More good information from Yayoi which needs to be added to this post. Let there be no doubt, whatever was originally meant by this epigram, I am sure that it is not the meaning that I would want it to have.
I came across an intriguing poem, or maybe an epigram, written by a historical figure of 13th century Japan, Kusonoki Masashige, who is as famous in Japan as Abraham Lincoln or Brad Pitt is in America.
It seemed to me that this poem had been translated in a way that probably left out a lot of nuance that would be clear to someone Japanese when read in that language, but to a contemporary American was somewhat inscrutable.
It did not help to discover that this poem had been used as the motto of one or more of the Japanese Special Attack Units of World War 2, nor did it help to discover, after I first wrote this post, that it had been used by Pynchon in Gravity's Rainbow. It just reinforced the impression that there was some sort of deeper meaning concealed within.
This epigram/whatever is apparently so well known that it has its own abbreviation in Japan, based on the Chinese characters HI RI HO KEN TEN.
In one translation to English we read
Although Thomas Pynchon would translate it as
Injustice cannot conquer Principle,
Principle cannot conquer Law,
Law cannot conquer Power,
Power cannot conquer Heaven
We will update this post as more information is acquired.
So my first guess for what this means is as follows: An unjust act, however excused, can never triumph over the principle of what is right and what is wrong. Stealing from the poor as the banks do in this country can never be the right thing. But that principle of right and wrong can not triumph over the laws of a society, however unjust. Thus when the banks conspire with the judiciary to impose grossly unfair tariffs on the poor to punish them for being poor, then the law overrides the principle of right and wrong, even though the principle still holds. But the laws of a society will submit to power. In Japanese society this might have been the power of the individual lords, in America this may mean the power of wealth and privilege. So a wealthy man steals and nothing is done but a poor man goes to jail for life. Power conquers the law. But ultimately power must submit to Heaven, the powers of life and death.
This is probably not what Masashige meant, this is just my first effort at understanding this. So far, none of my Japanese knowledgeable friends have been able to help. One thought is that Law refers to Dharma, but that would not work with my definition here.
1 The quote from Pynchon is:
2. A french glossary found on Google Books has the following
3. Kusunoki Masashige's page on Wikipedia:
4. Japanese Special Attack Units on Wikipedia