Empress Suiko – Japan’s first reigning Empress




(public domain)

Empress Suiko was the first recorded empress regnant of Japan. She was able to maintain her rule and authority for 35 years. She established Buddhism as the main religion in Japan. She initiated steps to centralise the state under imperial rule. She established the first cap and rank system and adopted Japan’s oldest constitutions. Empress Suiko had trained to be a princess since she was a young girl, and at last rose above her expectations to become the first female ruler of Japan.

Empress Suiko was born in 554 C.E. and was the third daughter of Emperor Kimmei.[1] Her mother was a woman from the powerful Soga family.[2] She was the full sister of the future Emperor Yomei. During her childhood, she was known as Princess Nukada-be. Ancient sources describe her to be beautiful and graceful.[3] Thus, she appears to be an ideal princess.

When her father died in 571, Suiko’s half-brother Emperor Bidatsu took the throne in 572. In the same year and at the age of 18, she was chosen to become a concubine to Emperor Bidatsu.[4]  Bidatsu’s empress, Hirohime, died during his fifth reign. He elevated Suiko to be his official wife and his Empress.[5] She bore her husband two sons and three daughters.

Emperor Bidatsu died in 585 C.E. and was succeeded by his sickly half-brother, Emperor Yomei. Emperor Yomei’s reign was brief. He died two years after ascending the throne due to illness.[6] Emperor Yomei’s death ignited a power struggle, and it helped pave the way for Empress Suiko’s rise to power.

Emperor Yomei’s successor was his half-brother, Emperor Sushun. Emperor Sushun came to power with the help of the Soga family and in particular, Empress Suiko’s uncle, Soga Umako.[7] However, Emperor Sushun resented Soga Umako because he tried to gain influence over him.[8] When Soga Umako found Emperor Sushun hard to control, he decided to assassinate him. He hired Mumako no Sukune, an imperial chieftain, to murder Emperor Sushun.[9] 

After Emperor Sushun’s assassination in 593, Soga Umako made an unprecedented move. He decided to make his niece, Empress Suiko, queen regnant of Japan. Since matriarchal times, there had never been a female ruler of Japan.[10] Also, there were other male members of the imperial family, including Empress Suiko’s sons, who could easily inherit the throne.[11] The reason why Soga Umako chose his niece to be the ruler of Japan is unknown, but it may be linked to her connections with the Soga clan.[12] Soga Umako urged the ministers of the court to beg Empress Suiko to ascend the throne. She refused three times until she consented.[13] Empress Suiko became ruler in 592.

Once on the throne, the choice for heir apparent and regent was not one of Empress Suiko’s sons, but Umako, the second son of Emperor Yomei.[14] Ancient sources claim the reason for this is because he had a “general control of the government, and was entrusted with all the details of administration.”[15] 

In the second year of Empress Suiko’s reign, she established Buddhism as the official religion by issuing the Flourishing Three Treasures Edict.[16] Thus, under her reign, Buddhism thrived. Korean Buddhist monks who were familiar with Chinese culture came to Japan.[17] The Horyuji Temple, the oldest existing wooden building in the world, was built.[18] The Chinese calendar was also introduced.[19] In 603, she adopted the Chinese bureaucratic system, where she installed the twelve grades of cap ranks.[20] This was one of the first rank and cap systems in Japanese history.

The most famous of her accomplishments was the Seventeen-article Constitution, Japan’s first constitution.[21] The constitution was not a system of laws in which a state should be governed as in the modern expectations of a constitution.[22] Instead, the Seventeen-article Constitution focused on the morals and virtues of government officials.[23]

The Constitution stated:

“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.”[24]

Empress Suiko ruled for 35 years.[25] She died in 629 C.E. She was succeeded by Emperor Jomei, a grandson of Emperor Bidatsu.[26]

Overall, Empress Suiko proved to be a capable ruler. She had made many contributions to Japanese history. From the establishment and spread of Buddhism as the state religion to overseeing the writing of a Constitution, Empress Suiko showed that a woman could firmly lead the Japanese people.

Sources:

“Suiko.” Britannica Academic, Encyclopædia Britannica, 23 Apr. 2018.

“Suiko (554–628).” Dictionary of Women Worldwide: 25,000 Women Through the Ages, edited

     by Anne Commire and Deborah Klezmer, vol. 2, Yorkin Publications, 2007, p. 1810.

“Empress Suiko.” Encyclopedia of World Biography, 2nd ed., vol. 15, Gale, 2004, pp. 15-16.

“Empress Suiko.” New World Encyclopedia, 6 Sept. 2017.


[1] “Empress Suiko.” New World Encyclopedia para. 3

[2] “Suiko (554–628).” para. 1

[3] “Empress Suiko.” Encyclopedia of World Biography para. 2

[4] “Empress Suiko.” Encyclopedia of World Biography para. 2

[5] “Empress Suiko.” New World Encyclopedia para. 3

[6] “Empress Suiko.” New World Encyclopedia para. 4

[7] “Empress Suiko.” New World Encyclopedia para 4.

[8] “Empress Suiko.” New World Encyclopedia para. 4

[9] “Empress Suiko.” Encyclopedia of World Biography para 23

[10]“Empress Suiko.” Encyclopedia of World Biography para. 4

[11]“Empress Suiko.” Encyclopedia of World Biography para. 4

[12] “Empress Suiko.” Encyclopedia of World Biography para. 4

[13] “Empress Suiko.” Encyclopedia of World Biography para. 3

[14] “Empress Suiko.” Encyclopedia of World Biography para. 5

[15] “Empress Suiko.” Encyclopedia of World Biography para. 5

[16] “Empress Suiko.” New World Encyclopedia para. 5

[17] “Empress Suiko.” New World Encyclopedia para. 11

[18] “Empress Suiko.” New World Encyclopedia para. 9

[19] “Suiko.” para. 3

[20] “Empress Suiko.” Encyclopedia of World Biography para. 4

[21] “Empress Suiko.” New World Encyclopedia para. 6

[22] “Empress Suiko.” New World Encyclopedia para. 6

[23] “Empress Suiko.” New World Encyclopedia para. 6

[24] “Empress Suiko.” New World Encyclopedia para. 7

[25] “Empress Suiko.” Encyclopedia of World Biography para. 1

[26] “Empress Suiko.” New World Encyclopedia para. 10

 






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