Petition box

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  • Japanese: 訴状箱 (sojoubako), 目安箱 (meyasubako)

The petition box was a process employed at various times and places, notably in Edo period Tosa han, to allow members of society, regardless of their status, to have their comments and suggestions heard by the lord.


Some records indicate that a petition box system was instituted for a time in the 2nd century BCE in Han Dynasty China, where a local official sought to gather from the people accusations against corrupt officials. The first Imperial use of a petition box system in China might date to the reign of Empress Wu, whose system, implemented in 686, continued into the Song Dynasty.

The Nihon shoki indicates that a Japanese emperor may have implemented a petition box system as early as 646. Emperor Kôtoku's system, put into place in that year, did not last long, but various authorities made use of similar systems from time to time down through the medieval period. Among samurai warlords known to have employed petition boxes are Imagawa Yoshimoto and Takeda Shingen.

The first shogun to implement a petition box system was Tokugawa Yoshimune. He did so in 1721, after having overseen a similar system as daimyô of Wakayama han, installing the box in front of the hyôjôsho (judicial offices). Prior to this, people often petitioned the shogunate illegally, through petitions known as osso (direct appeals to high officials) and sutebumi (anonymous petitions left at the gates of the castle); the creation of a petition box allowed for a legal avenue for such grievances to be expressed. While social commentary could be submitted into the shogunate's petition box easily enough, petitions which called for legal appeals could only be submitted in certain types of cases, where other legal avenues had already been tried. The petition box system was considered quite successful, however, and was not only maintained, but was expanded to Kyoto, Osaka, and Sunpu, and remained in place until 1868. A number of policy moves, such as the establishment of the Edo fire brigades, have been traced to suggestions made in petitions placed in the box.

A significant number of domains, though still a minority, employed petition boxes in the Edo period. Ikeda Mitsumasa of Okayama han was among those who did, putting a remonstrance box (isamebako) into place in 1654 after flooding in the domain exacerbated certain social problems. Petitions placed in the box led to quite a number of issues being investigated and addressed; Mitsumasa is said to have been so impressed with some of the petitions that he met with their authors personally, and sent his aide, Kumazawa Banzan, into the countryside to personally investigate some of the complaints.

In Tosa

Ôgaki, Aizu, and Hiroshima han, along with Okayama, were some of the earliest domains to institute petition boxes. The case of Tosa han is the most well-known of these, at least in the English-language scholarship, as a result of the work of historian Luke Roberts. It was put into place in 1759, after many of the neighboring domains, including Takamatsu, Matsuyama, and Uwajima had already had similar systems in place.

From 1759 until 1873, a wooden box was located just outside Kôchi castle, in a small structure called the ôkoshikake, where people would sit while awaiting entrance to the castle on official business. The space was open and accessible to anyone, samurai, commoner, or peasant, though being right outside the castle, it was deep within the samurai district of the city, and Roberts points out it would have taken some courage for a commoner or peasant to make his way there to submit a petition. The box was a simple wooden box, with a slit in the top where petitions could be dropped in. Once a month, the chief inspector (metsuke) of the domain opened the box and delivered the petitions to the lord. In theory, the petitions were meant to fall into one of three categories: (1) offering suggestions on improving society or government, (2) offering complaints or information about current events or affairs, or (3) requesting a legal appeal for a judicial case the petitioner believes was decided unfairly or unjustly. Once the box was opened each month, the petitions were copied out and circulated amongst the officials, inviting comment and political discussion. Domain officials are known to have also looked at petitions to the shogunate as part of their efforts to remain informed about goings-on in the broader realm, but also as part of practice or training in politics.

The earliest petitions included suggestions on how to improve the petition system. Many complained that petitions were not allowed to be anonymous, as anonymity would have acted to protect the petitioner from government retribution. Official policy stated that petitioners had to write their name and address, but while shogunate inspectors burned anonymous petitions unopened, Tosa administrators did not, and it would seem that, contrary to official policy, anonymous petitions were in fact kept and perhaps read and considered. Other early petitions claimed that there should be more boxes located in more parts of the domains, or that the security of the message to the lord was compromised by the fact that petitions passed through the hands of inspectors or other officials - inspectors and officials who might be corrupt - rather than the lord opening the box directly himself.

Though petitions were not anonymous, the han government only visited any kind of retribution or punishment upon the petitioners in the rarest of cases; while many petitioners nevertheless expressed their trepidation at signing their names, and insisted they had discussed their ideas with no one (thus both protecting their family from reprisals, and assuring the lord that they were not fomenting dissension), and others in fact used pseudonyms or refused to sign, in the actual content of their complaints, petitioners generally allowed themselves to be much more open and honest than they would have done otherwise. People of nearly every region of the domain, and from many sections of society entered petitions, with the notable exceptions of women, children, and outcastes. Villagers often submitted petitions in aggregate, on behalf of the entire village, though some also entered petitions as individuals. Some independent Confucian scholars whose advice made a particular impression upon the lord were granted government positions as a result of their petitions.

While a number of these petitions survive, mostly in transcription (only two survive in the original manuscript form), the vast majority have been lost. The system does seem to have been used fairly extensively, however, at least in the early years. Nearly 150 petitions survive in transcribed form from the first twelve years of the box's operation, and a pre-war scholar noted that at that time there were thousands of petitions surviving in the archives.


  • Luke Roberts, Mercantilism in a Japanese Domain: The Merchant Origins of Economic Nationalism in 18th-Century Tosa, Cambridge University Press (1998), 104-133.