Current Exhibit

Centuries of Japanese Legal Tradition/数世紀にわたる日本の法的伝統

To the surprise of many of our visitors, the Harvard Law School Library’s collection extends far beyond Magna Carta, trial broadsides, and faculty papers. Centuries of Japanese Legal Tradition features rarely-seen treasures from the Japanese collection. This exhibit draws from a collection of manuscripts, scrolls, and printed books dating from the twelfth to the nineteenth centuries that was acquired circa 1935. According to Mikael Adolphson, historian of medieval Japan, the collection came to Harvard to coincide with its 300th anniversary “as part of a donation from Japan facilitated by Takono Tatsuyuki, a scholar and teacher of Japanese culture and music but was largely forgotten until the 1970s.” At that time, James Kanda, an East Asian Legal Studies research associate at the Harvard Law School, rediscovered the collection and subsequently catalogued it.

Selected from over 300 items, the manuscripts, scrolls, and illustrations on view highlight the scope and depth of this extraordinary collection. To appeal to a large, non-Japanese speaking audience, this exhibit explores the different imagery found throughout the collection. Divided into three components, it first focuses on the hugely transformative moment when Japan opened to the West, ending two centuries of closed-door policy. It goes on to show the more routine aspects of the law, such as land disputes, land surveys, and criminal code. And finally, the exhibit showcases extremely rare scrolls, which are among the oldest items in the Library’s collection. 

This exhibit was curated by Sarah Wharton, Harvard Law School Library, Historical & Special Collections.

View Exhibit Highlights Below!

Japan Ends Two Centuries of Isolation

1854: Japans signs treaty with the United States ending two centuries of isolation

During the nineteenth century, countries such as Russia, France, Great Britain, the Netherlands, and the United States viewed access to Japan as crucial to their continuing expansion. In July 1853, under the direction of the United States Navy and President Millard Fillmore, Commodore Matthew C. Perry sailed to Japan’s Edo Bay (present day Tokyo) with a fleet of four battle-ready ships in order to broker a treaty to end Japanese isolation. Intimidated by the American’s show of force, now known euphemistically as gunboat diplomacy, Japanese officials reluctantly accepted Perry’s official diplomatic correspondence. Perry departed, with the intent to return in a few months to receive Japan’s answer. In 1854, Perry returned with a fleet of ten armed ships and presented his mandate to the Japanese representatives. Japan acquiesced to Perry’s demands signing the Treaty of Kanagawa on March 31, 1854. According to the terms of the treaty, Japan would open several ports, provide relief to shipwrecked American sailors, and establish a coal depot for provisioning American ships; however, it would be four more years before Japan agreed to a commercial treaty.


Drawing in black ink of Commodore Perry's Black Ship entering Edo Bay

This drawing on Japanese paper depicts a contemporary view of Commodore Matthew C. Perry's flagship, which arrived at Uraga Port, Japan in 1853. The name “Black Ship” was given by the Japanese because of the black smoke the ships’ coal-powered engines emitted and the color of some of the ships themselves. It was found in a set of mid to late nineteenth century manuscript notebooks written by a minor local official whose name is unknown .

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Hongoku jōkisen no zu, or Commodore Perry’s “black ship”

[Late 19th century]

1 sheet, 28 x 39 cm

HOLLIS 99153854016303941


Japanese Legal Materials

Legal materials can offer fascinating insights into the culture in which they were created. The items on display here, spanning the Tokugawa (1603-1868) and Meiji (1868-1912) periods, were selected both for their relevance to the Japanese legal system and as representations of the culture at the time. For example, in the 1880 volume containing the first modern criminal code of Japan, an early owner’s annotations are important evidence of how they actively engaged with the content. The manuscripts detailing mundane aspects of everyday life are, rather unexpected, among the most visually dynamic materials in the collection. Those featured here include land surveys and treatises on crop propagation; an illustrated (and clearly heavily-used) primer for women on ethics, duties and manners; and a commentary on imperial court ceremonial uniforms of the nobility.  


Hand drawn map of land disputeThis is one of seven identical color maps included with the complete record of an appeal from the judgment of the Tokyo District Court of Appeals 東京控訴裁判所 that involved a land dispute between the litigants Ezawa Nobuaki 江沢述明, of Tokyo, Shitaya-ku, appellant, and Wakabayashi Ijuro, 若林伊十郎, of Chiba, Ishimi-gun, appellee, in the Supreme Court, Civil Court No. 1 大審院民事第一局from May 13, 1881 through May 31, 1886.











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所有地争論ノ訴訟東京控訴裁判所ノ裁判不当, 上告狀关荅書

Shoyūchi sōron no soshō Tokyo Kōso Saibansho no saiban futō no jōkokujō kakawari tōsho

若林伊十郎, complainant-appelee

Wakabayashi, Ijūrō [complainant-appelee]


5 volumes in 1 case: 7 folded maps; 22 cm

HOLLIS 990048062520203941



The Harvard Law School Library Komonjo Collection

The Harvard Law School Library’s collection of Japanese scrolls consists of twenty-two legal manuscripts and later annotated facsimiles called komonjo, literally translating to “old documents.” The scrolls include edicts and judicial rulings, most commonly related to land and property disputes. They were issued by religious, military and court officials, among others. These premodern documents provide a snapshot of the complicated land system during a time when most land belonged to the imperial state. Exempt from this regulation were temples and some courtiers and military leaders. The komonjo on display reflect their disputes and negotiations, along with hereditary grants. Spanning a nearly 450-year period, from 1150 to 1591, these documents provide a rare window into legal transactions in the Heian (794–1185), Kamakura (1185–1333), Moromachi (1333–1568), and Momoyama (1568–1600) periods.



Explore the entire collection of digitized scrolls.  


14th Century Japanese Scroll


This is a duplicate copy of the original letter addressed to Tōdaiji, a Buddhist temple complex in Nara in the Kansai region of Japan’s main island Honshū. Tōdaiji (“Great Eastern Temple”) was built in the eighth century and was one of the seven great temples of Nara. The historical monuments of ancient Nara (Buddhist temples, Shinto shrines, and the excavated remains of the Imperial Palace) were designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1998. In the letter the head of the Sumiyoshi shrine, Kunifuyu, acknowledges his parishioners have violated the land rights of the Tōdaiji, and swears that this shall never be repeated in the future.


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Sumiyoshi Jinja kannushi Kunifuyu ukebumian


1 leaf, mounted as a "kansubon" (scroll); 33.5 x 52.9 cm

HOLLIS 990091654680203941



Manuscript and scroll text courtesy of James Kanda, The Japanese archives of the Harvard Law School Library


Adolphson, Mikael S., “Laws of the Land in Medieval Japan: Komonjo at Harvard University,” in Treasures of the Yenching: Seventy-Fifth Anniversary of the Harvard-Yenching Library Exhibition Catalog. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Yenching Library, 2003. HOLLIS 990092118390203941

Icenhower, Joseph B., Perry and the Open Door to Japan. New York: A World Focus Book, 1973. HOLLIS 990147450710203941

Kanda, James, The Japanese archives of the Harvard Law School Library. Cambridge, Mass., [1975]. HOLLIS 990022127900203941 HOLLIS 990022127900203941

Lu, David J., Japan: A Documentary History (Vol.1). Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe, 1997. HOLLIS 990073636560203941

Statler, Oliver, The Black Ship Scroll. San Francisco: Weathermark Edition, 1963. HOLLIS 990066629700203941