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The Nara Period: Japan’s First Permanent Capital

The Nara Period: Japan’s First Permanent Capital

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The Nara period lasted from 710 to 784/94 AD. This period in Japanese history is named after the seat of imperial government in the ancient city of Nara. This was the country’s first permanent capital, and was modelled after Chang’an, the capital of the neighboring Chinese Tang dynasty. Indeed, the Nara period is notable for the adoption of Chinese practices by the Japanese elite. Such practices included Chinese models of government, Chinese Buddhism, as it was practiced in Tang China, and the Chinese writing system. The Nara period was succeeded by the Heian period and its capital Heian-kyo (Kyoto), after Nara lost its status as the imperial capital.

The Nara Period And The Asuka Period That Preceded It

The era in Japanese history preceding the Nara period is known as the Asuka period, which lasted from 538 to 710 AD. The name of this period is derived from the location of the capital in Asuka, now a  village on the plains near Nara. During the Asuka period, Buddhism first arrived in Japan, and Chinese knowledge and practices were adopted by the Japanese court. Moreover, the effort to transform Japan into a  centralized state  also had its origins in the Asuka period. Thus, it may be said that the developments made during the Nara period were a continuation of those already put in place in the preceding era. Nevertheless, there are differences that distinguish the Nara and Asuka periods.

 

 

Horyu-ji Temple in Asuka, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, was an important temple that led to the development of the Nara period and the rise of Buddhism as a state power. (Milosz Maslanka / Adobe Stock)

Horyu-ji Temple in Asuka, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, was an important temple that led to the development of the Nara period and the rise of Buddhism as a state power. ( Milosz Maslanka  / Adobe Stock)

For a start, although a central administration was developed during the Asuka period, and there was an  imperial court attended by the chieftains of subordinate clan, Japan did not have a permanent capital yet. Thus, whenever a new emperor ascended the throne, the imperial court would move to a new location. This was due to the prevailing belief that an emperor’s death polluted the capital, and therefore the new ruler had to relocate. It was only during the Nara period that Japan’s first permanent  capital, Nara, was established.

The Birth Of The Nara Period And Tang Influences

Nara is located in the Kansai region of Honshu, Japan’s largest  island, and became the country’s capital when Empress Genmei moved the seat of the imperial government to Heijo-kyo (Nara) in 710 AD. Except for five years, i.e., from 740 to 745 AD, Nara served as the Japanese capital until 784 AD, when Emperor Kammu moved the capital temporarily to Nagaoka and then to the permanent location of Heian-kyo (Kyoto), which lasted for 1200 years.

Nara was modelled after the Tang capital,  Chang’an, and from its inception, was envisioned as a permanent city. Carefully planned, Nara was laid out on a rigorous grid, and became the country’s first truly  urban center . It is estimated that Nara had a population of 200000 (about 4% of Japan’s population at that time), 10000 of whom were working in the imperial administration. 

The large number of people employed by the government shows that by the time of the Nara period, Japan had already developed a sophisticated  bureaucracy. Unsurprisingly, the bureaucratization of the government was caused by the adoption of Chinese models of government.  Like the Tang Chinese, the Japanese central government also had a council of state, and ministries in charge of various affairs, including war, justice, rites, and  public works.

The capital of the Nara period, Nara, was modelled after the organized and carefully planned Tang dynasty capital of Chang'an. (SY / CC BY-SA 4.0)

The capital of the Nara period, Nara, was modelled after the organized and carefully planned Tang dynasty capital of Chang'an. (SY /  CC BY-SA 4.0 )

Apart from this bureaucratization, the impact of Tang China can also be seen in the Japanese  legal system , which underwent a transformation around this time. In the past, a loosely structured, native Japanese legal process was used for the administration of justice in the country. By the Nara period, however, this traditional system was replaced by legal codes based on Chinese models. It should be pointed out that this change did not occur overnight, as the  codification of Japanese laws was a gradual process, beginning as early as 662 AD, and culminating in the Taiho Code in 701 AD. 

