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Who Was Prince Shotoku? Find Out in a New Exhibition at the Suntory Museum of Art

The exhibition makes the history of this important figure easy to understand and includes several works that are rarely made available for public viewing.

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National Treasure Lotus Sutra on a Fan Volume 1 Heian Period 12th Century Osaka Shitenno-ji Temple collection [Exhibition period: 12 / 1-12 / 13]

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Although his real name is Umayado no Miko, and sometimes he is referred to as Umayado no Ōji (the prince of the stable door) or Umayato Ō (the king of the stable door), most people recognize him as “Shotoku Taishi” (Prince Shotoku) (574-622). It is an honorific title modern Japanese use when referring to this historic figure. 

Prince Shotoku’s portrait has appeared on Japanese banknotes 7 times, beginning with the design of the 100 yen banknote in 1930 and more recently on large-value currency bills, making his face widely familiar throughout Japan. 

Handbill for the Suntory Museum of Art exhibition on Prince Shotoku.

Now there is an exhibition in his honor. Prince Shotoku: In Commemoration of his 1400th Grand Memorial, kicked off at the Suntory Museum of Art in Akasaka, Tokyo, on November 17. 

The exhibition is well curated so that through Prince Shotoku, even beginners will be able to understand the course of Buddhism in Japan and the prince’s long-standing faith. 

Prince Shotoku was a central figure in spreading Buddhism, which originated in India, in Japan. Along with those like the Soga clan with which he had close ties, he fought against and won a religious battle against another powerful Japanese family, the Mononobe clan, who claimed that Buddhism competed with the ancient Japanese gods and insisted on its exclusion. 

Illustrated Biography of Prince Shotoku, Artist: Totomi Hokkyo (Kamakura period, dated 1323) Shitenno-ji Temple collection, Osaka. Image courtesy of Nara National Museum. (Important Cultural Property)
Prince Shotoku child figure, Rokuomi figure, 16th century, Osaka, Shitenno-ji Temple collection [Exhibited for the entire period]
Important Cultural Property Prince Shotoku Children’s Statue (Koyo Statue) Kamakura Period 14th Century Ibaraki Zenju-ji Temple collection. Courtesy of the Kanagawa Prefecture Kanazawa Bunko Museum. (Photo: Kumiko Inoue) [Exhibited for the entire period]
Statue of 2-year-old Prince Shotoku. Kamakura period 13th-14th centuries Kyoto Byakugo-ji Temple collection Courtesy of the Kanagawa Prefecture Kanazawa Bunko Museum.(Photo by Masayoshi Nokubo)[Exhibited for the entire period]
National Treasure Shitennoji Engi (Go-Daigo Emperor Go-Daigo) Nanbokucho period Kenmu 2nd year (1335) Osaka Shitenno-ji Temple collection [Exhibition period: 12/15 ~ 1/10]
Statue of Taishi Magami, Momoyama period, 16th to 17th centuries, Eifuku-ji Temple, Osaka [Exhibition period: 12/15 to 1/10]
Prince Shotoku’s Constitutional Proclamation Domoto Impression Brush 1951 Kyoto Prefectural Domoto Impression Museum (Small sketch from a large mural in former Supreme Court.) [Exhibited for the entire period]
Prince Shotoku Dogata Half-Buddhist Statue, 3rd year of Reiwa (2021), Shitenno-ji, collection Osaka [Exhibited for the entire period]

The exhibition teaches us about the battle and history behind Shitenno (the Four Heavenly Kings in Buddhism), whose statues were carved by Prince Shotoku himself. It also covers the establishment of Shitenno-ji Temple, built by the prince in Osaka after winning the battle.

Viewing the prince’s gentle expression depicted in the exhibited artifacts, such as paintings and sculptures, visitors will come to learn what Japanese Buddhism is all about, and why high priests of various sects follow, respect and cherish Prince Shotoku. 

Treasures from various temples in the Kinki region where the prince had lived, and from the Kanto region, are on display. Among them are many rare artifacts that are normally withheld from  public viewing. It is a fascinating exhibition. 

For those of you who are yet unable to visit Japan, please enjoy the exhibition through photographs that are provided by the Suntory Museum of Art. 

About the Special Exhibition Prince Shotoku: In Commemoration of his 1400th Grand Memorial

When: November 17, 2021 to January 10, 2022

Where: Suntory Museum of Art

Open: Daily except Tuesdays and December 28 to January 1. Weekdays: 10:00 A.M. to 6:00 P.M.; weekends and January 9: 10:00 A.M. to 8:00 P.M. (Last admission is 30 minutes before closing.)

Address: Tokyo Midtown Galleria, 3rd Floor (9-7-4 Akasaka, Minato-ku, Tokyo 107-8643)

Digital access: A narrative and some pieces on exhibit can be viewed digitally, using this access.

Tickets: General admission is ¥1,500 JPY ($13 USD) for adults, ¥1,000 JPY ($8.80 USD) for students. There is no charge for persons with a certificate of disability. Tickets, sold by entry time, may be purchased at the museum. In advance, tickets may be purchased here

Access: Map and transit information, here.  

More Information: See the Suntory Museum web page on the exhibition, here.

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Author: Yukihiro Watanabe

(Click here to read the article in Japanese.)

Yukihiro Watanabe, JAPAN Forward advisor, is the organizer of Gillie Club, a members-only club that offers a platform for cultural and social exchange and interactions among people with similar interests. He is also chief editor of Labunraku, a web portal supporting the traditional form of Japanese puppet theatre, Bunraku; a producer of events for novice Japanese culture enthusiasts; a visiting professor at Tama University Research Institute; and also serves as executive director for Ryori Volunteer No Kai (Food Volunteer Group), a foundation where member chefs visit disaster areas in Japan and serve food.