It's little known that slavery existed in ancient Japanese society-or even in Japan, at all, for that matter. In Nara Japan (710-794 A.D.), Chinese-emulating law compilations such as the Taiho and Yoro Codes set the standard for the ownership of slaves and the subsequent stratification of society. In general, beyond the ranks of aristocrats and ministers, society was separated between the common people (ryoumin) and slaves (senmin). The Cambridge History of Japan Volume One: Ancient Japan informs us that "slaves made up less than 10 percent of the population and were not the country's main producers." Also, one could not bridge the societal gaps through marriage, and crimes of slaves were punished harsher than those committed by normal citizens.
The Cambridge History of Japan attempts to analyze the place of slaves within Nara society. The chapter concludes that "Ke'nin" were far less common than government-owned slaves. "The largest slave subgroup was private chattel slaves, who were owned mainly by temples, shrines, public officials, and wealthy farmers. One private chattel slave, according to contemporary sources, had roughly the value of a strong horse or cow."
Stratification and Separation within Slavery
- Kanko 官戸
- Ryouko 陵戸
- Ke'nin 家人
- Kunuhi 官奴婢
- Shinuhi 私奴婢
The Cambridge History of Japan titles the "Kanko" as government-owned 'state slaves' who were allowed "familes and could use a portion of their labor for themselves".
Basically care-keepers of Imperial Kofun, 'imperial-mausolea slaves,' or "ryouko" were the property of government officials. This can only be expected, considering the sensitive work they did. Interestingly, it's noted that they were on almost equal footing with the common people, but they carried a certain unfavorable stigma, as they dealt with deceased bodies, either indirectly or directly.
The common people (ryoumin) owned "Ke'nin" or 'private slaves,' as they are called within Cambridge. These 'private slaves' were equal with 'state slaves'.
"Kunuhi," or 'state chattel slaves,' were also owned by the government. They were viewed as currency--"property that could be bought and sold".
"Shinuhi," in contrast with "Kunuhi," were privately owned 'chattel slaves'. However, that is where the differences end: their lot in life was equal.
Sengoku & Edo Periods
As for the medieval and early modern periods, whether there was slavery in Japan depends very much on one's definition of slavery. There were a variety of types of contracted labor, under which people could be obligated for lengthy periods and with very severe terms, and a significant portion of the population worked under such contracts. Prostitution is one of the fields in which people (in this case, girls) sold themselves, or were sold by others (e.g. their parents), into lengthy periods of work. Labor contracts for factory girls in the Meiji period, and perhaps even into the 1920s-1930s, closely resembled those for prostitutes in earlier eras, as parents sold their daughters to the factories, taking upon themselves the risk of severe financial punishment should the girl break anything, abscond from the factory, etc. And, in at least some parts of the archipelago, in the early 17th century (and likely prior to that), women were in various respects considered property, at least insofar as one had to give up one's wife and daughters before one could be considered truly unable to pay up on debts.
All of this said, however, there was no separate status class of "slaves," that one could be born into, or that one could be sold into, losing one's status as a person, as a human being in society. While there were certainly those who held hereditary positions as servants of various sorts, these people still were paid, enjoyed more or less as much freedom as the next person outside of their work obligations, and perhaps most importantly were not considered property; they were not bought or sold, and had the power to own property themselves. There was no separate slave class based on ethnicity or race. And there was no singular Japanese term, or set of terms, which might be translated as "slave." The term dorei (奴隷) most commonly used today in Japan for "slave" had no particular meaning in Edo period status systems.
Still, in the 16th century, a number of Japanese girls and women, often already sold into prostitution, were taken by Europeans, or by Asian or African members of the crews of European ships, after which they were treated, and traded, as slaves elsewhere in the world, within European notions and systems of slavery. The Society of Jesus (Jesuits) complained about this, fearing it endangered their position in Japan, and their proselytizing mission, and in 1571 the king of Portugal banned the practice (as it pertained to Japan, specifically). Toyotomi Hideyoshi also issued formal edicts against the practice. Yet, accounts from the time indicate that it continued.
In addition, some 50,000 Koreans were taken by force from Korea, back to Japan, during Hideyoshi's invasions of Korea in the 1590s. Most were potters or other types of craftsmen, and were forced to work for regional lords. While their abduction and entrance into the service of this lord was most certainly not voluntary, their status was perhaps closer to that of retainer than contracted worker, let alone "slave." Yet, at the same time, others abducted from Korea at this time were sold directly to European slave traders.
- Gary Leupp, Interracial Intimacy in Japan: Western Men and Japanese Women, 1543-1900, A&C Black (2003), 49.
- Amy Stanley, Selling Women: Prostitution, Markets, and the Household in Early Modern Japan, University of California Press (2012), 33.
- Leupp, 52.