A Plot of Usa Hachiman-gu Oracle (宇佐八幡宮神託事件)

A plot of Usa Hachiman-gu Oracle is an incident in which Dokyo is assumed to try to ascend the throne based on an oracle that says 'Dokyo should ascend the throne'; this oracle was given to Empress Shotoku (Empress Koken) from Usa Hachiman-gu Shrine (present-day Usa City, Oita Prefecture) in 769. It is also called as Dokyo Incident. The incident ended when Empress Shotoku issued an imperial rescript on November 17 of the same year, declaring that she would not let Dokyo ascend the Imperial Throne.


YUGE no Dokyo, a Hosso sect priest, earned Retired Empress Koken's trust and advanced in his career since he cured her illness. FUJIWARA no Nakamaro, who was the most influential figure in the world of politics, came into collision with the Retired Empress Koken and in 764 he raised a rebellion (Rebellion of FUJIWARA no Nakamaro); thereupon the Retired Empress gathered the court nobles who had discontent in the autocracy of Nakamaro and destroyed him. After the rebellion, the Retired Empress dethroned Emperor Junnin, who had ascended the throne with the recommendation of Nakamaro, with the military power, and made Emperor Junnin exile to Awaji Province; thereafter she declared that she herself would ascend the throne again. Under the Empress Shotoku, who was the Retired Empress Koken and who restored to the throne, Dokyo became her right hand and in 765 he became Daijo-daijin (Grand minister of state) without leaving his priesthood; in the next year (766) he became Hoo (Emperor of the Buddhist Law).

However, most of the anti-Nakamaro faction of the court nobles cooperated with the Retired Empress just to remove Nakamaro from the political world; they did not mean that they approve of the Empress Koken, who had once entered into priesthood, return to the throne; much less the advancement of Dokyo to the political world. In addition, because the Empress Shotoku was a single person, there was no candidate for Crown Prince. Therefore, the person who would succeed the Empress Shotoku and ascend the Imperial Throne was the biggest subject of concern for the court nobles. The Empress was also keenly aware of this atmosphere, and purges to the Imperial family were done one after another as follows: the dethroned Emperor Junnin's mysterious death, the sudden execution of the Prince Wake, sudden abridgment of register of the Imperial family from Imperial Princess Fuwa who was a younger paternal half-sister of the Empress; accordingly, the subject of the succession to the Imperial Throne became virtually a taboo.

Two oracles

In June of 769, YUGE no Kiyohito, who was a younger brother of Dokyo and was Dazai no sochi (Governor-General of the Dazai-fu offices) and SUGE no Asomaro, who was Dazai no Kanzukasa (Head Shinto Priest of Kyushu, stationed in Dazaifu), reported an oracle from Usa Hachiman-gu Shrine to the Empress Shotoku, stating that 'if Dokyo ascends to the Imperial Throne, the world will be in peace'; Dokyo himself wanted to ascend the Imperial Throne (Shoku Nihongi [Chronicle of Japan Continued] Botsuden). Empress Shotoku was requested to dispatch Hokin (WAKE no Hiromushi, a court lady who was working for Empress Shotoku) from Usa Hachiman-gu Shrine; instead, the Empress sent WAKE no Kiyomaro, a younger brother of Hokin, as the Empress thought that the fragile Hokin could not bear the long trip to Usa Hachiman-gu Shrine.

Kiyomaro visited Usa Hachiman-gu Shrine as an Imperial envoy of Empress Shotoku in September. After dedicating a treasure, Kiyomaro tried to read the Imperial edict in which the Empress requested the god to reveal an oracle; then, the god revealed his oracle through the Shinto priestess, KARASHIMA no Suguriyosome and rejected to listen to the Imperial edict. Kiyomaro felt strange and asked Yosome that she ask the god to listen to the Imperial edict. When Yosome asked the god to reveal himself again, a big god, about nine meters tall in the shape of a priest, appeared.
The big god refused to listen to the Imperial edict; however, Kiyomaro did bring an oracle given from the big god to Yamato and reported about it; the content of the oracle is as follows: 'Without doubt, the person who succeeds the present Emperor will be a person with the Imperial family name.'

