Prince Shōtoku 573–621

Prince Shōtoku flanked by younger brother (left: Prince Eguri) and first son (right: Prince Yamashiro), drawn by unknown author

Founding Father’

[His mother] was suddenly delivered of him without effort. He was able to speak as soon as he was born, and was so wise when he grew up that he could attend to the [legal] suits of ten men at once and decide them all without error. He knew beforehand what was going to happen …

Prince, war leader, statesman. Seer, scholar, patron of the arts. A gentleman, a humanitarian, and an easy birth to boot. The man known to posterity as Prince Shōtoku often appears less as a historical figure than a character in a fairy tale. In many ways that is exactly what he was. His wondrous deeds come down to us for the most part via one of the archipelago’s oldest works of literature. And we cannot be entirely sure that he ever existed.

And yet the ‘Prince of Holy Virtue’ commands our attention because all the stories told about him are, in their essentials, true. They go right to the heart of a remarkable transformation taking place across the sixth and seventh centuries in central Honshū: the coming together of powerful families, disparate gods and ideas from near and far in the fashioning of the archipelago’s first recognizable state.

Celebrated as that state’s founding father, Prince Shōtoku didn’t so much create it as find himself created by it, becoming a hook on which it hung its most precious claims about itself. Above all, where this new state owed an enormous debt to Chinese and Korean civilization – for its politics and poetry, its laws and religion, its food, clothing and architecture – the Prince is recalled as a cultural diplomat of rare judgement and vision. He is the archipelago’s first great integrator-in-chief. His life takes us from settlements and chiefdoms to the very cusp of ‘Japan’.

Prince Shōtoku’s origins lie in Queen Himiko’s demise. In the decades following her death around 248 CE, burial mounds of the kind in which she was interred began to multiply. These kofun (‘ancient graves’) were built to house great leaders’ wooden or stone coffins, alongside the tools and treasures – swords, shoes, mirrors, jewellery – that marked their status in this life and may have been thought useful in the next. Kofun became progressively grander over time until one appeared around the middle of the 400s that was nearly 500 metres long, 300 metres wide, and rose thirty-five metres above the surrounding landscape. Known as the Daisen Kofun, from the air this awesome structure looks like a keyhole – a circle atop a triangle – set amidst lush greenery and surrounded by three broad moats. It may be the final resting place of ‘Nintoku’, one of the greatest leaders of a chiefdom in the Yamato basin, in south-central Honshū, which across the fourth and fifth centuries was expanding and steadily consolidating its status as regional hegemon.

Tall figurines called haniwa, crafted from reddish-brown clay and arrayed along the external slopes of burial mounds – perhaps as a form of spiritual protection – give us a flavour of how this power was accrued. Farmers brandish hoes. Women carry water vessels on their heads. Whether this up-and-coming Yamato chiefdom was an outgrowth of Himiko’s Yamatai or a geographically distant realm that rose as hers receded, it relied on the extraordinary wealth that came from controlling richly fertile tracts of rice land. Horses saddled for journeys, and men helmeted and armoured for war, reveal the serious military capability purchased with the proceeds. Other haniwa suggest a regime that prospered by honouring the spirits and making alliances, often intermarrying with smaller but strategically important chiefdoms. We find female shamans with ritual headdresses and mirrors; musicians and wrestlers.

By the turn of the sixth century, these Yamato chiefs had taken to calling themselves ‘Great Sovereigns’ (ōkimi), binding their allies ever closer by bestowing upon them lucrative – and hereditary – roles and titles in their own administration. In this way, wealth and power began to depend more upon family, or ‘clan’, than territory. And what started out as a confederation of chiefdoms, with Yamato at its head, steadily morphed into a single polity stretching all the way from Kyūshū in the south-west up into central Honshū.

