Statesman Prince Shotoku, legend or real national hero?

Prince Shotoku (Shotoku Taishi) as a historical figure

The imperial prince Shotoku Taishi is recorded in the Kojiki (Record of Ancient Matters, 712) and the Nihon shoki (Chronicles of Japan, 720) as having been a great Buddhist scholar and statesman who lived in early Japan (574-622).

Prince Shotoku flanked by younger brother (left: Prince Eguri) and 1st son (right: Prince Yamashiro), Woodblock painting

Prince Shotoku flanked by younger brother (left: Prince Eguri) and 1st son (right: Prince Yamashiro), Woodblock painting

Prince Shotoku is renowned for his patronage of Buddhist temples that brought about a flowering of Buddhist arts and culture. When Empress Suiko declared her acceptance of  Buddhism in 593, in the same year, Prince Shotoku ordered the construction of Shitennoji Temple (in present-day Osaka) . Thought of as a dedicated Buddhist scholar who composed commentaries on the Lotus Sutra, the Vimalakirti Sutra, and the Sutra of Queen Srimala, he is also credited with having founded the Horyuji Temple in the Yamato province. 

In 605, Prince Shotoku took up residence in Ikaruga and shortly after built Ikarugadera Temple. Documentation at Horyuji temple substantiate Prince Shotoku along with Empress Suiko as founders of the temple during the year 607. Archaeological excavations have confirmed the existence of Prince Shōtoku’s palace, the Ikaruga-no-miya in the eastern part of the current temple complex.

His reputation as a statesman extends to having established a court system with twelve grades of court rank based on merit and achievement, and for having drawn up the first Japanese constitution in Chinese around 604.

A closer examination of the Seventeen-Article Constitution (Jushichjjo kenpo, 604) shows that Shotoku used the constitution as a vehicle to strengthen the notion of the absolute authority of the emperor as well as to promote Buddhism as the official religion. The constitution was both a moral code and a code of personal and social behaviour. Its basic tenet was harmony: “Harmony is the most precious asset. We all alternate between wisdom and madness. It is a closed circle.”

Acting as regent for Empress Suiko, Prince Shotoku instituted important reforms that laid the ideological foundations for a Chinese-style centralized state under the authority of the emperor.

In Article II, Shotoku’s injunction to rely on the Three Treasures was especially significant because it officially promoted Buddhism in Japan and honored Shotoku as the father of Japanese Buddhism.

The constitution thus entrenched both Confucian-ideals and Buddhism as a state religion, having the powerful effect of cementing the relationship between the emperor, the nobility and the clergy. Hence, Prince Shotoku and his constitution are today seen as a unifying force in Japanese society.  Later in medieval Japan, the Seventeen-Article Constitution that Shotoku promulgated was to become an important source among ruling authorities, the shogun, court, aristocracy, and temple establishments who promoted Shotoku worship, for bolstering their claims to authority. 

Prince Shotoku is credited for opening relations with China by sending a mission to the Sui emperor. Some of his foreign policy actions were regarded as less than successful such as his failure to restore control of Mimana, reportedly a tributary kingdom of Japan in Korea.Prince Shotoku also despatched envoys of Korean descent who could read Chinese in 607 to China. Ancient records tell us that the boat coasted the Korean shoreline as a direct passage was too dangerous. Also the chief envoy had asked the Chinese emperor to address Japan as “Land of the Rising Sun” instead of “Land of Dwarfs” which was perceived as a derogatory term by Japan. But according to Chinese Sui records, the Sui emperor did not receive well the communication which was addressed “from the emperor of the sunrise country to the emperor of the sunset country”. The Japanese request was not acceded to, until 670 when the same request had to be repeated…even though four Japanese missions were sent to China during the brief duration of the Sui dynasty.

Who was the man behind the legend?

Like most legendary figures of old, it is impossible to separate from fact some accounts of Prince Shotoku’s life. By most accounts he was a remarkable man who did remarkable things and many benevolent works for the nation.  

Some accounts are harder to swallow. According to legend, his  birth, like that of Buddha, was a miraculous birth: born without pain, that he was a precocious child who spoke from the moment of his birth and who could understand conversations by ten people all speaking at the same time.

There remain sceptics (e.g. Chubu University professor Ōyama Seiichi’s Prince Shōtoku, Tokyo Shimbun 2008-02-10 refers) who assert that Prince Shotoku was not a real historical person.

Nevertheless, there were many factual details of Prince Shotoku’s life that cannot be easily ignored, such as the excavated ruins of his residential palace at Ikaruga. A tantalizing detail is the portrait of Prince Shotoku that survives till today in the form of the gilt bronze statue (called the Yumedono Kannon or Dream Hall Kuanyin) that was ordered to be made “in the image of Prince Shotoku” in the year of 621 of Shotoku’s death. The face on the statue features a broad nose, prominent lips and narrow eyes and the figure possesses large hands.  

The Yumedono Kannon statue was originally placed in the Hall of Dreams of the original Horyuji Temple that had burned down in 672. The statue survived the fire and can be viewed once a year at the existing Horyuji Temple’s Hall of Dreams built in 739 as the memorial building that replaced the earlier one.

