin
Major CounselorDainagon
Middle CounselorChūnagon
Minor CounselorShōnagon
Eight Ministries
Civil AdministrationJibu-shō
Popular AffairsMinbu-shō
Imperial HouseholdKunai-shō

Ritsuryō defines both a criminal code (, Ritsu) and an administrative code (, Ryō).

During the late Asuka period (late 6th century – 710) and Nara period (710–794), the Imperial Court in Kyoto, trying to replicate China's rigorous political system from the Tang dynasty, created and enforced some collections of Ritsuryō. Over the course of centuries, the ritsuryō state produced more and more information which was carefully archived; however, with the passage of time in the Heian period, ritsuryō institutions evolved into a political and cultural system without feedback.[1]

In 645, the Taika reforms were the first signs of implementation of the system.[2]

Major re-statements of Ritsuryō included the following:[3]

  • Ōmi-ryō (近江令, 669) – 22 volumes of administrative code, of disputed existence
  • Asuka-kiyomihara-ryō (飛鳥浄御原令, 689) – 22 volumes of administrative code
  • Taihō-ritsuryō (大宝律令, 701) – of major influence, 11 volumes of administrative code, 6 volumes of criminal code
  • Yōrō-ritsuryō (養老律令, 720, enacted in 757) – 10 volumes of administrative code, 10 volumes of criminal code, revised edition of the Taihō-ritsuryō

Main achievementsEdit

Government and administrationEdit

In the later half of the seventh century, the Kokugunri system (国郡里制, kokugunri-sei) was introduced, dividing the regions of Japan into several administrative divisions.

  • Provinces (, kuni, composed of numerous districts)
  • Districts (, gun, kōri, composed of 2–20 neighbourhoods)
  • Neighbourhoods (, ri, sato, composed of 50 homes)

In 715 CE, the Gōri system (郷里制, gōri-sei) was introduced, resulting in the following.

  • Provinces (, kuni, composed of numerous districts)
  • Districts (, gun, kōri, composed of 2–20 townships)
  • Townships (, , composed of 50 homes total, and further divided into two or three neighbourhoods)
  • Neighbourhoods (, ri, sato, usu. composed of approx. 10–25 homes)

This system was abandoned in 740 CE.

Centralization of authorityEdit

The ritsuryō system also established a central administrative government, with the emperor at its head. Two departments were set up:

  • The Jingi-kan (神祇官, Department of Worship), in charge of rituals and clergy
  • The Daijō-kan (太政官, Department of State), divided into eight ministries.

Posts of those public Departments were all divided into four ranks (shitō): kami (長官), suke (次官), (判官) and sakan (主典). This ubiquitous pattern would be replicated consistently, even amongst members of the court whose functions had little to do with those kinds of powers and responsibilities which are conventionally associated with governing – for example:

Court musicians
  • Chief court musician (雅楽頭,, Uta no kami).[4]
  • First assistant court musician (雅楽助,, Uta no suke).[4]
  • Second assistant court musician (雅楽允,, Uta no ).[5]
  • Alternate assistant court musicians (雅楽属,, Uta no sakan).[5]
Court pharmacists
  • Chief court pharmacist (典薬頭,, Ten'yaku no kami).[6]
  • First assistant to the chief pharmacist (典薬助, ,Ten'yaku no suke).[6]
  • Second assistant to the chief pharmacist (典薬允, ,Ten'yaku no ).[6]
  • Alternate assistant to the chief pharmacist (典薬属, ,Ten'yaku no sakan).[6]

Establishment of court rankEdit

Rank Ikai
1 一位
正一位 shō ichi-i
2 従一位 ju ichi-i
3 二位
正二位 shō ni-i
4 従二位 ju ni-i
5 三位
正三位 shō san-mi
6 従三位 ju san-mi
7 四位
正四位上 shō shi-i no jō
8 正四位下 shō shi-i no ge
9 従四位上 ju shi-i no jō
10 従四位下 ju shi-i no ge
11 五位
正五位上 shō go-i no jō
12 正五位下 shō go-i no ge
13 従五位上 ju go-i no jō
14 従五位下 ju go-i no ge
15 六位
正六位上 shō roku-i no jō
16 正六位下 shō roku-i no ge
17 従六位上 ju roku-i no jō
18 従六位下 ju roku-i no ge
19 七位
正七位上 shō shichi-i no jō
20 正七位下 shō shichi-i no ge
21 従七位上 ju shichi-i no jō
22 従七位下 ju shichi-i no ge
23 八位
正八位上 shō hachi-i no jō
24 正八位下 shō hachi-i no ge
25 従八位上 ju hachi-i no jō
26 従八位下 ju hachi-i no ge
27 初位[7]
大初位上 dai so-i no jō
28 大初位下 dai so-i no ge
29 少初位上 shō so-i no jō
30 少初位下 shō so-i no ge

A global system of ranking for all public posts (官 kan, 官職 kanshoku) was introduced with over 30 ranks (位 i, 位階 ikai), regulating strictly which posts could be accessed by which rank. Ranking was supposed to be mostly merit-based, the children of high-ranking public officials were nonetheless granted a minimal rank. This provision (蔭位の制 on'i no sei) existed in the Tang law, however under the Japanese ritsuryo ranks for which it was applied were higher as well as the ranks obtained by the children.