Never before had so much of the archipelago come under the control, however tentative, of a single leadership. Yet life at the royal court, moving from place to place around the Yamato heartland, was fragile and fractious. The ‘Great Sovereigns’ were rarely so great that they didn’t have to worry about intrigue, murder and violent uprising at the hands of the influential cluster of rival clans now gathered close around them. How, then, to keep the show on the road? How to govern on this scale? How to gain and maintain legitimacy amongst people up and down the archipelago, and even beyond?

Finding solutions to these problems proved to be the work of two long and frequently bloody centuries, culminating in two great creative acts in the early 700s. The first was the building of a capital city in 710, at a place called Nara. The second was the finalizing, under official auspices, of two chronicles: the Record of Ancient Matters (Kojiki) in 712 and the Chronicles of Japan (Nihon Shoki) in 720. The oldest surviving pieces of writing to come out of the archipelago, neither offered a straightforward chronology of the Yamato chiefdom’s rise. They were both less and much more than that. Combining myth, history and high ideals, they furnished the people of the archipelago with some of their earliest exemplars, their founding heroes and heroines, while striving above all to answer that profound, perennial question – ‘Who are we?’

The groundwork had been laid in the centuries since Himiko, as some of the mysterious, impersonal forces with which she communed steadily acquired names, functions and favoured features of the landscape – often great rocks or trees – which they were thought to inhabit on a seasonal or a more or less permanent basis. Clan heads linked themselves with local spirits, or kami, taking personal responsibility for the rituals that ensured adequate rainfall and good harvests. Some went as far as ‘adopting’ particular kami as ancestors, with the Yamato clan choosing a female solar deity called Amaterasu. She was worshipped at Ise on the eastern coast of south-central Honshū, at a site facing towards the rising sun.

The Yamato clan then went one very significant step further. They took a rich oral tradition of kami stories from around the archipelago and wove them into a single fabric, producing in effect a family history, running from the moment of creation down through generations of kami, including Amaterasu, into their own times. This became the substance both of the Record of Ancient Matters, which bursts with poetry, song and saucy anecdote, and the Chronicles of Japan, with its attempt at a more sober ordering of time – closer to the Chinese chronicles in which Queen Himiko had featured.

The ‘Great Sovereigns’ now began to style themselves as ‘Heavenly Sovereign’: tennō, usually rendered in English as ‘emperor’. The Chronicles of Japan read this new self-designation right back into the distant past. It described an Age of the Gods giving way to a line of divine emperors of Japan, beginning with the mythical Emperor Jimmu in the seventh century BCE. From 201 CE to 269, an Empress Jingū was said to have ruled the land, following the death of her husband Chūai, the fourteenth emperor. The compilers of the Chronicles of Japan equated Jingū with the ‘Queen of the Wa’ mentioned in the Records of Wei, sidestepping potential complications by avoiding any use of the name Himiko. By the 500s and 600s, rulers begin to appear in the chronicle for whom there is strong historical evidence.

Allied clans of the Yamato were worked into this grand mytho-historical mix. Their place in the earthly pecking order found itself mirrored in the position of their adopted clan kami, within a hierarchical pantheon that featured Amaterasu at its apex. There was always the risk in such a strategy that allies – both human and divine – might feel underrated or under threat. For all that the Record of Ancient Matters and the Chronicles of Japan treated Yamato rule as a cosmic inevitability, they also hinted at serious bumps along the road as the new state coalesced. It is at just such a moment of crisis that we first encounter Prince Shōtoku, working his diplomatic magic.

As told in the Chronicles of Japan, the trouble began in 552, when an envoy from the Korean kingdom of Paekche arrived at the Yamato court bearing an impressive gold and copper statue of the Buddha, along with a collection of scriptures.