Another statue in the Horyuji Temple is the Shaka triad, an inscription on the Shaka triad states that the statue was created as a life-size replica of Prince Shotoku himself. It was made at the time of his death as a prayer for his ascent into the Pure Land. Mention is also made of the death of Prince Shotoku’s mother and his principle wife (who are thought to be two attendants in the Shaka triad). 

Did Prince Shotoku actually rule?

Chinese records of the Sui period substantiate Prince Shotoku’s role in diplomacy that is detailed in the Nihon shoki.  

The woodblock painting at the top of the page is a reproduction an 8th century hanging scroll painting (in the collection of Horyuji Temple) is famous for its portrait of Prince Shotoku. It shows Prince Shotoku as a bureaucrat dressed in Chinese-style court clothes in official headgear and aristocratic shoes, holding a wooden paddle-like object that is a crib sheet required for court rituals. He is shown carrying a jeweled sword, the imperial symbol of political and military authority. 

Another surviving depiction dates to later times, shows Shotoku the scholar and dedicated sponsor of Buddhism. He is depicted wearing ceremonial court dress and lecturing on the sacred texts, the sutras.

Prince Shotoku is often compared to Buddha, as a prince who renounced secular power to devote himself to religious studies, or seen as a pacifist who sought to unify his country through Buddhist doctrine in turbulent times.

How did Shotoku worship in early Japan begin and why?

The earliest sources indicate that the promotion of Shotoku worship was initiated by the imperial family, particularly through two significant historical books, the Kojiki (Record of Ancient Matters, 712) and the Nihon shoki (Chronicles of Japan, 720), and was sanctioned by imperial command. Through the prevalent Shinto mythology linking the imperial descent from the goddess Amaterasu and by elevating the  Prince Shotoku as charismatic sage, benevolent and humanistic patron, ideal regent, and giving him kami status, the imperial court successfully promoted Shotoku as imperial ancestor and national hero.

Shotoku served as an ideal figure, particularly because not only did he represent the imperial family through his regency, but he was also regarded as the father of Japanese Buddhism in his role as progenitor of Buddhism in Japan. Prince Shotoku was thus a unique historical character who had gained his giant status as a result of his significant contributions in two fields: as a statesman to the Japanese nationhood and to Japanese Buddhism.

However, Shotoku’s status went beyond that of a historical figure; by virtue of his charisma and popular influence he rose to the level of kami. Soon after his death, Prince Shotoku, post-humously, gained great legendary status.

That legendary status probably began with his deification at temple complexes closely associated with him and which was further promoted by the close and interdependent ties between the state and Buddhism at the time.

Sculpture of Prince Shōtoku depicted as a bodhisattva in Asuka-dera, Asuka, Nara.

Sculpture of Prince Shōtoku depicted as a bodhisattva in Asuka-dera, Asuka, Nara.

Interestingly, hardly any early accounts of Buddhist sources on Shotoku worship exist because the imperial authorities either served in the dual capacity as religious authorities, or because they used Buddhism as a tool to support the interests of the state.

Perceptions and portrayals of Prince Shotoku

In early Japan, Prince Shotoku was portrayed mainly as the regent prince with imperial lineage traceable to sun goddess Amaterasu, kami and a deified bodhisattva.

During the medieval period however, Shotoku worship became a widespread and popular trend. By then Prince Shotuku had evolved a new status as a Buddhist deity, and was worshipped as such during the medieval period that was a time when Buddhist temples’ ties with the imperial court were weakening. As Buddhist institutions began to assert their independence from the imperial court, they began to promote Shotoku in different ways, according to their own interpretations and elevation of Shotoku primarily as a Buddhist saint or deity.

A key element that helped to effectively fallowed the smooth promotion of Shotoku worship as a Buddhist figure was through the honji sujaku context of the medieval period. Shotoku worship evolved further through the legends that now portrayed Shotoku not only as a powerful kami, but also as a reincarnation of Tendai Eshi, as a manifestation of bodhisattva Kannon, and later, as Amida Buddha and even Shinran himself (Shinran was a monk who spent twenty years of religious training at Mount Hiei after which he apprenticed under his master Honen, who took Shinran on as his apprentice to learn the senju nenbutsu teaching).

Like most people in medieval Japan, Shinran revered Shotoku Taishi as a cultural and religious icon, but his worship of Shotoku went beyond the religious and political role of Shotoku – he worshiped Shotoku as his personal savior, which is evident from his devotional hymns in praise of Shotoku.

Shinran’s described Shotoku as ‘Guze Kannon’ or ‘the world-saving bodhisattva of compassion’ of Japan. For Shinran, Shotoku was more than a historical and legendary figure—Shotoku was his personal savior. Shinran became the first Buddhist monk who rejected his clerical vows of celibacy, openly married and had children with Eshinni. His wife’s account of Shinran’s dream reveals his rationale for marrying Eshinni and his profound worship for Shotoku: In his dream, Shotoku, who appeared to Shinran as a manifestation of Kannon, assured Shinran that “she” would incarnate herself as Eshinni, thereby permitting Shinran to marry Eshinni with the implication that he would actually be marrying Kannon.

One response to “Statesman Prince Shotoku, legend or real national hero?

  1. Its crazy how Shinran worshiped Shotoku as a personal savior!

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