Prince Shotoku is considered a very influential figure in early Japanese history. He is most famous for having created a strong united government in Japan, and for reaching out to other civilizations, particularly China, in order to better Japanese governance, and to take advantage of many of China's cultural advancements. The prince was the true leader of Japan from 593 to 622 CE, though his position was that of regent, appointed by his aunt and the first empress of China, Empress Suiko.
Chinese culture made an early and positive impression on Prince Shotoku, and he sent scholars to China in order to study Chinese society and its government. He also opened the doors of Japan to China's skilled workers inviting many to work in Japan. This led to many improvements to Japan's building techniques and an intense interest in Chinese arts.
Several aspects of Chinese culture influenced the prince considerably. He was particularly interested in the laws of the land, based on Confucian principles. This inspired him to write a constitution, called the Seventeen Article Constitution, for Japan. It emphasizes the absolute authority of the emperor, but also the strong morality and virtue that must be exhibited by rulers. Additional guidelines include deciding matters of law with impartiality, placing value on harmony, the necessity of vassals being treated with faithfulness and fairness, and reliance on Buddhism as the highest quality of good leadership.
Prince Shotoku is often credited with introducing not only Confucian but also Buddhist principles to Japan. Alongside Shinto, Buddhism became regular practice in the country. Though at first many different forms of Buddhism co-existed with Shintoism, ultimately, the practice of Zen Buddhism best integrated Shinto ideals with the principles of the Buddha, and became the preeminent religion in Japan.
It is possible that Prince Shotoku also named Japan the land of the rising sun, or Nihon, now usually Nippon. letter to the Chinese Emperor Yangdi is preserved, and reads "The Emperor of the land where the Sun rises sends a letter to the Emperor of the land where the Sun sets. How are you?"
Another first for the prince was the establishment of a Japanese embassy in China, which allowed for harmony between the countries; unfortunately, this was fated not to last. The influence of China on Japan cannot fail to be felt, however. In ancient history, ideas on religion, government, the arts, and agriculture migrated from China to Japan. Shotoku oversaw and encouraged this migration and is credited with enlightening and improving Japan. The Japanese cannot be said to have not evolved their own cultural ways and means, and they often improved upon Chinese inventions. For example, they took the wood-block printing developed by the Chinese and invented movable type.
The prince is a well-loved figure today, and at different times, pictures of him have graced different paper money denominations. There are many names by which he is known in Japan; in fact, he probably wasn't called Prince Shotoku in his lifetime. One colorful name is the "prince of the stable door," inspired because his mother gave birth to him in front of a stable. Some scholars suggest that he was not, in fact, a real person; evidence indicates that he probably did exist, although many of the legends that surround his life are likely to been invented.