Empress Shotoku who wanted to make Dokyo Emperor was indignant after listening to the report and demoted Kiyomaro to Inaba no Ingainoge for the time being, later made him change his name to 'WAKEBE no Kitanamaro' and exiled him to Osumi Province; his sister Hiromushi was also punished by being forced to change her name to 'WAKEBE no Hiromushime.'

Afterwards, on November 7 of the same year Empress Shotoku issued an imperial rescript and expressed her intention to the Imperial family members and court retainers by quoting Emperor Shomu's words that they were forbidden to seek the Imperial Throne for no reason, and as for the next heir to the Imperial Throne, the Empress Shotoku herself would decide taking the will of Emperor Shomu into consideration.

When the empress died in 770, Prince Shirakabe was decided as the Crown Prince; Dokyo was demoted to Shimotsuke Yakushi-ji Temple in Shimotsuke Province. In the official address Prince Shirakabe made when he became the Crown Prince (on September 18, 770), there were following words: 'Dokyo was looking for the opportunity to ascend the Imperial Throne'; however, there was absolutely no mention of concrete action in terms of the Dokyo's side.

Skeptical views towards this incident

The details of this incident are described in the history book "Shoku Nihongi"; WAKE no Kiyomaro, who prevented a political conspiracy of Dokyo, was often taken up in history education in Japan before the Word War Ⅱas 'a model of royal subject'; however, during the Edo period Norinaga MOTOORI had already expressed his doubts on the credibility of the series of mythical incidents, and in recent years there exist views which advocate that the articles in "Shoku Nihongi" include artifacts to justify the enthronement of Emperor Konin (the oracle does not touch on the succession to the Imperial Throne).

Skeptical views towards Dokyo's plot to usurp the Imperia Throne

According to the opinion of Yasuhiro NAKANISHI and others in recent years, Dokyo's plot to ascend the Imperial Throne might have been 'added' by people in the later generations from the reasons that the exile to Shimotsuke was too light if Dokyo really aimed at ascending the Imperial Throne since it is a serious crime falling under the maximum penalty, and that people related to Dokyo including Kiyohito were not punished by the capital punishment. According to this view, the first oracle was about an event not related to the succession to the Imperial Throne (perhaps it was related to the capital relocation to Yugenomiya Detached Palace [Yuge, in Kawachi Province, hometown of Dokyo] done in the same year), and WAKE no Kiyomaro was exiled because the plan by the Fujiwara clan (probably FUJIWARA no Nagate and his younger brother FUJIWARA no Kaedemaro) to make up an oracle using Kiyomaro was uncovered; according to this plan, the oracle says Prince Shirakabe or his son Imperial Prince Osabe should become Crown Prince (among the grandchildren of Emperor Shomu, Emperor Shotoku's father, born to his daughters married into another family, Imperial Prince Osabe was the only grandchild who had the right to ascend the Imperial Throne). However, there is an opinion that the oracle on moving the capital to Yugenomiya has no solid ground and it remains within the realm of speculation. In addition, some people pointed out that after official investiture of the Crown Prince by Fujiwara clan, the Prince Osabe was dethroned and died unnaturally.

