Regency of Shōtoku Taishi

Shōtoku Taishi, a prince and a member of the influential Soga family, carried out a number of reforms that transformed the Japanese court between 593 and 604. Among his many innovations were a system of court ranks and the Seventeen Article Constitution, which gave a new ideological direction to Japanese political life.

Summary of Event

In the late sixth century, the Japanese court was dominated by the powerful Soga Soga family family. Soga Umako Soga Umako , the head of the clan, had managed to gain power over the imperial family through intrigue and by defeating other influential families such as the Mononobe Mononobe in battle. The Soga further entrenched their power by forcing the emperors to take Soga women as their consorts, thus ensuring that future heirs to the throne would have ties to the Soga. Marriage as a political tool;Japan Shōtoku Taishi, a son of the emperor Yōmei Yōmei , was a member of the Soga family and was appointed as regent of the empress Suiko Suiko by Soga Umako in 593. Scholars believe that Umako recognized the young prince’s ability and gave him the position despite the fact that he was just nineteen years old. This decision, and Shōtoku Taishi’s extraordinary ability as a scholar and administrator, ushered in what is thought to be one of the most important reform movements in Japanese history. [kw]Regency of Shōtoku Taishi (593-604)
[kw]Shōtoku Taishi, Regency of (593-604)
Shōtoku Taishi
Japan;593-604: Regency of Shōtoku Taishi[0170]
Government and politics;593-604: Regency of Shōtoku Taishi[0170]
Laws, acts, and legal history;593-604: Regency of Shōtoku Taishi[0170]
Shōtoku Taishi
Soga Umako

Most of the traditions concerning Shōtoku Taishi’s life are clearly fantastic in nature. As is common in mythologies of this type, his birth was said to have been auspicious and completely without effort for his mother, the empress-consort Anahobe no Hashibito. He reportedly could speak like an adult shortly after being born. As an adult, his fame as a wise and capable administrator was so great that it was said that he could hear ten lawsuits at one time and decide them all without error. His mastery of Buddhist and Confucian doctrines was also legendary. He is said to have had premonitions. Although these traditions obviously are exaggerated, it is clear that Shōtoku Taishi was a capable scholar and administrator and that both his father and Soga Umako trusted him implicitly.

The Seventeen Article Constitution Seventeen Article Constitution is traditionally thought to have been created by Shōtoku Taishi in 604. Recently, some scholars have come to question the authenticity of the document, insisting that it was written decades after Shōtoku Taishi’s death in dedication to his memory. Whatever its origins, however, the ideas behind the Seventeen Article Constitution, whether they were codified in Shōtoku Taishi’s lifetime or not, were no doubt popularized by him and created a major turning point in Japanese political and intellectual history. The document reflects the chaotic nature of Shōtoku Taishi’s times and the attempt to use continental philosophy to come to terms with these events and to promote the centralization of power. Although Shōtoku Taishi is known as a devout Buddhist, he found the political ideas that were to form the basis of the authority of the Japanese court in Chinese Confucianism Confucianism;Japan . Japan;Confucianism

The Seventeen Article Constitution opens with a statement to the effect that harmony is to be valued above all else, and opposition to the power of the imperial family is always to be avoided. This is both a direct quotation from the Confucian Lunyu (late sixth-early fifth centuries b.c.e.; The Analects, 1861) and an obvious attempt to quiet resistance to central authority in Japan. In the Confucian tradition, the ruler is responsible for providing moral guidance to his people. Their obedience to him is considered to be a natural part of a reciprocal relationship. In attempting to present the imperial institution in these terms, Shōtoku Taishi not only aimed to increase the prestige of the Japanese court by associating it with the majesty of the Chinese emperors but also sought to promote loyalty to the central government in a period in which factions, each vying for power and influence, had become the political norm.

