Published in Nihongi: Chronicles of Japan from Earliest Times to A.D. 697, 1896
"Sincerely reverence the three treasures. The three treasures: the Buddha, the Law, and the Priesthood, are the … supreme objects of faith in all countries. What man in what age can fail to reverence this law?"
Though Japan had been inhabited for thousands of years, it first emerged as a unified nation under the leadership of the Yamato (yuh-MAH-toh; "imperial") family in the Kofun period (koh-FUN; 250–552). It is likely that these early Japanese were heavily influenced by visitors from China, and from the 300s onward, the country welcomed a steady stream of Chinese and Korean immigrants.
During the Asuka period (552–645), the royal court in Korea introduced the leaders of Japan to a new religion, Buddhism (BÜD-izm). This sparked a conflict among the Japanese ruling classes, many of whom still embraced Japan's traditional religion, Shinto ("way of the gods"). Leading the movement for the acceptance of Buddhism was the Soga clan, whose most powerful member was Prince Shotoku Taishi (shoh-TOH-koo ty-EE-shee; 573–621).
In 604, Shotoku issued his "Seventeen-Article Constitution." The document gave the central government enormous powers, and encouraged citizens to know their place in society. In addition to a number of clearly expressed Buddhist principles, the constitution also reflected the influence of Confucianism (kun-FYOO-shun-izm), another way of thought that had been introduced from mainland Asia.
Things to remember while reading the "Seventeen-Article Constitution"
- A constitution is a written document containing the laws of a nation, and is typically divided into articles, or individual statements of principle. For instance, the U.S. Constitution, adopted in 1787, has seven articles, addressing matters such as the roles of the president, Congress, and judges.
- Shotoku's constitution reflects a number of belief systems, most notably Buddhism and Confucianism. In Article 2, for instance, he mentions "the three treasures: the Buddha, the Law, and the Priesthood"—three key elements of the Buddhist faith. Buddhism originated in India with Siddhartha Gautama (si-DAR-tuh GOW-tuhmuh; c. 563–c. 483 B.C.), the Buddha or "enlightened one," who taught that the key to enlightenment or heightened understanding was to forsake one's personal desires. Later the religion spread to China and the rest of East Asia, where it took hold to a greater extent than it had in India.
- Another strong element in the constitution is Confucianism, based on the teachings of Confucius (551–479 B.C.). A belief system that stresses on social order and fulfilling one's mission in society, Confucianism had long held sway in China, and would continue to do so until the beginning of the twentieth century. An example of Confucianism in Shotoku's constitution is the statement in Article 1: "But when those above are harmonious and those below are friendly, and there is concord in the discussion of business, right views of things spontaneously gain acceptance." What this means, in other words, is that everyone should fulfill their role and work in agreement with one another.
- Also notable in the constitution are certain Chinese ideas. Among these is the comparison of the king to Heaven, and the people to Earth, in Article 3. The Chinese believed that the power of their emperors came from the "Mandate of Heaven," meaning the favor of the gods, and the Japanese also adopted this belief regarding their own leaders.
1. Harmony is to be valued, and an avoidance of wanton opposition to be honored. All men are influenced by class-feelings, and there are few who are intelligent. Hence there are some who disobey their lords and fathers, or who maintain feuds with the neighboring villages. But when those above are harmonious and those below are friendly, and there is concord in the discussion of business, right views of things spontaneously gain acceptance. Then what is there which cannot be accomplished!
2. Sincerely reverence the three treasures. The three treasures: the Buddha, the Law, and the Priesthood, are the … supreme objects of faith in all countries. What man in what age can fail to reverence this law? Few men are utterly bad. They may be taught to follow it. But if they do not go to the three treasures, how shall their crookedness be made straight?
3. When you receive the Imperial commands, fail not scrupulously to obey them. The lord is Heaven, the vassal is Earth. Heaven overspreads, and Earth upbears. When this is so, the four seasons follow their due course, and the powers of Nature obtain their efficacy. If the Earth attempted to overspread, Heaven would simply fall in ruin. Therefore is it that when the lord speaks, the vassal listens; when the superior acts, the inferior yields compliance. Consequently when you receive the Imperial commands, fail not to carry them out scrupulously. Let there be a want of care in this matter, and ruin is the natural consequence.
4. The Ministers and functionaries should make decorous behavior their leading principle, for the leading principle of the government of the people consists in decorous behavior. If the superiors do not behave with decorum, the inferiors are disorderly: if inferiors are wanting in proper behavior, there must necessarily be offenses. Therefore it is that when lord and vassal behave with propriety, the distinctions of rank are not confused: when the people behave with propriety, the Government of the Commonwealth proceeds of itself….
6. Chastise that which is evil and encourage that which is good. This was the excellent rule of antiquity. Conceal not, therefore, the good qualities of others, and fail not to correct that which is wrong when you see it. Flatterers and deceivers are a sharp weapon for the overthrow of the State, and a pointed sword for the destruction of the people. Sycophants are also fond, when they meet, of speaking at length to their superiors on the errors of their inferiors; to their inferiors, they censure the faults of their superiors. Men of this kind are all wanting in fidelity to their lord, and in benevolence toward the people. From such an origin great civil disturbances arise.
