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Registration and RecognitionDocumenting the Person in World History$

Keith Breckenridge and Simon Szreter

Print publication date: 2012

Print ISBN-13: 9780197265314

Published to British Academy Scholarship Online: January 2014

DOI: 10.5871/bacad/9780197265314.001.0001

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Japan’s Civil Registration Systems Before and After the Meiji Restoration

Japan’s Civil Registration Systems Before and After the Meiji Restoration

(p.113) 4 Japan’s Civil Registration Systems Before and After the Meiji Restoration
Registration and Recognition

Osamu Saito

Masahiro Sato

British Academy

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter traces the evolution of Japan's systems of household and land registration from c.1600 to the period of early Meiji reforms in the 1870s and 1880s, with due attention to the distinction between a system designed by the state and local forms of registration practice. In the section on the pre-Meiji period, one such local practice of having people ‘disowned’ and its consequence — registerlessness — is examined. The section on the Meiji reforms and the section that follows turn to the issue of continuity and discontinuity, and the question of whether any progress was made by those reforms. In order to illustrate the actual changes that took place at the local level, the chapter begins with an eighteenth-century story about a peasant woman and ends with a case of a family dispute that another village woman brought before the court some 120 years later.

Keywords:   disowning, household registration, land registration, Meiji reforms, registerless, village practice


ON 8 FEBRUARY 1763, a 44-year-old poor peasant woman named Ken refused to affix her seal to that year’s population register. Herman Ooms’s intriguing account of Ken’s lifelong struggle for justice begins with this unusual incident in Makibuse village of Shinano province (Ozaki 1985; Ooms 1996, ch. 1). The story involves a case of disinheritance and the subsequent murder of her disinherited brother, both of which had happened twenty-one years before the population register incident; in 1759 Ken had lodged a petition, which amounted to accusations directed at her uncle and village officials in relation to the murder case, but at the same time was seeking some sort of justice for that crime committed seventeen years earlier. The refusal to certify her household’s entry in the register four years later, therefore, was a manifestation of her anger and resentment that such justice had not been done. Her misbehaved, gambling and drunken brother had been disowned by the mother, under ‘the will of the lineage’ and, presumably, under pressure from village officials as well, and it had been subsequent intra-lineage quarrels which had led to his violent death, beaten up by his uncle and fellow villagers. We learn from Ooms’s expositions and interpretations of Tokugawa legal code and practice that one possible reason why the ‘murder’ was regarded as justifiable – and it was Ken who bore the brunt of the community’s criticism – was the fact that he had been disowned by the parent, since, under Tokugawa law, those who were disowned became outlaws. We also learn that following her brother’s death, her mother’s eventual death, and her own third husband’s disappearance, Ken lived alone in her house; she was the head of the household in 1763.

This brief account of a series of rather unusual events that took place in a small village some 250 years ago suggests something about how eighteenth-century Japan’s civil registration system worked and how different it was from the one introduced after the Meiji Restoration of 1868. This chapter first traces the evolution (p.114) of systems of household and land registration from Tokugawa times to the period of early Meiji reforms in the 1870s and 1880s, in an age in which markets in land and labour were expanding – slowly in the beginning, then accelerating towards the end of the period.1 The tie between family and land was the building block of a society in which as many as 80 per cent of the population were classified as ‘peasants’. Then a section on the new Meiji state’s reform efforts turns to the issue of continuity and discontinuity, while the following section discusses if any progress was made by the Meiji reforms with respect to civil identity registration. The chapter ends with an account of another dispute which was brought before court some 120 years after Ken’s dispute, in a different province. Though less eventful than in Ken’s case, the Meiji dispute also involved a peasant woman and an attempted dis-inheritance. This 1880 story will, it is hoped, illustrate some of the key changes that took place in the significance of identity registration procedures at the village level across the Tokugawa-Meiji transition.

Tokugawa registration practices

When Japan introduced China’s ancient state model in the seventh century CE, the package included a household registration system (see Chapter 1). However, this ancient experiment failed to take root and persist. It was not until the late sixteenth century that a renewed initiative in household registration was made. The period marked the end of a century-long era of warring states within Japan and, not surprisingly, the unifiers wanted to know more about the people and their land that came under their rule. Thus, the early modern concept of ‘registration’ started as a state project. Nevertheless, as we will see below, this should not be taken to imply that the early modern systems of registration worked only from above.

Land registration

Japan’s early modern regime began with cadastral surveys. The series of surveys was undertaken from the 1580s onwards by the successive unifiers, Oda Nobunaga, Toyotomi Hideyoshi and Tokugawa Ieyasu. Their project of surveying was expected to serve as a means to separate samurai, professional warriors – who later became sedentary civil servants – from peasants, a class devoted, supposedly, entirely to agriculture. This was to facilitate the collection of taxes from the peasant class, and to tighten control over 300 daimyō (overlords) and the assignment of fiefs to them. In addition to these aims, the overlords themselves were interested in curbing geographical mobility of their own peasants; for them land and peasants were their (p.115) power base, in both a fiscal and a military sense. Inevitably the whole process of surveying land and peasants was prolonged, but it is said to have been completed nearly everywhere by the end of the 1610s. Some overlords made second surveys later, trying to get hold of newly reclaimed areas of farmland.

With these surveys, the territorial boundaries of the village (mura – etymo-logically a ‘cluster’ of houses) were demarcated. The official status of the village community may be traced back to the seventh century when the Chinese system of government was introduced. However, it was not until the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries that the village’s territory was authoritatively recorded and its status as an administrative unit was firmly established. The village was an autonomous organization with its own office created within the community. The office holders, restricted in many cases to the heads of prominent families, were selected by the village assembly, and it was they who managed village-level political affairs free from supervision from above (T. Sato 1990, 53–55; Smith 1959, 54–56). For the office and officers (we will have a closer look at how the village office worked in the next section) the cadastral compilations provided detailed information about the relationship between property-holding and identifiable persons. The villagers, who had to pay the land tax, were those whose names were recorded in the land register. However, the overlord’s government did not levy the tax on an individual basis. Everywhere, it was the village community’s responsibility to pay all the taxes levied collectively on the villagers’ land; thus, the village had to pay the sum of all those taxes even when one or two failed to bring their shares in. As a result of this peculiar system of taxation (called murauke), while the overlord held the ultimate ownership of the entire territory, his government lost interest in the administration of individual-level landholdings, so that the individual peasants gained the right to use an individual plot of land in an exclusive manner and also the de facto right of disposal of that land, even though under Tokugawa law it is true that the ‘perpetual sale’ of cultivated land was prohibited.

