The Face of Change: Prince Shōtoku Taishi 1,400 Years On

Illustrated Biography of Prince Shotoku, 14th century Japan, Kamakura period (1185–1333) One from a set of 2 hanging scrolls; ink, color, and gold on silk; Image: 67 5/8 x 33 1/4 in. (171.8 x 84.5 cm) Overall with mounting: 106 x 40 1/2 in. (269.2 x 102.9 cm) Overall with knobs: 106 x 43 1/4 in. (269.2 x 109.9 cm) The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, H. O. Havemeyer Collection, Bequest of Mrs. H. O. Havemeyer, 1929 (29.100.470)

In the 7th century, great change was occurring in East Asia. As the kingdoms of China, Korea and Japan clashed, people moved in numbers never seen before as they fled conflict. Many arrived on the shores of Japan, bringing with them new materials, crafts, and faiths, amongst them the teachings of Buddhism. One man captured these treasures from the continent and with them laid the foundation for a true nation-state of Japan:

Crown Prince Shōtoku Taishi.

The Story of Shōtoku

Key events such as Prince Shōtoku flying atop Mt Fuji on horseback can be seen when looking closely at the Illustrated Biography

The Illustrated Biography of Prince Shōtoku is a national treasure that once adorned the Hall of Paintings of Hōryū-ji Temple in Nara. It was painted in 1069, almost one thousand years ago, based on the legends surrounding the life of Prince Shōtoku.

The expansive painting features many miracles attributed to Prince Shōtoku, such as his birth in a stable to his ascending to the peak of Mt Fuji on flying horseback. Visit our display for a high-resolution video annotation of the scroll, courtesy of the Tokyo National Museum and NHK (Japan Broadcasting Company).

History or Myth?

As can be seen from the Illustrated Biography of Prince Shōtoku, an historical figure can have fantastic tales woven into the story of their life. Much of what we know about Prince Shōtoku derives from the Nihon Shoki, one of the earliest texts produced in Japan which covers the mythology of Japan’s deities and how the imperial family descended from them. Some scholars argue that there never was one Prince Shōtoku at all and that he is a figure covering the deeds of many politicians from the 7th century. Most scholars agree that there was a living man whom the figure of Prince Shōtoku was built upon but how do we determine history from myth? Professor Bryan Lowe explains how we can understand the past better from ancient texts:

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