Law and history in Japan: some reflections

Om March 11, 2011, I watched by chance on tv the 8.00 AM (GMT + 1) news with the first dramatic images of the earthquake that hit Japan and the following tsunami. At this hour, only two hours after the event, the Dutch television had already decided to report continuously on this disaster. I have not yet written about these events on my blog, mainly because the ramifications of this event are not yet fully clear, and what is more, I felt speechless.

Karen Tani wrote on March 29, 2011 a post for the Legal History Blog on “New scholarship: Japanese Legal History“. The Legal History Blog is really the world’s most active blog on legal history. This month alone saw already ninety postings! Mary L. Dudziak, Dan Ernst and their team of guest bloggers ensure a continuous stream of posts. However, the very high publication rate means also that a post gets literally quickly out of view on your screen. Yesterday the Legal History Blog announced Karen Tani is going to the University of California at Berkeley Law School. In her post Tani brings six new books to our attention, each of them on different periods and subjects of Japan’s legal history. She ends with a plea to support relief and recovery initiatives for Japan, and I would like to join this.

Here I would like to add a few things from my website to Karen Tani’s post. Digital libraries in Japan figure on my page devoted to this kind of digital collections, and it might be interesting to present them here, too:

On Klaus Graf’s Archivalia blog you can find more news about the present situation of Japanese archives and libraries. In particular in a post from 2008 Graf has put together a large number of links to digital libraries in Japan. Graf points for example to the digital archive portal created by the National Diet Library in Tokyo. Some of the digital archives available through this portal  cannot be reached due to damage done by the earthquake. On the NetbibWiki Graf brings you to even more relevant Japanese links, as he does on a similar page of the German Wikisource project. Starting from these contributions I have tried to the best of my knowledge to select those libraries with important collections in the field of law and history. Since I have no knowledge of the Japanese language I am sure I have missed a number of collections. A number of these digital libraries is perhaps more interesting for European history, law and legal history than for Japanese legal history. The best example for European legal history is the Savigny collection at the Toin University, Yokohama. Some books once owned by Savigny and some of his works in this collection have been digitized.

One of the history teachers in my school just happened to be a specialist in Japanese history, and she was happy with the opportunity to teach it to my class. The Dutch have a long history with Japan. For two centuries the Dutch presence at the island of Deshima near Nagasaki formed a kind of window on Europe. The National Diet Library of Tokyo created in cooperation with the Dutch Royal Library, The Hague an online exhibition Japan-Netherlands Exchange in the Edo Period. The Sieboldhuis, a museum in Leiden on Japanese history, now forms a kind of modern window in the Netherlands on Japanese art and history, but let’s not stray too much from Japan’s legal history. It is the Nederlands Genootschap voor Japanse Studiën that deserves mentioning here with in 2004 a volume on law and justice in Japan, Recht en rechtvaardigheid in Japan (Amsterdam 2004) by Frans Verwayen, the author of Early Reception of Western Legal Thought in Japan, 1841-1868 (Ph.D. thesis, Leiden 1996). More recent Dimitri Vanoverbeke has published a study on the historical context of modern Japanese institutions, Recht en instellingen in Japan. Actuele thema’s in historische context (Louvain 2010), an important theme for understanding the action of the Japanese government, administration and institutions at this particular point of time.

The History of Law in Japan since 1868 (Leiden 2005) edited by Wilhelm Röhl is surely one of the starting points for research into the modern period of Japanese legal history. Parts of it can be viewed through the services of a well-known organization which has not been allowed to create the world’s digital library entirely on its own… I have to admit that the website of this organization brings me to an announcement of a lecture in London in 2010 at the Watson Institute on the question why the history of Japanese law has not been written. The announcement contains links to the website of the Japan Legal History Association – completely in Japanese – and to a database of civil judgment files from the early Meiji period created at the International Research Center for Japanese Studies at Kyoto.

The variety of periods, subjects and possible perspectives on Japan’s legal history is too great for one post. I cannot leave out the Second World War and its aftermath by pointing to the Joseph Berry Keenan digital collection at Harvard Law School, which in fact consists of two collections, his papers concerning the Tokyo War Crimes Tribunal, and his photographs taken between 1945 and 1947. No more for now! Let the new books mentioned in Karen Tani’s post be your guide to more knowledge about Japan’s law and history.

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