In practice, however, sales did take place, often taking the form of ‘a pledge irredeemable after ten years’, although the number of years was in many cases a matter of mutual arrangement. On the other hand, the village community held a discretionary power in the land transaction process. Thus, every transaction involved both the seller’s relatives, who countersealed the document, and the village officials, whose function was to ‘affix an official seal and change the names in the land register’ (Wigmore 1967–1986, pt 2: 11).2 In fact, there existed more openly ‘perpetual’ sales of cultivated land. In such cases, the headman may not have affixed his official seal; yet, as a report of Mikawa province’s Nukata district suggests, he was ‘usually privy to it’ (Wigmore 1967–1986, pt 2: 18). The land registers and other related documents were thus kept by village officials, never by samurai (p.116) magistrates, suggesting that land registration during the Tokugawa period was administered almost exclusively by the village community.

In Ken’s case, land registration did not play an important part (which was rather unusual since most disputes between Tokugawa villagers involved land). This is probably because Ken’s family possessed only a minuscule amount of land. At the end of 1740 her family’s holdings were only 0.19 koku; at the start of 1727 the figure had been 1.97 koku, even then an amount with which no family of four could make a living without extra earnings from non-farm by-employments (Ooms 1996, 50).3 It was for this reason that Ken’s brother got involved in horse trading, which was not regarded as a steady job in the Tokugawa agrarian world; it was this shady trade which eventually led him to a quarrel with his uncle, and hence to his violent death. However, as Ooms notes, their family had been a prominent, core member of the village; but over the period prior to the early eighteenth century, they had lost their properties one by one, presumably in the form of foreclosure of the mortgaged land. Thus landholdings did change hands and every change was registered at the village office. Indeed, it was the village community that kept lists of all plots of cultivated land, and the names of holders of the fields concerned and the titles thus certified, since any change in land ownership had tax implications. Owing to this, and also because of the absence of an independent institutional arrangement that could handle inter-village disputes, the village officials tried hard to keep market transactions in land within the village. In the administration of land registration, too, there was a tendency for the concepts of registration and entitlement not to extend beyond the village boundary.

Household registration

In addition to the village land registers, the Tokugawa regime launched a system of household registration later in the seventeenth century, as a religious survey (shūmon aratame). Following a decision to cut ties with the Jesuits, whose missionary activities were viewed as threatening, the Tokugawa shogunate government ordered all overlords in 1665 to take a religious census. In every village the officials drew up a new list of households and their members for inspection by the head of each household and the head priest of the respective temple; both affixed the seals to the compiled register, certifying that they were not believers in the prohibited cult of Christianity (Cornell and Hayami 1986; Hayami 2001, 26–37).

However, since this form of registration became annual from 1671 onwards, the compilation eventually gained an additional function, as keeping a register of households and population. Table 4.1 represents the format of a sample page from (p.117) a typical shūmon register in the year 1773. It lists the name and age of the principal householder at the head of the list, his religious affiliation and related information, the wife’s age and religious information (if different), the children’s names, sex and ages, and finally the totals for that household (for names only first names were given, which was a Tokugawa practice). Note that the term ‘head of the household’ (koshu)is not given, and that the name of the wife is omitted here. The latter cannot be taken to imply that women’s position was weak in the peasant family, for, as the case of Ken of Makibuse indicates, peasant women sometimes behaved differently from that prescribed in samurai-adopted Confucian teachings (Walthall 1991, 60). On the other hand, the absence of a term for the head of household is probably a reflection of rural Tokugawa practice, since studies of Meiji family law have made it clear that the authority of male headship was strengthened during the Meiji period, implying that it had been weaker previously. In Tokugawa village customary practice, while the head was customarily a male, it did not mean that, as we will see below, women were legally excluded from the succession to headship, nor did it imply that the male head could act against interests of the corporate entity of the family (called ‘ie’).

Every year in every village in the country, two registers were prepared: the original was filed in an office of the samurai magistrate in charge, while the duplicate remained with the village headman, implying that all the information contained in the register remained within the village. Moreover, once in every six years the aggregate results were reported to the shogunate government. In other words, a religious survey that had been started to stamp out Christianity now took on two

Table 4.1 A sample page from a shūmon aratame register

One household NAME [Seal]



Address and NAME of temple, denomination




Address and NAME of temple, denomination


Daughter NAME


Address and NAME of temple, denomination




Address and NAME of temple, denomination


Daughter NAME


Address and NAME of temple, denomination




Address and NAME of temple, denomination


Total []

 Of which

  Males []

  Females []

Source: From the 1773 register, Kōmi village, Motosu-gun, Mino province.


1. The name and seal at the top of the page are those of the head of the list.

2. The name of the wife is not given.

3. The seal affixed at the end of each individual entry is that of a temple.

(p.118) new functions: the government’s undertaking of periodical censuses and local administrations’ record-keeping.

It was the village office that administered all the registration procedures, kept the records and used them for any administrative purpose when necessary. There were all together more than 60,000 such villages in Tokugawa Japan, and each was administered by a group of about ten officials. They were capable of reading and drafting these as well as other formal documents in an almost identical style (called oieryū), which was accepted by both samurai and commoners across the country. Formal and informal schooling brought this style to children of many well-to-do peasants, so that one may say that ‘there was no great difference, in terms of literacy, between peasant officialdom and samurai’ (Moriya 1990).4 Villagers, on the other hand, were entitled to make requests to the village office with respect to any matters of their members’ civil status and registration. Some were not literate, as in Ken’s case, but Ken apparently had no difficulty finding someone who was able to draft a formal request on her behalf (Ooms 1996, 40–41), suggesting that the general level of literacy among peasants was not low even in the mid-eighteenth century. Indeed, according to one estimate, 43 per cent of boys and 10 per cent of girls – the vast majority of whom were peasant children – acquired some form of basic literacy at school by the end of the Tokugawa period (Dore 1965, 317–322).

