We are unable to display your institutional affiliation without JavaScript turned on.
Browse Book and Journal Content on Project MUSE

Find using OpenURL

Translating the Corpus of Ancient Japanese Law

From: Monumenta Nipponica
Volume 68, Number 1, 2013
pp. 69-77 | 10.1353/mni.2013.0021

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

The volumes under review, by Hans A. Dettmer and Francine Hérail, provide for the first time, in over 3,000 pages, translations of nearly the entire pre-tenth-century legislative legacy of Japan. This body of work will immensely facilitate access to the complex world of ancient law and the sociopolitical and administrative structure of the Nara and Heian periods for legal and comparative historians, including specialists working with primary sources. While not legal historians themselves, these two scholars have engaged in decades-long research in this field; this has enabled them to produce copiously annotated translations that will be indispensable guides through the arcane thicket of the Yōrō ritsuryō (Yōrō Code) and its related commentary and supplementary legislation.

The texts these authors have translated and provided commentary on have a complex history that requires some preliminary explanation. This is particularly so in the case of the Yōrō Code, the focus of Dettmer’s volumes. The Yōrō Code, composed in 718 but promulgated only in 757, was a revision of the Taihō Code of 702, which was based on the Chinese Tang Code of 651. Neither the Taihō Code nor the Tang Code are extant. Moreover, even the text of the Yōrō Code itself is no longer extant. Most of what is known of the Yōrō Code is reconstructed from the Ryō no gige (commentary, gige, on the administrative code, ryō) of 835, the only court-approved commentary on that code. The Ryō no gige is also the source for the reconstruction of the lost Tang Code and is therefore of great importance to our understanding of the ancient law codes of both China and Japan. (This work, incidentally, should not be confused with the Ryō no shūge of 870, a compilation of private commentaries.) Though it poses its own challenges, the Ruijū sandai kyaku which is the focus of Hérail’s two volumes, has a history that is more straightforward. That text is an eleventh-century compilation of supplementary legislation issued between 702 and 907.

The three volumes by Dettmer constitute the first complete translation of the Yōrō ritsuryō, which is sometimes referred to instead as the Taihō ritsuryō (Taihō Code). In both cases, ritsu refers to the penal code and ryō to the administrative code, which is considerably longer. The major difference between the Taihō and Yōrō administrative codes seems to be limited to an introduction in the latter of a more precise terminology for about two hundred terms. Dettmer’s first two volumes cover the ryō. The volumes’ subtitles identify them as translations (which they are not, as such) of the much later commentary, the Ryō no gige. While Dettmer does not offer a complete translation of the Ryō no gige, he does incorporate all of the material pertinent to a competent understanding of the administrative code. On the other hand, as I explain in greater detail below, the plentiful commentary in Dettmer’s footnotes makes the volumes much more than just a translation. The third volume is a translation of and commentary on the ritsu, which the Ryō no gige does not address. Here, Dettmer of necessity relies on statutes reconstructed and recovered during the Tokugawa period from a variety of Japanese sources; the statutes that have survived in this manner number only ten out of the original thirty (159 of 500 articles).

Given that the original texts are no longer extant, the current standard Japanese edition of the administrative code, available as volume 3 of Nihon shisō taikei (NST)—in a format that includes both the reconstructed text and copious modern scholarly notes—is also based on the Ryō no gige. Dettmer’s compilation, however, is not merely a translation of this edition. His footnotes (a total of over nine thousand for all three volumes) are filled with hundreds of references not only to Western scholarship (useful for alternative readings of terms), but also to Japanese scholarship that appeared after 1976, when the NST edition was published. Each volume also includes a bibliography. Dettmer has thus produced an updated and expanded version of the NST edition of the Ryō no gige, in a sense...

You must be logged in through an institution that subscribes to this journal or book to access the full text.


Shibboleth authentication is only available to registered institutions.

Project MUSE

For subscribing associations only.