On the other hand, it is difficult to find the evidence that Dokyo was deeply involved in this incident because of the following reasons; Empress Shotoku did not proceed with the move to let Dokyo ascend the throne based on the first oracle although she could have done so after she and Dokyo denied the second oracle and exiled Kiyomaro; furthermore, there was no active movement in the opposition factions such as Fujiwara clan concerning the removal of Empress Shotoku or Dokyo using this incident as a legitimate reason. In addition, although the Fujiwara clans had all agreed on the enthronement of the Prince Shirakabe, there was a confrontation from an early stage regarding the next emperor, between the Northern House of the Fujiwara clan including FUJIWARA no Nagate who recommended Prince Osabe among children of Prince Shirakabe, and the Ceremonial House of the Fujiwara clan including FUJIWARA no Momokawa who recommended Emperor Kanmu (later Emperor Kanmu); also the dethronement of the Imperial Prince Osabe took place right after the political power shifted from the Northern House to the Ceremonial House. Therefore, it is thought that there was no contradiction between the enthronement of Emperor Konin and the Crown Prince Osabe carried out under the leadership of the Northern House of the Fujiwara clan and the dethronement of the Crown Prince after the change of political power to the Ceremonial House. Against this theory by NAKANISHI, Hiroshi HOSOI denies it, by stating that when "Shoku Nihongi" criticizes the Dokyo administration, it presents a fact that forms a pair such as "disclosure of injustice" in later dates, and it is hard to believe that the author added fiction to the part which deals with the oracle only.
On the other hand, HOSOI points out the following facts:
That the Empress Shotoku (Retired Empress Koken) did not give up the right to appoint the heir to the Imperial Throne by firmly maintaining the position of being the direct descendant of the Emperor Tenmu since the era of the Emperor Junnin;
That the Empress Shotoku emphasized her intention again to appoint the successor to the Imperial Throne herself in an imperial rescript issued in November 769, which was after the incident; (Since the time of Taro SAKAMOTO [historian], this has been interpreted as the renunciation to let Dokyo ascend the throne; Hosoi thinks that it was no more than that the empress only emphasized her intention to enthrone a person in her mind [including Dokyo] while cautioning Imperial family members and court nobles not to act rashly.)
From the above, HOSOI makes a point that the true ringleader of this incident was none other than Empress Shotoku herself, and the true nature of this incident was that the empress used the oracle from the Usa Hachiman-gu Shrine to overcome the problem that the person whom she wanted to appoint as her successor was Dokyo who was from a non Imperial family. HOSOI thinks that the demotion of Dokyo is a typical political change of the time and that the reason Kiyomaro did not receive an important position in the court of Emperor Konin was that originally he came from a powerful local clan and he was a member of close advisers to Emperor Shotoku and his connection with the side of Emperor Konin was not so close. He thinks that things described in "Shoku Nihongi" are generally accurate except that the author avoided to write clearly that the true ringleader of this Oracle Incident was the Empress Shotoku, who eventually approved Emperor Konin as her successor.
(In Hosoi's view Empress made Prince Shirakabe her successor at the final stage to prevent 'enthronement of the Emperor by the whole body of officials'.)

Theory focusing on the internal circumstances of the Usa Hachiman-gu Shrine

Some advocate that Usa Hachiman-gu Shrine side is strongly involved in this incident rather than the Dokyo side. According to Izumo YAMAKAMI, a priestess Ge-jugoinoge (Jugoinoge [Junior Fifth Rank, Lower Grade] given to persons outside Kyoto) OGA no Morime and Juhachiinoge (Junior Eighth Rank, Lower Grade) Kantsukasa no Tsukasa (chief priest) OGA no Tamaro visited Heijo-kyo (the capital of the Nara period) from Usa Hachiman-gu Shrine in 749 to dedicate the oracle which says the god would help the completion of the statue of Birushana Buddha in Toda-ji Temple. By this visit of Heijo-kyo, Usa Hachiman-gu Shrine was given fuko (salary) and title of 'Hachiman Daibosatsu'; also the two people who actually visited the capital were given the kabane (hereditary title) of Ason (second highest of the eight hereditary titles) and the official rank of Jushiinoge (Junior Fourth Rank, Lower Grade) and Ge-jugoinoge, respectively. However, in 754 the two were deprived of the official rank and the kabane and exiled as they were believed to have executed black magic together with the priest Gyoshin from Yakushi-ji Temple. This is said to have occurred because the government was afraid that the social influence of Usa Hachiman-gu Shrine, which was said to be a shrine that originally worshipped a local god of Kyushu region, grew so much that it would become a threat to the religious order centered on the Imperial family, Imperial household religious rites formed by the Ritsuryo system and the nation protection thought, and Buddhism. Furthermore, it is said that in the following year Usa Hachiman-gu Shrine reported the second oracle, which revealed that the oracle of the preceding year was false and therefore Usa Hachiman-gu Shrine offered return of fuko (salary) to the government. It is considered that this is a result of the pressure used from the Imperial Court side to Usa Hachiman-gu Shrine. However, the view points out that the Oracle Incident can be seen as an extension of the attempt by the Usa Hachiman-gu Shrine to regain power by approaching Dokyo side, from the fact that FUJIWARA no Nakamaro who had given a significant influence in establishing this course of event fell from power, and instead, Dokyo who was a Buddhist priest but at the same time had a characteristic of a spiritual medium such as actively conducting prayers, took over the center of the politics.

[Original Japanese]