The Muromachi Period

The following two documents were written around the years 1448 and 1455 CE, in the middle of the Japanese Muromachi Period (1336-1573), also known as the Ashikaga Period after the ruling shogunate. This era began when the imperial court split into a northern and southern court, eventually reunited by the Ashikaga family in 1392. While the shogun was supposed to be the supreme military ruler of Japan, his power was weak, with control distributed among samurai daimyo (lords) and families. Shogunal law saw very limited adherence without an effective policing body. The power of the Ashikaga went into a steep decline in 1441 when the shogun was murdered by Akamatsu Mitsusuke. This eventually led to the outbreak of general warfare in 1467 and the beginning of the Warring States Period, during which individual lords vied for control across Japan.

Slavery in Medieval Japan

During this time, slavery in Japan had a very diverse nature. Unfreedom could be expressed and practiced through a variety of terms, statuses, conditions, and modes of entering slavery. Slaves were usually understood to be heritable property which could be bought and sold, and the status of slavery was also heritable. While slaves had some rights, such as owning property, buying their own freedom, and having relations with people outside their household, they lacked the right to choose where to live and could usually be put to death by their owner. However, it is difficult to speak of slavery as a system during this period, since its legal framework collapsed along with the rest of the Heian legal system at the end of the Heian Period in the 12th century. Human trafficking was banned between 1185 and 1333, but this ban was essentially ignored under the Ashikaga Shogunate. Various sources indicate that slaves were still present in Japan even through the 16th century. For instance, Japanese pirates raided the coasts of Korea and China for centuries and took slaves to be disposed of in Japan. However, until contact with the Portuguese in the 16th century and the Japanese invasion of Korea in 1592, the number of slaves entering or leaving Japan was small. As late as 1243, official shogunal documents describing domestic slavery in Japan can be found. Although capturing slaves was not allowed, people could become enslaved in other ways: if they or their parents defaulted on debt, if they were kidnapped during travel, or if they committed a crime. As the power of the shogunate continued to erode in the 15th and 16th centuries, the taking of slaves by military and bandits also became widespread as daimyo competed for control of resources, land and people. Labor, even by free people, was heavily managed by daimyos and the holders of large estates. The labor for which slaves were responsible was diverse, and could range from farming to wood and water gathering and domestic service. Domestic slaves, however, were presumed to be worth more and in greater debt to their masters.

The Aokata Clan and Archive

The following documents are from the Aokata clan records. During the Muromachi Period, this clan was mainly active in and responsible for the western part of Kyushu in the northern part of what are now known as the Goto islands. These are remote islands in the extreme southwest of Japan. The specific location of the first document involving Oto Hosshi is on the island of Nakadori. The Aokata clan was first “born” in this same area in the late 12th century, but it quickly came into conflict with nearby clans. The Aokata clan supported the Northern Court during the succession wars of the 14th century, but they were also slowly subsumed by the Matsuura clan. Conflict and competition between different clans of the Goto islands continued until the end of the 16th century, when the islands were unified under the Uku clan. The form of slavery seen in these documents is a variant wherein, upon being captured for a crime, the suspect may issue an apology and become a slave of the local lord. Due to the isolated nature of the Goto islands, the Aokata and nearby lords were often able to bypass shogunal law, as it was poorly enforced in general. However, the practice of enslaving people for crimes was widespread at the time, and instances of it are common throughout Western Japan.

Translated from the Japanese by Liam Nelson. Published in Yoshihiko Amino et al., Chūsei No Tsumi to Batsu (Tokyo: Kōdansha, 1983), pages 179 and 183, documents C and E. This translation CC BY-NC-ND 4.0.

Document 1 – Letter Regarding the Enslavement of Mako Saburo Under the Aokata

Because I, Mako Saburo, committed a crime in the town of Nama in the Aokata domain, I was supposed to have been put to death. However, because I apologized, I was spared and have drafted a hikibun, handing over my personage in accordance with the law. If I escape to another fief or to a temple or shrine, three of my family members may also be taken as hereditary servants. After this, regardless of the lands to which I may flee, whether of a temple, shrine, or the Shogun, I shall not object if I am prosecuted under the terms of this document.

In the fifth year of Bun’an, sixth month, eighteenth day[1]

From the Great Lord Aokata

[1] Estimated date of May 29, 1448 C.E.

Document 2 – Mihikibun

This is to certify that, for committing kidnapping, I hand over myself. My name is Oto Hosshi. As I have chosen to conceal it, my age is not written. I relinquish my person to serve Lord Hatayama without limit, in perpetuity. Whether I end up in another nobleman’s estate or in the service of a temple, this agreement will still apply. In short, the terms written will always be followed; if there is any question or challenge as to my status, refer to this document.

In the fourth year of Kyoutoku, eighth month, eighteenth day.[1]

[1] Estimated date of October 30, 1455 C.E.

Discussion Questions

  1. Compare these two documents. What elements or phrases appear in both? What elements or phrases are different? What might be the significance of these similarities and differences?
  2. Why were these documents written? Who was likely to read them, and for what purpose?
  3. Based on these documents, if a person enslaved in the Goto Islands decided to escape, where were they most likely to go? What was likely to happen next? Why are the documents so specific about this?
  4. Generally speaking, slave status in Japan was hereditary: it would be passed on from parents to children. In Document 1, there is a suggestion that slave status could be expanded to other members of a slave’s family within the same generation: “If I escape to another fief or to a temple or shrine, three of my family members may also be taken as hereditary servants.” Why do you think this clause was included in the document? What does it signify about slave status more generally in Japanese society?
  5. In Document 2, Oto Hosshi refuses to state his age. In whose interest would it be for his age to remain unknown? Why might that be?

Related Primary Sources

Related Secondary Sources

  • Ishii Susumu. “Mibiki to imashime.” In Chusei Nihon no tsumi to batsu 中世の罪と罰, edited by Amino Yoshihiko et al., 153-181. Tokyo: Daigaku Shuppankai, 1983.
  • Nelson, Thomas. “Slavery in Medieval Japan.” Monumenta Nipponica 59, no. 4 (2004), 463–92.
  • Shapinsky, Peter D. “Predators, Protectors, and Purveyors: Pirates and Commerce in Late Medieval Japan.” Monumenta Nipponica 64, no. 2 (2009), 273–313.


Agency, Flight, Kidnapping, Law, Property