A thousand years had passed, by this point, since the historical Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama, was said to have laid out his ‘Four Noble Truths’ at a deer park near Varanasi: namely, that human existence is a mass of suffering and frustration; that our appetites and attachments make it so; we can end this situation; and the means of doing so is the Noble Eightfold Path. Centuries of contact with other Indian and Chinese ideas had helped to transform these insights into an enormously rich and varied set of cosmologies, rituals and art forms. But aside from perhaps a few pockets of practice here and there, Buddhism was unknown on the archipelago. And it was controversial from the start. The Chronicles of Japan reports that opinion amongst powerful families at court was divided, in 552, over whether or not to welcome the newcomer. The Mononobe clan feared the wrath of the native gods, the kami, while the rival Soga clan argued – successfully – that Buddhism should be adopted on a trial basis. Members of their clan would perform rituals in front of this new statue, and see what happened.

What happened was a disastrous epidemic, allowing the Soga’s opponents to claim that the kami were indeed offended by this interloper. The statue was duly thrown into a canal and a newly built pagoda was burned to the ground. A second attempt at adoption in 584 again met with natural disaster. This time a Buddhist image, a pagoda and a temple were all set on fire, while three Buddhist nuns were stripped and flogged.

There was politics at play here. The Mononobe’s influence at court rested on their specialist ritual role worshipping the kami. The Soga clan, for their part, seem to have been descended from some of the many Korean migrants who brought with them to Yamato valuable expertise in everything from metallurgy and medicine to irrigation and administration. The Soga perhaps saw in Buddhism another element of the advanced culture of the peninsula, to be welcomed like the rest. For the Mononobe, here was an immigrant god, sponsored by an immigrant clan – and both were quite possibly after their jobs.

In the Chronicles of Japan’s version of events, it is just as hostility between the Soga and Mononobe descends into bloodshed in 587 that Prince Shōtoku appears, quite literally riding to the rescue. He is said to have been born in 573, to parents with both Yamato and Soga blood running through their veins: the great sovereign Yōmei (reigned 585–7) and his consort Princess Anahobe no Hashihito. The Chronicles of Japan refers to Prince Shōtoku as ‘Prince Umayado’, a nickname of sorts relating to the story that his mother’s effortless delivery of him occurred near to a stable door (umayado). The teenage Prince is depicted now taking to the battlefield on horseback, fighting for the Soga in a short but epoch-making conflict. As enemy arrows rain down, and the Soga are pushed back for a third time, the young Prince thrusts himself forward. ‘Will we be beaten?’ he cries. ‘Let us make a vow!’ With that, he cuts down a tree, whittles tiny images of four Buddhist gods known as the Heavenly Kings, places them in his top-knot, and proceeds to pray:

If we are now made to gain the victory over the enemy, I promise faithfully to honour the Four Heavenly Kings, guardians of the world, by erecting to them a temple with a pagoda.

The tide of battle abruptly turns. The Soga forces win out. The promised temple is built, and the Prince now begins to emerge as the leading light in a period of Buddhist-inspired enlightenment across the Yamato kingdom.

The puzzle of how closely Prince Shōtoku’s legend fits a real historical figure, who achieved some or all of the things with which he is credited, may never be solved. But the Soga clan do indeed seem to have enjoyed ascendancy after 587, capable in 593 of placing their favoured candidate on the throne. The Chronicles of Japan refers to her as ‘Empress Suiko’, although the title of tennō (‘Heavenly Sovereign’) was probably not in regular use at this point. According to the Chronicles of Japan, Prince Shōtoku was her nephew, appointed as regent by her in 594 and granted ‘general control of the Government … entrusted with all the details of administration’.

The Prince’s battlefield vow in 587 proved that by bringing in new, Buddhist gods Yamato was not risking its divine protection, but rather reinforcing it. Where rulers like Himiko had interceded with forces or kami for the protection and prosperity of their realms, the role of Yamato sovereigns was now expanded to include the worship of Buddhist deities to the very same ends. In practice, much of this work was delegated to Buddhist monks and nuns, who recited sutras at the temples that began to spring up around the country. Some forty or more were commissioned during Prince Shōtoku’s lifetime alone, the most famous being Hōryū-ji. Said to have been completed under the auspices of the Prince himself in 607, it later burned down and was rebuilt in the late 600s or early 700s. Hōryū-ji went on to become a centre for the veneration of Prince Shōtoku, celebrated in modern times as the world’s oldest wooden building.