The highest rank in the system was the first rank (一位 ich-i), proceeding downwards to the eighth rank (八位 hachi-i), held by menials in the court. Below this, an initial rank called so-i (初位) existed, but offered few rights.[8] The top six ranks were considered true aristocracy (貴 ki), and were subdivided into "senior" (正 shō)[7] and "junior" (従 ju)[7] ranks (e.g. senior third-rank [正三位 shō san-mi], junior second-rank [従二位 ju ni-i] ). Below the third rank, a further subdivision between "upper" (上 ) and "lower" (下 ge) existed, allowing for ranks such as “junior fourth rank lower” (従四位下 ju shi-i no ge) or “senior sixth rank upper” (正六位上 shō roku-i no jō). Promotion in ranks was often a very gradual, bureaucratic process, and in the early days of the Codes, one could not advance beyond sixth rank except by rare exception, thus causing a natural cut-off point between the aristocrats (fifth-rank and above [貴族 kizoku]) and the menials (sixth-rank and below [地下 jige]).[8]

Additionally, income in the form of koku (石, 1 koku = about 150 kilograms), or bushels of rice from the provinces, increased dramatically as one advanced in rank. The average sixth-rank official might earn 22 koku of rice a year, but the fifth rank might earn 225 koku of rice, while a third rank official could earn as much as 6,957 a year.[8]

Registration of the citizens (戸籍 koseki), updated every 6 years, and a yearly tax book (計帳 keichō) were established. Based on the keichō, a tax system was established called (租庸調 So-yō-chō). Tax was levied on rice crops but also on several local products (e.g. cotton, salt, tissue) sent to the capital.

The system also established local corvée at a provincial level by orders of the kokushi (国司), a corvée at the Capital (although the corvée at the capital could be replaced by goods sent) and military service.

Criminal codeEdit

A criminal system was introduced, with five levels of punishment (五刑, gokei).

  • Caning (, chi): Depending on the severity of the crime, 10, 20, 30, 40 or 50 strikes on the buttocks.
  • Public caning (, ): Depending on the severity of the crime, 60, 70, 80, 90 or 100 strikes on the buttocks, performed in public, using a slightly thicker cane than was used for chi.
  • Imprisonment (, zu): Depending on the severity of the crime, imprisonment for 1, 1.5, 2, 2.5 or 3 years.
  • Exile (流 ru) Depending on the severity of the crime, nearby exile (近流, konru), semi-distant exile (中流, chūru), or distant exile (遠流, onru).
  • Death (, shi): Depending on the severity of the crime, death by hanging (, ) or decapitation (, zan).

It defined eight heavy crimes (八虐, hachigyaku) that were exempt from amnesty. The code was based on the Ten Abominations of the Tang code, but two crimes related to family life—family discord and disruption of the family (through incest, adultery, etc.) —were removed.


In accordance with Chinese legal codes, land as well as citizens were to be "public property" (公地公民). One of the major pillars of the Ritsuryō was the introduction of the Handen-Shūju (班田収受制) system, similar to the equal-field system in China. The Handen-Shūju regulated land ownership. Based on the registration, each citizen over 6 was entitled to a "distributed field" (口分田, kubunden), subject to taxation (approx. 3% of crops). The area of each field was 2 tan () for men (approx. 22 ares total), and two-thirds of this amount for women. (However, the Shinuhi and Kenin castes were only entitled to 1/3 of this area). The field was returned to the country at death. Land belonging to shrines and temples was exempt from taxation. Collection and redistribution of land took place every 6 years.


The population was divided in two castes, Ryōmin (良民) (furthermore divided into 4 sub-castes[citation needed]) and Senmin (賤民) (divided into 5 sub-castes), the latter being close to slaves. Citizens wore different colors according to their caste.

Evolution of Ritsuryō applicationEdit

Several modifications were added over time. In order to promote cultivation, a law allowing the ownership for three generations of newly arable fields was promulgated in 723 (三世一身の法, Sanze-isshin Law) and then without limits in 743 (墾田永年私財法, Konden Einen Shizai Law). This led to the appearance of large private lands, the first shōens.

Strict application of the Handen-Shūju system decayed in the 8th and 9th century.[9] In an attempt to maintain the system, the period between each collection/distribution was extended to 12 years under Emperor Kanmu. At the beginning of Heian period, the system was almost not enforced. The last collection/distribution took place between 902 and 903.

The caste system was less and less strictly enforced. Some Ryōmin would wed Senmin to avoid taxation, and Senmin/Ryōmin children would become Ryōmin. At the end of the 9th century / beginning of the 10th, the caste system was practically void of its substance.

Hereditary high-ranks for public posts led to the monopoly of occupation of the most important posts by a limited number of families, in effect a nobility, amongst which the Fujiwara clan, Minamoto clan, Taira clan and the Tachibana clan.

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ Mesheryakov, Alexander. (2003). "On the Quantity of Written Data Produced by the Ritsuryō State", Japan Review, 15:187–199.
  2. ^ Asakawa, Kan'ichi. (1903). The Early Institutional Life of Japan: A Study in the Reform of 645, p. 324 n.3.
  3. ^ Asakawa, p. 13.
  4. ^ a b Titsingh, Isaac. (1834). Annales des empereurs du japon, p. 429.
  5. ^ a b Titsingh, p. 430.
  6. ^ a b c d Titsingh, p. 434.
  7. ^ a b c The initial ranks were subdivided into "greater" (大 dai) and "lesser" (少 shō) ranks.
  8. ^ a b c Borgen, Robert (1994). Sugawara no Michizane and the Early Heian Court. University of Hawaii Press. pp. 13–14. ISBN 0-8248-1590-4.
  9. ^ D., Totman, Conrad (2000-01-01). A history of Japan. Blackwell Publishers. p. 100. ISBN 1557860769. OCLC 41967280.


External linksEdit