Prince Shotoku and the Twelve Cap Ranking system

A few months back, I wrote a post about the Court ranking system among nobility in Heian Period Japan, the so-called “Golden Age” by people inside and outside Japan. Surprisingly the post has proven to be consistently popular among web searches and such so I decided to write more reference post about the earlier Asuka and Nara periods.

This post focuses on the very early Asuka Period and the hereditary system which in turn was replaced by a Confucian model by Empress Suiko and Prince Shotoku. The contrast is interesting.

Previously, when Japan was first unifying under the Yamato Kingdom, the king was supported by powerful feudal-style clans that fell under categories such as :

  • Muraji (連), these clans served the kings under a variety of roles. Includes the ancient Mononobe clan (物部氏) and Ōtomo clan (大伴氏).
  • Omi (臣), these clans had their roots in the country-side. Includes ancient clans such as the Soga clan (蘇我氏), Heiguri clan (平群氏) and Katsuragi clan (葛城氏).

These two groups were also hereditary titles of high-rank. Lesser ranks included the obito (首), atai (値) and kimi (君). The Muraji and Omi clans were frequently in conflict with one another over a variety of issues, which I’ll cover in another post (Soga vs. Mononobe for example). This is called the kabane system in Japanese (姓).

At heart, the system was clan-based and hereditary, but in mainland Sui-Dynasty China1 and the Three Korean Kingdoms, a meritocratic system based on Confucian teachings was widely in use. Using a ranking system, based on Confucian principles and based on personal merit, a person could rapidly climb up in government.

Prince Shotoku, the famous Buddhist politician and advisor to Empress Suiko sought to advance the nation even to the point of surpassing China and together they instituted a similar system called the kan’i jūnikai (冠位十二階, “The Twelve-level Cap-Rank System”). The system awarded people rank based on merit in the form of colored caps with greater and lesser ranks for each color. The ranking works out like so:

Rank Color Japanese Romaji Translation
1st Purple 大徳 daitoku Great Virtue
2nd Purple 小徳 shōtoku Small Virtue
3rd Blue 大仁 daijin Great Humaneness
4th Blue 小仁 shōjin Small Humaneness
5th Red 大礼 dairei Great Propriety
6th Red 小礼 shōrei Small Propriety
7th Yellow 大信 daishin Great Faithfulness
8th Yellow 小信 shōshin Small Faithfulness
9th White 大義 daigi Great Justice
10th White 小義 shōgi Small Justice
11th Black 大智 daichi Great Knowledge
12th Black 小智 shōchi Small Knowledge

The cap-and-rank system was a personal ranking system that overlapped with the hereditary titles somewhat, so one could be from a low-ranking family, but shoot up through the ranks by personal effort. One of the most noteworthy examples is Ono no Imoko, an envoy to Sui-Dynasty China for example. However, certain noble families and the Imperial Family were by default considered “above the system” and thus did not need it. Also, the system itself did not last long after Prince Shotoku himself, but similar systems did arise later in a more institutionalized form.

Just a reference post, but it’s interesting to see early Japanese efforts to replace a clan-based hereditary system with a Confucian-style meritocracy even as far back as the 7th century.

1 Simply called zui (隋) in Japanese. This is in keeping with Japanese language’s name for China the country changing with the dynasty.

About Doug

A fellow who dwells upon the Pale Blue Dot who spends his days obsessing over things like Buddhism, KPop music, foreign languages, BSD UNIX and science fiction.

6 thoughts on “Prince Shotoku and the Twelve Cap Ranking system

  1. I am currently enjoying the translation of Heike Monogatari. The cultural differences are daunting, but this kind of background info is helpful. There are many characters whose court rank is part of their description in the text. This detail is one that is not covered by the otherwise exhaustive foot notes. (I am reading ‘The Tale of the Heike’ translated by Hiroshi Kitagawa and Bruce T. Tsuchida.)

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