Section: Past Events

Japanese Law: History, Reception and Adaptation Conference (2014)

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Japanese Law: History, Reception and Adaptation/Influence

Centre for Legal History/Asian Studies

20 June 2014

Programme

Japanese law is said to have undergone drastic change through the adaptation of Western law in the second half of the nineteenth century. Many scholars now believe that this ‘westernised’ Japanese law significantly influenced the legal systems of other Asian countries, including Korea, China, and Thailand. This one-day seminar assessed the nature of this transformation of Japanese law that took place amid intense globalisation of the nineteenth century. Among the questions considered were the aspects of Japanese law that changed as the result of the reception; the processes of this adaptation and its main consequences, domestic and international.

The seminar brought together four specialists in Japanese law and legal history to address these questions, and began with a talk by Professor John W. Cairns, who discussed legal transplants and colonialism in the nineteenth century. Hiroshi Oda, Sir Ernest Satow Professor of Japanese Law at University College London and the author of Japanese Law (now a standard textbook), provided a general overview of Japanese law, its history and evolution, emphasising its comparative and commercial aspects. Marie Seong-Hak Kim, in her recent book Law and Custom in Korea, claims that the idea of custom as a source of law barely existed in East Asia prior to the nineteenth century and it was the Japanese jurists who absorbed the idea from Western jurisprudence and disseminated it throughout East Asia as colonial agents. Kim elaborated on this claim. Hiromi Sasamoto-Collins, who has examined the difficult birth of modern constitutionalism in Japan in her book, Power and Dissent in Imperial Japan, focussed on Japan’s first western-style Criminal Code of 1880, and assessed exactly how the Japanese codifiers adopted legal principles that appeared to be so radically dissimilar to traditional Japanese legal thought. Matthias Zachmann, the author of China and Japan in the Late Meiji Period and an expert on East Asian relations and international law, discussed how the Japanese understood and misunderstood the notion of international law in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and what were the consequences of such (mis)conceptions.

The seminar investigated the question of reception and adaptation in three major areas, international law, and the civil and criminal codes, in the Japanese context. Such perspectives remain essential for the understanding of contemporary Japanese law, as the Japanese legal system remains more or less grounded in the legal reforms of the Meiji period (1868–1912) despite significant later modifications. Such reforms, in turn, then went on to influence the legal systems of other countries in Asia.

Accordingly the theme of Japanese adaptation has large implications for studies of legal and cultural transmission and transmutation. The nineteenth century saw the large-scale dissemination of Western ideas and institutional arrangements across the globe. Legal transplantation was part of this global convergence. And yet extra-legal cultural factors specific to each region or country also intervened in this process. Thus, if some principles and practices survive cultural barriers and take root in a different cultural setting, why and how does this happen? The question may help us to better understand the phenomena of legal convergence and differentiation that continue to this day.   


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