Japanese Patterns of Design
Prince Shotoku in Yumedono by Yasuda Yukihiko

Prince Shotoku: Constitution, Rank System, and Japanese Buddha

Prince Shotoku in Yumedono by Yasuda Yukihiko
Prince Shotoku in Yumedono by Yasuda Yukihiko (MOMAT)

Prince Shotoku, autonym Umayado-no-Miko, was a regent under his aunt, Empress Suiko, who ruled Japan in the early 7th century. He contributed developing Japan into the country with centralized government system to be independent and fight against the threats from overseas. Let’s take a look at the period background and what makes him this famous even today.

Who Is Prince Shotoku

The name Prince Shotoku is a posthumous name which is widely used rather than his autonym Umayado-no-Miko and he is known for its god-like intelligence. There are not a few legends about him which were dramatized in a great deal which make it difficult for us to find out who he really was. So we will see mainly the things which are considered to be done by Prince Shotoku.

He was the second son of the short-reigned Emperor Yomei. When political maneuvering brought his aunt Empress Suiko to the throne, Umayado-no-Miko became crown prince and regent in 593. He remained in that position until his death in 622.

The Encounter with Eji – Buddhist Monk from Goguryeo

Japan and Goguryeo (Kingdom of Korea) had a reason to get along to counter with Sui Dynasty China since Goguryeo in the Korean Peninsula and Sui Dynasty China always had a conflict.

Under such condition, Eji, the Buddhist monk from Goguryeo was sent to Japan in 595 and became a mentor to Prince Shotoku. He spread the teachings of Buddhism in Japan and went back to Goguryeo with Sangyo Gisho, a commentary book of Buddhism sutra written by Prince Shotoku.

A page of "the Hokke Gisho" out of "Sangyo Gisho" - Lotus Sutra written by Prince Shotoku
A page of “the Hokke Gisho” out of “Sangyo Gisho” – Lotus Sutra written by Prince Shotoku (Wikipedia)

Eji was in a great despair when he heard the death of Prince Shotoku in 622, he pledged he would meet Prince in the Pure Land (Buddhism Heaven) on the same date next year and he did keep his promise, Eji died in 623.

Period Background

The time Prince Shotoku was active, there was a fierce power struggle since there was no Imperial House Act or ranking system which stipulates the Imperial succession.

The powerful families such as Soga family at the top had everything on their own way. It was a prime task to establish the system to include them in the ranking system and have them under control to reign over the country in a smooth manner while putting the Emperor at the heart of the country.

At the time, Sui Dynasty China was gaining increasing authority, Prince Shotoku was well aware of the urgent need to establish the foundation for Japan not to be invaded and colonized by Sui Dynasty China.

Soga-no-Umako image
Soga-no-Umako image (kirinuke.com)

Therefore, Prince Shotoku, Soga-no-Umako (the leader of powerful Soga family), and Empress Suiko shared the same sense of crisis and worked together to make Japan a stronger country with discipline, the actual power to defend and to be independent.

Sui Dynasty China and Kudara (Paekche, one of the Korean Kingdom) already had the centralized government system, Japan had to make it clear that they didn’t have an intention to be colonized by them. Having the codes of morals written on paper was a must for diplomacy.

Kenzuishi – Japanese Envoys Sent to Sui Dynasty China

Map of the geographical extension of the Sui Dynasty in 600 AD
Map of the geographical extension of the Sui Dynasty in 600 AD (www.nationsonline.org)

Before the 7th century, Japan had an intention to rule over the country with taking advantage of an authority of China under a tributary system.

In 600, however, Japan started to send Japanese envoys to Sui Dynasty China not under a tributary system, but to show Sui Dynasty China that Japan is an empire which has its emperor at the top. Japan always have had an independent spirit, expressed that idea, and prepared various systems and laws to be really independent.

They sent Japanese envoys to Sui Dynasty China for four times (some says three) in eighteen years to study the effective political system, absorb many thoughts, and technological developments were made in many areas including agriculture, iron working, and architecture. In addition, Buddhism was introduced into Japan from Paekche on the Korean Peninsula in 538.

Japanese Buddhism #1: For the Elites and the State

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Twelve Level Cap and Rank System

Chart of the Twelve Cap Ranking System Colors attach to each rank
Twelve Cap Ranking System Colors attach to each rank (www.tofugu.com)

In 603, Prince Shotoku established the first court ranks system, the Twelve Level Cap and Rank System. It’s to distinguish superior officials by twelve colors of the caps they wear.

The primary distinction between this new system and the old kabane system by which a person’s rank was determined based on heredity, was that the cap and rank system allowed for promotion based on merit and individual achievement.

It was adapted from similar systems that were already in place in Sui dynasty China, Paekche, and Koguryo. The officials wore silk caps that were decorated with gold and silver, and a feather that indicated the officer’s rank.

The ranks in the twelve level cap and rank system consisted of the greater and the lesser of each of the six Confucian virtues: virtue, benevolence, propriety, sincerity, justice, and knowledge. Putting virtue at the top of the value shows Japanese originality.

