Legendary Asuka statesman and devout follower of Buddhism

As regent for Empress Suiko (推古天皇 Suiko-tennō, 554-628), Prince Shōtoku (聖徳太子 Shōtoku Taishi, 572-622) exercised political leadership, instituting such measures as the Kan'i Jūnikai (冠位十二階, Twelve Level Cap and Rank System) and the Jūshichijō kenpō (十七条憲法, Seventeen-Article Constitution) in order to centralize the government and strengthen the authority of the imperial institution. Devoted to Buddhism, he sought to extend its religious and civilising influence. To enhance national prestige, he compiled histories with Soga no Umako (蘇我 馬子, 551-626) of the powerful Soga clan and initiated diplomatic relations with the Sui dynasty (589-618) in China.

Prince Shōtoku (聖徳太子)
According to the Nihon shoki (日本書紀 "The Chronicles of Japan", 720), Prince Shōtoku was born in the doorway of a horse stable (umaya), when his mother, Princess Anahobe no Hashihito (穴穂部間人皇女), suddenly felt labour pains as she was making the rounds of the palace. For this reason, he was first named Umayado (厩戸皇子 Umayado no ōji, or Prince of the Horse Stable). The legend of his birth, however, seems to be an embellishment added later by scholar-monks who had studied in Tang (T'ang; 618-907) China and heard about the birth of Christ from Nestorians. The prince was known by other names, such as Toyotomimi no Oji (Prince Endowed with Intelligence and Judgment) and Jōgū Taishi, from the fact that he resided in the upper castle. But it is by his name Shōtoku Taishi (Prince of Sacred Virtue) that he is best known. It is only from the eighth century, however, that he is mentioned as such, an inscription at the Hokkiji Temple (法起寺) constructed in 706 being the earliest example.

Power Struggles

Following the death of Emperor Yōmei (用明天皇 Yōmei-tennō) in 587, a power struggle broke out between Soga no Umako and Mononobe no Moriya (物部守屋, d. 587) over the question of imperial succession. Shōtoku and other princes sided with Umako. According to the Nihon shoki he prayed to the Shitenno (四天王, the Four Heavenly Kings) for victory and seems to have acted more prominently in a priestly function than in a military capacity. After Moriya was killed in the ensuing war, Shōtoku donated property owned by the Mononobe to the Hōryūji Temple.

Kan'i Jūnikai 冠位十二階

The Twelve Level Cap and Rank System was the first system of courtly ranks in Japan. Different coloured caps (kan or kammuri) were used to designate each of the twelve ranks. Devised by Prince Shōtoku, it was promulgated in 604 as part of his effort to create a strong imperial bureaucracy. In contrast to the earlier hereditary titles (kabane) based on clan membership, the kan'i jūnikai system was designed to reward individual merit and promote loyalty to the emperor. Ranks were named after the six Confucian virtues: toku (徳, moral excellence), jin (仁, benevolence), rei (礼, decorum), shin (信, fidelity), ki (義, righteousness), and chi (智, wisdom); and each of these was subdivided, making twelve ranks in all. Caps of a dark or light shade of purple, green, red, yellow, white, and black were used to indicate rank and entitled the wearer to corresponding privileges at court.
  1. 大徳 Daitoku (Greater Virtue)
  2. 小徳 Shōtoku (Lesser Virtue)
  3. 大仁 Daijin (Greater Benevolence)
  4. 小仁 Shōjin (Lesser Benevolence)
  5. 大礼 Dairei (Greater Propriety)
  6. 小礼 Shōrei (Lesser Propriety)
  7. 大信 Daishin (Greater Sincerity)
  8. 小信 Shōshin (Lesser Sincerity)
  9. 大義 Daigi (Greater Justice)
  10. 小義 Shōgi (Lesser Justice)
  11. 大智 Daichi (Greater Knowledge)
  12. 小智 Shōchi (Lesser Knowledge)
The system was replaced by a thirteen-rank system in 647 and the use of caps to indicate rank was abolished in 701 with the adoption of the more elaborate court hierarchy created under the ritsuryō (律令) system.

The now all-powerful Soga no Umako succeeded in having Sushun (崇峻天皇 Sushun-tennō, d. 592) installed as emperor. Sushun was murdered in 592 following a feud with Umako. It was at this critical juncture that Umako's niece and widow of the deceased Emperor Bidatsu (敏達天皇 Bidatsu-tennō, 538-585) was selected as the next ruler, Empress Suiko. After becoming empress in 593 Suiko appointed Shōtoku, then only 20 years old, as regent, delegating all powers to him. Her decision to abstain from politics was no doubt calculated to ensure her safety and the stability of the imperial family, although some historians claim that Shōtoku's regency started a few years later. The inauguration of the Kan'i Jūnikai in 604 was Shōtoku's first administrative achievement. Tribal chieftains in service to the court were ranked on an entirely new basis. Whereas the kabane ranking had been determined within the broader framework of the uji or lineage group to which one belonged by birth, status was now defined on a purely individual basis; the order of ranking was marked by the colour and pattern of the caps, and promotions to a higher rank were common. And by conferring each rank in the name of the emperor, Shōtoku hoped to convert tribal chieftains into faithful public servants of the emperor. The same year Shōtoku promulgated the Seventeen-Article Constitution. Constitution, in this instance, meant a "splendid law," and stressing as it did the exalted personage of the emperor and the reverence and obedience due him, it resembled more a set of moral and political precepts. The text, with numerous quotations from Confucian, Buddhist, and Chinese legalist works, is written in a highly literate style. Some scholars since the Edo period (1600-1868) have doubted whether it was in fact written by the prince, but opinion, on the whole, tends to attribute authorship to him. It is also questionable whether the document was ever presented to the public, but it does give a general idea of Shōtoku's political thought.

