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A History of the Japanese People by F. Brinkley

During the reign of the Emperor Temmu


style="text-align: justify;">The most important legislation of the Empress Jito's reign related to slaves.* In the year of her accession (690), she issued an edict ordering that interest on all debts contracted prior to, or during the year (685) prior to Temmu's death should be cancelled. Temmu himself had created the precedent for this. When stricken by mortal illness, he had proclaimed remission of all obligations, "whether in rice or in valuables," incurred on or before the last day of the preceding year. But Jito's edict had a special feature. It provided that anyone already in servitude on account of a debt should be relieved from serving any longer on account of the interest. Thus it is seen that the practice of pledging the service of one's body in discharge of debt was in vogue at that epoch, and that it received official recognition with the proviso that the obligation must not extend to interest. Debts, therefore, had become instruments for swelling the ranks of the slave class.

*The senmin, or slave class, was divided into two groups, namely, public slaves (kwanko ryoko, and ko-nuhi), and private slaves (kenin and shi-nuhi).

But while sanctioning this evil custom, the tendency of the law was to minimize its results. In another edict of the same reign it was laid down that, when a younger brother of the common people (hyakusei) was sold by his elder brother, the former should still be classed as a

freeman (ryomin), but a child sold by its father became a serf (senmin); that service rendered to one of the senmin class by a freeman in payment of a debt must not affect the status of the freeman, and that the children of freemen so serving, even though born of a union with a slave, should be reckoned as freemen. It has been shown already that degradation to slavery was a common punishment or expiation of a crime, and the annals of the period under consideration indicate that men and women of the slave class were bought and sold like any other chattels. Documents certainly not of more recent date than the ninth century, show particulars of some of these transactions. One runs as follows:

Men (nu) 3 Women (hi) 3 -- Total 6

2 at 10000 bundles of rice each 2 at 800 bundles of rice each. 1 at 700 bundles of rice. 1 at 600 bundles of rice. ----- Total 4900 bundles

1 man (nu) named Kokatsu; age 34; with a mole under the left eye Price 1000 bundles of rice. The above are slaves of Kannawo Oba of Okambe in Yamagata district.

Comparison of several similar vouchers indicates that the usual price of an able-bodied slave was one thousand bundles of rice, and as one bundle gave five sho of unhulled rice, one thousand bundles represented fifty koku, which, in the modern market, would sell for about six hundred yen. It is not to be inferred, however, that the sale of freemen into slavery was sanctioned by law. During the reign of the Emperor Temmu, a farmer of Shimotsuke province wished to sell his child on account of a bad harvest, but his application for permission was refused, though forwarded by the provincial governor. In fact, sales or purchases of the junior members of a family by the seniors were not publicly permitted, although such transactions evidently took place. Even the manumission of a slave required official sanction. Thus it is recorded that, in the reign of the Empress Jito, Komaro, an asomi, asked and obtained the Court's permission to grant their freedom to six hundred slaves in his possession. Another rule enacted in Jito's time was that the slaves of an uji, when once manumitted, could not be again placed on the slaves' register at the request of a subsequent uji no Kami. Finally this same sovereign enacted that yellow-coloured garments should be worn by freemen and black by slaves. History shows that the sale and purchase of human beings in Japan, subject to the above limitations, was not finally forbidden until the year 1699.

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