Recently, I saw this post on Twitter:
I chuckled at this a little bit because the issue with tax-evading oligarchs that wield disproportionate power is not a new phenomenon, and it’s not limited to the Western world.
Back in the Nara and Heian Periods of Japan (7th through 12th centuries), the government had instituted a legal system borrowed from Tang-Dynasty China called the Ritsuryo code.
The Ritsuryo code was sophisticated bureaucracy that divided the populace into castes, a ranking system for the nobility, a criminal code and a land-management system based on periodic redistribution.
Much of this land was allotted to the noble houses, major Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines, with commoner classes working the land, and paying rent to their lords. Further, the land was usually taxed, with some exemptions, to the central government (i.e. the Emperor).
However, it didn’t take long for this whole system to start breaking down. Larger, wealthier landowners (both nobility and religious institutions) called Shōen exploited tax loopholes and while accumulating larger and larger parcels of land particularly from the expanding borders of Japan, but also consolidating landholdings from other, smaller landowners. Paradoxically, even as more and more land was being cultivated, tax revenue to the central government kept declining. There were times when the central bureaucracy risked running out of funds.
The Fujiwara clan was a classic textbook case. Even as they owned large tracts of land, and engaged in independent trade overseas to mainland Asia, their daughters would be married into the Imperial family, and men like Fujiwara no Michinaga would act as regents, while influencing the Imperial succession process. All while vast sums of peasants toiled away in their fields year after year generating income that the central government never really saw.
However, it wasn’t just noble families like the Fujiwara that benefited from larger, consolidated land-holdings: Buddhist temples such as Kofukuji and Enryakuji were powerful enough and wealthy enough to fund private armies which frequently pushed around the central government, or clash with other temple private armies. Religious institutions had some land-tax exemptions under the Ritsuryo system, but this was intended to help the monks (who were under the Buddhist monastic code supposed to live a life of poverty) sustain themselves.¹ However, large temples would frequently employ artisan guilds, merchants and even engage in money-lending in addition to profits from land output.
The Ritsuryo system was, in hindsight, a spectacular failure. As Professor Robert Borgen explains, early medieval Japan never actually abandoned the system, but it simply lost its relevance as real power and wealth consolidated under certain noble families or religious institutions. The Fujiwara clan, for example, had originally been sponsors of the Ritsuryo system, but as they held positions of power, they also modified it when it suited their needs.²
P.S. Try saying the title to the original 1980’s theme song for Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles without your tongue getting tied. ;p
¹ More specifically, Buddhist monks traditionally are not allowed to “handle money”, but with the implication that they should have no material wealth whatsoever. In ancient India, monks begged for alms as was the culture at the time, but as Buddhism moved into China, this practice was culturally frowned upon (especially by harsh Confucian critics), and monks became more self-sustaining. Even then, they were expected to live frugally, but at various points in history, they didn’t.
² If you want to see some real political shenanigans, check out Julius Caesar’s efforts to get elected consul