Western Laws Translation Project at the Beginning of the Meiji Period: Rinsho Mitsukuri's Attempt


Ryosuke Yamaguchi
Associate Professor, Faculty of Law, Chuo University
Area of Specialization: Japanese Legal History


The project for translating the French Code of law 150 years ago

The year 2020 marked the 150th anniversary of publishing Rinsho Mitsukuri's translation of Furansu Horitsusho Keiho (French Code of Law, Criminal Law). The book was published in the third year of the Meiji period as the first result of the project for translating the French code of law (the Napoleon Code and the constitution), which was started in the second year of the Meiji period (1869) as ordered by Soejima Taneomi, who served as a statesman in the early Meiji government. The project continued until the 7th year of Meiji, when it started with criminal law, through civil law, commercial law, criminal procedure law, the constitution, to procedural law (the code of civil procedure) and each code was published with the title of Furansu Horitsusho. Moreover, the collection of these 6 basic laws is said to be the terminology source which has coined the term "6 codes" as a compendium of laws in the form of Japanese Statute Books and education statute.


The translation of Furansu Horitsusho was a big project, where several thousands of provisions were translated in a short period of time. As a result, it has undoubtedly contributed to forming the outlines of Japan's modern law in the sense that it opened the way for Japan in early Meiji to access all sorts of information about western modern laws. Even Shigenobu Okuma praised the activities of Mitsukuri's translation as follows: "He changed the concepts regarding Japan's traditional law and administration, and introduced concepts regarding the administration of law in Europe, to governmental officials."

Mitsukuri's starting point of the translator of the Code

Through this translation project, Rinsho Mitsukuri is known to have coined a myriad of new terms including movables and real estate through his attempt to translate such concepts in French law, which hadn't been common in Japan. Now, everybody knows how these words can be widely used not only in legal terms but also in day-to-day life.

Notably, the translation process of the codes of law did not seem to always proceed smoothly. Mitsukuri mentioned in a speech he made in later years that when he was assigned to translate the French criminal law, he remembers, "I didn't have a clue how I would approach the task; I wanted to do the translation but even if I try my best there weren't any reference books, dictionaries, nor teachers; truly I was all at sea." He had studied abroad in France during the the end of the Edo period. However, it was probably extremely difficult to understand the specialized legal content with limited information resources.

Attempts to translate "droits civils," "droits civiques," and "citoyen"

Given these circumstances, when reading and comparing the various copies of Furansu Horitsusho, some evidence of various trial and error in matching original words with translated terms used in these copies can be found.

For example, in Article 9 of the above-mentioned French Code of Law, Criminal Law, within a context of the punishment (a definite-term restriction on a certain right) for someone who committed a crime that is considered a misdemeanor, the words "droits civils" (equal footing, rights between equal entitled parties), which is translated as the private right, rights under civil law, etc., and "droits civiques" (the rights held by private individuals within the country or a public organization such as suffrage), which is translated as citizenship, civil rights, etc. are not translated separately. Instead, both were merged into one term, "Minken" (civil rights).


In this regard, Article 7 of French Code of Law, Civil Law published in the following 4th year of Meiji, which lays out the basic definition of private rights held by private individuals, was translated as below.

The citizens (people who hold the country's citizenship and can exercise their private and civil rights) should exercise their civil rights independent of the exercise of political rights, which are acquired and preserved in accordance with constitutional and electoral statutes.


*The brackets containcharacter readings while the parenthesis contains annotations. Refer to Figure 2 for more details.


Firstly, it's most noticeable that the original word, "droits civils," was translated as "civil rights." Secondly, he used the word "Kokumin" (citizen defined by nationality) to translate "citoyen," which now refers to "Shimin" (citizen) and "Koumin" (citizen with suffrage); additionally, he added the Rubi reading in the same sound and added the note, "people who hold the country's citizenship and can exercise their private and civil rights."

From the above, it can be pointed out that compared to when Mitsukuri translated the criminal law, the understanding of how "droits civils" and "droits civiques" refer to different concepts was developed. On the other hand, the word "Kokumin" (citizens defined by nationality) is used to translate "citoyen," who have both rights, and we can see that he has been very careful with his choice.

Different positioning of people in Japan and the west

So, why did Rinsho Mitsukuri translate "citoyen" so carefully? Part of the reason is due to the difference in understanding of the basic positioning of people in Japan, then, and citoyen in France as he explained in his note.