However, this should not be taken to imply that a national system of registration of demographic events came into existence. According to Zenkoku minji kanrei ruishū, compiled and published by the newly established Ministry of Justice in 1880, and translated into English later as Law and Justice in Tokugawa Japan,5 the ways in which demographic events such as birth, marriage and death were registered varied from place to place. In the case of the registration of birth, for example, the 1880 ruishū reveals that, while in most cases the report was made to the village office, either orally or in writing, there were areas where it was given to the parish temple or neighbours, only. There were some other variations: for example, in the Abe and Udo districts of Suruga province, ‘births are reported to the village office, but not registered. Those above ten years of age are annually entered in the official register, and only once in every seven years those below ten years of age are registered’; in the Moda district of Kazusa province, ‘births must be reported immediately… but children below seven are usually excluded from the register’ (Wigmore 1967–1986, pt 7: 15). There existed cases in which even conception was required to be reported to the village office, although as noted for Miyagi of Rikuzen province, ‘the majority of people do not observe this rule because (p.119) of the trouble of writing’; and in a couple of districts of Chikuzen province, despite seemingly thorough supervision of ‘births and nurture of infants’ by ‘special officers’, ‘the child presents himself at the religious survey’ only at 7 years of age (Wigmore 1967–1986, pt 7: 17, 19, 20, 30).6 It is likely that there were greater regional variations with respect to the registration of death, marriage and adoption. Indeed, although the 1880 volume simply notes that the procedures of registration were ‘similar to those of births’, it is recorded that in the district of Ise, ‘Cases of death, marriage, adoption, etc. are not reported immediately, such changes of family members being all registered at the time of the religious survey [i.e. every six years]’ (Wigmore 1967–1986, pt 7: 45, 108, 225).

All this suggests that the timing of registration varied considerably from place to place. On the other hand, there is no hint in the 1880 ruishū that Tokugawa Japan’s identity registration was anything but compulsory. Everybody in the village entered the register; the only exception was small children who died early – in some exceptional cases, before the child reached 7 years of age, but in most cases, before the next year’s annual household and population register was compiled. To put it differently, the Tokugawa system of civil registration was fairly universal; as for the commoners, the only problem lay in the area of vital registration.

In the early years of Tokugawa rule, after a series of famines and peasant disturbances in the 1630s and 1640s in particular, the shogunate government was preoccupied with the question of how to cope with village affairs. They produced a body of regulatory edicts and ordinances, according to which peasants were subjected to many restrictions on, for example, their own mobility. They were discouraged from leaving the village to work elsewhere, working land outside the village, and moving the household out of the village (Totman 1993, 111–113). This may be taken to suggest that the implementation of the religious (shūmon) registration system in the subsequent decades was in fact in order to take control of people’s whereabouts across the country, and hence that it must have been effective in tying the peasants to the land. However, Ken’s story indicates that both her father and brother were able to leave the village – to work in Edo (Tokyo) for two years in the father’s case, and for five years in the brother’s case. Temporal or seasonal migration was thus not uncommon, and in most cases out-migrants did not bother to notify their departure to the village office. Ken, too, tried to move her house formally out of the village in the later stage of her long battle with the village authorities. A cursory look at standard registration practice reveals that there existed a built-in procedure within the registration system:

If a tradesman wishes to transfer to another province, a notification must be made to the local office, which issues a transfer certificate, and permits the applicant to leave (p.120) the place. Farmers, however, cannot leave unless they have appointed an heir, as they must pay land-taxes.

(Wigmore 1967–1986, pt 7: 181)

The general rule, in other words, was that ‘a person may remove and transfer his registration quite freely, if he notifies the local office and obtains the transfer certificate’ (Wigmore 1967–1986, pt 7: 185, for the Katori district of Shimōsa province). This formal procedure enabled a non-heir son who established himself as an apprenticed tradesman or craftsman, or a branch household elsewhere, to move residence legally. On the other hand, the rule implies that the system allowed village authorities to regulate people’s movement. It explains not only why actual procedures varied from district to district, but also the reason why peasants ‘cannot leave unless they have appointed an heir’. Since the total amount of land taxes was fixed for a village, with the tax unit being the household, any change in the number of households in the village would affect everybody else’s tax payment, as a result of which the village officials were far more concerned with the movement of a household than with that of an individual (Saito 2009, 185). All this meant that while the Tokugawa system of identity registration was universal in the sense that no one would be administratively invisible as long as he or she was a commoner, the village boundary mattered in relation to his or her own mobility.

However, there was an exception to these rules. As suggested above with respect to the disinheritance case of Ken’s brother, the removal of one’s name as a member of a particular household from the village’s population register meant a loss of civil protection in Tokugawa society. Tokugawa civil code and practice allowed the head of the family to ‘disown’ a child:

If a son or a younger brother misconducts himself and does not obey the admonition of the father or the elder brother, the latter may report the circumstances to the local office and he is reprimanded at the office. If he still does not reform, generally an application for disowning is made, and the authorities inquire into the circumstances, and if they decide that there is no probability of his reformation, they grant the application and remove his name from the register.7

(Wigmore 1967–1986, pt 7: 211–212)

The act of disowning was called kyūri or kandō, the former meaning ‘long separation’ and the latter ‘to consider the appropriate punishment’ (Wigmore 1967–1986, pt 7: 211, n.7). This usage of words implies two things. One implication is that disowning a child was – to borrow the phrase from Ooms – a ‘punishment’ by the family and the community and also a ‘protection against possible prosecution of his or her relatives and kumi [i.e. neighbourhood group] members for crimes he (p.121) or she might commit’ (Ooms 1996, 44). Also it is implied that, after being denied a place in the village community, the disowned could not obtain a certificate of transfer, either. Thus, the removal from the register (chō-hazure) meant that the disowned also lost all the kinds of ‘protection’ they could expect from the community. As the report from Izu province’s Tagata district notes, the disowned became ‘a vagrant’ in most cases (Wigmore 1967–1986, pt 7: 215). Moreover, it is reported that in the Shiga district of Ōmi province, ‘when a [registerless] person… returns without permission, the hinin watchman is ordered to drive him away’ (Wigmore 1967–1986, pt 7: 216).8 In other words, the disowned were outlaws.