Cosmic protection was to remain the primary role of Buddhism for many years to come. It would be a while before it evolved into a religion of the people. But the impact of the new temple complexes on people’s imaginations was nevertheless enormous. With a network of shrines to the kami yet to develop, these were some of the first permanent structures in the archipelago to be dedicated to ritual worship. A typical temple complex consisted of several heavy wooden structures, each topped with a cascade of tiles, situated within a walled enclosure. One of these buildings would be a multistorey pagoda, housing sacred relics and tall enough to dominate the surrounding landscape.

These complexes, including colourful, awe-inspiring temple interiors, were based on Korean and Chinese designs. Many were actually built by Korean hands, with Buddhist monks doubling as carpenters and wood-carvers, roof-tile makers, sculptors and wall-painting artists. Builders, buildings and the rituals that went on within – the wearing of robes, the use of incense and chanting – combined to make a deep impression, putting down permanent cultural roots.

Prince Shōtoku is credited with making all of this possible by replacing ad hoc continental contacts up to this point with something far more systematic, establishing relations around the year 600 with a newly reunified China under the Sui dynasty. Alongside priestly and practical expertise, the Prince drew deeply and thoughtfully on Chinese and Korean scholarship – in Buddhism, classical Chinese philosophy, history, law and administration. According to the Chronicles of Japan and the cult that grew up around his memory, Prince Shōtoku was one of very few people in Yamato to see beyond Buddhism’s ritual potential and appreciate its philosophical depths. He delivered lectures on Buddhism at the Empress’s request – one talk apparently lasted for three days – and composed sutra commentaries that were later sent to China as part of diplomatic missions.

One of the most celebrated products of all this learning was the archipelago’s first constitution, credited to the Prince in 604, though thought in fact to have been the work of a later generation. Consisting of seventeen articles, it was less a legal document than a series of principles on which an ideal state should be based. They included harmony and good faith, the acceptance of differing views and the recognition of merit. Feuding and gluttony were to be strenuously avoided, as were flattery, covetous desire, sycophancy and anger. Government officials were enjoined to place the greatest value on hard work, public-spiritedness, ‘decorous behaviour’ and open debate. Above all, people were encouraged to show reverence for Buddhism and for imperial commands.

These were more than mere airy ideals. Power in Yamato depended upon family, spanning blood ties and claims of godly descent. Prince Shōtoku was suggesting something revolutionary: that leadership and privilege should henceforth be conferred on the basis of merit and moral conduct instead. He instituted, for court officials, a Chinese-style system of ‘cap-ranks’ similar to one that was in use in Korean kingdoms at this time. There were twelve in all, each named after a Confucian principle – virtue, benevolence, propriety, sincerity, justice, and knowledge – and each distinguished from the others by the design of the silk cap worn by a person of that rank.

Anyone aspiring to rise through the new ranks would require, on top of the personal qualities laid out by Prince Shōtoku, a familiarity with Chinese. The lingua franca of East Asian Buddhism, it was also essential to continental statecraft and diplomacy. From the Prince’s time onwards Yamato saw a rapid increase in Chinese literacy amongst the courtly elite, making possible the compilation of the Chronicles of Japan (in literary Chinese) and the Record of Ancient Matters (in a more experimental linguistic blend of Chinese mixed with an early attempt to render spoken Japanese in Chinese script).

Renewed contact with China had all sorts of other impacts besides. Courtiers began to adopt Chinese clothing: for women, a tunic emphasizing a flowing, plaited skirt beneath; for men, a loose, longer tunic with a stand-up collar, atop a pair of trousers tied with a sash. Imported Chinese dress codes meant that, as with the administrative caps, certain colours could be worn only by people of a certain status. Early in the 700s, a new ‘clothing code’ required that all robes be fastened left over right, according to Chinese practice – the origins, some have argued, of what would one day become the kimono.

