Sumptuary law (奢侈禁止令)

Sumptuary laws are a series of laws, ordinances, and orders that ban luxury (Shashi) and promote or force thrift.

Through all ages and civilizations, luxury has been considered a kind of crime. Confucianism has stated that luxury is against Mei (ethics) and Bun (ethics) of Kunshin Sonpi (knowing the difference between the ruler and the ruled or between the aristocrat and the plebeian) and is a great defiance against social order. Meanwhile, in Catholic teaching, luxury is seen as a form of vanity, one of 'The Seven Deadly Sins,' and it has been thought that God's wrath against people's hedonistic lives has caused epidemics such as the black death and wars.

However, as time went by and societies became richer and richer, it became harder to put people's consumption under control, resulting in a dilemma that many ineffective sumptuary laws were issued but not thoroughly observed.


Sumptuary laws existed from the time of the Frankish kingdom (the Carolingians), and after the Crusades full-scale laws started to be issued because the church and states were alerted to the rapid development of trade and advancement of urban life. Initially, sumptuary laws were issued as parts of other laws as single added lines, but later, there were an increasing number of cases where they were issued as independent ordinances.

Meanwhile, details and objects varied according to the law: Some were applied to every person across the country regardless of their status, whereas others were aimed only at certain areas or social classes. Italian city-states used this kind of law as a means to restrain the extension of power of the nobles who were then the ruling class and to suppress the increasing influence of women, which was becoming a concern of the country. In Northern Europe, they were issued based on conservative thoughts, which included traditional values and were aimed at maintaining the community.

At the time of absolute monarchy, sumptuary laws were issued to the public in order to limit exports and to boost consumption of domestic products, thus enabling Kings and nobles to establish their superiority as well as to promote Mercantilism.


In Japan, to maintain its class system, 'extravagant behavior' such as wearing clothes beyond one's means was criticized as an offense against public morals and decency. Under the Kani junikai (12 grades of cap rank) of Prince Shotoku, a dress code for those who attended the Imperial Court was established, and this was followed by frequent sumptuary laws which were, at first, mainly aimed at nobles and government officials (especially those of low to medium rank).

In 721, raising horses was regulated according to rank by stating that 'exercising abstention and moderation and prohibiting luxury are the first things for governance and the way how a king keeps his strong authority.'
Around 999, the Dajokan (Grand Council of state) with Michinaga FUJIWARA as ichinokami (the ranking Council Member) issued sumptuary laws several times in the form of Daijokanpu (official documents from the Daijokan to local governments), declaring 'Any luxurious clothes or extravagance is prohibited.'
At the time of the Kenmu Restoration, although Emperor Godaigo declared an imperial decree of 'interdiction of extravagant behavior' as a part of his administrative reforms, it could not put a stop to the trends of the time, basara (extravagant, madness, and eccentric behavior) and furyu (splendor).

In the early-modern times, the Edo bakufu (Japanese feudal government headed by a shogun) announced a series of laws and ordinances to ban luxuries for every walk of life, such as samurai, farmers, artisans, and merchants, in Edo society, and a prominent number of such laws and ordnances were issued.

In 1628, fabric that farmers were allowed to use was limited to hemp and cotton (with the exceptions of myoshu [owners of rice fields] and farmers' wives, who were permitted to use tsumugi [silk fabric]), while even lower-ranking samurai were banned from luxurious outfits and were only allowed to wear clothing of tsumugi or silk. In the same year, restrictions were placed on hatamoto (direct retainers of the bakufu, which was a form of Japanese feudal government headed by a shogun), such as limiting the number of retinue that they could take along, and this kind of control was later extended to the lifestyle of their families, their meals, and even the gifts they sent to each other. This was largely due to the hatamoto having become consumers and having led hard lives after being separated from their territories which was the production center, because they were, in principle, obliged to stay in Edo year round.

Regarding clothing for farmers, in 1642, they were banned from using silk for their collars and obi (kimono sash). Meanwhile, adjunct farmers, both men and women, were allowed to wear only hemp and cotton, and even when they were allowed to use tsumugi, its length was restricted. Furthermore, in the following year's Domin Shioki Oboe' (laws to regulate farmers), colors such as purple and cherry rose were forbidden. Similar orders were issued repeatedly in 1667, 1788, and 1842.

Meanwhile, the same kind of regulation was applied to samurai and townspeople, although they were not as severe as with farmers. In 1663, uncompromising 'Jochu Irui Nedan no Jo' (女中衣類直段之定) was announced, restricting even the clothing costs of the retired Emperor Meisho (an empress regnant, silver 500 Kan) and midaidokoro (the lawful wife of seii taishogun [literally, "great general who subdues the barbarians"], 400 kan of silver). In 1683, drapers were limited to selling kosode (a kimono with short sleeves worn as underclothing by the upper classes) of up to 200 kan of silver and were banned from selling silk interwoven with gilt thread, nui (embroidery), and sokanoko (shibori [tie-dyeing]). Meanwhile, ordinary townspeople were only allowed silk or lower-ranked textile, whereas maid servants and hashitame (lowly maidservants) were limited to hemp or cotton. Although only nui worth up to 250 kan of silver was permitted in 1686, all cloth worth 250 kan of silver or more was banned to sell in 1689 and adding luster to silk by waxing was also prohibited. In 1713, the regulations in the above-mentioned 'Jochu Irui Nedan no Jo' (500 kan of silver for the Imperial Court, 400 kan of silver for the bakufu and daimyo [Japanese feudal lord] and 300 kan of silver for those of lower rank) were reaffirmed, while textile manufacturers and dyers were banned from the production of luxurious items and development of new products and technology. In keeping with the issuance of 'Machibure' (proclamation) in 1718, an order was given to magistrate's offices to watch any luxurious behavior of townspeople, down to their underwear.
In 1745, an ordinance was issued stating that 'if doshin (police constable) find townspeople wearing clothes like noshime (a kind of kimono for samurai), they should arrest them and confiscate the clothes on the spot, as townspeople are not allowed materials other than silk, tsumugi, cotton, and hemp.'
The most strict of the sumptuary laws was the series issued during the Tenpo Reforms. The sumptuary law stated that 'merchants as well as artisans should always remember that they are to work so as not to inconvenience samurai and farmers,' thus labeling the development of the city itself useless and forcing severe restrictions on these classes of people.

Although such ordinances were issued repeatedly, people strictly followed the rules only in the short period right after the issuances, and as time passed, lawbreakers appeared one after another both in cities and in the countryside. Also, when lower-ranked people put on clothes granted by higher-ranked people for their good service, this had to be tolerated from the viewpoint of Confucius's teaching of loyalty. As a result of such practices, the bakufu itself sometimes provided grounds to undermine its sumptuary laws.