Even after the rise of the Yamato clan, Japan was still not fully united. Clan leaders saw little reason to obey a distant government. They might honor the emperor as a living god, but they did not want to take orders from him.
Then, in 593, a young leader known as Prince Shotoku took power in Japan. Shotoku was not an emperor. He served as regent for the empress, his Aunt Suiko. A regent is someone who governs a country in the name of a ruler who is too young or otherwise unable to rule. But Shotoku became so popular as regent that one historian has called him the “ Prince Charming of Japanese history.”
Prince Shotoku brought
reform to Japan and helped to
unify the nation.
Shotoku undertook the difficult task of uniting Japan under a strong central government. This could only be done by reducing the power of clan leaders. One way to accomplish this was by encouraging the spread of Buddhism.
Buddhism had recently arrived in Japan from Korea, but clan leaders opposed the new faith. Their authority rested in part on their role as Shinto priests. If people stopped worshiping the local kami, then clan leaders would likely lose importance.
Shotoku, however, became a strong supporter of the new faith. He hoped that as Buddhism spread, it would help the Japanese feel more like a single group of people united in one faith.
Along with Buddhism, Prince Shotoku studied the writings of Confucius. Shotoku believed that Confucianism could help unify his country. In about A.D. 604, the prince gave Japan its first constitution, or plan of government. It is called the Constitution of Seventeen Articles.
The general principles of this constitution were based on Confucian and Buddhist thought. The first article, for example, laid out the Confucian idea of harmony
The second article called for reverence, or respect and devotion, for Buddhism. The constitution gave the government the authority to raise taxes to support a strong central government.
Read a Chart
What cultural influence came to Japan from Korea?
Was acceptance of Chinese culture a sign of Japanese weakness? Explain.
In 607, Prince Shotoku sent official representatives to China to study Chinese arts and government. This was the first of several diplomatic missions to the Chinese mainland. Hundreds of people went on these missions, including scholars, artists, and Buddhist monks.
When they returned, these experts helped make Japan’s government more like that of imperial China. At court, Prince Shotoku introduced a system of official ranks and duties like those in the Chinese court. Japan also adopted the Chinese calendar.
All of Japan mourned when Prince Shotoku died in 622. “ The sun and moon have lost their brightness,” reported court historians. “ Heaven and earth have crumbled to ruin. Henceforward, in whom shall we put our trust?”
Other reformers, however, carried on Shotoku’s efforts to create a strong government. In 646, they put forth a program known as the Taika Reform. Taika means “ great change.” New laws made everyone a subject of the emperor. Lands and people controlled by the clan leaders now belonged to him. In return, the clan heads were given paid official jobs.
These changes had great effects on Japanese politics and culture. As one modern historian has written:
To make the reforms work, officials issued a new law code for the entire country in 702. The Taiho Code officially made the leader of the Yamato clan an emperor, the “ son of Heaven.”
In addition, the new laws defined crimes and established a system of punishments. These criminal laws applied equally to everyone in Japan.
What steps did Prince Shotoku take to reform Japan?
In this section, you have learned how Prince Shotoku began reforms aimed at building a strong central government. In the next section, you will read about an important change in Japan’s social structure.