Exaggerated penal­ties can cor­rupt des­po­tism itself : let us have a look at Japan.

Almost all cri­mes there are puni­shed by death,1 because to diso­bey as great an empe­ror as the empe­ror of Japan is an enor­mous crime. There is no thought of puni­shing the guilty party, but of aven­ging the prince. These ideas are deri­ved from ser­vi­tude, and arise espe­cially because, as the empe­ror is the owner of all pro­perty, almost all cri­mes are com­mit­ted directly against his inte­rests.

They punish by death lies told before magis­tra­tes,2 which is contrary to natu­ral defense.

What has not even the appea­rance of a crime is seve­rely puni­shed there : for exam­ple, a man who risks money gam­bling is puni­shed by death.

It is true that the sur­pri­sing cha­rac­ter of that peo­ple – obs­ti­nate, capri­cious, deter­mi­ned, and bizarre, bra­ving every peril and every mis­for­tune – seems at first sight to absolve its legis­la­tors for the atro­city of their laws. But are men who natu­rally scorn death and tear open their bowels on the sligh­test whim cor­rec­ted or pre­ven­ted by the conti­nual spec­ta­cle of exe­cu­tions ? And do they not become fami­liar with them ?

The rela­tions tell us, on the sub­ject of the edu­ca­tion of the Japanese, that chil­dren must be trea­ted gently, because they bristle at punish­ments ; that sla­ves must not be trea­ted too har­shly, because they imme­dia­tely become defen­sive. Could they not have jud­ged, from the spi­rit that must pre­vail in domes­tic govern­ment, the spi­rit that should have been applied in poli­ti­cal and civil govern­ment ?

A wise legis­la­tor would have sought to assuage the minds through a skill­ful admix­ture of penal­ties and rewards ; through maxims of phi­lo­so­phy, mora­lity, and reli­gion mat­ched to these cate­go­ries ; through the skill­ful appli­ca­tion of the rules of honor ; through the enjoy­ment of cons­tant content­ment and agreea­ble tran­qui­lity. But des­po­tism does not know these resour­ces ; it does not lead down these paths ; it can abuse itself, but that is all it can do : in Japan it has made an effort, and become cruel­ler than itself.

Souls eve­ryw­here ter­ri­fied and made more atro­cious could be led only by even grea­ter atro­city. Such is the ori­gin and such the spi­rit of the laws of Japan. But they have had more fury than force. They have suc­cee­ded in des­troying Christianity, but such extra­or­di­nary efforts are a proof of their impo­tence. They meant to esta­blish a good poli­ti­cal order, and their weak­ness became even more appa­rent.

One must read the rela­tion of the conver­sa­tion bet­ween the empe­ror and the Deyro in Meaco.3 The num­ber of those who were smo­the­red or killed there by hel­lions was unbe­lie­va­ble ; they abduc­ted the girls and boys, who were found at all hours expo­sed in public pla­ces stark naked, sewn into cloth bags, so they would not reco­gnize the pla­ces where they had pas­sed ; they stole eve­ry­thing they wan­ted, sla­shed open hor­ses’ bel­lies to make their riders fall, over­tur­ned car­ria­ges to rob the ladies inside. The Dutch who were told they could not spend the night on blea­chers without being mur­de­red des­cen­ded from them, etc.

I shall qui­ckly pass over ano­ther item. The empe­ror, addic­ted to sha­me­ful plea­su­res, fai­led to marry, and ris­ked dying without a suc­ces­sor. The Deyro sent him two very pretty girls : he mar­ried one out of res­pect, but had no com­merce with her. His nurse sent for the most beau­ti­ful girls in the empire : it was all for naught. The daugh­ter of an armo­rer caught his fancy by sur­prise4 ; he made up his mind, and had a son by her. The ladies of the court, indi­gnant at his pre­fe­rence of a per­son of such low birth over them, suf­fo­ca­ted the child. The crime was concea­led from the empe­ror, who would have spilled a tor­rent of blood. The atro­city of the laws thus pre­vents their exe­cu­tion : when the punish­ment is beyond mea­sure, there is often no alter­na­tive to impu­nity.

See Kaempfer.

Recueil des voyages qui ont servi à l’établissement de la Compagnie des Indes, vol. III, part 2, p. 428.

Recueil des voyages qui ont servi à l’établissement de la Compagnie des Indes, vol. 5, p. 2.