Translations and Transitions

Translations and Transitions


Legal Practice in 19th Century Japan, China, and the Ottoman Empire

Legal practice is the field where the complexity of law becomes the most evident. Taking a closer look at legal practice means tracing the multi-normativity inherent in law itself. Judicial decision-making is bound to the legislative framework, to self-produced norms; it is linked to institutional logics, procedures, and dynamics of the legal discourse, to habitus and socializations, as well as to traditions and socio-political factors.

In the nineteenth century, all of these factors underwent an immense transformation. Industrialization, the growing technization, and the change of social relations brought substantial challenges to the judicial field. Standardization and professionalization of the judicial practice became major aims of the reforms. The project “Translations and Transitions” approaches these changes by investigating the perspectives of those who were perceived as “outsiders”: Japan, China, and the Ottoman Empire.

The emergence of modern legal practice represents a highly entangled process. Although Western modernity served as a template for countries outside of Europe, at the same time, the “translation of modernity” was anything but homogeneous. Japan, China, and the Ottoman Empire were three countries faced with this challenge under rather similar conditions and with rather similar aims. Pressed by the Western powers and by internal needs for reform, their ambition was no less than to replace the entire legal universe with a legal order corresponding to Western standards. In a process that took place over the course of many decades, every aspect and dimension of the law was reconsidered: the normative and institutional framework of law, its epistemologies, and even its language. What did it mean to establish a legal practice on such shaky ground? How did practitioners reinterpret the Western legal ideas, and how did they contribute to the shaping of what law should become in the new social order? While reconfiguration of the legal practice was the primary aim of the reforms in all three countries, it nevertheless proved to be quite problematic. Western councillors were invited, commentaries and judgements were translated, law schools were founded, and judges were sent to Europe in order to become more familiar with the courts’ practices. Although the measures taken to study the West resembled one another, the way the respective countries dealt with the insights was quite different, especially regarding the judicial practices.

While significant research has been conducted on each of the three transformation processes over the last several decades, there has been no attempt to initiate an exchange between the three national legal histories up till now. The research project “Translations and Transitions” aims to fill this gap. It examines the three variations of the transformations that took place in the nineteenth century not by means of a large-scale comparison, but rather by bringing together several different case studies, inquiring into the complex interplay between the newly created normative framework, the changing professional identities and understandings of law, and the practices that shaped legal decision-making. Through the constant interaction and exchange between the group members, the view on the respective cases will be sharpened, reflecting also the fact that European judicial practice that served as a model was anything but static and that “law’s modernity” (A. Rubin) was still about to be negotiated in Europe, too. On this basis, the project will be able to identify and assess the characteristics of legal practices that were shaped by “translating the West” (D. Howland).

Network between Experts on Japanese, Chinese, and Ottoman Legal History

The core of the project is the collaborative research by the group members. Beyond that, the project aims at creating a permanent platform for comparative exchange between experts on modern Japanese, Chinese, and Ottoman legal history. This platform intends to provide a framework for communication that is not limited to the questions raised within the project group. Here, selected comparisons can be carried out in order to shed light on specifies of the respective transformation process; aspects can be discussed that need to be approached by overcoming the borders of national legal histories. What characteristics, for instance, of the new judicial elite were created in each of the countries? To what extent was their perception of “Europe” and European law specifically bound to the context and culture in which they were acting? Did they observe the transformations that were taking place in the other two countries, and if so, how far did this influence their way of dealing with European law? Methodological approaches to the transformations that took place under the influence of European law might be discussed as well as possibilities and limits of comparison. Scholars in the respective legal histories are invited to participate in this discussion that aims at re-assessing modern legal practice by reflecting non-European experiences.

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