The Story of Empress Saimei

The Isshi Incident and abdicatio

Ancient Japan’s most momentous coup d’état ends clan power and ushers in a new era of politics

The Soga clan behaves high-handedly

Soga no Emishi, the right-hand man of Empress Kogyoku, set up a grand house on the hills of Amakashino-oka, overlooking the imperial Itabukino-miya palace. Acting like royalty, he insisted that children of the Soga clan be called miko (“prince”) and he gave his son Iruka a purple cap—an imperial honor usually reserved for those of ministerial rank. Full of hubris and wanting to install Prince Furuhito as crown prince, Iruka assaulted one of the former’s rivals, Prince Yamashiro. Iruka drove Yamashiro and his family to their deaths. Angered by his son’s reckless act, Emishi condemned Iruka, calling him a fool and berating his courting of danger. Emishi’s concerns would indeed be borne out.

The Isshi Incident shakes up the times

On June 12, 645, an event was held in the imperial court at which an envoy from the three kingdoms of the Korean Peninsula came to offer a tribute to Empress Kogyoku. A plan was afoot to have assassins (including Saeki no Komaro) attack Iruka while Soga no Ishikawamaro, one of Prince Nakano-oe’s co-conspirators, was reading the empress’s message. However, as the moments ticked by, nothing happened. Ishikawamaro became nervous. His voice wavered and he broke into a cold sweat. Iruka grew suspicious, and Ishikawamaro found himself in a pinch. Eventually, Prince Nakano-oe lost his patience and took it upon himself to strike Iruka with a sword. The assassination was designed to take Iruka off guard, as court protocol dictated that he would be without his sword. The entire ceremony may even have been staged. Emishi, finding himself besieged by Prince Nakano-oe’s troops and having lost his son, set fire to his mansion in an act of self-immolation. At the height of its glory, the main Soga bloodline came to a sudden demise.

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