Despite the Confucian emphasis, however, Buddhist ideas are not entirely absent from the text. Buddhism Buddhism;Japan
Japan;Buddhism was very much a political issue in seventh century Japan. The Soga family, to which Shōtoku Taishi belonged, managed to increase its power by establishing itself as the defender of the Buddhist faith. The second article of the seventeen appeals to followers to revere the three treasures—the Buddha, the law, and the monastic orders—which are the main objects of faith in Buddhist belief. This was an obvious attempt by Shōtoku Taishi, himself a devout Buddhist, to associate the religion with the central government of Japan. However, in the end, the message of the constitution, even when couched in religious terms, is purely secular. The document orders vassals to scrupulously obey imperial commands and to keep their duties in mind at all times. In the rhetoric of the document, vassals are compared to the earth and the lord to heaven. It is not difficult to see how this type of thought, Chinese in origin, helped to foster the establishment of a strong central government in Japan.

Although Shōtoku Taishi clearly had a great deal of respect for China and its government—aside from his own studies of Chinese philosophy and political procedure, he sent scholars to the Chinese court to study—his tenure in power is also important in that it represents the first real attempt by the Japanese court to assert its equality with China. As is recorded in the Chinese dynastic histories, one of the letters that Shōtoku Taishi sent to the Chinese emperor was addressed from “the Son of Heaven of the Land of the Rising Sun to the Son of Heaven of the Land of the Setting Sun.” This displeased the Chinese government but stands as the first real attempt by a Japanese leader to distinguish the Japanese islands from the other tributary territories that existed on the periphery of the Chinese empire.

Shōtoku Taishi died in 622 at the age of forty-eight, and Soga Umako died four years later. This turn of events eventually led to the Soga family’s fall from power, but Shōtoku Taishi’s legacy served as the inspiration for the Taika reforms Taika reforms of 645-646. Despite his associations with the unfortunate Soga family, Shōtoku Taishi became something of a mythical figure and continued to be remembered as a wise and capable administrator.


The reforms carried out during Shōtoku Taishi’s life were the first major step in the development of a centralized state in Japan. He established and codified both the institutional and ideological framework of central power in the Japanese archipelago. The basis that he established was further built on in the years after his death and served as the source of power of the Japanese court society until it was superceded by regional warrior families more than five hundred years later. Even after the evolution of samurai society eclipsed the authority of the court, the ideological and institutional developments of Shōtoku Taishi’s tenure in power continued to exert a great influence over the art of government and scholarship in Japan. Shōtoku Taishi was the first Japanese scholar administrator to become well versed in both Buddhist and Confucian teaching, and his support of both ideological systems would ensure that the two traditions would continue to have a great influence on the Japanese culture and political system.

Shōtoku Taishi’s emphasis on social harmony has made him a popular figure throughout Japanese history. Today he is viewed as a symbol of wa, or “harmony.” His valuable maxim that decisions on important matters should not be made by one person alone and that they should be discussed with many is reflected in the consensus-type decision making favored by Japanese business and political leaders. In addition, Shōtoku Taishi appears as an important character in numerous Japanese films and works of fiction.

Further Reading

  • Aston, W. G., trans. Nihongi: Chronicles of Japan from the Earliest Times to A.D. 697. 1896. Reprint. Tokyo: Charles E. Tuttle, 1972. The standard translation of one of the earliest works of Japanese history. Provides details about the life of Shōtoku Taishi and the impact of his reforms.
  • De Bary, William Theodore, et al., comps. Sources of Japanese Tradition. Vol. 1. 2d ed. New York: Columbia University Press, 2001. Contains complete reprints of the Seventeen Article Constitution as well as other important documents relating to Shōtoku Taishi’s life.
  • Sansom, George. A History of Japan to 1334. Vol. 1. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1958. The first volume of Sansom’s three-volume study of Japanese history remains one of the most detailed and authoritative works on the subject.
  • Tamura, Yoshio. Japanese Buddhism: A Cultural History. Translated by Jeffrey Hunter. Tokyo: Tuttle, 2001. A detailed assessment of the cultural implications and historical development of Japanese Buddhism from the introduction of the faith to modern times, including details of Shōtoku Taishi’s life and his place in the development of the Buddhist religion in Japan.