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Emperor Kôtoku (596?-654) was the 36th emperor of Japan, according to the traditional numbering. Kôtoku reigned from 645 until his death in 654, and is best remembered for promulgating the great Taika Reform of 645.

Born Prince Karu, Kôtoku was the grandson of Emperor Bidatsu (r. 538-585), and the younger brother of Empress Kôgyoku, who immediately preceded him on the throne, and also later succeeded him as Empress Saimei.

It seemed as if Prince Karu was unlikely to ever ascend to the throne, as Empress Kôgyoku was felt to be just keeping the throne warm for her son Prince Naka no Ôe. Sure enough, when Prince Naka assassinated Soga no Iruka in 645, Kôgyoku immediately abdicated in his favor. However, Prince Naka preferred to rule behind the scenes, at least for the time being, so he had his uncle Kôtoku installed as a figurehead while he continued to manipulate things in the background. Thus although the great Taika Reform Edict of 645 was officially proclaimed by Emperor Kôtoku, it was actually written by Prince Naka and his ally Nakatomi no Kamatari.

Naturally, Kôtoku was not terrible taken with the idea of remaining a mere puppet, so he had the capital moved from Asuka to Naniwa, probably to get farther away from Prince Naka's base of support. He also tried to shore up his prestige by sending an embassy to China (653), but this embassy ended in failure when most of the ships were wrecked and sunk en route.

After this disaster, Prince Naka proposed that the capital moved back to Asuka, but Kôtoku refused. It was a showdown that the increasingly isolated Kôtoku had no hope of winning, as Prince Naka simply defied his orders and moved the capital back to Asuka anyway, taking almost the entire court along with him and leaving Kôtoku virtually alone in his empty Naniwa palace, where he died soon thereafter.

After Kôtoku's death, the court once again tried to install Prince Naka as emperor, but he was still not ready, so he had his mother reenthroned as Empress Saimei for another 7 years, until he finally ascended to the throne himself as Emperor Tenji in 661.

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