Japanese Laws in Translation

Translation of the laws and information about the legal systems of the countries of the world is a time-consuming and challenging endeavor, but it is also one of the keys to enabling those in other jurisdictions to research foreign and comparative law. The impact of a quality translation can be substantial. Reliable translations promote cultural understanding and awareness in addition to encouraging economic cooperation. In contrast, the absence of or lack of access to legal translations creates obstacles to achieving many forms of mutual understanding between countries as well as between those who wish to engage in commercial or other transactions with individuals in foreign jurisdictions.[i] The history of the translation of the laws of Japan illustrates the impact of translations on a country’s ability to build a strong and stable position in global commerce and world affairs.

Since the 19th century, Japan has sought to be accepted and understood. This effort has proven to be a constant uphill battle because of the difficulty of the language and Japan’s late entrance onto the world stage. The dearth of translations of Japan’s laws into other languages has hindered Japan’s efforts to build an understanding of its legal system in the global arena.

The following is a very brief summary of the history of major Japanese to English legal translations of Japanese law, followed by a discussion of Japan’s current efforts to make its laws more accessible and widely available by increasing efforts to translate them into English and publish them on the web.


Historical Translations of Japanese Law into English

Japan was thrust into the international limelight in 1853 when the “Black Ships” of Commodore Perry forced the mysterious country into open trade. In order to westernize, Japan sent out its brightest young scholars all over the world to gather information about the laws and legal systems of the major world powers of the time. The resulting survey of the laws and legal systems of major countries was of the utmost importance to Japan as it endeavored to enter world affairs and commerce by developing an understanding of foreign legal systems. In a very short span of time, an immense number of reports, treatises and other works were translated into Japanese. Interestingly, very little information about Japan’s own legal system and laws was translated or exported.

A new Japanese Civil Code, heavily based on the German Civil Code, was adopted in 1896, and soon after courts began ruling on the new law. A few translations of the Civil Code were completed shortly after the law’s adoption giving some insight into the new Japanese system. It wasn’t long before growing Japanese nationalism and a militaristic focus overshadowed the spirit of international communication that had existed in the previous generation. Over the years, while interest in the artistic culture of Japan persisted, legislation and court proceedings were rarely translated into other languages; as a result, Japanese law remained underappreciated and largely misunderstood.

The Second World War changed many things for Japan. The post-war occupation of Japan by Allied forces had a significant impact on legal developments in the country as well as on translation activities. Rules and orders from the Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers (SCAP) were translated into Japanese and English translations were created for any legislation passed by the Japanese legislature. When the Allied occupation of Japan ended in 1952 the formal systematic translation of Japanese laws into English also came to a halt.

For the next 50 years, the only readily available translations of Japanese laws into English were a commercial set of pamphlets called the EHS Law Bulletin Service.[ii] This loose-leaf series, notably limited in scope and unreliable in practice, represented Japan throughout the period of some of its most significant economic growth, from the economic “miracle years” into the 21st century.[iii]

The EHS Law Bulletin Service translations often acted as the main source of information supporting comparative law research about Japan written in English since World War II. Each pamphlet contains a law or set of laws. Every year a small number of translated amendments replaced pamphlets and occasionally a new law was added. During this 50 year period, only about 300 laws were translated. While some law libraries that were able to acquire the set retained only the current laws in translation, the University of Michigan Law Library chose to retain the superseded pamphlets, and recently bound all but the current set for historical research purposes.

The EHS series also has a confusing organizational structure. The pamphlets are organized by volume number as well as unique four digit numbers or series of four digit numbers, two letter topical designators, law numbers, passage dates as well as translation dates. The series also lacked a serviceable index for many years. In 1995, Rob Britt at the University of Washington Law Library published an index that finally allowed users of the series to look up the laws by Japanese title, English title, enactment date and subject.[iv]

In the past decade the need to semi-officially translate Japanese law has finally been recognized and is currently being addressed.[v] New laws passed in 2004 actively facilitated the translation of the Japanese Civil Code and subsequent legislation into English. These translations, while still unofficial, are supported by a dictionary of terms and are hosted by the Japanese Ministry of Justice. A similar effort has been made to translate the decisions of the Supreme Court of Japan into English; at present, several hundred of these translated decisions can be found on the official court website.


The Future of Legal Translation in Japan

Japan is not the only nation that has struggled to provide adequate translations of its laws. The laws of most countries are constantly in flux, changing with each new piece of legislation or decision of the courts.

Modern technologies have made the difficult task of translation somewhat easier. Organizing information and accessing resources is faster than ever. Web-based dictionaries and translation tools are constantly improving the speed and accuracy of translation. Many of these tools, however, were not developed in a vacuum, but have utilized the work of the diligent translators of the past. The versatile and popular tool, Google Translate, was developed to a large extent by scanning and comparing thousands upon thousands of United Nations and European Union documents that had been painstakingly translated into 6 languages. This foundation has been built upon so that it now encompasses many other languages, including Japanese.

Thanks to the translators of the past, life is becoming increasingly easier for all users of Japanese legal materials today. Still, while useful for navigating foreign websites and locating foreign legal resources, Google Translate and other web-based translation tools are not a replacement for the careful detail and expertise needed to adequately represent the law of a foreign nation. Hand-crafted legal translations are still both relevant and crucial to the legal community. It is in the best interest of our profession to gather and provide access to these translations when we are able.


Mike McArthur

Reference Librarian and Japanese law selector

[i]For English speakers, the Foreign Law Guide was developed in part to assist in finding translations of the laws of most countries of the world.

The NYU Globalex foreign research guides also identify translations for many jurisdictions.

[ii] Robert R. Britt, Japanese Laws in English: an Index to the EHS Law Bulletin Series, Published by the Marian Gould Gallagher Law Library (1995).

[iii] Dan F. Henderson, “Japanese Law in English: Reflections on Translation,” 6 Journal of Japanese Studies, No. 1, 137 (Winter 1980).

[iv] Britt, Japanese Laws in English. (A second edition of the index was published in 2000).

[v] Carol Lawson, “Found in Translation: The ‘Transparency of Japanese Law Project’ in Context,” 12 Journal of Japanese Law, No. 24, 190 (2007).