It is probably because of this grave consequence that not just relatives but also village authorities were involved in the procedures of a disowning case, and, in fact, many authorities seem to have tried to avoid such a draconian outcome. Indeed, there were cases where the name of the disowned was not removed from the register but was just tagged or put in an appendix, or not removed unless he committed a crime twice (the former is found in Ōmi, Shimōsa, Hitachi and Sanuki provinces, while the latter is found in the Tōtōmi case; see Wigmore 1967–1986, pt 7: 214, 215, 216, 220–221). Moreover, the authorities were pleased to ‘allow his name to be re-entered in the register’ as soon as an application was made by the family on the grounds that he was ‘reformed’ (as in the Kii case; see Wigmore 1967–1986, pt 7: 220). On the other hand, the rules were such that there were always a sizeable number of the disowned.

They were joined by another type of registerless people. A chapter on absconding in the 1880 ruishū shows that when a person absconded, a two-stage search was made, with six months between the stages. ‘After a lapse of a year [from the second search order], or sometimes three years, the absconder’s name is removed from the register’ (Wigmore 1967–1986, pt 7: 134). Seasonal and short-term out-migration without notification to the village office was tolerated on the assumption that they would eventually come home. In reality, however, there were a substantial number of people who failed to return to the village. Also, there were those who simply disappeared, such as those who failed to pay debts.

Obviously, not all local authorities removed the names of those people automatically. Some were apparently half-hearted in tracing missing villagers. In many cases, it seems that the names were not removed from the register unless ‘it is feared that he may commit a crime while missing’ (as in the case of Tajima province’s Kinosaki district). One consequence of this practice is not surprising: as reported from the Miyazaki and Koyu districts of Hyuga province, ‘very often a person calculated to be over a hundred years old is found’ in the village population register (p.122) (Wigmore 1967–1986, pt 7: 149, 157–158). A majority of those ‘centenarians’ must have long since been dead elsewhere.

In other cases, however, the village authorities were more careful and meticulous. Those people were tagged or appended so that the village’s de facto population could be reckoned separately from its de jure population (Cornell and Hayami 1986, 171–173; Hayami 2001, 28–31). A village of Mino province called Nishijo was one such case, where each household was appended with a section in which household members who had left the household to work elsewhere or to get married were recorded. Although the date of moving-out was not given, the section (called sotogaki, literally ‘outside section’) lists all those who moved out elsewhere and still stayed away (see Table 4.4 below; see also Saito and Hamano 2006, 164; Cornell and Hayami 1986, 171–172). Similar lists are said to have been compiled in many places and called differently; in Hitachi province’s Ibaraki district, for example, it was called an ‘appended register’ (Wigmore 1967–1986, pt 7: 139, 126). In other cases, the village authorities compiled a separate register for those who were supposed to be in other provinces, listing not just ‘absconders’ but temporary out-migrants as well: for example, this is what village officials in Tōtōmi province’s Sano district were doing (Wigmore 1967–1986, pt 7: 137).

All these examples may be taken to suggest that the village authorities tried to come to terms with the reality of out-migration. However, given the general custom quoted above, many must have become registerless eventually, and as contem-poraries thought, most of the registerless drifted towards towns and cities. The historian Naotaro Sekiyama speculates, based on a remark by one overlord at the time of a famine in the late eighteenth century, that with both types of the registerless together they could have amounted to one million (Sekiyama 1958, 57, 155), though this is probably an overestimate.9

In principle, the outcasts were all registered, but separately from the commoners. The 1880 ruishū makes it clear that they were ‘registered separately, and the temple register of each [category of the outcasts] is filed at the feudal office’ (Wigmore 1967–1986, pt 7: 3). Sekiyama also notes that although in some provinces they may not have been included in population totals, individually they were all registered (1958, 90–92). However, while the ruling class of samurai are said to have been covered by religious surveys, their registers were apparently never compiled (Sekiyama 1958, 89–90), thus suggesting that Tokugawa Japan’s civil registration was in practice implemented to cover the ruled, but not the ruling elite.

(p.123) The Meiji registration system

The Tokugawa regime collapsed in 1868. While the new regime took the form of a restoration of imperial rule, the pressing need for the ‘Restoration’ forces was perceived as being how to build a new nation state. Before the new government were competing models of state formation. One set of concerns was a debate over a centuries-old Chinese typology in government: central, bureaucratic rule (gunken) versus decentralized, feudal divisions (hōken). Since the Tokugawa regime was considered a typical example of the latter model, the new Meiji government opted for the former, which meant the increasing centralization of all systems. Another set of concerns was the balance to be achieved between an indigenous nationalism and Western influences in relation to the reforms the incoming government wanted to carry out. After the opening of the country in 1859, there was an influx of Western learning and ideas, giving rise to a period of ‘civilization and enlightenment’ (bunmei kaika). Many of the themes of the Japanese enlightenment were instrumental in institution-building, but at the same time the pro-Western arguments alarmed conservatives. Thus, the state had to make a delicate choice in many areas while attempting its institutional reforms. The registration of family and land was one such area.

