Traditions in Japanese history of thought 1. – Shōtoku taishi’s Seventeen-Article Constitution

Nyomtatóbarát változat
2020.06.19. 18:30


Takó Ferenc, PhD

Traditions in Japanese history of thought 1. – Shōtoku taishi’s Seventeen-Article Constitution


The present short introductory lecture provides brief insight, to those interested, into an important characteristic of Japanese thought, i.e. its capability of creatively shaping and combining different traditions and teachings, with Shōtoku taishi’s 聖徳太子 Seventeen-article constitution (Jūshichijō kenpō 十七条憲法) as an example. While one must always be very careful when explaining “general” characteristics of any tradition, since such approaches necessarily imply the risk of simplification, as a first step of examining a given tradition, we must find some core features that help us understand its particular elements.

The historical significance of the Constitution lies in it being the first official “legal” code in Japan. According to the Nihonshoki 日本書紀 (720 CE), the text was written by Regent Shōtoku, nephew of Empress Suiko 推古, in 604 CE. While, based on philological and historical evidence, its genesis is debated, the fact that this text of central importance is linked to a half-legendary figure, the divinely wise Regent Shōtoku, is still essential.

There are three traditions that appear in the articles of the Constitution: Shintō 神道, Buddhism, and Confucian teachings. Shintō, the native system of beliefs of the Japanese, is the framework of the harmonious existence of man with nature and, based on this harmony, for a harmonious operation of society as a whole. Harmony, as a general principle, appears symbolically in the very beginning of the text, starting with the call “Take harmony to be of the highest value…” (Article 1). The principle of harmony is, of course, also in accordance with Confucian teachings (see Tucker 2018), that is dominantly present in several sections of the Constitution.

While Shintō is basically oriented on our physical world, Buddhist tradition offers detachment from a world of sufferings, while also providing protection for the community, i.e. the “state”. As it appears in Article 2, “Revere in earnest the three treasures: the Buddha, the ‘dharma’, and the clergy, for these are the final refuge for all sentient beings” (Article 2). Although Buddhism was brought to Japan in the 6th century, that is less than a century before this text was born, we find no tension between the parallel presence of Shintō and Buddhism, as we find no conflict between Buddhism and Confucian teachings either.

The teachings of Confucius probably reached Japan before Buddhism, but gained central importance only in the 6th and 7th centuries. Although the Chinese social structure, in which these teachings were formulated, differs significantly from the Japanese social structure of the time, certain elements of it were seamlessly implemented in Japanese thought with the purpose of reforming traditional schemes of society. This transformation appears in Article 3, in which Heaven and Earth stand as the symbols of the lord and their subordinated ministers. “On receiving imperial commands, execute them. The lord is the sky and the ministers are the earth” (Article 3).

While the influence of Confucian teachings is strongly present in several articles of the Constitution, it would be a mistake to look at this source as the symbol introducing Confucian tradition in Japan. As it has been emphasised in related literature (recently: Kasulis 2020), in many cases the traditional Japanese concepts of common discussion and mutual agreement dominate the principles formulated in the text, reminding the reader more of the principle of general consensus we find in early Shintō tradition, than that of the strict hierarchy represented by Confucian teachings: “Important matters of state should not be decided unilaterally; they must be discussed, as needed, with others” (Article 17).



“The seventeen-article constitution” 2011. Translated by Roger T. Ames. In J.W. Heisig, Th.P. Kasulis, J.C. Maraldo (eds.) Japanese Philosophy: A Sourcebook. University of Hawai’i Press, 36–39.

Kasulis, Th.P. 2020: “Prince Shōtoku’s Constitution and the Synthetic Nature of Japanese Thought.” In B.W. Davis (ed.) The Oxford Handbook of Japanese Philosophy. Oxford University Press, 83–96.

Tucker, John 2018. “Japanese Confucian Philosophy.” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Edward N. Zalta (ed.) (accessed 14th June 2020).