Defender of Buddhism

Shōtoku, who had been brought up by religiously zealous parents, was himself a devout follower of Buddhism. In 594, the year following his appointment, he issued an imperial edict calling for the promotion of Buddhism. He gave direct imperial support to the building of the Asukadera Temple (方広寺 Hōkō-ji), a project previously sponsored by the Soga, selecting it as the site of imperial ceremonies and appointing Umako's eldest son as a temple official. He also sponsored the building of the temples Shitennoji and Hōryūji. It must be remembered, however, that in carrying out these good works he always sought to extend imperial influence over Buddhist institutions. Shōtoku is also credited with having been the first Japanese to understand thoroughly the Saddharma-pundarika or Lotus Sūtra (Sanskrit: सद्धर्मपुण्डरीकसूत्र, Japanese: 妙法蓮華經 Saddharmapundarīka-sūtra), Vimalakīrti Nirdeśa Sūtra (Sanskrit: विमलकीर्ति निर्देश सूत्, Japanese: 維摩経義疏 Yuimagyō Gisho), and the Śrīmālādevī Siṃhanāda Sūtra (Japanese: 勝鬘経 Shōman-kyō), and to have written commentaries on these works. The Lotus Sūtra was of primary importance, and since the Yuimagyō Gisho recorded the teachings of a princely figure who, like Shōtoku, had elected to stay in the world, and the Shōman-kyō centred on an imperial consort, not unlike Suiko, it can be assumed that at the very least Shōtoku had a hand in selecting them. Whatever the truth, the prince's role in spreading Buddhism remains undisputed.

In 620, together with Umako, Shōtoku compiled two historical chronologies, the Tennōki (天皇記) and the Kokki (国記, "National Record"). Since the two manuscripts are recorded as having been burnt by Soga no Emishi when he committed suicide in 645, they must have been more or less completed. While the fact that they were kept at the Soga residence indicates that the histories were still unready for imperial presentation, it is of interest that the word tennō (emperor) appears in the title. Whereas the title traditionally used, daiō (大王 great king), emphasised the secular nature of the ruler, tennō (天皇 heavenly sovereign) stressed the ruler's religious aspect as well. One may assume that the Kokki dealt with the founding of Japan and that it reflected Shōtoku's conception of the nation as an emperor-centred polity.

Foreign Affairs

Ever since the conquest of the Japanese enclave of Kaya by the adjacent Korean Kingdom of Silla in 562, successive emperors had made repeated efforts to regain a foothold on the Korean peninsula. Shōtoku too, in 602 appointed his brother Prince Kume (d. 603) as head of an expeditionary force against Silla. When Kume died of illness in Tsukushi (modern-day Kyūshū), Shōtoku appointed his half-brother Tagima, but then Tagima's wife suddenly died, thwarting his plans. Shōtoku once more asserted his leadership in foreign affairs when he decided to dispatch an envoy to China in 600. His move was in response to the news that Yang Jian (楊堅 Yang Chien; ruled 581-604) had overthrown the Chen (陳朝 Ch'en) dynasty (557-589) and succeeded in unifying the country under his Sui (隋) dynasty (589-618). By sending the mission, the prince also hoped no doubt to foil any untoward action by Silla. A second embassy was sent in 607 when Ono no Imoko (小野 妹子) was dispatched bearing a message from "the ruler of the Land of the Rising Sun to the emperor of the Land of the Setting Sun." While the wording incurred the displeasure of the Sui Emperor, he nevertheless consented to send a return envoy, since he realised the advantages of allying with Japan in the event of a projected invasion against the Korean Kingdom of Koguryŏ. When Imoko set off again the following year, he was accompanied by a large delegation of scholar monks and students. They returned one by one over the years, many of them after Shōtoku's death. Some of these returned scholars contributed directly and indirectly to the Taika Reforms (大化の改新 Taika no Kaishin) of 645. During the latter half of his regency, Shōtoku was inactive. He may have been defeated in the power struggle against Umako, or he may have grown disillusioned of politics. His famous words, "This world is empty and false; Buddha alone is real," testify not only to his frustration in politics but also to his embracing of religion. The prince died at Ikaruga-no-Miya (斑鳩宮), his palace that occupied the eastern part of the Hōryūji temple complex.


  • Como, Michael I.; Shōtoku: Ethnicity, Ritual, and Violence in the Japanese Buddhist tradition, Oxford University Press 2006
  • Nussbaum, Louis-Frédéric; Japan Encyclopedia, Harvard University Press 2005

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