Household registration

A new system of household registration was introduced in 1872. When promulgated, it was proudly proclaimed in the Preamble to this first Family Registration Law that:

Any government’s first and most important task is to clarify the count of households and the number of population. There is no need to be said that the protection of the people of the nation is the primary objective of this Sovereign State. Without a count of people to be protected, how could the protective duties be provided?10

The language used sounds Confucian: it was probably meant to appeal to the Confucian sentiment of benevolence, not to any version of modern welfare statism. It is therefore difficult to know what kind of ‘protective duties’ the government actually contemplated. On the other hand, there is evidence that the new government faced a ‘law and order’ problem in the capital city; as soon as the civil war with the Tokugawa and its allies was over, a large number of masterless samurai flowed into the metropolitan areas. Decrees and notices issued by a newly created Council prior to the promulgation of the Family Registration Law often mentioned the rampages of unregistered, penniless ex-samurai in Tokyo, relating this issue to the (p.124) urgency of tighter registration.11 Whatever the ulterior motive of this literature, the Preamble to the 1872 law does suggest that the new government was committed to creating a comprehensive system of registration.

The abolition of the decentralized governance structure in the previous year paved the way to a centralized institution-building in the area of population accounting. An important departure from the Tokugawa past was made to bring all social classes (except the royal family) in every region of the country under a unified framework. Across the country, a standardized identity register was used. The entries in this 1872 register format were: address, ownership of the house, status distinction (aristocracy, ex-samurai, commoner, or new commoner), occupation, headship and the relation to the head, birth year, and age; for adopted or married-in members of the household, the address of the former residence, status, and the parents’ names and status were also required to be entered – all registered with surnames. It was much more detailed than the Tokugawa register, although its entries were a little simplified later, as shown in Table 4.2.12 It is important to realize that for the first time the ruling elite were treated equally with the ruled. Also, upon the Edict of Emancipation in 1871 the former outcasts were integrated into the commoner class, although in fact the added adjective ‘new’ in the 1872 register made their emancipation only nominal (discrimination against the former outcasts may well have increased rather than decreased).13 It is believed that actual methods of recording and monitoring at the local level remained largely the same as in Tokugawa times. There was also a requirement to take a comprehensive survey of population and households once every six years, which had been another aspect of the Tokugawa-Meiji continuity (M. Sato 2002, 45–49).

Meiji Japan’s civil code, which came into effect in 1898, is known for its unusually strong emphasis on the authority of the family head in its private law areas. Indeed, the adopted version was a product of a long, politicized discussion. An earlier draft in 1890, based largely on an individualist French model, was criticized by a group of conservative scholars as well as politicians, who argued that its adoption would destroy traditional family values as the draft did not make enough provisions for the head of the family. One spokesman for the group blasted it, saying that ‘Loyalty and filial piety will perish with the enactment of the civil code.’ It was a version revised substantially along this conservative line that was enacted eventually (see Frank et al. 2005, 3.1; Hirakawa 1989, 472–479).

The revision was most marked in the area of family law. Thus, according to the 1898 civil code, members of the family household or ‘house’ (ie) were subject to (p.125)

Table 4.2. Meiji household registration format




Former head NAME

Date of succession of headship [Seal]


NAME [Eldest] son of former head NAME

Date of birth

Date of marriage-in [Second] daughter of NAME, status, address


NAME Wife of former head

Date of birth

Date of marriage-in [Third] daughter of NAME, status, address



Date of birth

Eldest son


Date of birth

Eldest daughter


Date of birth

Second son


Date of birth

Note: 1896 format adopted by the Home Ministry.

the authority of the head. Daughters-in-law and adopted children entered an ie and, hence, were registered as such only with the consent of its head (Article 750). The head could even determine a member’s place of residence in so far as such an action was considered necessary for the family (Article 749). The primacy of the household head was firmly established by the 1898 civil code (de Becker 1921, 647–654; Frank et al.2005, 283–285), although, as we will see below, it is important to realize that in areas other than family law, especially in property law, much of the individualist principle inherent in the earlier draft code of 1890 was in fact retained.

The Family Registration Law, revised at the time of the enactment of the 1898 civil code, did not alter the 1872 procedures greatly. However, its administration was transferred to the Ministry of Justice from the Home Ministry (to which the (p.126) Statistical Bureau belonged). With this change, a couple of small but important modifications were made. One was the exclusion of occupation from the entries in the registration form. Another was that the idea of census taking through registration data was abandoned, which became a separate agenda leading to the implementation by the Statistical Bureau of the first national census in 1920. Both may be taken to suggest that, under the 1898 regime, household registration was placed in the field of ‘law and order’, rather than that of ‘population and statistics’, making it clear that the central state was now fully prepared to deal with criminality on the one hand and local disputes over inheritance and privileges on the other (M. Sato 2002, 51, n.9).

Land registration

In 1872 another important change was made with respect to the registration question. A certificate of ownership (chiken) was issued to the holder of any parcel of land in the country, on which the name and address of the holder, the location, category and area of the parcel, and also its monetary value were indicated. Table 4.3 shows that the certificate was signed by the governor of a prefecture with his seal also affixed. The original was kept by the landholder himself and the copy filed at the prefectural office. With the issue of such certificates, the ownership of land property in the modern sense was formally established. In the next year the government announced a radical revision of taxation on land; the 1872 certificate was to be substituted by a new one in the course of the land tax reform, although it took several years to complete the whole process. When the owner sold a parcel of land to someone else, the transfer was endorsed at the local government office, where the name and address of the new owner were added on the back of the certificate. Clearly this ownership certificate, especially its copy kept by the prefectural office, served also as a register document, replacing the age-old framework based on cadastral surveys. This registration mode lasted until 1889 when a new type of land register was introduced, although the principal new features of the registration system established in 1872–1873 remained the same.