The archipelago now embarked on a long-term love affair with Chinese styles of poetry. A highlight of diplomatic banquets, the composition of short lines capturing a moment or a mood became a source of cultured competition at court. A few decades after the Record of Ancient Matters and the Chronicles of Japan were completed, the first poetry anthology appeared: The Ten Thousand Leaves (Man’yōshū), featuring more than 4,000 poems composed between the mid-600s and mid-700s and taking for their subject matter the lives of courtiers and the coarser-born alike. The islands, of course, had their own pre-existing poetic traditions. But as in ritual and statecraft, so in the worlds of fashion and literary pursuits the great theme of this era was the integration of the foreign and the domestic.

This was also the case for music and dance. Native traditions included kami songs, folk songs and drinking songs, alongside singing competitions that would end in carnal revelry. Accompaniment was provided by varying combinations of flutes, drums, bells and rattles. To these domestic traditions was added – probably as early as the 400s, but gathering pace during and immediately after Prince Shōtoku’s era – a range of new instruments, songs and dances from mainland Asia. Within the Prince’s lifetime the most important newcomer, from Paekche, was gigaku. Taught at Buddhist temples and performed at court and elsewhere, this was dance-drama using brightly coloured masks of animals, including lions and horses, alongside famous historical figures and caricatures of barbarians and kings. Later on came a form of dance called bugaku, with more of a narrative focus, accompanied by the koto, a horizontal stringed instrument that was laid on the floor and plucked.

The Prince is said to have made a modest musical contribution of his own, burnishing in the process his Chinese-style credentials as a man of virtue and filial values. One day in 613 he was walking along when he noticed a starving man lying in the road. He stopped and gave him food and drink. Taking off his own robe and covering the man with it, he wished him peace and composed for him a song of lament:

Alas! for

The wayfarer lying

Hungered for rice …

Art thou become


Hast thou no lord

Flourishing as a bamboo?

Alas! for

The wayfarer lying

Hungered for rice.

When the man died not long afterwards, Prince Shōtoku had a burial mound built for him. Suspecting that this had been no ordinary human being, the Prince sent one of his attendants back to check the mound. The tomb was found to be empty, with only the Prince’s robe remaining. Writers in later years linked this story to those of Jesus Christ and the Buddhist monk Bodhidharma, both of whom left empty tombs and appeared to people after their deaths. Some went further, wondering whether the Prince’s many talents might have extended to helping bring the dead back to life.

As if to counter any impression that Prince Shōtoku was responsible for too slavish an approach to continental culture, his legend extends to one final celebrated act. The Chinese at this point still regarded their neighbours across the water – the ‘Wa’, using the same demeaning ideograph as always – as a vassal people. Given all that the Yamato kingdom was achieving, this would clearly no longer do. So around 608 the Prince drafted a letter for Empress Suiko to send to her counterpart in China. It began with the words: ‘The Child of Heaven [tenshi] of the land where the sun rises sends a letter to the Child of Heaven of the land where the sun sets.’ Other sources credit the Prince with conjuring the term later chosen by the Yamato sovereigns to refer to themselves – ‘Heavenly Sovereign’ (tennō) – and with trying it out for size on the Chinese around this time.

The Yamato kingdom had not yet formally adopted the name ‘Nihon’ (‘root of the sun’), the appellation which, passing through various Asian and European languages, eventually gave the world ‘Japan’. And given the vantage point of mainland Asia, the ‘land where the sun rises’ could be interpreted as no more than a geographical observation. But there were already connotations here of cosmic importance – of a newcomer destined to outshine an old-timer and, above all, the audacious assumption of parity between the two sovereigns. The Chinese Emperor appears to have understood. ‘This letter from the barbarians’, he is said to have complained to one of his staff, ‘contains improprieties. Do not call it to my attention again.’

