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Who is Prince Shotoku?

Tricia Christensen
Updated May 23, 2024
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Prince Shotoku is considered a very influential figure in early Japanese history. He is most famous for having created a strong united government in Japan, and for reaching out to other civilizations, particularly China, in order to better Japanese governance, and to take advantage of many of China's cultural advancements. The prince was the true leader of Japan from 593 to 622 CE, though his position was that of regent, appointed by his aunt and the first empress of China, Empress Suiko.

Chinese culture made an early and positive impression on Prince Shotoku, and he sent scholars to China in order to study Chinese society and its government. He also opened the doors of Japan to China's skilled workers inviting many to work in Japan. This led to many improvements to Japan's building techniques and an intense interest in Chinese arts.

Several aspects of Chinese culture influenced the prince considerably. He was particularly interested in the laws of the land, based on Confucian principles. This inspired him to write a constitution, called the Seventeen Article Constitution, for Japan. It emphasizes the absolute authority of the emperor, but also the strong morality and virtue that must be exhibited by rulers. Additional guidelines include deciding matters of law with impartiality, placing value on harmony, the necessity of vassals being treated with faithfulness and fairness, and reliance on Buddhism as the highest quality of good leadership.

Prince Shotoku is often credited with introducing not only Confucian but also Buddhist principles to Japan. Alongside Shinto, Buddhism became regular practice in the country. Though at first many different forms of Buddhism co-existed with Shintoism, ultimately, the practice of Zen Buddhism best integrated Shinto ideals with the principles of the Buddha, and became the preeminent religion in Japan.

It is possible that Prince Shotoku also named Japan the land of the rising sun, or Nihon, now usually Nippon. letter to the Chinese Emperor Yangdi is preserved, and reads "The Emperor of the land where the Sun rises sends a letter to the Emperor of the land where the Sun sets. How are you?"

Another first for the prince was the establishment of a Japanese embassy in China, which allowed for harmony between the countries; unfortunately, this was fated not to last. The influence of China on Japan cannot fail to be felt, however. In ancient history, ideas on religion, government, the arts, and agriculture migrated from China to Japan. Shotoku oversaw and encouraged this migration and is credited with enlightening and improving Japan. The Japanese cannot be said to have not evolved their own cultural ways and means, and they often improved upon Chinese inventions. For example, they took the wood-block printing developed by the Chinese and invented movable type.

The prince is a well-loved figure today, and at different times, pictures of him have graced different paper money denominations. There are many names by which he is known in Japan; in fact, he probably wasn't called Prince Shotoku in his lifetime. One colorful name is the "prince of the stable door," inspired because his mother gave birth to him in front of a stable. Some scholars suggest that he was not, in fact, a real person; evidence indicates that he probably did exist, although many of the legends that surround his life are likely to been invented.

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Tricia Christensen
By Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a Historical Index contributor, Tricia Christensen is based in Northern California and brings a wealth of knowledge and passion to her writing. Her wide-ranging interests include reading, writing, medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion, all of which she incorporates into her informative articles. Tricia is currently working on her first novel.
Discussion Comments
By anon324802 — On Mar 12, 2013

I need to know what would Prince Shotoku say if he was alive this day (which means if he was alive today what would he say)?

By anon246091 — On Feb 07, 2012

I am actually doing a paper for school about Prince Shotoku, and I find it very interesting that he would choose to bring over a religion/philosophy. To me, it would seem like he was declaring a sort of dependence, so that China would then view Japan as a colony. It is a pity, though, that they cannot get along well. They could certainly benefit from each other's knowledge.

By anon141591 — On Jan 10, 2011

i like it. it's really interesting to know about.

By Proxy414 — On Jan 07, 2011

The old harmony between China and Japan was very short-lived. Initially, the Chinese considered the Japanese to be very polite, but nevertheless saw them as a younger generation of Confucians, much like the British tend to see Americans. Over time, the Japanese manifested their inherent sense of independence and superiority which is so common among island nations. The deep societal scars which exist between the three big Confucian nations today (Japan, Korea, and China) are much more bitter and ancient than any European conflicts.

By TrogJoe19 — On Jan 07, 2011


Probably the only time that the Emperor has ever been required to come out and admit failure publicly was after the WWII bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. To see the Emperor out among the commoners and humiliated like this was a public disgrace to the Japanese people which had never before been known. It remains a strong scar on their national psyche, and they are still struggling very hard to regain their old prestige via economic supremacy.

By FitzMaurice — On Jan 07, 2011

To this day, the royal family of Japan is given considerable respect in public. For a long time, however, there has been an "Iron Triangle" of leadership and initiative which has revered the emperors as distant figureheads, who never were to take the fall for any venture. Initiative and potential failure and shame were therefore the duty and opportunity of local Daimyos and independent Samurai, who were able to thereby wield immense authority in Japan, some would say more authority than the royal family.

By Qohe1et — On Jan 06, 2011

It is interesting to note how Japan took ideals from China and modified them slightly to create an unique syncretism in their belief system, combining Shintoism and a newer Mayahana (Zen) Buddhism. This is a trend which has continued throughout Japanese history, and they are quite eager to adopt and adapt foreign trends and innovations to their best interests, making them fully Japanese.

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a Historical Index contributor, Tricia...
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