The Seventeen-article constitution (十七条憲法? jūshichijō kenpō) is, according to the Nihon Shoki of 720, a document authored by Prince Shōtoku in 604. It was adopted in the reign of Empress Suiko. The emphasis of the document is not so much on the basic laws by which the state was to be governed, such as one may expect from a modern constitution, but rather it was a highly Buddhist and Confucian document that focused on the morals and virtues that were to be expected of government officials and the emperor's subjects to ensure a smooth running of the state, where the emperor was to be regarded as the highest authority. It is one of the earliest constitutions in history.
Excerpts from the articles
- Harmony is to be valued, and the avoidance of wanton opposition to be honoured.
- Sincerely revere the three treasures: the Buddha, Dharma (his Teaching), and Sangha (Buddhist Community).
- When you receive the Imperial commands, fail not scrupulously to obey them.
- The Ministers and functionaries should make decorous behaviour their leading principle, for the leading principle of the government of the people consists in decorous behaviour.
- Chastise that which is evil and encourage that which is good.
- To turn away from that which is private, and to turn towards that which is public
- Let every man have his own charge, and let not the spheres of duty be confused.
- Decisions on important matters should not be made by one person alone.
The degree to which the document matches the definition of a "constitution" is debated. While it introduces principles of governance much like the preamble of modern constitutions such as the United States Constitution, it lacks other elements commonly expected. As William Theodore de Bary writes, “Prince Shotoku's ‘constitution’, placed more emphasis on basic moral and spiritual values than on the detailed codification of laws and their enforcement”.
This constitution remained valid until Ritsuryō went into effect in the late seventh century. It is frequently argued that those aspects not contradicted by any subsequent legislation were still considered valid in 1890, and remain so today. Conservative commentator Kase Hideaki also argues that because it has never been explicitly abolished, it is still partially valid.
- W.G. Aston, trans., Nihongi: Chronicles of Japan from the Earliest Times to A.D. 697, 2 vols. in 1 (London: Keagan and Co., 1896), vol. 2, pp. 128–133.
- William Theodore de Bary, ed. Sources of Japanese Tradition, Volume One: From Earliest Times to 1600 Columbia University Press; 2nd edition (2002), vol. 1, pp. 54-55.
- William Theodore de Bary. “The Constitutional Tradition in China,” Journal of Chinese Law. Vol. 9, No. 7 (1995), p. 14.
- Prince Shotoku on Simply Japan
- The 17 Article Constitution on Duhaime.org
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