Japan’s current political landscape is a conservative and patriarchal one, which excludes women from taking the throne. While Japan’s monarchy is no more than a symbolic power figure, this situation reflects its values as it has one of the largest gender inequalities among middle-income countries. Just one in every ten politicians is a woman, despite the fact that women account for 51% of the Japanese population, according to World Bank data, and there are no gender quotas for female lawmakers.
Surprisingly, it hasn’t been this way forever. As far back as 592 CE, Japan has had female rulers, the first being Empress Suiko. Suiko’s rule is credited with uniting Japan from scattered clans into a centralized country. She reigned as empress for 35 years and proved herself to be a competent ruler who made undoubtedly important contributions to Japan’s history.
Born in 554 C.E. Suiko was the third daughter of Emperor Kimmei, and her mother hailed from the powerful Soga family. One of her brothers was Bidatsu, who became emperor before her in 572 after their father died. When Suiko was 18 she was chosen to be Bidatsu’s concubine, and when his wife died during his fifth reign, she became his wife. When Bidatsu died in 585 CE, he was succeeded by their brother Yomei, who was rather sickly. His illness ended up killing him two years into his reign, and his half-brother Sushun succeeded him with the help of the Soga family. Their uncle Soga Umako tried and failed to exert influence over Sushun and eventually had him assassinated.
After Sushun was killed in 593, Suiko was selected as reigning empress by Umako. This was a rather unprecedented move as there were still men in the imperial family who were eligible to take the throne. It was thought that because she was connected to the Soga clan that her reign could bring political stability. She actually rejected the position three times until finally, in 592, she accepted and became Empress Suiko.
During the second year of Empress Suiko’s reign, she issued the Flourishing Three Treasures Edict, which established Buddhism as the national religion. Buddhism thrived at this time and temples were constructed everywhere, including Horyuji, the oldest existing wooden structure in the world.
Suiko accomplished this by employing Korean monks and scholars familiar with Chinese culture and had the Chinese calendar introduced to Japan. She is also credited with opening relations with China’s Sui court in 600. This, along with her adopting the Chinese bureaucratic system in 603, increased the influence of Chinese culture in Japan and brought a level of unity among Japan, China, and Korea.
Within her new bureaucratic system, she installed twelve grades of cap ranks, making this system one of the first rank and cap systems in Japanese history. She also composed Japan’s first constitution in 604, the Seventeen-article Constitution that focused on the behavior of government officials through their morals and virtues. This included demanding that civil servants and ministers obey imperial commands, avoid greed to prevent corruption, and act only with the public’s interests in mind rather than personal ones.
Ancient sources have described Suiko as beautiful and graceful, with her conduct characterized by propriety. These descriptions would mark her as an ideal princess of the time. Some thought she was simply a puppet of her uncle Soga Umako, but she did prove her independence when she denied Umako control of the imperial territory known as Kazuraki. This was evidence of how she overcame the stereotypes of women as subservient to men, while at the same time embodying the ideal Japanese noblewoman.
However, her legacy continues to struggle with this idea, as some scholars argue that the history of Empress Suiko was invented to justify the ruler of her nephew Prince Shotoku, who acted as regent and wrote the constitution under her dictation. Some contend that this is not true, that Shotoku’s writing of the constitution was a forgery. This is despite the fact that the reforms the constitution describes were unquestionably established under the reign of Empress Suiko. This belief though is in line with what some historians think of empresses like Suiko, that they were merely puppet rulers under the influence of men.
It’s extremely important to remember the female rulers of history, like Suiko, whose legacy was built not on her connection to a man, but through her own contributions. When women’s roles in history are properly recognized throughout the various cultures to which they have contributed, it offers our society a historical basis for what women, in general, can accomplish. Through establishing the constitution, Empress Suiko set the stage for the modern concept of democracy in Japan, proving that her country would eventually be united for good, and for that, she ought to be venerated.
If you want to read more about Suiko and the history of Japan’s empire, check out Plotting the Prince: Shotoku Cults and the Mapping of Medieval Japanese Buddhism by Kevin Gray Carr.
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