Shotoku Taishi (573-621), the Prince of Holy Virtue, was a Japanese regent, statesman, and scholar. He prepared the Seventeen-article Constitution in 604 and contributed significantly to the political-cultural development that led to the Taika Reform of 645-649.
Prince Shotoku was the second son of Emperor Yomei (Prince Oe) and his consort, Anahobe Hashihito. According to legend, his mother bore him unexpectedly and with no labor pains while on her routine inspection of the imperial stable. While an infant, the prince already began to show evidence of exceptional intellect, and he began reading extensively in his early childhood. He is said to have listened once to eight persons simultaneously pleading to him and to have understood every word. Emperor Yomei's love for his prodigious son was so great that he had the prince live in a specially reserved part of the palace known as the Jogu, or Upper Palace. The three different personal names of the prince were derived from these episodes: Umayado no Miko (Prince of the Stable Door), Yatsumimi no Miko (Prince of Eight Ears), and Kamitsumiya no Miko or Jogu Taishi (Prince of the Upper Palace).
When Shotoku was 13 years old, Emperor Bidatsu (reigned 572-585) died, and a bloody struggle for royal succession took place involving the heads of two powerful noble families, the Sogas and the Mononobes. The Sogas favored Oeno Oji (Prince Oe, father of Shotoku) as the new sovereign, and the Mononobes preferred Anahobe no Miko. The violent feud ended in victory for Prince Oe, who ascended the throne in September 585, to be known as Emperor Yomei. Because of his poor health, however, the reign of Yomei was short-lived.
When the Emperor became seriously ill, the prince, who was by now a devout Buddhist, sat by his father's bedside day and night praying fervently for his recovery. It was probably because of this princely devotion that the Emperor announced his intention to become a Buddhist believer.
The demise of Emperor Yomei in 587 set off another and more serious strife between the Sogas and the Mononobes, and this struggle ended when troops of the Sogas killed Prince Anahobe and Mononobe no Moriya. Shotoku, then 15, participated in the campaign and prayed to Shi-Tenno (Four Heavenly Guardians of Buddhism) for victory. Subsequently, he had the Shitennoji erected. Prince Hasebe, a son of one of Soga no Umako's younger sisters, was enthroned as Emperor Sushun. A strong animosity soon developed, however, between the Emperor and his over-bearing uncle, Umako, and the outcome was that Emperor Sushun (reigned 588-592) was assassinated by one of Umako's men.
When Princess Sukiya-hime ascended the throne as Empress Suiko, Umako nominated as heir apparent and regent not one of her sons but Prince Shotoku. It is not quite clear why Umako selected the prince, but it is believed that Umako recognized Shotoku's great qualities and thought it prudent to keep him on the Soga side. From then until his death, Shotoku figured as the actual ruler of Japan.
Protector of Buddhism
Shotoku moved the Shitennoji from its original site at Tamatsukuri to its present location in Osaka in his very first year as the prince regent. He issued a rescript in the following year calling for worship of the three treasures—Buddha, Buddhist teachings, and priesthood. Two Korean high priests arrived in Japan in 595—Eji from the kingdom of Koryo (Koma) and Eso from the kingdom of Paekche (Kudara). The prince almost immediately became a disciple of Eji and from him formally received the Buddhist commandments.
Shotoku studied them carefully and wrote commentaries on three Buddhist sutras, Hokke, Yuima, and Shoman. A number of temples, including the Horyuji, were built under the personal supervision of the prince. The massive importation of Buddhism into Japan now signaled not only an introduction of a religion that was far more sophisticated than the current native cults of Japan but also a conscious attempt at the adoption of the more advanced continental culture, including literature, art, sciences, and political systems.
The cultural importation process had begun as early as 552, when the king of Paekche presented Emperor Kimmei with several copies of Buddhist sutras and Confucian classics. Under the sponsorship of Prince Shotoku, many sculptors, temple builders, artists, tilers, and other artisans were invited from Korea. Among the Confucian scholars who were invited to Japan was Kakuga (or Doctor Kak-ka), under whom the prince acquired profound knowledge of Confucian classics.
Both Buddhist and Confucian teachings appeared to flower simultaneously in Japan at the time, and Japan enjoyed a splendid cultural advancement. The famed Horyuji, containing beautiful murals and other fine artistic works, was completed in 607. Because the capital in those days was located in the Asuka district, this first flowering of the continental culture and fine arts in Japanese history is referred to as the Asuka period.
