Shōtoku Constitution

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-G107-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved April 20, 2021, from

Article Summary

The Shōtoku Constitution is the earliest fundamental political document of Japan. Promulgated in ad 604, it is ascribed to the regent Shōtoku, who was also a devout Buddhist and philosopher. The document reflects the influences of Confucianism, Buddhism, Daoism and Legalism in its various provisions; it is strongly marked by Chinese thought rather than being influenced by Shintō. Not a constitution in the modern sense, the document is rather a set of ideals, guiding principles and basic requirements for those in government. As well as helping to lay the foundation for a unified Japan, the Constitution also marks the beginning of a period of assimilation of Chinese culture and philosophy.

The Shōtoku Constitution was, according to tradition, promulgated in ad 604. Also called the Constitution in Seventeen Articles, it is ascribed to Shōtoku (574–622), a philosopher and a devout Buddhist as well as a statesman, who served as regent of Japan under the Empress Suiko. Before this time, Japan had not existed as a nation but had been divided into autonomous regions and clans, whose chiefs vied with one another for hegemony. With his Constitution, Shōtoku sought to establish Japan as a unified nation under the sole authority of the imperial throne, and to ground its conduct of government upon universal principles which he found in Buddhism and classical Chinese philosophy.

The Shōtoku Constitution is not a constitution in the modern and technical sense of a set of principles formally limiting the extent of legislation and formally grounding the legality of other laws. It is instead a set of ideals, guiding principles and basic requirements for the officials who exercise governmental powers.

The Constitution consists of seventeen articles, as follows:

  • Article 1 declares harmony to be a principle of governance within a hierarchical order and promotes the discussion of public affairs.

  • Article 2 exhorts the reverence of the Three Treasures of Buddhism, namely the Buddha, the Law and the Community of Practitioners, as ‘the final refuge of all living beings’ and ‘the ultimate foundation of all nations’.

  • Article 3 compares the lord to Heaven, the vassal to Earth and enjoins the vassal to obey the imperial commands scrupulously.

  • Article 4 enjoins the ministers and functionaries to base their conduct upon decorum.

  • Article 5 warns against the settling of law-suits under the influence of bribery.

  • Article 6 emphasizes the importance of moral integrity on the part of officials, and admonishes them not to resort to self-promoting deceptions.

  • Article 7 lays down the policy of honouring the wise in the management of bureaucracy.

  • Article 8 seeks to impress officials with the importance of diligence and punctuality.

  • Article 9 declares trustworthiness among vassals to be ‘the basis of righteousness’ on which the success or failure of government depends.

  • Article 10 calls for the cessation of anger, resentment and self-righteousness: ‘For everybody has a heart, and every heart has its own attachment. Their right is our wrong, our right, their wrong.’

  • Article 11 stresses the importance of reward and punishment according to deserts.

  • Article 12 forbids provincial governors and district administrators to levy taxes for themselves, and reserves taxation as a prerogative of the sovereign.

  • Article 13 commands the officials to execute public affairs responsibly, stating that their absence, for reasons official or personal, does not excuse them from their duties.

  • Article 14 points out the evils of envy at the sight of the promotion of those with superior intelligence or ability.

  • Article 15 calls for the setting aside of private motives, which otherwise would lead to resentment and discord.

  • Article 16 states that the conscription of labour for public works should not interfere with the peasants’ agricultural production.

  • Article 17 points out the need of public discussions of weighty public affairs.

In this set of principles the influence of Confucianism is prominent. Harmony, decorum and trustworthiness, which are the bases of Articles 1, 4 and 9, are central elements of Confucian ethics (see Confucian philosophy, Japanese; Confucian philosophy, Chinese). Article 2 is striking in its commitment to Buddhism; Buddhists vow to take refuge in the Three Treasures (see Buddhist philosophy, Japanese). Articles 5, 11 and 12, concerned respectively with the fair enforcement of laws, reward and punishment, and taxation, betray the influence of Legalism (see Legalist philosophy, Chinese). The call to abandon desires in Article 5 and the relativity of conventional valuation in Article 10 sound Daoist (see Daoist philosophy). In contrast with the marked presence of Chinese thought in the Constitution, the influence of Shintō, the indigenous folk religion, is characteristically absent.

The philosophical interest and significance of the Shōtoku Constitution lie primarily in the following three areas:

  1. Exactly what universal principles of East Asian continental thought were applied, and how were they applied, to the political situation in the southwestern half of the Japanese archipelago at the formative stage of Japan in the early seventh century? Did the urgent practical need for political reform dictate the utilizations of ideas and ideals of political philosophy as instruments, or did the political situation serve as the medium through which to implement the ideas and ideals?

  2. How are the ideas and ideals culled from the different sources of Mahāyāna Buddhism, Daoism, Confucianism and Legalism related one to another in the ways in which they inform the Constitution? Do the influences of Confucianism and Buddhism, for instance, simply coexist side by side, or are they reconciled with each other and integrated into some coherent pattern? If so, what is that pattern?

  3. How did the Constitution, the earliest politically authoritative articulation of an ideology, set a precedent for the subsequent development of Japanese thought and culture?

On these three issues, no clear scholarly consensus has yet emerged. However, scholars have to a considerable extent overcome healthy scepticism concerning the prior issues about the date and the authorship of the Constitution, and have canvassed a vast body of Chinese literature, including Chinese versions of Mahāyāna sūtras, in order to identify the sources of verbal borrowings, echoes and allusions with which the text of the Constitution abounds. The entire text of the Constitution, written in highly stylized classical Chinese, has been preserved as a quotation in the Nihon shoki (Chronicles of Japan), and is there attributed to Shōtoku.

Among other achievements of the Shōtoku regency are the construction of Buddhist temples, the writing of commentaries on three Mahāyāna sūtras, the institution of the Twelve Cap–ranks of bureaucracy and the inauguration of official envoys to China. The Constitution, together with these achievements, contributed much to the transition of Japan from a divided tribal society to a united nation, the adoption and assimilation of Chinese civilization including philosophy, and the transformation of Japan into a land of Buddhism.

Citing this article:
Kachi, Yukio. Shōtoku Constitution, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-G107-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2021 Routledge.

Related Searches


Related Articles