Koken-Shotoku (718–770)

views updated

Kōken-Shōtoku (718–770)

Japanese empress who ascended the throne twice and played a significant role in popularizing Buddhism, which flourished as the national religion for centuries. Name variations: (first reign) Empress Kōken or Koken; (second reign) Empress Shōtoku or Shotoku. Pronunciation: KOE-ken SHOW-toe-ku. Reigned from 749 to 758 and from 764 to 770. Born in 718 in Nara, Japan; died in 770 in Nara, Japan; daughter of Emperor Shomu and Empress Komyo; never married; no children.

The daughter and sole surviving child of Emperor Shomu and Empress Komyo , Kōken was one of only eight empresses of Japan to have been officially designated as heir apparent. Kōken was initially educated by her mother, until Kibi no Makibi, a brilliant scholar of institutional government, was appointed in 740 to teach Kōken the Chinese classics and train her in statecraft. In 749, Emperor Shomu abdicated in the midst of political controversies surrounding his project to construct Todaiji (Eastern Great Temple), and, within it, the huge statue of the Sun Buddha. It appeared to be a propitious time for rule by a woman, who could serve as the traditional female role of a spiritual medium to mollify the conflicting Shintō and Buddhist factions. Indeed, not long after her accession, Kōken received a divine message from a Shintō deity that it was his will that the Buddhist statue and temple be erected. This divine blessing made possible the completion of the project. Like her father, Kōken abdicated the throne to become more actively involved in propagating Buddhism, which she did by encouraging the casting of many Buddhist statues and the printing of Buddhist sutras for distribution throughout the country. She therefore played a significant role in the popularization of Buddhism outside the capital.

Following her abdication, Kōken created friction among the counselors at court, however, by declaring that, as a former empress, she would continue to make decisions regarding war, awards for meritorious service, and the punishment of criminals. She exacerbated tensions by seeking the counsel of a Buddhist priest, Dōkyo, whom, it was said, she would have married if that had been permitted of a retired empress. Opponents mounted armies to defeat her but her forces triumphed, and she returned to the throne for a second reign, as the Empress Shōtoku.

During her second reign, she consolidated the power of the throne and punished her opponents by prohibiting unauthorized persons from reclaiming land for private profit and officials from bearing arms. Involvement with the Buddhist priest Dōkyo, including a plan to name him as her successor, resulted in continued dissension. Seeking to evade the turmoil of the capital, Kōken-Shōtoku had a palace built in Dōkyo's hometown in the provinces, where she lived with him for a time. "A male sovereign can marry at will," she supposedly said, "taking as many consorts as he wishes to have. Why is it that I, alone, because I am a woman and sovereign, cannot marry at all?" Upon her return to the capital, she fell ill and died in 770. Defamed for having been influenced by a male advisor, Kōken-Shōtoku became the ostensible reason why women were not permitted for centuries thereafter to rule as Japanese sovereigns.


Aoki, Michiko Y. "Jitō Tennō: The Female Sovereign," in Heroic With Grace: Legendary Women of Japan. Chieko Mulhern, ed. Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe, 1991, pp. 40–76.

Linda L. Johnson , Professor of History, Concordia College, Moorhead, Minnesota