Prince Shōtoku, also known as Prince Umayado or Prince Kamitsumiya, was a semi-legendary regent and a politician of the Asuka period in Japan who served under Empress Suiko. He was a son of Emperor Yōmei and his younger half-sister Princess Anahobe no Hashihito. His parents were relatives of the ruling Soga clan, and was involved in the defeat of the rival Mononobe Clan. The primary source of the life and accomplishments of Prince Shōtoku comes from the Nihon Shoki.
Over successive generations, a devotional cult arose around the figure of Prince Shōtoku for the protection of Japan, the Imperial Family, and for Buddhism. Key religious figures such as Saichō, Shinran and others claimed inspiration or visions attributed to Prince Shōtoku.
Cultural and political role
Shōtoku was appointed as regent (Sesshō) in 593 by Empress Suiko, his aunt. Shōtoku, inspired by Buddha’s teachings, succeeded in establishing a centralized government during his reign. In 603, he established the Twelve Level Cap and Rank System at the court. He is credited with promulgating a Seventeen-article constitution.
The Prince was an ardent Buddhist and is traditionally attributed the authorship of the Sangyō Gisho, or “Annotated Commentaries on the Three Sutras” (Lotus Sutra, the Vimalakirti Sutra, and the Sutra of Queen Srimala). The first of these commentaries, Hokke Gisho, is traditionally dated 615 C. E., and thus regarded as “the first Japanese text”, in turn making Shōtoku the first Japanese writer.
A legend claiming Daruma came in Japan says he met with Prince Shōtoku, under the guise of a starving beggar. The Prince aked him to identify himself, but the man didn’t replied. Instead of going ahead, Shōtoku gave him food, drink, and covered him with his purple garment, telling him to “lie in peace”. The Prince sang for the starving man.
Alas! For The wayfarer lying And hungered for rice On the hill of Kataoka (The sunshiny) Art thou become Parentless? Hast thou no lord Flourishing as a bamboo? Alas! For The wayfarer lying And hungered for rice!
The second day, the prince sent a messenger to the starving man, but he was already dead. Hereupon, Shōtoku Taishi was greatly grieved and ordered his burial. But later, Shōtoku thought the man was no ordinary for sure, and sending another messenger, he discovered the earth had not been disturbed, but on opening the tomb there was no body inside, only his Prince’s purple garment, folded and laid on the coffin. The Prince then sent another messenger to claim the garment, and he continued to wore it just as his before. Striked by awe, the people praised the Prince “How true it is that a sage knoweth a sage.” This legend his linked with the temple of Daruma-dera, Ōji town, Nara prefecture, where a stone stupa was found underground, which is exceedingly rare.
Prince Shōtoku commissioned the Shitennō-ji (temple) in Settsu province (present-day Osaka) after his military victory against the powerful Mononobe clan, for he is said to have summoned them to crush his ennemies. Shōtoku’s name has been linked with Hōryū-ji, a temple in Yamato province and numerous other temples in the Kansai. Documentation at Hōryū-ji claims that Suiko-Tennō and Shōtoku founded the temple in the year 607. Archaeological excavations in 1939 have confirmed that Prince Shōtoku’s palace, the Ikaruga-no-miya (斑鳩宮), stood in the eastern part of the current temple complex, where the Tō-in (東院) sits today.
Despite being credited as the founder of japanese buddhism, it is also said that the Prince respected Shintoism and never visited Buddhist temples without visiting Shinto shrines.
In his correspondence with the Chinese Sui Emperor, Yangdi, the Prince’s letter contains the earliest written instance in which the Japanese archipelago is named Nihon. The Sui Emperor dispatched a message in 605 that said, “the sovereign of Sui respectfully inquires about the sovereign of Wa.” Shōtoku responded by sponsoring a mission led by Ono no Imoko in 607: “From the sovereign of the land of the rising sun (nihon/hi izuru) to the sovereign of the land of the setting sun.”
He is said to be buried at Shinaga, in the former Kawachi province (today Osaka prefecture).
A number of institutes are named after him, such as Shotoku Gakuen University and its associated junior college (both in Gifu). The first syllable of his name (聖), can be read shō in Go’on and can also be read sei in Kan’on. The later reading is found in Seitoku University and its associated junior college (both in Matsudo, Chiba) as well as Tokyo’s defunct Seitoku Junior College of Nutrition (and indirectly its replacement Seiei College).
Titles and name
Shōtoku is known by several titles, although his real name is Prince Umayado (厩戸皇子 Umayado no ōji?, literally ‘the prince of the stable door’) since he was born in front of a stable. He is also known as Toyotomimi (豊聡耳?) or Kamitsumiyaō (上宮王?). In the Kojiki, his name appears as Kamitsumiya no Umayado no Toyotomimi no Mikoto (上宮之厩戸豊聡耳命?). In the Nihon Shoki, in addition to Umayado no ōji, he is referred to as Toyomimito Shōtoku (豊耳聡聖徳), Toyotomimi no Nori no Ōkami (豊聡耳法大王), and simply Nori no Ushi no Ōkami (法主王).
The name by which he is best known today, Prince Shōtoku, first appeared in Kaifūsō, written more than 100 years after his death in 751.