7. Let every man have his own charge, and let not the spheres of duty be confused. When wise men are entrusted with office, the sound of praise arises. If unprincipled men hold office, disasters and tumults are multiplied. In this world, few are born with knowledge: wisdom is the product of earnest meditation. In all things, whether great or small, find the right man, and they [the people] will surely be well managed: on all occasions, be they urgent or the reverse, meet but with a wise man, and they will of themselves be amenable. In this way will the State be lasting and the Temples of the Earth and of Grain will be free from danger. Therefore did the wise sovereigns of antiquity seek the man to fill the office, and not the office for the sake of the man….
10. Let us cease from wrath, and refrain from angry looks. Nor let us be resentful when others differ from us. For all men have hearts, and each heart has its own leanings. Their right is our wrong, and our right is their wrong. We are not unquestionably sages, nor are they unquestionably fools. Both of us are simply ordinary men. How can any one lay down a rule by which to distinguish right from wrong? For we are all, one with another, wise and foolish, like a ring which has no end. Therefore, although others give way to anger, let us on the contrary dread our own faults, and though we alone may be in the right, let us follow the multitude and act like men….
11. Give clear appreciation to merit and demerit, and deal out to each its sure reward or punishment. In these days, reward does not attend upon merit, nor punishment upon crime. You high functionaries who have charge of public affairs, let it be your task to make clear rewards and punishments….
15. To turn away from that which is private, and to set our faces toward that which is public—this is the path of a Minister. Now if a man is influenced by private motives, he will assuredly feel resentments, and if he is influenced by resentful feelings, he will assuredly fail to act harmoniously with others. If he fails to act harmoniously with others, he will assuredly sacrifice the public interests to his private feelings. When resentment arises, it interferes with order, and is subversive of law….
16. Let the people be employed [in labor on public works projects] at seasonable times. This is an ancient and excellent rule. Let them be employed, therefore, in the winter months, when they are at leisure [when there are no crops to plant or harvest]. But from Spring to Autumn, when they are engaged in agriculture or with the mulberry trees, the people should not be so employed. For if they do not attend to agriculture, what will they have to eat? If they do not attend the mulberry trees, what will they do for clothing?
17. Decisions on important matters should not be made by one person alone…. They should be discussed with many. But small matters are of less consequence. It is unnecessary to consult a number of people. It is only in the case of the discussion of weighty affairs, when there is a suspicion that they may miscarry, that one should arrange matters in concert with others, so as to arrive at the right conclusion.
What happened next …
The power of the Soga clan weakened after the death of Shotoku in 622, and in 645 Crown Prince Nakano Oe (OH-ee; 626–671) and Nakatomi Kamatari (614–669) joined forces to overthrow the government. Later the prince became the Emperor Tenchi, and Kamatari's family became known as Fujiwara, a clan that would later dominate the imperial family.
During the Hakuh period (645–710), the Japanese fully accepted an idea already evident in the Seventeen-Article Constitution: that the emperor was a god. This concept would continue to hold sway, even though the emperors themselves did not always possess real political power. Tenchi was a strong leader, introducing a number of reforms modeled on those of China's T'ang dynasty (DAHNG; 618–907), but later emperors tended to be dominated by powerful families such as the Fujiwara.
During the Heian period (hay-YAHN; 794–1185), the Japanese imperial court became increasingly separated from the countryside. Rural areas of Japan functioned as independent kingdoms, further weakening the power of the emperors. Years of civil war and conflict followed, and it would be many centuries before the emperors again asserted their power.
Did you know …
- Shotoku gave Japan its name, Nippon or Nihon. In 607, he sent a group of officials to China, and they came bearing a message which began "The emperor of the country where the sun rises addresses a letter to the emperor of the country where the sun sets." The Chinese began to call the country to the east Jihpen, meaning "origins of the sun." Later the Italian traveler Marco Polo, who visited China in the 1200s, brought this name back with him to Europe, where it became "Japan."
- Among the many buildings erected under Shotoku's leadership was a Buddhist temple at Horyuji (HOHR-yoo-jee), built in 607. It is the world's oldest wooden structure.
- The writings of Shotoku may have formed the basis for the Nihon shoki, Japan's first book of history, the various stories and legends of which were compiled in 720.
For More Information
Aston, W. G., translator. Nihongi: Chronicles of Japan from Earliest Times to A.D. 697, Volume 2. London: Keegan and Co., 1896.
Dijkstra, Henk, editor. History of the Ancient and Medieval World, Volume 11: Empires of the Ancient World. New York: Marshall Cavendish, 1996.
Pilbeam, Mavis. Japan: 5000 B.C.–Today. New York: Franklin Watts, 1988.
Internet East Asian History Sourcebook. [Online] Available http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/eastasia/eastasiasbook.html (last accessed July 28,2000).
"The Japanese Constitution." [Online] Available (last accessed July 28, 2000).