Cap Ranks and the Constitution
The Chinese practice of distinguishing official ranks by the form and materials of the official cap was adopted by the Japanese court, and Shotoku in 604 promulgated the system of 12 cap ranks. The introduction of this system can be said to be the beginning of the formal differentiation of governmental roles in Japan. The 12 grades were: Dai-toku (greater virtue), Sho-toku (lesser virtue), Dai-nin (greater humility), Sho-nin (lesser humility), Dai-rei (greater decorum), Sho-rei (lesser decorum), Dai-shin (greater faith), Sho-shin (lesser faith), Dai-gi (greater righteousness), Sho-gi (lesser righteousness), Dai-chi (greater knowledge), and Sho-chi (lesser knowledge). Shotoku also adopted the continental calendar system taught by a Korean priest, Kanroku, which resulted in the official adoption of the first lunar calendar in Japan.
In 604 Shotoku distributed to his officials the famous Seventeen-article Constitution, which is known as the first written law of Japan. In reality, it was a collection of moral maxims rather than legal norms. Many of the moral commandments were obviously derived from the Analects of Confucius and other Confucian writings of ethical and political doctrines. Buddhism, however, was specifically named as the supreme object of faith.
An abiding concern of Shotoku was evidenced, however, by the first article, which declared that the virtue of wa, or concord or harmony, should be valued. The constitution also emphasized the supremacy of the imperial throne, defined the duties of ministers, forbade provincial authorities to levy exactions, and admonished them to use forced labor only "at seasonable times."
Official relations between Japan and China opened in 607, when Shotoku sent Ono no Imoko as an envoy of the Japanese emperor to Emperor Yang of the Sung dynasty with a message which read, "The Emperor of the country where the sun rises greets the Emperor of the country where the sun sets." Subsequently, Japanese scholars were sent to China to study the continental culture and Chinese political system.
One of Shotoku's most significant accomplishments was the compilation of the first history of Japan in 620, a year before his death. The history book was later burned when the residence of the Soga family was destroyed by fire following the assassination of Soga no Iruka, which marked the inauguration of the Taika Reform (645). Shotoku died on Feb. 2, 621.
A study of Shotoku is Masaharu Anesaki, Prince Shotoku, the Sage Statesman (1948). There are nine entries on Shotoku in Nihongi: Chronicles of Japan from the Earliest Times to A.D. 697, translated by William G. Aston (1896; repr. 1956). Many entries on the prince in the Nihongi are quoted in Ryusaku Tsunoda and others, Sources of Japanese Tradition (1958). George Sansom, in A History of Japan to 1334 (3 vols., 1958), doubts that Shotoku could have accomplished all the things which are attributed to him during his relatively short life and regency. □
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SHOTOKU TAISHI (574–622), or Prince Shotoku, was a member of the Japanese imperial family during the sixth and seventh centuries ce. He was responsible for Japan's first constitution as well as the spread of Buddhism in Japan. He is also known as Umayado no Miko, Toyotomimi, and Kamitsu Miya. The name Umayado is derived from the legend that Shotoku was born to Princess Anahobe no Hashihito when she was walking in front of the door of a stable (umayado ). According to Kume Kunitake, this legend might have been influenced by the story of Jesus' birth, which had been brought to China by Nestorian Christians during the Tang dynasty (618–907). The name Toyotomimi, or "wise ears," refers to the fact that Shotoku was considered to be so learned that he could listen to ten lawsuits simultaneously and decide them without error. The name Kamitsu Miya is derived from the location of his palace. The name Shotoku (saintly virtue) was given to him after his death to honor him for his contribution to the prosperity of Buddhism in Japan.
Young Shotoku and His Era
Shotoku was born in 574 (572 or 573 according to some scholars) as the second son of Prince Tachibana no Toyohi, who ascended the throne as Emperor Yomei in 585. Yomei, whose short reign ended when he died of natural causes in 587, is also known as the first Japanese emperor to declare his faith in Buddhism, which had been officially introduced into Japan from Korea in 538—or 552, according to the Nihonshoki (Chronicle of Japan ), which was compiled in 720. The emperor's official acceptance of Buddhism caused a division among the imperial courtiers, so that the Mononobe family, which was opposed to the new religion, and the Soga family, which supported Buddhism, fought over the succession after Yomei's death. Young Shotoku, whose grandmothers both came from the Soga family, followed their loyalty to Buddhism. According to one legend, he carved a statue of Shitenno, or the four heavenly kings regarded as protectors of Buddhism, to pray for victory. After the Soga family defeated the Mononobe family in 587, Shotoku constructed the Shitennōji temple in Osaka, which later became the first official Buddhist temple in Japan.
Emperor Sushun, who ascended the throne in 587, plotted to murder Soga no Umako, the head of the Soga family, which had become tyrannical after their defeat of the Mononobe clan; however, Umako succeeded in assassinating Sushun. It was under these unstable conditions that Empress Suiko, the first female ruler of Japan, ascended the throne in 593. Suiko, who was the sister of Emperor Yomei, designated Shotoku as her regent shortly after she became empress, and she delegated secular authority to him.