One crucial but probably unintended consequence of the whole reform was that the village community no longer mattered: the village administration lost its discretionary power to influence market transactions in land. Together with this new registration framework came a Western, centralized court system. The whole system enabled anyone to buy and sell a parcel of land across the administrative boundaries and, if the client failed to keep his promise, to take the case to court. The reason why the government underwent such a radical land reform was fiscal, to secure a stable source of tax revenue. In so doing, however, they brought in two important changes. First, the state formally granted the peasant landholder the title to that land. Second, the land tax was now to be paid in cash, not in kind. This monetization drive, together with the confirmation of absolute private ownership, enabled (p.127)

Table 4.3. Certificate of land ownership

No. []







  Monetary value

Issued upon inspection

NAME of Governor [Seal]


NAME of Officer [Seal]

Source: An 1873 certificate issued by Akita prefecture. www.daito.ac.jp/~mnoguchi/tanto_kougi/kougi_fudosan/fudosan_chiken.htm.

transactions in land to take place more openly and frequently. The certificates thus functioned as marketable securities in the age of market expansion.

Given the significance of the land–family bond in the Tokugawa period, it is interesting to see if the primacy of the family head, identified in the registration of a household and its members, was also expressed in the above mode of land registration. Recently it has been argued that:

Under the Meiji civil code that governed the household registers, wives, concubines, children, siblings, parents, extended or adopted family, and servants were enumerated as members of the head’s household but, like livestock, land, and inanimate objects, they were bound to the head legally as his property.

(Winther 2008, 27)

The statement is strong but metaphorical. Even so, what is suggested is that the head’s authority extended to landed property, which is misleading. Indeed, a cursory look at the form of the certificate of ownership (see Table 4.3) reveals that there was no sign of familial information on any part of the document. It is also clear from the corresponding provisions of the 1898 civil code that an individual family member was allowed to own separate property in his or her own name (Article 748). In other words, on the death of the family head, the property right of the family land could be passed on separately from that of the headship. Given the weight of this legal evidence, therefore, it is wrong to conclude that both were centred on the corporate family household (ie): household registration was based on the ie concept, but land registration was not. As Joseph de Becker noted in 1921,

the idea of property belonging to a house [ie] itself, and the head of the house being merely the manager thereof, is now obsolete from the legal point of view at least, although it must be conceded that many an old-fashioned and conscientious head of a house is still governed by that idea.

(de Becker 1921, 637)

(p.128) Legally speaking, the Tokugawa concept of family property and the idea of the head ‘being merely the manager thereof’ now gave way to a more individualist principle. Apparently, under the new Meiji regime, power relationships within the family changed. Headship was strengthened in both legal and economic-financial terms, enabling the family property to be more secure as long as the head remained risk-averse, but, paradoxically, much less so whenever he ventured to take a risk in a newly opened-up business world.

Tokugawa-Meiji comparisons

Having surveyed the evolution of registration systems in Japan from the seventeenth to the nineteenth century, one may ask whether or not progress in relation to civil identity registration was actually made in the Tokugawa-Meiji transition, and, if any, then what sort of progress it could be in terms of the liberal individualist and gender-egalitarian notions of ‘modernity’?

Let us first examine the role of the family head in registration procedures. Here the yardstick cannot be the dichotomy of corporate versus individualist principle as in both Tokugawa and Meiji times the mode of registration was centred on the family household, not on the individual. A more realistic distinction is probably between management by face-to-face contacts and management by written documents. Although the degree to which written documentation played a role in Tokugawa village society should not be underestimated (Ooms 1996, 69–70), the early Meiji period did see a decisive shift taking place from the former to the latter mode of management.14 In this respect, it is worth reiterating that in the Tokugawa register the headship was assumed, whereas under the Meiji civil code the head was a legally recognized status. In both Tokugawa and Meiji times, it is likely that people’s perception of the family and their expectation about the role of the head remained virtually unchanged. Under traditional Japan’s stem family system, one child stayed on in the household, who would inherit both headship and family property from the father. The child could be the eldest son, the youngest son, or even a daughter who would adopt a husband-in-law. When demographic events disrupted this procedure, a person with whom everybody in his or her kin group could agree would be chosen as a person suitable to look after the maintenance of family welfare and continuation. In almost all cases, probably, such tacit rules would present no problem (Nakane 1967, 2–4; Saito 2011b, 467–468).

However, there were always exceptional cases where one party’s expectation differed sharply from the other party’s in that kin group, which would lead to a family dispute or, as in Ken’s story, even to litigation. If the family headship itself (p.129) was at issue, things could be extremely difficult to solve – as far as Tokugawa society was concerned. Yet, in the Meiji world of management by written documents, the consequence could be different. The Meiji civil code was specific enough to appoint someone in the family as the head even when a prospective heir was absent (Frank et al. 2005, 316). Although the boundary and structure of the family might be difficult to define, its headship was thus rendered legally unmistakable.

Moreover, as emphasized above, the registration of landed property was carried out on an individualist principle even in the Meiji regime. This gap between the two registration principles could be another and independent source of complication, if the ownership of a piece of land was involved in a dispute. According to the Meiji legal framework, however, the name on the document was the owner of the real estate in question, whatever other kin people had said about his legitimacy as a genuine occupier of the land. To borrow the phrase used by a foreign commentator, the head was no longer a mere ‘manager’ of family property (de Becker 1921, 637). All this, it is believed, could, however, act against the interests of women in the family, since Meiji Japan’s family law was patriarchal, reflecting much of Tokugawa-era samurai ideology – but somewhat different from the established practices of the peasant class. Thus, the early Meiji period saw male authority strengthened in the form of these headship functions. It is difficult to say, therefore, whether, in terms of gender equality through ‘protection’ by the state, much ‘progress’ was made between the two regimes.

The second area is that of vital registration. As we have seen, there was a tendency in Tokugawa times that babies were not immediately registered, as a result of which, those who died young may not have been recorded in the death register either. It is likely that such customs survived well into the early Meiji period. For example, even a doctor did not bother about writing a death certificate for those who died before 3 months of age. However, such under-enumerations are said to have declined substantially by 1890. In 1880 procedures for the notification of infectious diseases were formalized, and in 1884 a certificate of death by the medical practitioner became compulsory for burial, two developments which are believed to have been effective in reducing the numbers of unreported births and deaths (Takase 1991; Saito 2002, 115–117).

