After Japan opened up to the rest of the world in the 1850s after years of isolation, hundreds of British traders and sailors came to live in the country and became the largest Western expatriate community.

But while Britain was happy to trade with Japan, it felt uneasy about the country’s legal system, which was considered rudimentary, patchy and unable to guarantee Britons a fair trial.

As a result, London insisted upon setting up its own extra-territorial courts to exclusively hear criminal and civil cases involving Britons. Western nations set up similar courts in other parts of Asia as well.

Retired lawyer Christopher Roberts has spent the past six years examining these little-known courts and has just published a book on the subject.

Roberts said the extraterritorial courts “have always been viewed as a thorn in Anglo-Japanese relations because Japan thought they were unfair, derogatory and demeaning. “But they haven’t been investigated in detail before and I decided to examine the courts’ caseloads.”

The courts were established in various Japanese ports, including Yokohama, Nagasaki and Tokyo.

British citizens accused of criminal offenses or who had civil claims against them would be brought before the extraterritorial courts, which would hear the case according to British law.

Roberts’ main finding is that there is little evidence to suggest the courts were actually biased in favor of Britons, as many Japanese claimed.

Available records show courts heard well over 6,000 cases, the majority being criminal ones.

Several people were convicted for killing fellow Europeans and others for raping Japanese women.

One British captain was sentenced to three months for the manslaughter of 23 Japanese who drowned when their ship, the Normanton, sank off Cape Omaezaki, Shizuoka Prefecture, in 1886.

The British court was also the scene of a dispute between the Japanese government and British shipping company P&O following a collision in 1892 between the newly built Japanese warship Chishima and a P&O steamer, the Ravenna. A total of 74 Japanese sailors died in the accident off Matsuyama, Ehime Prefecture.

Both sides blamed each other for the tragedy. In the end, P&O made an out-of-court settlement with the Japanese government, but not before Japan had successfully argued that P&O could not make a counterclaim against it in the British courts as this would be an extension of extra-territoriality.

But despite its critics, Roberts believes extraterritoriality did have an upside: Each country dealt with its own citizens according to its own laws, thus avoiding bilateral political rows.

Roberts said that by the early 1880s, extraterritorial courts were becoming increasingly hard to justify. Japan was becoming more powerful and could no longer be classed “second-rate.”

Before the courts were closed, Japan’s legal system was reformed so that laws were comprehensive and transparent and the judiciary was independent and fully trained.

Roberts, who practiced commercial and banking law in Japan between 1988 and 1994 but who now lives in London, said, “The British courts gave Japan an appreciation of the effectiveness of independent courts and the desirability of their judgments being enforced.”

“The British Courts and Extra-territoriality in Japan 1859-1899” is published by Global Oriental.

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