Shotoku as Regent
Shotoku governed as prince regent on behalf of Empress Suiko from 593 until his death in 621 or 622. His administration was conspicuous for instituting many of the policies that became foundational for the Japanese state and culture. In 604 Shotoku instituted the kan'i junikai, literally "twelve grades of cap rank," which was the first system of courtly ranks in Japan. The kan'i junikai designated twelve grades of courtiers, each with a distinctive colored cap. The ranks were named after the six Confucian virtues, each of which was subdivided to make twelve ranks in all. Instead of the former ranking system, which had been based on hereditary clan membership, Shotoku's system was intended to reward talented individuals and promote loyalty to the court.
In the following year, Shotoku promulgated the Seventeen-Article Constitution, which was really a set of moral precepts and service regulations for public servants rather than a constitution in the modern sense of the term. The contents of the constitution were based primarily on Confucian and Buddhist thought. For example, the high praise of harmony, solidarity, and cooperation in Article 1 reflects Confucian influence, while the respect for the Three Treasures—Buddha, Buddha's teaching, and the Buddhist community—expressed in Article 2 honors the new faith that Shotoku wished to encourage. Although some scholars doubt that the document was actually composed by Shotoku, this first constitution has had a significant influence on later Japanese legal codes.
Shotoku had three aides from three rival kingdoms in what is now Korea: Eji came from Koguryŏ, Kakuka is thought to have come from Paekche, and Hata no Kawakatsu came from a family from Silla. Although the three kingdoms fought among themselves during Shotoku's lifetime, the three advisers cooperated in supporting the prince regent, who was eager to introduce the political systems, art, and religions of the Asian mainland into Japan. Shotoku also sent ambassadors, scholar-monks, and students in the years 600, 607, 608, and 614 to the rulers of the Sui dynasty, which had unified China in 589. One of the main purposes of these diplomatic embassies was to collect writing materials, commentaries, and other reference works to bring back to Japan.
In 601 Shotoku began the construction of a new palace in Ikaruga, which lies halfway between Asuka (the residence of Suiko as well as the stronghold of Umako) and Naniwa (Osaka), where an international port was located. In 605 Shotoku moved into Ikaruga no miya (the palace at Ikaruga). There he built a famous Buddhist temple, the Hōryūji, to pray for the repose of his father's soul.
Shotoku's Attitude toward Religion
With the penetration of Sino-Korean civilization and Buddhism into Japan from the fifth century onward, the country was destined to undergo a series of social, political, and cultural changes. In addition to the cosmological theories of the Yin-Yang school, two universal principles—Dao and dharma —were introduced by Confucianism and Buddhism, respectively. These principles stood in tension with the indigenous Japanese religious worldview, which was later called Shintō. The first serious attempt to deal with this tension was made by Shotoku, attempting to affirm Shinto, Confucianism, and Buddhism simultaneously by holding them in balance, as it were, in the Seventeen-Article Constitution.
Regardless of Shotoku's devotion to Buddhism and his advocacy of Confucian virtues, however, the Nihonshoki indicates that he was dedicated above all to unifying the Japanese nation by upholding the divine prerogatives of the throne through appropriation of the teachings of Buddhism and Confucianism. On the other hand, he was eager to continue the tradition of his imperial ancestors who had venerated the kami. In short, what Shotoku envisaged was the establishment of a multireligious policy that harmonized Shintō, Confucian tradition, and Buddhism. This synthesis was to serve as the bulwark of a strongly centralized nation ruled by the imperial family.
Shotoku himself, however, was a Buddhist. In the early days of Japanese Buddhism, some powerful clan leaders looked for salvation in this world from the newly-introduced foreign religion, as well as protection for their country. In contrast to this line of thought, Shotoku accepted the internal and spiritual dimensions of Buddhism. According to the Nihonshoki, he lectured to Empress Suiko on the Shomangyo, or Śrīmālā Sūtra, and the Hokekyo, or Saddharmapuṇḍarīka Sūtra, in 606. He also wrote commentaries or gisho on three sutras: the Shomangyo gisho, the Yuimagyo (the Vimalakīrti Nirdeśa Sūtra ) gisho and the Hokekyo gisho, all of which are estimated to be the oldest written documents in Japan. Scholars disagree, however, about whether they were written by Shotoku himself, and if so, to what extent they originated with Shotoku.