The third area to be examined is the question of disowning. As we have seen, the right of the head or the parents to disown a child could result – for the disowned – in a loss of any protection from the community in the Tokugawa past. However, this concept of disowning cannot be found in the provisions of the Meiji civil code. One may argue that the possibility of a prospective heir losing his right of inheritance (Article 891) and the head’s aforementioned right to determine one’s place of residence (Article 749) could be interpreted as legacies from Tokugawa practice. They do sound like conventional disinheritance. But in actuality, no one was allowed to ask the local office to remove his child’s name from the register any longer: the right of the parent to do so was denied by the first Family (p.130) Registration Law of 1871. Although it was a reform in registration procedures, the traditional concept of disowning was apparently abandoned by Meiji law experts (Hiroi 1996). One implication of this decision was that the disinherited would no longer become registerless for that reason. However, there were still other factors that accounted for much registerlessness in the Tokugawa period, especially ‘outmigration’ (i.e. migration from the countryside to the town).

The fourth area is concerned with this question of how to register people who left the native village for a substantial period of time. After the Meiji reforms, their numbers were on the increase. A solution sought by the Meiji government was the introduction of a concept of ‘staying temporarily’ (kiryū). Under a new framework, a person who stayed in a place other than his or her de jure domicile (honseki)for more than ninety days was described as in kiryū.15Although one could move the de jure domicile, it was usually in the place where the ie – the family household he or she belonged to – was registered. According to regulations brought in with this concept, any persons who wanted to move their residence out of their de jure domicile were required to notify the village office for out-migration and also to notify the office of the place they were moving to. In the two offices, kiryū registers were compiled, one was an out-kiryū register and the other an in-kiryū register.

The term kiryū was new, but the idea was not. It can be traced back to appended registers of out-migrants that some Tokugawa villages devised. Table 4.4 is one such example, appended as an ‘outside section’ of one household’s shūmon register. There are all together four people listed who had moved out from this household by the year of compilation – two were out working elsewhere and the other two married out. The latter are just for the administrative record, but the former could be crucially important, in the sense that if their names had been completely removed from the register, and if they had failed to register in their new places, they would

Table 4.4. An appended outside section (sotogaki) of a shūmon aratame register

Soto (Outside section)

One person

Working in PLACE NAME

Daughter NAME, age

One person

Working for samurai household in PLACE NAME

Daughter NAME, asge

One person

Married to NAME, address

Daughter NAME, age

One person

Married to NAME, address

Sister NAME, age

Source: Appended to a family household headed by a 65-year-old peasant, Nishijo village, Ampachigun, Mino province, 1804.

Note: No date of moving-out is recorded in this section of the register.

(p.131) have been registerless. The Meiji system incorporated this element, making it compulsory for the migrant to notify not only the village office but the town office as well and for both offices to keep the records. This incorporation was probably made for ‘law and order’ reasons, not as a protective measure. Whatever the reason, the consequence was that no one could in theory be administratively invisible.16

The system was far from perfect, however. Migration was increasing as industrialization and urbanization proceeded, and some of the migrants were extremely mobile. For anyone coming from the countryside to Tokyo in search of employment, it is likely that they filled in the form at both village and town offices, as an out-migrant in the village and as an in-migrant in a Tokyo ward. Probably they changed residence frequently within the metropolitan city until they finally settled down, where they would probably register again as an in-migrant in a new ward without submitting a notification of leave to the previous ward. This double-registration would not matter for the individual as long as they could find a job, but for population accounting, it caused a serious problem. Owing to such double counting of in-migrants, Tokyo’s currently resident population in 1910 is said to have been in excess of 700,000, more than one-third of its total population of 2 million, reinforcing doubts about the validity of household registration information as population data and making the case for census taking even stronger (M. Sato 2002, 48–50).

Another problem was the whereabouts of those migrants who were stranded in an anonymous urban world. Being solitary in an urban environment was ‘the principal cause of poverty’, according to a 1923–1926 survey of the poor initiated by the city of Osaka – the city which pioneered the development of welfare administration in Japan. The problem was particularly serious for the elderly poor. Indeed, of those seeking welfare assistance in Osaka, 34 per cent were 60 years of age or older, as compared with 12 per cent for those under 15 years; and the proportion of solitary people increased from 59 per cent in the age group 15–59, to 80 per cent in the age group 60 plus (Tamai 2000, 107–109). We do not know how many of the solitary poor in Osaka were those who had eventually lost contact with their families in the native village, but it is likely that in a substantial number of cases their ties must have long since been cut. If those elderly people moved from one slum to another slum in the city, and if they lost interest in registering themselves in a new place, then they would easily become stranded and invisible administratively.

That said, it should be recognized that, compared with Tokugawa practice, in this respect the new Meiji system succeeded in reducing registerlessness drastically, which may have had significant implications for townward migrants. It must also (p.132) have been important in order to cope with the problem of child labour in an age in which industrialism was advancing while the state’s provision for areas such as schooling was expanding.17


By way of concluding our account of the evolution of registration systems in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Japan, we take a brief look at another village dispute that took place in 1880.18 It was a court case initiated by a middle-aged peasant woman named Masata Hagiwara on 2 September that year. She demanded the return of a certificate of land ownership.

The centre stage was Kanai village of Kanagawa prefecture, some 20 km north of the Treaty port of Yokohama, and the lawsuit was against the village headman, accusing him of malpractice in administrative procedures. However, the real dispute was with her younger brother Rokuemon, who is said to have indulged in drinking and gambling. Masata was unmarried; she had been in service for about thirty years, but returned to the village when Rokuemon, who had already inherited both headship and ownership of the family land from his father, left for Yokohama. Since then she had looked after her retired father and helped him in working the land. In 1877, soon after Rokuemon left the house, she went to the office to report her brother’s ‘disappearance’ (shissō), and she requested the headman to allow the Hagiwara family to disown Rokuemon and to remove his name from the register. Her argument was that she was entitled to do so on behalf of her father because it was she who was keeping the family economy going and looking after the ageing father, which, according to her understanding, meant that Rokuemon had abandoned the family household’s business. As he was not living with the parent and other members of the household, he could no longer be a head of the Hagiwara family. The request was not accepted simply because there was no place for formal disowning procedures within the framework of Meiji family law.

