All Commentary
Wednesday, March 27, 2024

Were Japan’s ‘Taika Reforms’ a Good Idea?

Japan’s history over the past 1,500 years is not much different from that of the rest of the world—warfare, civil strife, and needless poverty so long as the mystique of the omnipotent state kept people in thrall.

Image: Okunoin Cemetery at Mount Koya | Image Credit: iStock

Note: This essay is the last installment in a series about Japanese history that will soon be compiled into a free eBook from FEE.

It is natural to assume that an essay dealing with the earliest chronological period to be covered in the collection would appear first (and indeed, in the book it certainly will), but there’s a logic to the order here.

Writing about the later periods initially placed this final one into valuable context. The so-called Great Reformation of the Taika Era that began in 645 A.D. set the stage for the development of Japan in subsequent centuries as its own unique cultural, political, and economic identity in some ways, but simply repeated old errors in other ways.

_____

By the time of the Taika Era, the royal seat of the Japanese state was 1,200 years old—dating back to the legendary first emperor, Jimmu, in the 7th Century B.C. Records are sparse and little is known of the first fifteen or so emperors. Nonetheless, Japan’s fabled Chrysanthemum Throne is recognized today as the seat of the oldest continuous hereditary monarchy on the planet. The present Emperor of Japan, Naruhito, became the country’s 126th when he acceded to the throne in 2019.

“Tumult” describes the year 645 A.D. in Japan. The Soga family which controlled the imperial government for 50 years was overthrown in a coup d’etat that brought Emperor Kōtoku to power. His nine-year rule is best remembered for the “Taika Reforms” his administration announced on New Year’s Day in 646. Historians R. H. P. Mason and J. G. Caiger, in A History of Japan, describe the purpose of these edicts as

…the creation of a centralized imperial state, which would be ruled directly by the emperor in accordance with a system of written law and with the help of bureaucratic officials whom he himself had appointed to office and could dismiss whenever he pleased.

To strengthen the emperor’s economic and political power, four “articles” comprised the Taika Reforms: 1) all land in the country belongs to the emperor; 2) political power is centered in the emperor’s choice of a capital city; 3) a national census of the population every six years would provide the basis for taxation and land usage; 4) land would be assigned to farmers, who would then be taxed in the form of goods and services.

Emperor Kōtoku chose Nara as Japan’s capital city. Over the centuries thence, it would move to Kyoto and then ultimately to Tokyo.

The so-called “reforms” were far-reaching, to be sure, but they were also quintessentially authoritarian. Traditional local authorities (typically clan leaders) were made into vassals of a centralized state. They and the people were declared subjects of the supreme authority, the emperor. Rather than recognizing private property rights, the new edicts asserted that farmers were nothing more than renters on the emperor’s land; they could not sell the land to anyone without the big guy’s approval. It gets worse, as Mason and Caiger explain:

Heavy taxes of other kinds were levied on the male population. Labor was required by the provincial and central administrations for public works, but this could be converted into its equivalent value in cloth. Products of the region—cotton cloth, hemp, salt, earthenware vessels, timber, vegetables, or fish—were payable to the government. Military service was also required and seems to have caused great distress. One third of the male inhabitants of each province between the ages of 20 and 59 were supposed to spend one year at the capital and three years on the frontiers. While they were on active service, they were expected to provide their own equipment and provisions. This aspect of the reforms was not a great success because its severity encouraged people to desert their land to avoid being conscripted.

The inspiration for all this centralization in Japan was none other than the authoritarian ideas and structures of the Tang Dynasty in neighboring China. The Japanese official known as Prince Shōtoku (574–622 A.D.) had popularized the notion that Japan’s people should emulate the Chinese by embracing a strong, centralized autocracy to ensure social harmony. A generation after Shōtoku’s death, the Taika Reforms set about to accomplish just that.

We now know, of course, that authoritarian centralization is the very antithesis of social harmony (though plenty of people today still do not understand that truism). Twelve centuries later, Lord Acton would survey the world’s painful experience with it and famously conclude, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

What, after all, constitutes “power”? One word: FORCE. How else can anybody “centralize” the political or economic life of a nation? Heads always roll when power is the name of the game.

Imagine for a moment that you are appointed master of a people. Your assignment is “social harmony,” that is, to promote peace, mutual trust, and cooperation. And you then decide to accomplish the objective by nationalizing other people’s property and declaring it your own. You treat other people as though they were born to be subject to your whims. You pretend you know enough to run the lives of others even though it’s a full-time job just to run your own. What could go wrong?

So readers should not be surprised to learn that Japan’s Taika Reforms of the 600s did not usher in centuries of social harmony. As explained in the subsequent installments in this series soon to be compiled in an eBook, Japan’s history over the past 1,500 years is not much different from that of the rest of the world—warfare, civil strife, and needless poverty so long as the mystique of the omnipotent state kept people in thrall.

The idea that big, arrogant government can be synonymous with social harmony—in Japan as everywhere else—is ナンセンス. 

That’s Japanese for “baloney.”


  • Lawrence W. Reed is FEE's President Emeritus, having previously served for nearly 11 years as FEE’s president (2008-2019). He is also FEE's Humphreys Family Senior Fellow and Ron Manners Global Ambassador for Liberty. His Facebook page is here and his personal website is lawrencewreed.com.