Shōtoku Taishi 聖德太子 Biography

Shōtoku Taishi 聖德太子 (574-622). A politician and devout Buddhist of the Asuka period 飛鳥 (593-710) in Japan. Otherwise called Umayado no Miko 厩戸皇子, Toyotomimi 豊聡耳 and Kamitsumiya Ō上宮王. Son of Tachibana no Toyohi no Miko 橘豊日皇子, the Yōmei Tennō 用明天皇. His mother was Anahobe no Hashihito 穴穂部間人. The name Shōtoku, which commemorates his support of Buddhism, became the most popular, though it postdates his death, first appearing at the Hokki-ji 法起寺 pagoda built in 706. After earlier struggles with rival clans, Soga no Umako 蘇我馬子 (d.626) was able to have Suiko 推古 placed on the throne as empress in 593. In the same year Shōtoku was made her crown prince 太子.


Three figures close to him early on included the Goguryeo 高句麗 monk Hyeja 慧慈, Kakuka 覺哿 (thought to be from Baekje 百濟) and the Silla 新羅 immigrant Hata no Kawakatsu秦河勝. The Nihon Shoki 日本書記 reports that in 593, Hyeja taught the prince Buddhism while Kakuka (a boshi 博士) taught non-Buddhist 外典 (Confucian) materials. Hata no Kawakatsu served the prince in various capacities. In 603 the prince bestowed a Buddha image and ordered him to build Hachioka-dera 蜂岡寺 (Kōryū-ji 隆寺). These three were not only his mentors, but they also provided diverse international perspectives, which likely encouraged the prince's interest in adopting mainland culture, which was a continuation of Umako's policies.


Arahaka-dera 荒陵寺, later called Shitennō-ji 四天王寺, commenced construction in 593, though the impetus for its construction was apparently a result of vows taken by Shōtoku in 587 when the Soga 蘇我 and Mononobe 物部 clans clashed. It was built in Naniwa 難波, the gateway to the mainland and away from the capital Asuka, signaling his rising influence both domestically and in foreign affairs.


In 600 the court dispatched an expeditionary force against Silla, a period when Shōtoku was starting to overshadow Umako. Construction of a new palace for him at Ikaruga 斑鳩 commenced in 601. In 602 his younger brother was made commander of another expeditionary force against Silla.


Shōtoku cooperated with Soga no Umako in the promotion of Buddhism. In 596 the latter built Hōkō 法興寺 followed by Shōtoku's construction of Hōryū-ji 法隆寺 in 607 at Ikaruga.


In 589 the dynasty successfully reunified China, to which the court in Shōtoku's time dispatched four separate envoys in the years 600, 607, 608 and 614 to the Sui (the kenzui shi 遣隋使). They sought a transfer of culture and technology along with Chinese recognition of Yamato political authority, reflecting Shōtoku's aims. They sent along students and monks to stay long-term in China, however according to the Suishu 隋書 (fasc. 81) the 607 mission offended the Emperor Yang 煬帝 when the official letter read “The son of heaven where the suns rises writers to the son of heaven where the sun sets and hopes he is free of ill-health” (日出處天子至書日沒處天子無恙), suggesting a position of equality between the Sui court and Yamato court. Nevertheless, diplomatic relations continued.


In 603 the hierarchical system of twelve cap ranks 冠位十二階 was established, which is thought to have been drafted based on the official ranking system in Baekje with consideration of the Goguryeo system. It continued until 647 when the system of thirteen cap ranks 冠位十三階 was established. In 604, Shōtoku drafted the 'Constitution in Seventeen Articles' 十七條憲法. The second article decrees that the Triple Gem 三寶 is to be venerated, effectively establishing Buddhism as a state sanctioned religion. Moreover, it calls for obedience to the state and harmony in the leadership. These reforms indicate Shōtoku was intent on establishing a centralized state under imperial leadership based on models from the mainland in the face of refractory elites. Buddhism under imperial patronage and calls for faith in it facilitated his political aims, though he is also believed to have written commentaries for three sūtras 三經義疏 in the later part of his life: Hokke gisho 法華義疏, Yuima kyō gisho 維摩經義疏 and Shōmangyō gisho 勝鬘經義疏. Additionally, in 620 he wrote with Umako the Kokki , Tennō ki 天皇記 and the Omimuraji tomo no miyatsuko kuni no miyatsuko momoamariyasonotomo wo awasete ōmitakaradomo no mototsufumi 臣連伴造國造百八十部并公民等本記.


Shōtoku died in 622 at the age of 49 at the Ikaruga Palace 斑鳩, his remains entombed in Shinaga 磯長 at Kawachi 河内.


Worship of the prince 太子信仰 developed over the following centuries. Shōtoku was already venerated as a the 'Śākyamuni of Japan' by the eighth century. The Nihon Shoki, compiled in 720, reports that he could speak when born (生而能言), an element found in earlier Buddhist literature, and that he possessed sagely wisdom (有聖智) (see fasc. 22). By the Nara 奈良 period (710-794) there were legends he was a bodhisattva. His legends were compiled in the Sōtoku Taishi denryaku 太子(also called Shotoku Taishi heishi den 太子平氏), attributed to Fujiwara no Kanesuke 藤原兼輔 (877-933) in 917. Another early Heian 平安 period (794-1185) work of unknown authorship detailing his legends is the Jōgū Shōtoku Taishi den hoketsuki 上宮聖太子補闕記. Such works consolidated the widespread belief he was Guze Kannon 救世, spurring further literary and artistic developments in the late Heian. From the Kamakura 鎌倉 period (1185-1333) and onward the deified prince was worshiped in various religious communities such as Shinshū 真宗 and Shingon真言. Special halls called Taishi-dō 太子堂 were crafted to house his image. Additionally, such influences extended into Yōkyoku 謡曲 and Kyōgen 狂言.


See the following for a full history:

Inoue Mitsuada. “The Century of Reform.” Cambridge History of Japan Volume I. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1993.