Also in dispute was the family land. In 1878, soon after Rokuemon left Kanai village for Yokohama by filling in the kiryū form, he borrowed 400 yen, presumably as start-up capital for his business, on the security of the family’s land in Kanai. Precisely speaking, he borrowed money by ‘placing the land in pawn’ (shichiire). Under this type of contract, the ownership was transferred to the lender but the occupier was allowed to till the land by paying the rent; in this particular case, the (p.133) occupier was Masata, not Rokuemon. As a result of this, she came to know of her brother’s financial venture. In order to keep the land in the family, she managed to raise the money and took back ownership of the land (and this was another reason for her to argue that her brother could not claim his family headship). During this period, the original certificate of ownership of the Hagiwaras’ land, issued in 1872, had always been in Masata’s hands. However, the land tax reform that started in 1873 required the 1872 certificate to be substituted for a new one; and as the complete substitution would take some time, the village administration was allowed to handle cases of change in ownership without the 1872 certificate being submitted. Rokuemon took advantage of this transitional measure; he sold the land off without letting his sister know about his transaction. She thus accused the headman of malpractice in the way in which he had handled the case of the land transaction.

Not surprisingly the decisions at the court in Yokohama and the Tokyo court of appeal were not in favour of Masata’s claim. To quote the latter’s decision, ‘Rokuemon, in his capacity of the head of the household, liquidated his own property and made a transfer [of its ownership], an action in which another person cannot interfere’; by ‘another person’, of course, the judge meant the village headman, whom Masata accused in her lawsuit. If it had been in Tokugawa times, her arguments might have sounded somewhat more persuasive; any heir-son who was too unsettled to manage family business properly would not have been considered a head of the family.19 Within the Meiji regime of law and practice, however, Masata’s claim that she was the de facto head of the family became groundless under the new registration system. Moreover, both Rokuemon’s sale of land and the headman’s handling of the case were perfectly lawful and their documents flawless. The Meiji reforms acted against Masata’s interests.

As for her brother, on the other hand, we do not know how he fared in the trading port of Yokohama. If he had been married and registered there, his children may have benefited from the Meiji reforms in identity registration. Provided that the children were also registered, they would have been entitled to receive state education in Yokohama, regardless of their father’s business success or failure (although it is not unlikely that he failed in business and eventually became penniless), since Meiji Japan’s education reform was thorough and universal. If Rokuemon had remained unmarried, however, the story might have been very different. Alienated from his family of origin and living in a large city like Yokohama, he would have – given the underdevelopment of Meiji Japan’s welfare provisions – no recourse to social support if his business failed and, therefore, would only be ‘discovered’ as an anonymous dead body, just like some present-day (p.134) centenarians who have been found long after they died, having lost contact with their family.20


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(1) For relationships between Tokugawa Japan’s peasant household economy and factor markets, see Saito (2009).

(2) For the publication of this data collection, see note 5 below.

(3) Koku is a capacity measure used for rice. Under Tokugawa rule every piece of land was assessed in terms of yields in rice-equivalents, and in those days it was widely recognized that a yield of one koku would be enough to feed an adult for a year.

(4) For the range of tasks the village officials did, see T. Sato (1990, 53–55, 61–62).

(5) The publication of John Henry Wigmore’s translation of the ruishū started in 1892 as contributions to the Transactions of the Asiatic Society of Japan, but did not finish in his lifetime. The more comprehensive edition was published after the Second World War by the University of Tokyo Press (Wigmore 1967–1986).

(6) Note that all ages were given in traditional Japanese sai, according to which a child was reckoned as 1 at birth.

(7) Strictly speaking, the right of the head of the family is different from the parental right. For example, the report from the Abe and Udo districts of Suruga province uses the former term, while that from Aki province’s Aki district speaks of the latter (Wigmore 1967–1986, pt 7: 214, 220).

(8) The ‘hinin watchman’ was an outcast person employed by the village community. There were many areas around Kyoto and Osaka where outcasts were involved in police work. Ōmi was one such area (Wigmore 1967–1986, pt 7: 7).

(9) The country’s total population in this period is estimated to have been about 31 million.

(10) Ordinance of the Grand Council of State, no. 170, 1871.

(11) Transmittals of the Executive Council, nos. 261, 267, 323 and 358, 1869. The Gyōseikan (Executive Council) was replaced by the Dajō kan (Grand Council of State) in July 1869.

(12) A similar model register is tabulated in Winther (2008, 28). However, it is a form attached to an 1875 draft for the revision of family registration procedures, which did not materialize.

(13) The 1872 register was in use until post-war years. It was as late as 1968 that it was officially closed.

(14) For the prevalence of tacit agreement in peasant transactions, see M. Sato (1985).

(15) This was defined in the Kiryū Act enacted in 1915. However, the earliest usage of the concept can be found in Dajōkan fukoku, no. 170, 1871.

(16) After the Second World War this registration framework was abolished, giving way to a new residency registration arrangement. Under the post-war system almost all entitlements the citizen can claim are linked to the current residence, although duality with de jure registration is still maintained.

(17) It is worth noting that there emerged a number of night classes, Sunday schools and childminders’ classes for children sent away from home to work in towns and cities (Saito 2011a, 471–472), for which their registration must have been crucial.

(18) The following account draws on M. Sato (1985), which is based largely on the Kusanagi MSS in the Machida Archive, Tokyo. The village headman sued by Masata was from the Kusanagi family.

(19) In this respect, it is interesting to note that while Masata in her litigation document accused Rokuemon of having been ‘prodigal’ (hōtō) and ‘unruly’ (burai), two Kanai villagers described him with virtually the same words in their witness accounts.

(20) The twenty-first-century fiasco about ‘missing centenarians’ is reported in The Guardian, 12 August 2010, summarized as: ‘Authorities admit privacy laws and antiquated registration systems mean 200 elderly people are unaccounted for’ (McCurry 2010).