What some refer to as the broad ‘Yamato period’, beginning around the mid-200s with grand burial mounds suggestive of up-and-coming chiefdoms, gave way in 710 to the ‘Nara period’, named after the location of an impressive new imperial capital established that year. Laid out on a Chinese-style grid pattern and featuring buildings with stone bases and tiled roofs, the archipelago’s first great capital city became home to 100,000 people – out of a national population of around 6 million. When the Chronicles of Japan was completed ten years later, in 720, it confirmed Prince Shōtoku as the person who had laid the city’s cultural and political foundations.

Nara became the focal point of the sort of centralized and professionally managed bureaucratic state, based on Chinese-inspired criminal and administrative codes, that the Prince had envisaged. Government was split into two branches. The Great Council of State (Dajōkan) featured a Chancellor, Ministers of the Left and the Right (each responsible for various specific ministries) and four senior counsellors. The Office of Deities (Jingi-kan) managed rituals and shrines for the kami. A parallel network of Buddhist temples was meanwhile emerging, home to monks and nuns who were regarded essentially as state bureaucrats to be trained, regulated and charged with reciting sutras for the good of the realm.

The realm, encompassing the southern two-thirds of Honshū and most of Kyūshū, was divided up into around sixty provinces, and from there into districts and villages. Villagers paid taxes in kind: a combination of rice and vegetables, raw materials, labour and military service – all of which helped to fund and secure a courtly culture in Nara that was ever more firmly rooted in the Chinese imports facilitated by the Prince. People across the land were encouraged to keep a careful eye on their neighbours as a way of promoting virtuous behaviour: a cheap and effective means of surveillance.

Not everything turned out as the Prince might have liked. His hoped-for meritocracy was conspicuously absent. Family feuding remained intense, with the Soga clan overthrown in the mid-600s and many more violent comings and goings thereafter. When career-minded young men went to study the Confucian classics at Nara’s State Academy (Daigaku-ryō), they did so knowing that districts and villages were controlled largely by influential local families, while provincial governorships were handed out to major clan allies – the country’s emerging aristocracy. Talented individuals of lowly stock might work their way up temple hierarchies as Buddhist monks or nuns, but otherwise birth trumped graft every time.

The impact upon the imperial institution of this heavy focus on family would be profound over the centuries to come. The Yamato sovereigns had achieved something remarkable in remaking themselves as divine emperors, establishing in the sixth and seventh centuries an imperial line that is still going strong in the twenty-first. But the feeling in the realm never went away that they were really just one elite family amongst others. When their earthly fortunes faltered, other families would be quick to muscle in.

For now, however, the emperors enjoyed considerable authority, advertising their divine descent ever more forcefully. Imperial edicts were not personal missives, they were drafted and promulgated by the Great Council of State. But from the reign of Emperor Tenmu (673–86) onwards they opened with the words: ‘Hear ye the edict of an emperor who is a manifest kami’. Emperors also boasted their own armed forces. Clan chiefs had been successfully turned into imperial military commanders, with each province required to raise and maintain a unit of at least 1,000 men and the realm’s roads shored up to accommodate swift and easy troop movements.

The Chronicles of Japan, completed at the beginning of this golden era of Sinicized, centralized imperial governance, made clear in its treatment of Prince Shōtoku’s passing the immense debt owed by the new state to the great diplomatic and integrating feats that he had come to represent:

Spring, 2nd month, 5th day [621]

In the middle of the night the Imperial Prince died in the Palace of Ikaruga. At this time all the Princes … as well as the people of the Empire [mourned him]. The old, as if they had lost a dear child, had no taste for salt and vinegar in their mouths. The young, as if they had lost a beloved parent, filled the ways with the sound of their lamenting. The farmer ceased from his plough, and the pounding woman laid down her pestle.

They all said: ‘The sun and moon have lost their brightness; Heaven and Earth have crumbled to ruin: henceforward, in whom shall we put our trust?’