Prince Shotoku Taishi of Japan

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  • 0:01 The Asuka Period of Japan
  • 1:04 Japan Under Prince Shotoku
  • 2:33 Prince Shotoku & China
  • 3:57 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

In this lesson, you will explore the life and achievements of Prince Shotoku Taishi of the Asuka period of Japan. Then, test your understanding with a brief quiz.

The Asuka Period of Japan

It has often been noted that early Japanese history was heavily influenced by the other major kingdoms of East Asia, most notably China and Korea. For a long time, Japan was somewhat submissive to these other states, especially China. That changed during the Asuka period, an era of immense artistic, political, and social transformations that lasted from 538-710.

Japanese politics were dominated by a series of clans, each one a family ruled by a powerful patriarch, or male head of the family. One family clan in particular was becoming very powerful in the early Asuka period. They were called the Soga, and their patriarch was Soga no Umako. In 587, the Soga became so powerful that Soga no Umako was able to assassinate the emperor of Japan and installed a member of his own family, Empress Suiko. Although Suiko was technically the ruler of Japan, Soga no Umako was the real power. In 593, Suiko's nephew Shotoku Taishi was appointed as the prince regent, meaning he had the power to govern Japan in his aunt's name.

Japan Under Prince Shotoku

Prince Shotoku Taishi was a very intelligent man and a capable leader, and he is responsible for instigating many of the reforms of the Asuka period. He was well-read in Chinese literature, which was the intellectual center of Asia at the time. As a result, Shotoku introduced many Chinese practices to Japan, such as the use of the Chinese calendar. He also sent envoys to China to study the Chinese political systems.

One of the largest political reforms of Shotoku Taishi was the use of the Chinese philosophy Confucianism, which guided the ethics of government in China. Shotoku created the Twelve Level Cap and Rank System in 603, in which government officials were ranked in 12 levels that corresponded to the six Confucian virtues of benevolence, propriety, sincerity, justice, and knowledge. Shotoku Taishi also wrote a new 17-article constitution for the government of Japan that defined the morals and virtues of government officials to ensure that the kingdom remained in a state of harmony and balance.

Obviously, Prince Shotoku Taishi was very concerned with reforms to make Japan a more moral society. A lot of this came from the fact that he was a devout Buddhist. Buddhism was first introduced to Japan during this Asuka period, and Shotoku played a major role in spreading it across the country. He built several major Buddhist shrines and wrote the first major Japanese commentaries on the religion. Nevertheless, Shotoku still showed great devotion to the native Japanese religion called Shinto. It was said that he never visited a Buddhist shrine without also visiting a Shinto shrine.

Prince Shotoku and China

It should be apparent by now that Prince Shotoku Taishi had lots of respect for the philosophies and government of China. This does not mean, however, that he was submissive to them. For a long time, Japan had been the lesser of the Asian powers, and its relationship with China reflected that. The Japanese emperor addressed the Chinese emperor with a more formal title, indicating that they were not equals, and China enjoyed this.

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