Popular Veneration of Shotoku
According to Tamura Encho, more than a hundred biographies were written about Shotoku by the end of the Tokugawa era (1600–1868), most of which were based on, or at least influenced by, the Shotoku-taishi-denryaku, or Denryaku, which was supposedly written in the early tenth century. This text became increasingly popular among the Japanese people as the founders of Japanese Buddhist sects, particularly Shinran (1173–1262), venerated Shotoku as the founder of Japanese Buddhism. The Denryaku is full of legendary or mythological episodes, one of which introduces Princess Anahobe's strange dream of a golden monk (who introduces himself as kuse no bosatsu [bodhisattva of salvation]), which caused her to become pregnant. Shotoku came to be regarded as an incarnation of Kannon, the god or goddess of mercy (Avalokiteśvara in Sanskrit) on the basis of this story. During the two centuries between the Nihonshoki and the Denryaku, Shotoku was transformed in the popular imagination from a hero to a savior.
What is significant is that Shotoku was not only a historically important person but also a paradigmatic figure. That is to say, Shotoku was stereotyped, and as such, his personality and career were interpreted by later tradition as embodiments of attributes and qualities that later Japanese Buddhists admired. Once Shotoku was idealized in this way, he was further glorified in pious legends and popular literature. The various attributes of buddhas and bodhisattvas as well as the virtues of King Aśoka and the ideal Buddhist layman Yuima (Vimalakīrti) were incorporated into the sacred traditions about Shotoku. It is not surprising, therefore, that very shortly after his death Shotoku became the object of the Taishi (Prince) cult, which was in effect similar to the veneration of Sakyamuni (Prince Siddhārtha) and Maitreya (Prince Ajita).
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Hayashi Mikiya. Taishi Shinko no Kenkyu. Tokyo, 1980.
Iida Mizuho. Shotoku Taishi Den no Kenkyu. Tokyo, 2000.
Miyamoto Youtaro. Seiden no Kozo ni Kansuru Shukyogaku teki Kenkyu. Okayama, Japan, 2003.
Oyama Seiichi, ed. Shotoku Taishi no Shinjitsu. Tokyo, 2003.
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Shotoku Taishi was born in Yamato, Japan, in 574. As the crown prince of Japan, he helped to shape Japanese culture and history in many aspects. Specifically, he was instrumental in the development of Japanese constitutional government, he opened cultural exchange with China, which had a tremendous impact on Japanese society, and he undertook important building projects, such as irrigation and building projects. Shotoku was also a prolific author, by which he influenced ideas about ethics, the system of government, and how history was recorded. He even influenced the hairstyles of those in both his own era and modern times.
Shotoku was born into the powerful Soga family, the second son of the short-reigned emperor Yomei. As a result of political upheaval, his aunt came to power and Shotoku was appointed as the crown prince and regent in 593. He remained in this position for nearly 40 years until his death in 622. Shotoku firmly believed that Chinese culture had significant things of value that Japan could extract for its own use. His initial and most influential act was to send envoys to China in order to facilitate cultural exchange. This was the first gesture of its kind in over 100 years and it opened up avenues for cultural, economic, and political exchange.
The infusion of Chinese culture into Japan had many positive effects. Once the cultural doors were open, scholars, monks, and skilled workers, such as artisans and craftsman, flooded into Japan and helped to bring about social, political, religious, and economic reforms. The Chinese calendar was adopted for use and support of both Buddhism and Confucianism was strongly encouraged. There was a flurry of construction of Buddhist temples, some of which still stand today. But the most important change came with the adoption of a Chinese style of governance.
Shotoku reorganized the court system using the Chinese model and instituted a system of ranks, which were identifiable by the color of the headgear associated with it. This was an important governmental change, as it helped to break free from the system of nepotism and introduced one based upon merit. His most important contribution, however, was the writing and adoption of a Chinese-style constitution in a.d 604.
The Seventeen Article Constitution is one of the most important documents in Japanese history. This constitution, authored by Shotoku, was intended to be held as a model for Japanese government, and it formed the philosophical basis of Japanese government for subsequent generations. It consisted of a set of instructions, aimed at the ruling class, concerning ethical concepts and the bureaucratic system. This constitution was firmly entrenched in Confucian philosophy, although there are also a number of Buddhist elements. It expounds on the belief that there are three realms in the universe: Heaven, Man, and Earth. It further states that the general welfare of the people is the task of the emperor, who had been placed in authority by the will of Heaven. It also stressed following such virtues as harmony, regularity, and moral development.
Shotoku's influence was far reaching and of both a political and cultural nature. He even influenced hair designs, still worn today, that reflect traditional Japanese culture. He wore his hair pulled up to form a knot and bundled that knot on top of his head. With his reorganization of Japanese government and culture, Shotoku left Japan a well-defined central administrative system and a rich cultural legacy.
JAMES J. HOFFMANN
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Japanese prince and regent
L ike Clovis in France (see entry) and Toghril Beg in Turkey (see box), the Japanese prince Shotoku Taishi (shoh-TOH-koo ty-EE-shee) can rightly be called "the father of his country." As regent or advisor to the empress, he held the true political power in Japan, and exercised it to initiate a series of reforms that affected virtually every aspect of Japanese life.
