Shiny Dinglehoppers: Medieval Japanese Police

It’s Monday morning. Let’s talk about police.

I recently researched medieval Japanese law enforcement for a fiction work-in-progress. As it turns out, the Japanese police force has existed since the days of the Shogunate. By the sixteenth century (and even before), Japan had a three-tiered justice system – though generally it was commoners who felt the brunt of used it.

At the lowest level, the dōshin fulfilled many of the roles we now associate with the “beat cop.” They patrolled streets, broke up fights, and arrested miscreants. They carried a jitte, or hooked stick, which served as both a weapon and a symbol of office.

Image copyright SamuraiAntiqueWorld, retrieved from Wikipedia commons.

Police supervisors, or yoriki, carried the official title “assistant magistrate,” but their job consisted primarily of supervising the activities of dōshin under their command. Although the position paid a subsistence salary, yoriki were not permitted to enter the Shogun’s palace or see the Emperor because their position was associated with death and brought them into proximity with people the samurai considered defiled (and defiling). The position was also considered a dead-end job, though as samurai became more numerous and wars less common during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, a steady job was often considered better than none at all.

Atop the pyramid sat magistrates, who served as judges in civil and criminal disputes. A city had one or two magistrates, depending on the city’s size and population.

Although all police and magistrates were born members of the samurai class, few sixteenth century samurai utilized or answered to the official justice system. For the most part, samurai handled their own affairs (usually with the business end of a sword) and only commoners used police and magistrates to solve disputes or resolve crimes.

As always, feel free to hop into the comments and share your thoughts! (Not just about police, though that works too.)

2 thoughts on “Shiny Dinglehoppers: Medieval Japanese Police

  • August 22, 2011 at 12:50 pm

    I totally didn’t realize jitte were used as a mark of office. That’s really neat!

    • August 24, 2011 at 11:18 am

      Thanks Patrick! It was neat to learn, and helpful in my recent work in progress, too. Always a bonus when character development can be helped along with props.

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