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.
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.
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.