Buke Shohatto

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The buke shohatto (lit. "Various points of laws for warrior houses") was a collection of edicts issued by the Tokugawa shogunate governing the responsibilities and activities of daimyô and the rest of the samurai warrior aristocracy. These formed the basis of the bakuhan taisei (shogunate-domains system) which lay at the foundation of the Tokugawa regime. The contents of the edicts were seen as a code of conduct, a description of proper honorable daimyô behavior, and not solely laws which had to be obeyed. By appealing to notions of morality and honor, therefore, the shogunate was able to see its strictures followed despite its inability to enforce them directly.

The edicts were first read to a gathering of daimyô by the retired shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu, at Fushimi castle in the seventh lunar month of 1615. They had been compiled by a number of scholars in service to the shogunate including Ishin Sûden, and were aimed primarily at limiting the power of the daimyô and thus protecting the shogunate's control over the country. They drew extensively upon the Chinese classics, and upon earlier Japanese law codes. The language of the buke shohatto employed the character 公 (/ôyake) meaning "public," "official," or "governmental" to refer to matters related to the shogunate, and the character 私 (shi/watakushi), meaning "personal" or "private" to refer to the matters of daimyô households and domains (han), reflecting political understandings and attitudes of the time.[1]

The reigning shogun at the time, Ieyasu's son Tokugawa Hidetada, formally promulgated the edicts shortly afterwards, and each successive shogun formally reissued them, reinforcing the restrictions on the daimyô and the control of the shogunate. Through these successive generations, however, the rules developed and changed significantly.

Articles of the 1615 promulgation

  1. The samurai class should devote itself to pursuits appropriate to the warrior aristocracy, such as archery, swordsmanship, horsemanship, and classical literature.
  2. Amusements and entertainments are to be kept within reasonable bounds and expenses for such activities are not to be excessive.
  3. The han are not to harbor fugitives and outlaws.
  4. Domains must expel rebels and murderers from their service and from their lands.
  5. Daimyô are not to engage in social interactions with the people (neither samurai nor commoners) of other domains.
  6. Castles may be repaired, but such activity must be reported to the shogunate. Structural innovations and expansions are forbidden.
  7. The formation of cliques for scheming or conspiracy in neighboring domains must be reported to the shogunate without delay, as must the expansion of defenses, fortifications, or military forces.
  8. Marriages among daimyô and related persons of power or importance must not be arranged privately.
  9. Daimyô must present themselves at Edo for service to the shogunate.
  10. Conventions regarding formal uniform must be followed.
  11. Miscellaneous persons are not to ride in palanquins.
  12. Samurai throughout the realm are to practice frugality.
  13. Daimyô must select men of ability to serve as administrators and bureaucrats.

The items stipulated in the 1615 edict truly represent the core of the shogunate's philosophy regarding proper codes of conduct. Similar policies would be imposed upon commoners as well, reissued and reinforced many times over the course of the Edo period.

Several items concern the need for frugality, a concept central to Confucian notions of proper governance. Several others relate to sumptuary regulations, requiring people of certain stations to present themselves as such, in their dress, their modes of transportation, and in other ways. Several, such as those regarding social interactions between domains and marriages among the daimyô families, are aimed at preventing the formation of alliances against the shogunate. While the fudai daimyô bore less power, were more trusted by the shogunate, and could be easily punished by having their domains and privileges rescinded, the tozama daimyô were far more powerful and less trusted; the shogunate lacked the ability to directly enforce its policies within the tozama domains by force, and rightfully feared the military potential of an alliance between multiple tozama domains. Regulations regarding the construction, expansion, and repair of fortifications serve as further assurances against the build-up of military power to be used against the shogunate, as does a reference to the policy of sankin kôtai, by which daimyô were required to make elaborate pilgrimages to Edo regularly, to present themselves for service.

1635 Promulgation

The edicts were reissued in 1629, and again in 1635, by the third Tokugawa shogun, Tokugawa Iemitsu. Though there were many changes in this third promulgation, most of the stipulations were simply elaborations on the same themes. Daimyô were banned from quarreling, from forming alliances and parties, and from swearing oaths to one another. The system of sankin kôtai was more fully established at this time, and described more specifically in the edict. Sumptuary regulations were elaborated upon.

This year is also quite significant for the implementation of a number of policies which can be grouped under the term kaikin (maritime prohibitions), and which are sometimes referred to as the Sakoku Edicts. Though the restrictions against overseas travel are not themselves mentioned in the 1635 version of the buke shohatto, a number of related policies regarding domestic travel and religion are described.

Some of the new stipulations were as follows:

  1. Care must be taken to maintain roads, boats, bridges, and docks in order to facilitate swift communications.
  2. Private toll barriers are forbidden, as is the elimination of existing ferry routes.
  3. Ships which can carry over 500 koku are forbidden to be constructed.
  4. Lands owned by Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples must not be taken away from them.
  5. Christianity is forbidden.

Later promulgations

The edicts were reissued upon the succession of each of the shoguns. The promulgations under Tokugawa Ietsuna, Tokugawa Tsunayoshi, and Tokugawa Ienobu in 1663, 1683, and 1710 respectively saw significant stylistic changes, though with relatively minor amendments of substance. Among the new stipulations were bans on junshi (ritual suicide following the death of one's lord), abuses of power, the acceptance of bribes, and the suppression of popular opinion, along with stipulations regarding the proper succession of daimyô within a clan or domain.

1710 Promulgation

The revision overseen by Confucian scholar Arai Hakuseki in 1710 altered the language of the text, converting it from a complex mix of Chinese and Japanese conventions to a document that read cleanly in Japanese, but could also be easily read by someone literate only in Chinese. Hakuseki accompanied this revision with a line-by-line commentary on his changes, entitled Shinrei kukai. In addition to this linguistic change, Hakuseki also revised the content of the Buke shohatto considerably, shifting it from a martial/warrior-oriented document borne of Sengoku period politics, into one more appropriate for the peaceful and bureaucratic times of the Edo period. Article 1, stipulating that warriors should practice both martial and literary skills, was revised to place equal importance on the martial and the literary, and to emphasize the importance of ethical teachings (i.e. Confucianism) and acting as a model for upright, virtuous manners and customs. Article 2 of Hakuseki's version similarly offered a general instruction to devote oneself to governing one's household and domain fairly and properly, and to not do anything to anger or aggrieve the vassals of one's house, or the people of one's domain. Hakuseki also placed renewed emphasis on the prohibition on junshi (killing oneself to follow one's lord in death).[2]


Tokugawa Yoshimune, however, ordered the laws reverted to an earlier version, undoing Hakuseki's revisions, and the following six shoguns reissued the buke shohatto in its 1683 form, with only the most minor of stylistic changes. Though these were once pronounced along with the Shoshi hatto (laws for samurai), the latter became largely obsolete after 1683 and was absorbed into the wider body of shogunal orders and prohibitions (the kinrei-ko).


  • John Carey Hall. The Tokugawa Legislation. Yokohama 1910, pp. 286-319 as related here. Accessed 30 July 2007.
  • Sansom, George (1961). "A History of Japan: 1334-1615." Stanford, California: Stanford University Press. pp401-406.
  • Sansom, George (1963). "A History of Japan: 1615-1867." Stanford, California: Stanford University Press.
  1. Roberts, Luke. Performing the Great Peace: Political Space and Open Secrets in Tokugawa Japan. University of Hawaii Press, 2012. p25.
  2. Watanabe Hiroshi, A History of Japanese Political Thought, 1600-1901, International House of Japan (2012), 141-143.