In the realm of law and government, Shotoku is credited as the author of the "Seventeen-Article Constitution," a document that provided the governing principles of Japanese society. These principles were a combination of Japan's native Shinto religion and two belief systems, Buddhism and Confucianism, imported from China. The widespread acceptance of those "foreign" ideas, and their incorporation into Japanese culture, can largely be attributed to Shotoku, who remains one of Japan's most highly esteemed historical figures.
Buddhism and other Chinese influences
Japan had been inhabited for thousands of years before it emerged as a unified nation under the leadership of the Yamato (yuh-MAH-toh; "imperial") family during the Kofun period (250–552). The country's actual written history began, however, in 405, when the Japanese adopted the Chinese written language, which they would use for many centuries before developing a version more suited to the Japanese spoken language.
The influence of China, a much older and at that time more advanced civilization, was strong from the beginning. So, too, was the influence of Korea, which in addition to its own traditions had incorporated many aspects of Chinese civilization. One of these was the religion of Buddhism, which first arrived in Japan when the king of Korea sent a set of Buddhist scrolls and an image of the Buddha to the Japanese imperial court in 552.
The Buddha, or Siddhartha Gautama (si-DAR-tuh GOW-tuh-muh), had originated the religion in India more than a thousand years earlier; but as it made its way northward and eastward, the form of Buddhism had changed considerably to accommodate the new lands where it was received. Nonetheless, many in the Japanese ruling classes reacted against the new religion, which they considered a threat to the traditional Japanese faith of Shinto. Prince Shotoku Taishi, a powerful member of the imperial court, would exert the deciding influence, however, helping to incorporate Buddhism into the Japanese way of life.
Regent to the empress
As is the case with many leaders who seem larger than life in retrospect, Shotoku's biography is filled with stories that can only be described as legends. For instance, the Nihon shoki, Japan's first important work of history, reports that his mother gave birth to him without labor pains. This story was probably adapted from tales concerning the Buddha's birth; and as with the Buddha, it was said that the young prince—whose name was originally Umayado—could speak from birth.
It is known that Shotoku was the son of the emperor Tachibana and the princess Anahobe (ah-nah-HOH-bee), but other than that, few facts about his early life are clear. The first relatively certain date in Shotoku's personal history was 593. The year before, the emperor Sushun had been murdered by a member of the powerful Soga clan, and in 593 he was replaced by the empress Suiko (soo-EE-koh; ruled 593–628), Shotoku's aunt.
The Japanese emperors and empresses possessed plenty of outward symbols of power, as the splendor of their courts illustrated; but there have been very few imperial leaders in Japanese history who possessed actual power. The real influence lay in the position of regent, a person who rules in place of the emperor, and Shotoku's career began when his aunt bestowed on him this distinguished office.
Among the many reforms initiated by Shotoku was the elevation of the emperor to the role of a god, or kami; but again, this was only symbolic, rather than real, power. His association of divine and imperial roles was but one of the many ideas Shotoku borrowed from China, in the process adapting them to Japan's own culture.
Shotoku extended the influence both of Buddhism and of Confucianism. The latter was the system of thought developed by the Chinese scholar Confucius (551–479 b.c..), who emphasized social harmony and respect for authorities. Out of the Confucian system in China had grown an extensive civil service—that is, a network of government officials—and Shotoku adopted these concepts as well.
Toghril Beg (tawg-REEL; c. 990–1063) founded the Seljuk dynasty, the first Turkish ruling house to conquer the land today known as Turkey. Until Toghril's time, the region was known as Anatolia, and was part of the Byzantine Empire.
The term "Turk" describes a number of related peoples who came from a region in Central Asia to the north and west of China. They began moving westward in the 500s, and by the 900s the Seljuks—named after Toghril's grandfather—had emerged as a particularly powerful Turkish nation.
In 1040, Toghril helped his brother conquer what is now Afghanistan, but he kept moving westward into Anatolia. By 1040, he had conquered large areas of what is now Turkey—much to the chagrin of the Byzantines, who hoped to drive them out.
But the Seljuks were there to stay, and by 1060 Toghril had assumed leadership over most of the Muslim world. Seljuk power declined in the 1200s, and the Seljuks were later replaced by the long-lasting Ottoman Empire.
In 604, Shotoku established his "Seventeen-Article Constitution." A constitution is a written document containing the laws of a nation, and is typically divided into articles, or individual statements of principle. Shotoku's constitution, however, is quite different from those used by nations such as the United States in modern times.
