Portrait of Kōoken/Shōtoku. Image Credit: WikiCommons.

By Holly Marsden

Despite being crowned Shōtoku for her second reign, the Empress will be referred to as Kōken throughout to avoid confusion.

Born as Princess Abe in 713 AD, Empress Kōken of Japan was the daughter and heir to Emperor Shōmu. In August of 749 her father abdicated, naming Empress Kōken his successor. Kōken was the last Empress of the Nara period (710-794) and one of six female rulers of Japan.

Kōken first reigned from 749-758. After a failed attempted coup in 757, Kōken was later forced to abdicate in 758 in favour of Crown Prince Ooi, known during his reign as Emperor Junnin. She regained power in 764 as Empress Shōtoku.

Kōken fell ill before abdicating. Whilst ill, she met Dōkyō, a Buddhist monk whom she was rumoured to have a romantic relationship with. She justified her re-enthronement in a 764 decree by quoting from the Buddhist sutras, also promoting Dōkyō to the status of Grand Emperor.

Kōken donated a great deal of land and money to Buddhist temples, aiming to both control and strengthen the religion in Japan. She also developed a positive theology of omens, seen as sent down from heaven in support of her reign rather than as symbols of evil.

This theological approach was used to legitimise rule, demonstrated by Kōken’s imperial edicts in which she provided explanations for the omens. Kōken has also been linked to the sponsorship of the Hyakumantō darani Buddhist prayers, rolled inside miniature wooden pagodas.

The chronicle Shoku nihongi from 797 associates Kōken with the large-scale printing and production of the Hyakumantō darani, demonstrating that Kōken used Buddhist ritual politically, and that printing in Japan started earlier than previously thought.

Kōken never married and her death in 770 prompted Dōkyō to vie for the Japanese throne. However, he was unsuccessful. Despite her tumultuous reign, Kōken’s strength as ruler physically stands in the form of the Saidaiji Temple, which she commissioned in 765.

Photo of Saidaji Temple. Image Credit: WikiCommons.

Recommended Reading

Delmer M. Brown and Ichirō Ishida, The Future and the Past: a translation and study of the Gukanshō, an interpretive history of Japan written in 1219 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1979)

Elena Lepekhova, “Two Asian Empresses and Their Influence on the History and Religion in Tang China and Nara Japan,” Studies in Asian Social Science 4.2 (2017): 20-25

Patricia E. Tsurumi, “Japan’s Early Female Emperors,” Historical Reflections/Réflexions Historiques 8.1 (1981): 41-49.

Peter Kornicki, “Empress Shōtoku as a Sponsor of Printing,” in Tibetan Printing: Comparisons, Continuities and Change eds. Hildegard Diemberger, Franz-Karl Ehrhard, and Peter Kornicki, 45-50 (Leiden: Brill, 2016)

Ross Bender, “Auspicious Omens in the Reign of the Last Empress of Nara Japan, 749-770,” Japanese Journal of Religious Studies 40.1 (2013): 45-76

Ross Bender, “Changing the Calendar Royal Political Theology and the Suppression of the Tachibana Naramaro Conspiracy of 757,” Japanese Journal of Religious Studies 37.2 (2010): 223-245.

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