The Seventeen-Article Constitution of Shôtoku Taishi, dated 604/4/3 in the introduction to the document, lists out a series of basic principles of government. Drawing upon Confucian ideas of government, it mostly focuses on eliciting officials and peasantry to behave appropriately, to cooperate, and to work together in harmony, rather than on an approach to government centered on compelling obedience through a detailed law code, and strict punishments. The so-called Constitution also shows evidence of Buddhist influence.
There is some debate as the date and authorship of the document, but it is generally agreed that it was written around the time indicated on the document, and that its style and coherence is indicative of a single author. Jun'ichi Konichi has suggested that Korean immigrants may have had some significant influence on the document, but that in any case it is representative of the state-building ideas of the reign of Empress Suiko. The entire seventeen articles are reproduced in the Nihon shoki of 720.
Summary of the Articles
- Emphasizes the importance of harmony, and the need to put partisanship and contentiousness aside in the interests of a more harmonious society.
- Emphasizes the importance of the Three Treasures of Buddhism: the Buddha, the Law (Dharma), and the religious community (Sangha).
- One should obey Imperial commands devotedly. Heaven is above, Earth below, and if inferiors are disobedient to superiors, Order will fall into Chaos. This article also touches on the idea that such Order, as embodied and upheld by the Emperor, is essential for natural phenomena, such as the four seasons, to also be in order and to occur properly.
- Ritual decorum (Li, as articulated by Confucius) should guide officials first and foremost, so as to set a proper and orderly example for inferiors. When ritual decorum, or etiquette, is observed, differences in rank and status remain stark and distinct, and governance (and society more generally) runs smoothly and harmoniously.
- Officials should put aside personal interest in order to judge matters impartially and fairly.
- Officials should be honest and true in encouraging good behavior, and censuring or correcting wrong behavior; one should neither hide others' faults, nor exaggerate them.
- Men should be appointed to office who are wise and capable for that office, and offices should not be created to cater to a man (e.g. nepotism, or favors). Men should not interfere in the spheres of responsibility of one another.
- Officials should not arrive to work late, nor leave early, but should dedicate the full day to matters of government, for the day is short and there is always much work to be done.
- Emphasizes the importance of trust, especially between lord and vassal, superior and inferior.
- Admonishes against giving in to anger and resentment. None of us are perfectly wise, nor none of us perfectly foolish, but rather we should recognize in others that we all have our strengths and our weaknesses.
- Deal out rewards and punishments appropriately, based on merit and demerit, as deserved.
- There is only one sovereign, and only the Imperial government shall levy taxes. Regional governors and local lords shall not levy taxes.
- Officials should be dutiful towards their obligations and take responsibility for them, even in one's absence, e.g. due to illness, not thinking it the responsibility of one's colleagues.
- Officials should strive to avoid being envious.
- One must put the public interest before one's private motives, and act towards the greater harmony.
- Corvée should be employed, seasonally, so as to allow the people to devote themselves their agricultural (and other) work when necessary, being called up for corvée only in those seasons when they are less needed in the fields. After all, agriculture (and sericulture, etc.) are essential for the prosperity of the state.
- Matters should not be decided by any one person alone, but should be discussed with others.
- William Theodore de Bary, Sources of Japanese Tradition, vol 1, Second Edition, Columbia University Press (2001), 50-55.