Empress Kōken

Not to be confused with Prince Shōtoku.
Empress of Japan
Reign 749–758
Enthronement August 19, 749
Predecessor Shōmu
Successor Junnin
Empress of Japan
Reign 764–770
Enthronement January 26, 765
Predecessor Junnin
Successor Kōnin
Born 718
Died 770
Burial Takano no misasagi (Nara)
Era name and dates
Tenpyō-kanpō, Tenpyō-shōhō, Tenpyō-hōji, Tenpyō-jingo, Jingo-keiun: 749, 749–757, 757–765, 765–767, 767–770
Father Shōmu
Mother Kōmyō

Empress Kōken (孝謙天皇 Kōken-tennō, 718 August 28, 770), also known as Empress Shōtoku (称徳天皇 Shōtoku-tennō), was the 46th (with Empress Kōken name) and the 48th monarch of Japan (with Empress Shōtoku name),[1] according to the traditional order of succession.[2] Empress Kōken first reigned from 749 to 758, then, following the Fujiwara no Nakamaro Rebellion, she reascended the throne as Empress Shōtoku from 765 until her death in 770. Empress Kōken was involved in the Rasputin-like affair with priest Dōkyō and appointed him Grand Minister in 764. In 766 he was promoted to Hōō (priestly emperor) and in 770 had tried to ascend to throne by himself. The death of the Empress and resistance from the aristocracy destroyed his plans. This incident was a reason for the later move of the Japanese capital from Nara (Heijō). In the history of Japan, Kōken/Shōtoku was the sixth of eight women to take on the role of empress regnant. The five female monarchs before Kōken/Shōtoku were (a) Suiko, (b) Kōgyoku/Saimei, (c) Jitō, (d) Gemmei, and (e) Genshō; and the two women sovereigns reigning after Kōken/Shōtoku were (f) Meishō, and (g) Go-Sakuramachi.

Traditional narrative

Empress Kōken's personal name (imina) was Abe (阿倍).[3] Her father was Emperor Shōmu, and her mother was Empress Kōmyō.[4]

Kōken is traditionally venerated at her tomb; the Imperial Household Agency designates Takano no Misasagi (高野陵?, Takano Imperial Mausoleum) , in Nara, Nara, as the location of Kōken's mausoleum.[1] The site is publicly accessible.[5][6]

Events of Kōken's life

Eras of her reigns

The years of Kōken's reign are more specifically identified by more than one era name.[17]

The years of Shōtoku's reign are more specifically identified by more than one era name.[18]


Koken's reign was turbulent, and she survived coup attempts by both Tachibana Naramaro and Fujiwara no Nakamaro.[19] Today, she is remembered chiefly for her alleged affair with a Buddhist monk named Dōkyō (道鏡), a man she honored with titles and power. An oracle from Usa Shrine, the shrine of the kami Hachiman (八幡) in Usa, is said to have proclaimed that the monk should be made emperor; but when the empress sent Wake no Kiyomaro (和気清麻呂) to verify the pronouncement, Hachiman decreed that only one of imperial blood should ascend to the throne.[20]

As with the seven other reigning empresses whose successors were most often selected from amongst the males of the paternal imperial bloodline, she was followed on the throne by a male cousin, which is why some conservative scholars argue that the women's reigns were temporary and that male-only succession tradition must be maintained in the 21st century.[21] Empress Gemmei, who was followed on the throne by her daughter, Empress Genshō, remains the sole exception to this conventional argument.

She is also known for sponsoring the Hyakumantō Darani, one of the largest productions of printed works in early Japan.

Otagi Nenbutsu-ji, a Buddhist temple in the Arashiyama neighborhood of Kyoto, was founded Shōtoku in the middle of the eighth century.


Kugyō (公卿) is a collective term for the very few most powerful men attached to the court of the Emperor of Japan in pre-Meiji eras.

In general, this elite group included only three to four men at a time. These were hereditary courtiers whose experience and background would have brought them to the pinnacle of a life's career. During Kōken's reign, this apex of the Daijō-kan included:

The kugyō during Shōtoku's reign included:


Japanese Imperial kamon — a stylized chrysanthemum blossom
  1. 1 2 Emperor Kōnin, Takano Imperial Mausoleum, Imperial Household Agency
  2. Ponsonby-Fane, Richard. (1959). The Imperial House of Japan, pp. 58, 59.
  3. Brown and Ishida, p. 274; Varley p. 149.
  4. 1 2 3 4 5 Brown and Ishida, p. 274
  5. Shōtoku's misasagi – image
  6. Shōtoku's misasagi – map (top left)
  7. Julian dates derived from NengoCalc
  8. 天平感宝一年七月二日
  9. Brown and Ishida, pp. 274; Varley, p. 44; a distinct act of senso is unrecognized prior to Emperor Tenji; and all sovereigns except Jitō, Yōzei, Go-Toba, and Fushimi have senso and sokui in the same year until the reign of Emperor Go-Murakami.
  10. Bender, Ross. (2009). "The Suppression of the Tachibana Naramaro Conspiracy," Japanese Journal of Religious Studies 37/2:223–245; compare mirrored full-text; retrieved 2012-10-23.
  11. 天平宝字九年一月一日
  12. Brown and Ishida, pp. 276; Varley, p. 44, 145.
  13. Brown and Ishida, p. 276 has the year as 769, 4th day of the 8th month, instead of 770. Believe this to be a typo, because Brown-Ishida's own timeline gives 770, and the Japanese Wikipedia article on Empress Kōken is using the 4th day of the 8th month of 770.
  14. 神護景雲四年八月四日
  15. 1 2 3 4 5 Brown and Ishida, p. 276.
  16. Bender, Ross. "The Hachiman Cult and the Dōkyō Incident," Monumenta Nipponica, Vol. 34, No. 2 (1979). pp. 125–153.
  17. Titsingh, p. 73.
  18. Titsingh, p. 78.
  19. Bender, Ross. (2009). "The Suppression of the Tachibana Naramaro Conspiracy," Japanese Journal of Religious Studies 37/2:223–245; compare mirrored full-text; retrieved 2012-10-22.
  20. Titsingh, pp. 78–81.
  21. "Life in the Cloudy Imperial Fishbowl," Japan Times. March 27, 2007.


See also

Regnal titles
Preceded by
Emperor Shōmu
Empress of Japan:

Succeeded by
Emperor Junnin
Preceded by
Emperor Junnin
Empress of Japan:

Succeeded by
Emperor Kōnin
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