Shotoku Taishi The Know-It-All Who Brought Chinese Culture to Japan

    Japan owes a lot to China, there’s no doubt about that.

    Almost all Japanese kanji were adopted from Chinese characters. Even hiragana and katakana are just random modified bits of Chinese characters.

    hiragana and katakana origins

    Buddhism, although it has begun to diminish somewhat, is still the second most popular religion in Japan, and it came via China (oh all right, via China then Korea if you want to nitpick). The behavior of Japanese society is also steeped in Chinese influence: the emphasis on hard work, and the hierarchical nature of gendered language and honorifics? You can thank Confucius for all that. Even the word “Japan” is Chinese in origin!

    If you’ve read my articles you might have noticed that beyond just “what” I’ve got a hankering for “why” as well – so why the massive Chinese influence in Japan? Given the animosity between the two countries nowadays, you’d think that anything Chinese would have had a hard time even getting in edgewise.

    Finally, though, I think I’ve found the answer: it’s all thanks to Japan’s possibly least known overachiever, Shotoku Taishi (聖徳太子).

    Shotoku Taishi portrait
    Source: Kikuchi Yōsai (菊池容斎)

    A Lesser Known Holy War: Shinto vs Buddhism

    The two main religions in Japan are Shinto and Buddhism. Shinto came first, and Buddhism was at one time barely even tolerated. I can see why the Shintoists felt threatened, though: the emperor’s right to rule stems from the Shinto belief that he is the direct descendant of Amaterasu 天照大神, the sun goddess.

    Eventually, the enmity between the Shinto and Buddhist clans came to a head. Several Buddhist temples were set on fire, and statues of the Buddha were thrown into a canal – and the person responsible? The high-ranking Mononobe no Moriya (物部守屋), a staunch opponent of Buddhism. This incident sparked a war; long story short, the Buddhists won, and among their ranks was the 13-year-old Shotoku.

    woodblock print of shootoku killing mononobe no moriya
    Shotoku giving it to Mononobe right in the face!
    Source: Tsukioka Yoshitoshi

    At the time, Shotoku was actually still called Umayado 厩戸 Ouji 皇子 or “stable door prince,” because he was born unexpectedly while his mother was inspecting the imperial stable. In any case, his unorthodox birth didn’t seem to do him any harm: besides being strong and brave he was also prodigiously intelligent. These qualities sufficiently impressed the right people, and he was made regent when he was just 19.

    Of course, a seemingly neutral figurehead was still required to maintain order, so Japan’s first empress since legendary times was appointed. But make no mistake, Empress Suiko was just a puppet. Any real power lay with the regent, and Shotoku would use this power to shape Japan and Japanese as we know it today.

    Reformation Man and the Making of Nihon

    At the time, and this is a really, really long time ago (we’re talking the late 500s here), the Japanese were largely a backward and illiterate bunch. They were completely behind the Koreans in just about everything – because unlike the Koreans, they did not embrace the Chinese advances in writing, carpentry, metallurgy, and so on, nor did they take a liking to Buddhism.

    Once Shotoku came along though, that all changed. Being Buddhist himself, he made sure that Buddhism would flourish in Japan. Empress Suiko ordered the aristocracy to be tolerant of Buddhism at his request. But he was no extremist – he recognized that Shinto’s agricultural rites did not conflict with Buddhism, and the two religions could therefore mutually exist. Lead and they will follow, as the saying goes, and once the Shinto clans realized that Buddhism was no threat, they too started to accept it. Boom! Second most popular religion it is.

    syncretic Buddhist Shinto shrine
    Kumano Nachi Taisha (熊野那智大社) in Wakayama Prefecture is an example of Buddhist and Shinto syncretism: kind of like having a church and a mosque housed in the same building.
    Source: akasaka_moon

    Shotoku was a scholar too, and unusually for his time, completely fluent in Chinese. He was well-read in Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism, astronomy, and geography, and he issued Japan’s first legal document in 604. It was a list of moral instructions that drew heavily on Buddhism and Confucianism, and described the ideal Japanese society. For example, officials were expected to work hard – just think of the long, long hours of the average Japanese salaryman nowadays!

    Even the name Nihon 日本 was allegedly coined by Shotoku. In 607, he sent diplomats, monks and scholars to China with a written message for the Chinese emperor. The message began with a salutation that went something like, “The ruler of the Land of the Rising Sun addresses the ruler of the Land of the Setting Sun,” in reference to the relative locations of the two countries, and is the first written account where Japan is referred to as Nihon.

    The 607 mission to China was more than just a goma-suri 胡麻すり or ass-kissing exercise. The monks and scholars that accompanied the diplomats were actually there to absorb all they could, and then return to Japan and apply what they had learned. Among a whole host of other things, they brought Chinese writing back with them – and eventually, these Chinese characters would become part and parcel of the Japanese language.

    Shotoku Taishi wooden statue
    Besides adopting Chinese writing, law, architecture and other “serious” things, the Japanese adopted more frivolous stuff too. This statue of Shotoku shows him with a very Chinese-looking headpiece, clothes, and facial hair style.
    Source: PHGCOM

    What Have You Done Today to Make You Feel Proud?

    Shotoku was only 48 when he fell ill and died, but in his short life I think he did more than anyone else to make Japan and Japanese what they are today. War veteran by 13, regent by 19, a great statesman and scholar… and by opening the door to Chinese influence, he allowed the widespread adoption of Buddhism, the use of Chinese characters in the Japanese language, and set the tone for the Japanese mindset and Japanese society.

    I think Shotoku’s life is equal parts inspiring and depressing. He achieved so much, yet outside of Japan he seems hardly known at all. This is true on a personal level too: his life makes me want to give 110% in everything I do, yet I know I won’t come anywhere near what he achieved. Like, ruler of the land by 19? When I was that age I could hardly even turn up to lectures on time.