The checkpoint at Arai, along the Tôkaidô in as it appears today
  • Japanese: 関所 (sekisho)

Sekisho, or "barriers," were checkpoints located on major roads, mainly for the purposes of controlling the movement of people and certain goods. At times, these checkpoints served to collect tolls, earning revenue for the Imperial court or for the shogunate.

Sekisho had their start in the Heian period (794-1185), or perhaps even earlier, but in the Edo period (1600-1868) came to be more systematized and integrated into a burgeoning and complex system of domestic trade networks, urbanization, and travel. Towns grew up around the barriers, becoming notable sites of activity themselves.

Early Barriers

The chief sekisho in the Heian period were maintained as defensive points, protecting either the Kinai ("Inner Provinces" surrounding Kyoto), or the outer borders of the control of the Yamato state, from attack. Ataka-no-seki in what is today the city of Komatsu in Ishikawa prefecture, famous as the setting of the Noh play Ataka, and the kabuki Kanjinchô based upon it, is perhaps a good example of this type of site. In the play, based on legends surrounding Minamoto no Yoshitsune, and possibly with a considerable kernel of historical truth, Yoshitsune comes across Ataka no seki while fleeing from the forces of his brother, the shogun Minamoto no Yoritomo. Ataka represents a major obstacle, or the final major obstacle, separating him from relative freedom in the north; passing through the barrier, he escapes into the protection of the Ôshû Fujiwara of Hiraizumi; the Ôshû Fujiwara are often associated with the Emishi, or at least with resisting the control of the Kamakura shogunate and seeking a degree of independence.

Barriers also served as sources of revenue in the Heian through Muromachi periods; sekisho were built in great numbers in these periods, not only by the Imperial court or shogunates, but also by local power holders such as jitô and by temples and the like, which collected tolls from those passing into or through their territory.

The construction of barriers only increased as conflict expanded in the Sengoku period, with many regional leaders (Sengoku daimyô) constructing barriers both for defensive purposes and for revenue. Oda Nobunaga and Toyotomi Hideyoshi worked to destroy the great majority of these barriers, ostensibly to help the freer flow of trade, and thus economic prosperity, but also to permit the extension of their own political and military power over the archipelago, unhindered by barriers erected by local powerholders. Tokugawa Ieyasu, meanwhile, however, expanded the system of barriers within his own domains, in order to better protect himself against Oda or Toyotomi power.

Edo Period

Fifty-three barriers were maintained along the Gokaidô, the five main highways emanating from Nihonbashi in Edo. Though a powerful presence within the phenomenon of travel in the Edo period, and of conceptions of space and of famous locations (meisho), it has been argued that the chief purpose of the barriers, in terms of official shogunate intentions, was to help enforce the sankin kôtai ("alternate attendance") system, by keeping guns out and women in, a notion often referred to by the Japanese phrase iri-deppô ni de-onna. That the wives and daughters of daimyô were required to stay in Edo, essentially as hostages, was a crucial element of the shogunate's systems for keeping the daimyô from rising up against the shogunate. Preventing daimyô or other actors from transporting weapons into the city served a logical purpose as well within this scheme. That this was seen as the primary purpose of the sekisho is indicated by the fact that the sekisho system was dismantled simultaneously with that of the sankin kôtai system, in the mid-19th century.

Some of these barriers were those already existing before the establishment of the shogunate, but most were built during the reign of Shogun Tokugawa Hidetada (r. 1605-1623), with the last of the 53 sekisho being established in 1686. Many were newly constructed where no formal barrier checkpoint had existed before, but some were built as expansions or reconfigurations of barriers built by local/regional warlords. The only such checkpoint to survive today with some of its Edo period buildings intact is that at Arai, in what is today Kosai City, Shizuoka.

A system of passes, or passports, was put into place to regulate who was permitted to pass through the barriers. Identification papers took mainly two forms: official travel authorizations issued by shogunate officials or domainal authorities were known as sekisho tegata, or simply tegata,[1], while shrines, temples, inns, and the like issued documents known as ôrai kitte (lit. "round trip ticket") or ôrai tegata, unofficially declaring that the holder was bound for that shrine or temple (as a pilgrim), or that inn, as their destination. There does not appear to have been any law regulating the issuing of such ôrai tegata to commoners, but samurai generally required official orders or permission from a superior in order to travel.[2] A late 18th century traveler, Sugae Masumi, describes these passes as including descriptions of the identity of the traveler, his origin and destination, his clothing and whether or not he carried a short sword; there was generally a fee to pass each barrier, and one's pass was marked to indicate that one had been checked at the checkpoint.[3] The requirement of possessing a pass was more strongly enforced moving away from Edo, rather than when one was traveling towards Edo, and regulations in general were stricter for women than for men. At twenty of the 53 stations, non-local women were not permitted to pass at all. Due to these restrictions, traveling parties that included women often took side-roads, which thus came to be known as onna-michi ("women's roads").[4]

Certain domains instituted their own additional precautions. Hitoyoshi han is known to have assigned escorts to those traveling through its territory, to keep an eye on where the traveler went and what he saw, and perhaps to discourage or prevent him from going to certain places or seeing certain things. Satsuma han is known to have searched travelers' belongings at the border, and to require travelers to prove they had enough funds to not become a burden upon the domain while sojourning there; Satsuma also instituted a system by which one's traveling pass was to be given to the headman of the village one stayed in each night, and regained from the headman in the morning.


  • Bolitho, Harold. "Travelers' Tales: Three 18th Century Travel Journals." Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies 50:2 (1990). pp485-504.
  • Vaporis, Constantine. Breaking Barriers: Travel and the State in Early Modern Japan. Harvard University Press, 1994. pp99-133.
  1. Craig, Teruko (trans.). Musui's Story: The Autobiography of a Tokugawa Samurai. University of Arizona Press, 1988. p160.
  2. Arne Kalland, Fishing Villages in Tokugawa Japan, University of Hawaii Press (1995), 29.; Constantine Vaporis, "Documentation for Travel," Voices of Early Modern Japan, Westview Press (2012), 170-171.
  3. Bolitho. p494.
  4. Constantine Vaporis, "Linking the Realm: The Gokaidô Highway Network in Early Modern Japan," in Susan Alcock et al (eds.) Highways Byways and Road Systems in the Pre-Modern World, Wiley-Blackwell (2012), 98.