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Medieval Japan

Prince Shotoku before the Horyu-ji Buddhist templePrince Shotoku before the Horyu-ji Buddhist templeUntil the 6th century AD, few people from the outside world had ever visited Japan. But after about 550, Japan began to fall under the influence of its much larger neighbour, China. Buddhist monks from China persuaded the Japanese emperor to adopt Buddhism as the national religion. Scholars taught the Japanese to read and write Chinese. From 1192 to 1867, powerful generals called shoguns ruled Japan as regents (acting rulers) for the emperors. During shogun rule, warriors called samurai became a powerful force in Japan, enforcing law and order on behalf of Japan's local lords, called daimyo. Rivalry and fighting between daimyo was commonplace.

Prince Shotoku in an 8th-century paintingPrince Shotoku in an 8th-century painting

Prince Shotoku

Prince Shotoku (AD 572–622) was born in a stable but grew up to become one of the great men of Japan. He lived at a time when the religion of Buddhism was spreading to Japan from China. Prince Shotoku built the first Buddhist monasteries. Rebuilt after a fire in 670, the pagoda of the Horyuji temple at Nara is the oldest surviving wooden building in the world. A pagoda is a tower with several storeys. All pagodas are said to contain a relic of Buddha (something used by or associated with him).

Prince Shotoku also wrote a set of principles for the bureaucracy. These were organized along Chinese lines, concentrating power on the emperor himself. By 800 the Japanese way of life was very similar to that of China.

According to legend, Prince Shotoku was born unexpectedly while his mother was inspecting the royal stables. His real name was Umayado ("the prince of the stable door").

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