However, aside from the Emperor, Soga family, and powerful families outside of the Kinai region were not included in this system. Soga family was that powerful.

Seventeenth Article Constitution

Seventeenth Article Constitution
Seventeenth Article Constitution (kobayashi.jimbou.net)

In 604, He also established the “Seventeenth Article Constitution”, he declared this famous line in this first sentence, “Putting utmost priority in harmony” which can be easily misunderstood as to get along together without a brisk argument.

Shinto Beliefs: 5 Core Values of Japanese Indigenous Religion

What Prince Shotuku meant by this line is to encourage people to have an animated discussion among opposing party to understand the others and bring the outcome which should be satisfactory to every party. It’s notable that Prince Shotoku put this Shintoism idea on the top among others.

Shinto: Introduction of “Way of the Kami”

It focuses on morals and virtues which meant for government officials but not for general people, which are codes of morals, an administrative law like company regulations or rules. The mixed combination of ideas from Shintoism and Confucianism, Buddhism and Taoism are seen in the Constitution. It is one of the earliest constitutions in history.

  • Harmony is to be valued, and the avoidance of wanton opposition to be honored.
  • Sincerely revere the three treasures: the Buddha, Dharma (his Teaching), and Sangha (Buddhist Community).
  • When you receive the Imperial commands, fail not scrupulously to obey them.
  • The Ministers and functionaries should make decorous behavior their leading principle, for the leading principle of the government of the people consists in a decorous behavior.
  • Chastise that which is evil and encourage that which is good.
  • To turn away from that which is private, and to turn towards that which is public.
  • Let every man have his own charge, and let not the spheres of duty be confused.
  • Decisions on important matters should not be made by one person alone.

You shouldn’t be upset when people have different ideas about things, don’t let your anger show on your face. People have their own hearts and their own unique ideas they think it’s right. I shall not be a saint, you shall not be an idiot. We all are ordinary people, thus when someone gets mad at something, it’s a great chance to review yourself and be alert of your negligence. No one is perfect, but people tend to think they are right and the other is wrong when they have different opinions. Even when you think you have the truth, follow people’s behaviors.

十七条の憲法 – Article 10 of Seventeenth Article Constitution (www.geocities.jp)

Prince Shotoku had a keen sense of human nature and advocated the importance and necessity to have a fair discussion, free from a party or faction to have a lively discussion.

Confucianism values, like hard-working, and a virtue of obedient to one’s superior, came in handy to show discipline to government officials. Prince Shotoku was well versed in Shinto and Buddhism, Confucianism and Taoism; flexible enough to extract goodness of each and present the desirable values officials had to follow.

Japanese Buddha

Prince Shotoku in the middle
Prince Shotoku in the middle (cultural-experience.blogspot.com)

Prince Shotoku has been the center of Taishi (Prince Shotoku) cult, one is to revere him as a Japanese Buddha who is the founder of Buddhism in Japan and another is a deity of the woodwork.

According to Nihon Shoki – the Chronicles of Japan, Buddhism which was introduced to Japan via Paekche (ancient Korean Kingdom) in 538, established as a state religion along with Shinto in 673 under the reign of Emperor Tenmu.

Concretely speaking, its belief took root in people with Shotoku Taishi Denryaku (Biography of Prince Shotoku) which became a bible after Buddhist monk Kukai spread the idea of syncretism of Shinto and Buddhism in the Heian period (794-1185).

Kukai: Biography of Japanese Buddhist Superstar

People adore him as a Japanese Buddha and there are more than twenty existing biographies of him.

Five-storied Pagpda and the Main Hall of Horyuji in Nara, Japan
Five-storied Pagpda and the Main Hall of Horyu-ji in Nara, Japan (jp-isan.com)

Other belief about Prince Shotoku, the woodworkers adored him as he built many temples. It’s considered that he was involved building seven great temples including large architecture Horyu-ji, Shitenno-ji and set the occupation related to construction which made him a guardian deity of architecture and the woodwork.

Prince Shotoku with a tape measure
Prince Shotoku with a tape measure (cultural-experience.blogspot.com)

The Horyuji in Nara is well-known for the fact that the oldest existing woodwork building complex still being used and for its beautiful divine proportion. In this belief, Prince Shotoku often described with a tape measure as it is the most important tool for the woodworkers.

He has remembered also for irrigation projects and social-welfare measures. He worked for the spread of Buddhism and after his death was looked upon as a Buddhist saint, Japanese Buddha. He thought Buddhist ideas had to be used in the society but not just for the means of individual training. Numerous legends and unsolved mysteries about him show us how he was influential and loved by people.

He devoted himself to make Japan a truly independent country, sent envoys to absorb advanced technologies and established the constitution, and the rank system. Without his effort, Japan might have taken a different course and would not be the same national polity we see now.

References

聖徳太子は何をした?聖徳太子誕生の裏話。 (manareki.com)
慧慈 (コトバンク)

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