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Shotoku, Prince (Taishi)


Prince Shōtoku (taishi, 574–622) was a semilegendary prince who from the earliest stages of Japanese history has been revered as a cultural hero, as a Buddhist patron, as a civilizing ruler, and as a Japanese incarnation either of the Chinese Tiantai school monk Huisi (Japanese, Eshi; 515–577) or of the bodhisattva Avalokiteśvara. The earliest written accounts (dating from the eighth century) credit Shōtoku with mastering Buddhism and Confucianism under the tutorage of the Korean teachers Hyeja (Japanese, Eji) and Kakka (Japanese, Kakuka); serving as regent for his aunt, Suiko (r. 593–628); establishing a system of twelve court ranks to replace ranks based on familial status; composing a Seventeen Article Constitution that expresses basic governmental ideals along with pious Buddhist and Confucian sentiments; constructing statues of the Four Heavenly Kings (shi tennō, gods of the four directions who protect Buddhist kingdoms); as well as lecturing on or authoring commentaries on three MahĀyĀna Buddhist scriptures: the Lotus SŪtra (SaddharmapuṆḌarĪkasŪtra; Japanese, Hokekyō), the Vimalakīrtinirdeśa (Yuimagyō), and Queen Śrīmālā Sūtra (Shōmangyō). Significantly, the central figure of the Vimalakīrti Sūtra is a wise layman (like Shōtoku), and the central figure of the Queen Śrīmālā Sūtra is a female ruler (like Suiko). In addition, many Buddhist temples important in early Japanese history traditionally have claimed Shōtoku as their founding patron. These temples include Shitennōji, Gangōji (also known as Hōkōji or Asukadera), Hōryūji, Chūgūji, and countless others. These claims helped to legitimate the strong relationship between the royal court and institutional Buddhism throughout most of premodern Japanese history. Moreover, reverence for Shōtoku played a significant role in the lives of many subsequent Japanese Buddhist leaders, such as SaichŌ (767–822) and Shinran (1173–1263).

In modern times Shōtoku has been promoted as a paradigm of ideal Japanese virtues, especially those of harmony (wa), nationalism, and a strong imperial rule. The prominence afforded him by many modern textbook accounts of ancient Japan can sometimes foster a one-dimensional view of the complex process by which the early Japanese state emerged.

See also:Hōryūji and Tōdaiji; Japanese Royal Family and Buddhism; Kingship; Nationalism and Buddhism


Deal, William E. "Hagiography and History: The Image of Prince Shōtoku." In Religions of Japan in Practice, ed. George J. Tanabe, Jr. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1999.

Ito, Kimio. "The Invention of Wa and the Transformation of the Image of Prince Shōtoku in Modern Japan." In Mirror of Modernity: Invented Traditions of Modern Japan, ed. Stephen Vlastos. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998.

Kanaji, Isamu. "Three Stages in Shōtoku Taishi's Acceptance of Buddhism." Acta Asiatica (Tokyo), no. 47 (1985): 31–47.

Kusunoki, Masazumi. "The Seventeen Article Constitution of Prince Shōtoku: Its Contemporary Significance," tr. Larry L. Hanson. Ex Oriente (Tokyo), no. 6 (1993): 1–34.

Nishimura, Sey. "The Prince and the Pauper: The Dynamics of a Shōtoku Legend." Monumenta Nipponica (Tokyo) 40, no. 3 (1985): 299–310.

Ōyama, Seiichi. Shōtoku taishi to Nihonjin (Prince Shōtoku and Japanese identity). Nagoya, Japan: Fūbaisha, 2001.

William M. Bodiford

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