With that said, let's take an overview of the concept of peopled in the Edo period. It can be said that with the existence of Samurai as a ruling social status, the word "people" referred to those who were ruled. As a related instance to be pointed out, the Dutch-Japanese dictionary, Doeff-Halma Dictionary, which was edited by Dutch translators in the first half of the 19th century and later revised by the Rangakusha (Dutch learners), defines the word "burger," which is the Dutch equivalent of citoyen, as "Chounin" (townspeople) and adds an annotation saying, "the townspeople of urban cities; In the Netherlands, they engage in politics like the Samurai; therefore, their social status is not low. They help the king in the hard times and defend against the attacks of his enemies." From such translations, the western concept of people, who can engage in politics, can be considered different in essence from the concept in modern Japan. In that case, in order to understand such new concepts with consistency, it must have required further explanation.

Trial and error and beyond

Going back to Mitsukuri's translation, none other than himself was confirmed to have used the word "Samurai" to translate citoyen in other translation work during almost the same period he translated French Code of Law.


Mitsukuri responded to the request of Tokugawa Yoshikatsu and did the translation. Louis-Charles Bonne, the author of Taisei kanzen kunmou (published in the 4th year in the Meiji period), had a doctorate in law and he touched on the social as well as the legal relationship between the country and the people in some parts of the book. Later, the book was broadly used in primary education institutions as a textbook for morals all over Japan. For example, in Chapter 189 he translated the word "citoyen" as Kokumin in the clause "the greatest duty for the citizens is to follow the law no matter what, while facilitating the work of the governmental office"; on the other hand, in the following Chapter 192: "All citizens are protected by the government and are guaranteed the safety of their bodies and their properties (property right)," he translated the same word as "Shimin."


As can be seen from the above, in the period around the 4th year of the Meiji period when the French Code of Law, Civil Law was published, there was no standard translation for the word "citoyen" and he has been experimenting with the translation with consideration to the context. Here, as he alternated his usage of the word "Kokumin" with the word "Shimin," which, if we track back the context, didn't refer only to "Shi (Samurai)," it is thought to have been used to comprehensively refer to other "people" as well. With this assumption, while the concept of Samurai in Japan is defined to a certain extent I think that Mitsukuri might have been trying to cultivate a new perspective to make the new concept more relatable.


To this point, I have introduced a trajectory of the intellectual debate regarding Mitsukuri's translation, however, in extremely simple terms. The translation works I raised are mainly from the 2nd to 4th year of the Meiji period but from after five years onwards, French law experts (G. Bousquet, G. E. Boissonade, et al.) visited Japan as per a request from the government, thanks to which the information environment around western laws including French law rapidly developed. As for French Code of Law, after the completion of the first translated book, a revised version was published in the 8th year of the Meiji period and in the 16th year of the Meiji period, an enlarged and revised edition was published. Further, each translated word was updated as the understanding and the learning of the French law developed. Each version can be viewed through the National Diet Library Digital Collections, thus if this article got you interested in the translation of a particular word, I suggest you compare the translation differences in the various versions.

  • Note: To access French Code of Law in the National Diet Library Digital Collections, Mr. Tomoya Sano (Graduate School of Law, Nagoya University) provided the below website for your convenience. Moreover, in the criminal law of the revised version (8th year of Meiji period), the word "droits civils" is translated as "civil rights," however, "droits civiques" was edited to "citizenship."                                                                                                                                                                              Materials related to the translation of the French code of law (Legal Information Platform)


  • On a side note, this website explains that the minister of justice, Shinpei Eto is the one who ordered the translation of the French law. However, the ministry of justice was established in the 4th year of the Meiji period and Shinpei Eto didn't assume office until the 5th year of the Meiji period. As I mentioned in this article, the truth is, after Soejima had asked for the translation in the 2nd year of the Meiji period, Eto saw the draft and was impressed and took charge of the translation project. As such, part of the translated laws was utilized as the earliest attempt to make a domestic civil law compilation.


Ryosuke Yamaguchi

Associate Professor, Faculty of Law, Chuo University

Area of Specialization: Japanese Legal History

Ryosuke Yamaguchi was born in Saga Prefecture in 1982. He graduated from the Faculty of Law, Kyushu University in 2006, completed the Master’s Program of the Graduate School for Law, Kyushu University in 2008, and completed the Doctoral Program of the same graduate school in 2011. He worked as a member of JSPS Research Fellowship for Young Scientists, Assistant Professor in the Graduate School for Law, Kyushu University, and a Full-Time Instructor/Associate Professor in the University of Kitakyushu before assuming his current position in 2018