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Empress Kōken (717-770) ruled Japan at the height of the Nara Era. Born Princess Abenaishinno to Emperor Shōmu, Kōken took the throne in 749 when her devoutly Buddhist father abdicated to become a monk. Kōken inherited her father's devotion to Buddhism, surrounding herself with Buddhist priests as advisors and issuing edicts proscribing the unneccesary killing of living things.

The entrenched nobility of the imperial court began to view Kōken's coterie of Buddhist priests as a threat to their tradtional authority. In 758, leading nobles led by Kōken's cousin Fujiwara Nakamaro convinced her to abdicate in favor of her nephew, who became the emperor Junnin, so she could lead a life of quiet Buddhist contemplation.

But rather than disappearing from the political scene as the nobles hoped, the retired Empress soon fell under the influence of a faith-healing Buddhist mystic, Dōkyō, at whose urging she continued to exercise considerable influence over her weak nephew and the rest of the court. When Dōkyō began to show signs of political pretentions beyond his priestly station, Nakamaro rose up in arms against Kōken, but she crushed him with the help of an army of Dōkyō's folowers. Kōken then deposed Junnin and reassumed the throne in 764 as Empress Shōtoku.

In blatant defiance of the now thoroughly undermined nobles, Kōken elevated Dōkyō to high office as her right-hand man and granted him vast authority over the day to day running of the Empire. Allegedly, Dōkyō attempted to persuade Kōken to abdicate again and make himself Emperor, but Kōken refused, although she apparently intended Dōkyō to succeed her at a later date. Dōkyō never got his wish, however. When Kōken died suddenly in 770, the nobility quickly moved to depose Dōkyō, and set in place new regulations to close off the imperial household to outsiders.

Dōkyō's influence over Kōken's court may have brought about a revulsion against female empresses. Although no official ban was set in place, females began to be routinely passed over in the line of succession to the throne. Japan would not see another women on the throne for nearly 1,000 years, until Go-Sakuramachi ascended in 1762.

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