Though the constitution had the force of law, its text reads more like a set of guidelines as to how the people should live their lives. The opening statement, which embodied Confucian principles, set the tone: "Harmony is to be valued, and an avoidance of wanton opposition to be honored." The constitution also condemned vices such as gluttony, envy, and flattery.
Land of the Rising Sun
It is fitting that as father of his country, Shotoku would be credited with coining the phrase by which Japan is known throughout the world: "Land of the Rising Sun." A form of that expression appeared in the opening lines of a diplomatic letter sent to China, apparently under Shotoku's authorship, in about 607. Later the Chinese would call the country to the east Jihpen, meaning "origins of the sun."
That diplomatic letter served as an introduction for a group of diplomats sent from Japan to China. This mission was a symbol that Japan had arrived, and that it was prepared to initiate contact with the most powerful and influential land in all of East Asia. Many Japanese would remain wary of Chinese ways, however, fearful that these would dilute traditional Japanese beliefs; but Shotoku was not one of the fearful ones.
Leaving his mark
Shotoku, who built many Buddhist temples—including one at Horyuji (HOHR-yoo-jee), built in 607, that is the world's oldest wooden structure—left his mark both literally and figuratively on Japan. Symbolic of the strong impression made by the seventh-century prince is the fact that in modern times his face appears on the widely circulated 10,000-yen note (equivalent to about $75 today).
As with the beginning of his life, little is known about the end. In his last years, he was working on a national history, which may have provided an early source for the Nihon shoki.
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"Shotoku Taishi." Middle Ages Reference Library. . Encyclopedia.com. (June 18, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/shotoku-taishi-1
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Published in Nihongi: Chronicles of Japan from Earliest Times to a.d. 697, 1896
"Sincerely reverence the three treasures. The three treasures: the Buddha, the Law, and the Priesthood, are the … supreme objects of faith in all countries. What man in what age can fail to reverence this law?"
T hough Japan had been inhabited for thousands of years, it first emerged as a unified nation under the leadership of the Yamato (yuh-MAH-toh; "imperial") family in the Kofun period (koh-FUN; 250–552). It is likely that these early Japanese were heavily influenced by visitors from China, and from the 300s onward, the country welcomed a steady stream of Chinese and Korean immigrants.
During the Asuka period (552–645), the royal court in Korea introduced the leaders of Japan to a new religion, Buddhism (BÜD-izm). This sparked a conflict among the Japanese ruling classes, many of whom still embraced Japan's traditional religion, Shinto ("way of the gods"). Leading the movement for the acceptance of Buddhism was the Soga clan, whose most powerful member was Prince Shotoku Taishi (shoh-TOH-koo ty-EE-shee; 573–621).
In 604, Shotoku issued his "Seventeen-Article Constitution." The document gave the central government enormous powers, and encouraged citizens to know their place in society. In addition to a number of clearly expressed Buddhist principles, the constitution also reflected the influence of Confucianism (kun-FYOO-shun-izm), another way of thought that had been introduced from mainland Asia.
Shotoku Taishi was among the most important figures in early Japanese history. In fact, it was he who gave the country its name; and his "Seventeen-Article Constitution," adopted in 604, gave a formal structure to the Japanese imperial government. Shotoku also helped establish the principles of Buddhism and Confucianism in Japan, and along with Japan's native Shinto religion, these continued to govern Japanese society through the twentieth century.
Because of his legendary status, it is hard to separate fact from myth concerning Shotoku's early life. Apparently he was born in the city of Asuka, then Japan's capital, but little else is known about his career until his early twenties. Shotoku belonged to the highly influential Soga family, who were the real power behind the Japanese emperors, and in 593 his aunt assumed the throne as the empress Suiko (soo-EE-koh; ruled 592–628). Shotoku became her regent, meaning that he ruled the country on her behalf.
During the next three decades, Shotoku engaged in a number of significant undertakings. Not only did he help to solidify the influence of Buddhism in Japanese society, he built a number of temples around the country, along with an extensive system of highways. In addition to his constitution, he introduced a new system of twelve court ranks based on another belief system which, like Buddhism, had been imported from China: Confucianism. He also instituted reforms in areas such as social welfare (caring for the poor) and land reclamation, the raising of land formerly covered by water. After his death, Japanese Buddhists began to view him as a Buddhist saint.
Things to remember while reading the "Seventeen-Article Constitution"
- A constitution is a written document containing the laws of a nation, and is typically divided into articles, or individual statements of principle. For instance, the U.S. Constitution, adopted in 1787, has seven articles, addressing matters such as the roles of the president, Congress, and judges.
