Prince Shotoku- The Legendary Regent of Japan

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Prince Shotoku Taishi a.k.a Prince Umayado was one of the legendary regents of Japan. He ruled as a regent from 594 to 622 CE and is celebrated for reforming the Japanese government. Additionally, he was also instrumental in spreading Buddhism in Japan.

Let us take a look at Prince Shotoku- The Legendary Regent of Japan.

1) Early life and ascension

Prince Shotoku was a member of the powerful Soga clan, which dominated Japanese politics at the time. His real name Umayado literally translates to ‘the prince of the stable door’. This alludes to the fact that he was born in front of a stable. He was born in 574 CE and was the second son of the short-reigned Emperor Yomei. 

The Soga clan head Soga no Umako was behind the assassination of Emperor Sushun. And also defeated the allied Nakatomi and Mononobe clans. Ultimately crowning his own niece Suiko as empress. Umako then deemed the young crown Prince Shotoku as regent on behalf of his aunt. A position Shotoku assumed until his death. 

A picture of Prince Shotoku
Prince Shotoku

2) Prince Shotoku’s achievements

Prince Shotoku is one of the most famous historic figures in Japan. Additionally, he is instrumental in bringing in many government reforms. In ancient Japan, clans were very important and being from a particular clan could guarantee your position to become a top politician. Prince Shotoku doubted the effectiveness of this system so, in 604 CE, he introduced the Kan-i 12 Kai ‘cap rank’ system. The cap rank system essentially meant that each of the 12 state officials wore a different coloured cap that indicated the office an official worked for. Through this system, people could become an official of higher rank irrespective of their clan or status. 

One of Prince Shotoku’s first acts was giving the emperor the sole right to levy taxes and thus rooting out corruption. Moreover, he resumed sending delegations to China in order to aid cultural, economic, and political exchange. Furthermore, Shotoku introduced the calendar system in Japan, which was derived from China’s lunar calendar. 

A picture of Prince Shotoku

3) Prince Shotoku is famous for the introduction of the Seventeen Article Constitution

Prince Shotoku’s Constitution is also known as the Seventeen Article Constitution or Seventeen Injunctions (Jushichijo-Kenpo). The constitution (more accurately a moral code) was drawn to reform the Japanese government using both Buddhist and Confucian principles. Additionally, it remained in effect until the 7th century. However, it is alleged that the document might not have been composed by Shotoku but inspired by him and written as a tribute following his death. 

A picture depicting the prince with his siblings

4) Buddhism was officially introduced to Japan in either 538 CE or 552 CE (traditional date). It was then particularly adopted by the Soga clan and received official government support in 587 CE during the reign of Emperor Yomei. Prince Shotoku further encouraged Buddhism and even emphasised its reverence in his constitution. 

A picture depicting the prince and his attendants

5) Prince Shotoku and Japanese Buddhism

During the prince’s youth, the Soga clan was battling to stay in power. The prince then prayed to the Four Buddhist Guardian Kings (the Shitenno). Further vowing to build a temple in their honour if they helped him end the conflict in the region. And just like that, the rival clan’s leader was killed in battle and the Soga clan was able to stay in power. 

Prince Shotoku went on to build some of the first Buddhist temples in Japan. The most famous is the Shitenno-ji. Built in 530 CE it is regarded as the oldest Buddhist temple. He subsequently went on to sponsor the building of 45 temples. Most of which were not only used as religious centres but also schools.

A picture depicting the prince

6) The temples built by the prince were instrumental in drawing in numerous monks from all over Korea and China

Buddhism essentially helped strengthen the Japanese emperorship and its prestige. Due to the increase in followers, Buddhist religious officials provided support for imperial power. 

Additionally, the state sponsorship also led to the integration of Buddhist and Shinto traditions into the unique Japanese Buddhism that we see today. Moreover, eventually, the Buddhist temples started absorbing the Shinto shrines, thus receiving Shinto visitors as well. Ultimately, their conversions led to increased support for Japanese imperial officials and reduced the visibility of Chinese traditional norms within Japanese Buddhist traditions.

As Prince Shotoku was responsible for this integration, he is credited with the formation of Japanese Buddhism and the creation of a centralised emperor. 

A picture of Prince Shotoku

7) Death and Legacy

Prince Shotoku Taishi supposedly died in 622 CE and left a lasting legacy. At the time of his death, both Buddhism and centralised emperorship were an integral part of Japanese society. As Buddhism further spread across the nation, Shotoku became somewhat of a mystical figure. He is thus credited with all manner of minor miracles. 

These were composed and written as fact in the Nihon Shoki (‘Chronicle of Japan’ and also known as the Nihongi). According to records, Shotoku had the gift of foresight, heard the complaints of ten men simultaneously and even delivered such moving lectures that lotus flowers rained down from Heaven. As these legends became widespread, a cult quickly developed for Shotoku’s contribution. 

He was ultimately revered by newfound Buddhist converts as a saint-like figure and even as an avatar of the Buddha, especially during the Kamakura Period (1192-1333 CE). Prince Shotoku continues to be honoured as one of Japan’s wisest rulers and is celebrated for his cultural and political contributions. 


Enjoyed the above article? You may also enjoy Yoshiko Kawashima- The Chinese Princess Who Spied For Japan

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