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A History of the Japanese People by F. Brinkley

Bore fruit during the reign of Koken



In July, 749, the Emperor Shomu abdicated in favour of his daughter, Princess Abe, known in history as Koken. Her mother was the celebrated Princess Asuka, who, in spite of the Shimbetsu lineage of her Fujiwara family, had been made Shomu's Empress, and whose name had been changed to Komyo (Refulgence) in token of her illustrious piety. The daughter inherited all the mother's romance, but in her case it often degenerated into a passion more elementary than religious ecstasy. Shomu, having no son, made his daughter heir to the throne. Japanese history furnished no precedent for such a step. The custom had always been that a reign ceased on the death of a sovereign unless the Crown Prince had not yet reached maturity, in which event his mother, or some other nearly related princess, occupied the throne until he came of age and then surrendered the reigns of government to his hands. Such had been the practice in the case of the Empresses Jito, Gemmyo, and Gensho. Shomu, however, not only bequeathed the throne to a princess, but while himself still in the prime of life, abdicated in her favour.

Thereafter, at the recognized instance of the all-powerful Fujiwara family, Emperors often surrendered the sceptre to their heirs, themselves retiring into religious life with the secular title of Da-joko (Great ex-Emperor) and the ecclesiastical designation of Ho-o

(pontiff). Shomu was the originator of this practice, but the annals are silent as to the motive that inspired him. It will be presently seen that under the skilful manipulation of the Fujiwara nobles, this device of abdication became a potent aid to their usurpation of administrative power, and from that point of view the obvious inference is that Shomu's unprecedented step was taken at their suggestion. But the Buddhist propagandists, also, were profoundly interested. That the sovereign himself should take the tonsure could not fail to confer marked prestige on the Church. It is probable, therefore, that Shomu was swayed by both influences--that of the Buddhists, who worked frankly in the cause of their creed, and that of the Fujiwara, who desired to see a lady of their own lineage upon the throne.


The fanaticism of the Emperor Shomu and his consort, Komyo, bore fruit during the reign of Koken. In the third year after Shomu's abdication, a decree was issued prohibiting the taking of life in any form. This imposed upon the State the responsibility of making donations of rice to support the fishermen, whose source of livelihood was cut off by the decree. Further, at the ceremony of opening the public worship of the great image of Buddha, the Empress in person led the vast procession of military, civil, and religious dignitaries to the temple Todai-ji. It was a fete of unparalleled dimensions. All officials of the fifth grade and upwards wore full uniform, and all of lesser grades wore robes of the colour appropriate to their rank. Ten thousand Buddhist priests officiated, and the Imperial musicians were re-enforced by those from all the temples throughout the home provinces. Buddhism in Japan had never previously received such splendid homage.

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