- Shotoku's constitution reflects a number of belief systems, most notably Buddhism and Confucianism. In Article 2, for instance, he mentions "the three treasures: the Buddha, the Law, and the Priesthood"—three key elements of the Buddhist faith. Buddhism originated in India with Siddhartha Gautama (si-DAR-tuh GOW-tuhmuh; c. 563–c. 483 b.c.), the Buddha or "enlightened one," who taught that the key to enlightenment or heightened understanding was to forsake one's personal desires. Later the religion spread to China and the rest of East Asia, where it took hold to a greater extent than it had in India.
- Another strong element in the constitution is Confucianism, based on the teachings of Confucius (551–479 b.c.). A belief system that stresses on social order and fulfilling one's mission in society, Confucianism had long held sway in China, and would continue to do so until the beginning of the twentieth century. An example of Confucianism in Shotoku's constitution is the statement in Article 1: "But when those above are harmonious and those below are friendly, and there is concord in the discussion of business, right views of things spontaneously gain acceptance." What this means, in other words, is that everyone should fulfill their role and work in agreement with one another.
- Also notable in the constitution are certain Chinese ideas. Among these is the comparison of the king to Heaven, and the people to Earth, in Article 3. The Chinese believed that the power of their emperors came from the "Mandate of Heaven," meaning the favor of the gods, and the Japanese also adopted this belief regarding their own leaders.
1.Harmony is to be valued, and an avoidance ofwanton opposition to be honored. All men are influenced byclass-feelings, and there are few who are intelligent. Hence there are some who disobey their lords and fathers, or who maintainfeuds with the neighboring villages. But when those above are harmonious and those below are friendly, and there isconcord in the discussion of business, right views of thingsspontaneously gain acceptance. Then what is there which cannot be accomplished!
2. Sincerelyreverence the three treasures. The three treasures: the Buddha, the Law, and the Priesthood, are the … supreme objects of faith in all countries. What man in what age can fail to reverence this law? Few men are utterly bad. They may be taught to follow it. But if they do not go to the three treasures, how shall their crookedness be made straight?
3. When you receive the Imperial commands, fail notscrupulously to obey them. The lord is Heaven, thevassal is Earth. Heaven overspreads, and Earth upbears. When this is so, the four seasons follow their due course, and the powers of Natureobtain their efficacy. If the Earth attempted to overspread, Heaven would simply fall in ruin. Therefore is it that when the lord speaks, the vassal listens; when the superior acts, the inferior yieldscompliance. Consequently when you receive the Imperial commands, fail not to carry them out scrupulously. Let there be a want of care in this matter, and ruin is the natural consequence.
Wanton: Unjustified and cruel.
Class-feelings: Awareness of one's place in society, along with a desire to get ahead.
Vassal: Someone who is subject to a lord or king.
Obtain their efficacy
Obtain their efficacy: Function at their best.
Ministers and functionaries
Ministers and functionaries: Respectively, higher and lower government officials.
Wanting in: Lacking.
4. TheMinisters and functionaries should makedecorous behavior their leading principle, for the leading principle of the government of the people consists in decorous behavior. If the superiors do not behave withdecorum, the inferiors are disorderly: if inferiors arewanting in proper behavior, there must necessarily be offenses. Therefore it is that when lord and vassal behave withpropriety, the distinctionsof rank are not confused: when the people behave with propriety, the Government of theCommonwealth proceeds of itself….
6.Chastise that which is evil and encourage that which is good. This was the excellent rule ofantiquity. Conceal not, therefore, the good qualities of others, and fail not to correct that which is wrong when you see it. Flatterers anddeceivers are a sharp weapon for the overthrow ofthe State, and a pointed sword for the destruction of the people.Sycophants are also fond, when they meet, of speaking at length to their superiors on the errors of their inferiors; to their inferiors, theycensure the faults of their superiors. Men of this kind are all wanting infidelity to their lord, and inbenevolence toward the people. From such an origin great civil disturbances arise.
7. Let every man have his own charge, and let not thespheres of duty be confused. When wise men are entrusted with office, the sound of praise arises. Ifunprincipled men hold office, disasters andtumults are multiplied. In this world, few are born with knowledge: wisdom is the product ofearnest meditation. In all things, whether great or small, find the right man, and they [the people] will surely be well managed: on all occasions, be they urgent or the reverse, meet but with a wise man, and they will of themselves beamenable. In this way will the State be lasting and the Temples of the Earth and of Grain will be free from danger. Therefore did the wisesovereigns of antiquity seek the man to fill the office, and not the office for the sake of the man….
10. Let us cease from wrath, and refrain from angry looks. Nor let us be resentful when others differ from us. For all men have hearts, and each heart has its own leanings. Their right is our wrong, and our right is their wrong. We are not unquestionablysages, nor are they unquestionably fools. Both of us are simply ordinary men. How can any one lay down a rule by which to distinguish right from wrong? For we are all, one with another, wise and foolish, like a ring which has no end. Therefore, although others give way to anger, let us on the contrary dread our own faults, and though we alone may be in the right, let us follow the multitude and act like men….
Commonwealth: A nation or state.
Chastise: Rebuke or scold.
Antiquity: Ancient or earlier times.
The State: The government.
Sycophants: Self-serving flatterers.
Benevolence: Good will.
Spheres of duty
Spheres of duty: Areas of authority.
Earnest: Sincere and serious.
Sovereigns: Kings and other leaders.
Sages: Wise men.
Demerit: Something lacking in merit, or worth.
11. Give clear appreciation to merit anddemerit, and deal out to each its sure reward or punishment. In these days, reward does not attend upon merit, nor punishment upon crime. You high functionaries who have charge of public affairs, let it be your task to make clear rewards and punishments….
15. To turn away from that which is private, and to set our faces toward that which is public—this is the path of a Minister. Now if a man is influenced by private motives, he will assuredly feel resentments, and if he is influenced by resentful feelings, he will assuredly fail to act harmoniously with others. If he fails to act harmoniously with others, he will assuredly sacrifice the public interests to his private feelings. When resentment arises, it interferes with order, and issubversive of law….
16. Let the people be employed [in labor on public works projects] at seasonable times. This is an ancient and excellent rule. Let them be employed, therefore, in the winter months, when they are at leisure [when there are no crops to plant or harvest]. But from Spring to Autumn, when they are engaged in agriculture or with the mulberry trees, the people should not be so employed. For if they do not attend to agriculture, what will they have to eat? If they do not attend the mulberry trees, what will they do for clothing?
17. Decisions on important matters should not be made by one person alone…. They should be discussed with many. But small matters are of less consequence. It is unnecessary to consult a number of people. It is only in the case of the discussion of weighty affairs, when there is a suspicion that they maymiscarry, that one should arrange matters inconcert with others, so as to arrive at the right conclusion.
Subversive of: Having a weakening effect on.
Miscarry: Go wrong.
Concert (adj.): Agreement.
What happened next …
The power of the Soga clan weakened after the death of Shotoku in 622, and in 645 Crown Prince Nakano Oe (OH-ee; 626–671) and Nakatomi Kamatari (614–669) joined forces to overthrow the government. Later the prince became the Emperor Tenchi, and Kamatari's family became known as Fujiwara, a clan that would later dominate the imperial family.
During the Hakuh period (645–710), the Japanese fully accepted an idea already evident in the Seventeen-Article Constitution: that the emperor was a god. This concept would continue to hold sway, even though the emperors themselves did not always possess real political power. Tenchi was a strong leader, introducing a number of reforms modeled on those of China's T'ang dynasty (DAHNG; 618–907), but later emperors tended to be dominated by powerful families such as the Fujiwara.
During the Heian period (hay-YAHN; 794–1185), the Japanese imperial court became increasingly separated from the countryside. Rural areas of Japan functioned as independent kingdoms, further weakening the power of the emperors. Years of civil war and conflict followed, and it would be many centuries before the emperors again asserted their power.
Did you know …
- Shotoku gave Japan its name, Nippon or Nihon. In 607, he sent a group of officials to China, and they came bearing a message which began "The emperor of the country where the sun rises addresses a letter to the emperor of the country where the sun sets." The Chinese began to call the country to the east Jihpen, meaning "origins of the sun." Later the Italian traveler Marco Polo, who visited China in the 1200s, brought this name back with him to Europe, where it became "Japan."
- Among the many buildings erected under Shotoku's leadership was a Buddhist temple at Horyuji (HOHR-yoo-jee), built in 607. It is the world's oldest wooden structure.
- The writings of Shotoku may have formed the basis for the Nihon shoki, Japan's first book of history, the various stories and legends of which were compiled in 720.
For More Information
Aston, W. G., translator. Nihongi: Chronicles of Japan from Earliest Times to a.d. 697, Volume 2. London: Keegan and Co., 1896.
Dijkstra, Henk, editor. History of the Ancient and Medieval World, Volume 11: Empires of the Ancient World. New York: Marshall Cavendish, 1996.
Pilbeam, Mavis. Japan: 5000 b.c.–Today. New York: Franklin Watts, 1988.
Internet East Asian History Sourcebook. [Online] Available http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/eastasia/eastasiasbook.html (last accessed July 28,2000).
"The Japanese Constitution." [Online] Available http://www.wsu.edu:8080/~dee/ANCJAPAN/CONST.HTM (last accessed July 28, 2000).
"Shotoku Taishi." Middle Ages Reference Library. . Encyclopedia.com. (June 18, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/shotoku-taishi-0
"Shotoku Taishi." Middle Ages Reference Library. . Retrieved June 18, 2019 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/shotoku-taishi-0