The Taiho Code is arguably the most famous Japanese law code (known also as “ritsuryo”) of the Asuka and Nara periods. This law code contains  penal laws (“ritsu”), as well as administrative laws (“ryo”), and was used until the late 8 th century AD. One of the important features of the Taiho Code were the laws that established the central government’s administrative organs–provinces, districts, and townships–which clearly reflected a Chinese system of governance.

Although the Taiho Code is almost the same as the Chinese original it was based on, there are two significant differences. Firstly, in the Chinese system, virtue and merit were the key concepts used to organize society, and in the allocation of government positions and class statutes. The Japanese, however, rejected this, preferring instead their traditional birth-based hierarchy. This preference for lineage led to the second difference in the Japanese legal code: the emperor of Japan received his right to rule from his imperial descent, as opposed to the “Mandate of Heaven” that was used to justify the authority of his Chinese counterparts.

The man’yogana writing script developed during the Nara period used original Chinese ideograms to create a phonetic script that developed into hiragana and katakana. The symbols on the left are Japanese and, to their right, the original Chinese ideogram. (Pmx / CC BY-SA 3.0)

The man’yogana writing script developed during the Nara period used original Chinese ideograms to create a phonetic script that developed into hiragana and katakana. The symbols on the left are Japanese and, to their right, the original Chinese ideogram. (Pmx /  CC BY-SA 3.0 )

How Chinese Culture Influenced Developments In Nara

Apart from its system of governance, Chinese culture, artistic styles, and technology were also adopted and adapted by the Japanese elite during the Nara period.

For example, the “man’yogana” was used during this time. This was a writing system that made use of Chinese characters, adapting them for the purpose of expressing the Japanese language phonetically. The “man’yogana” developed into the hiragana and katakana writing systems that are still used today. The creation of the “man’yogana” is also credited with the spread of written Japanese, which in turn led to the writing of “waka,” or Japanese poetry.

The Man’yoshu, meaning “Ten Thousand Leaves,” is the first anthology of Japanese poetry, and was compiled and edited from personal collections during the Nara period. Incidentally, the “man’yogana” writing system derives its name from this anthology.

The other major anthology of poetry compiled during the Nara period is the  Kaifuso, meaning “Fond Recollections of Poetry.” Unlike the  Man’yoshu, the poems in the  Kaifuso were written by Japanese poets in Chinese. This is the oldest known anthology of Chinese poems written by the Japanese.

In addition to literature, the Chinese language was used during the Nara period for other written works as well. Many Chinese manuscripts were copied, the most notable of which being Buddhist manuscripts. As a matter of fact, the adoption of Buddhism by the Japanese elite is another important feature of the Nara period.

Nara's Daibutsu Buddha (right) and Kokuzo Bosatsu (left) at Todai-ji Temple. (coward_lion / Adobe Stock)

Nara's Daibutsu Buddha (right) and Kokuzo Bosatsu (left) at Todai-ji Temple. ( coward_lion / Adobe Stock)

Buddhism Becomes The Japanese State Religion

Buddhism had already arrived in Japan prior to the Nara period. It was introduced into the country during the 6 thcentury AD by Baekje, one of the Three Kingdoms of Korea. At that time, however, Buddhism did not fare very well in gaining converts, partly because it did not receive imperial patronage.

The fortunes of Buddhism changed during the Nara period, more specifically from the reign of Emperor Shomu onwards. Shomu, who ruled Japan from 724 to 749 AD, and his wife, Empress Komyo, were devout Buddhists. Therefore, they actively promoted the spread of Buddhism, strengthened Japanese institutions with this religion, and declared it the “guardian of the state.” Shomu was also responsible for the construction of Todai-ji (“Great Eastern Temple”) in Nara. 

Todai-ji was completed in 752 AD, and is most notable for its main hall, the Daibutsuden (“Great Buddha Hall”), which houses a giant bronze statue of the Vairocana Buddha. For a long time, the Daibutsuden held the record as the world’s largest wooden building. It has been pointed out, however, that the current hall, which is a reconstruction from 1692, is only two-thirds the size of the one built by Shomu. As for the bronze statue, the Daibutsu, this seated Buddha rises to a height of 15 m (49.2 ft) and is one of the largest Buddha statues in Japan. Today, Todai-ji Temple is the most important landmark in Nara, and its most popular tourist attraction. During the Nara period, however, the temple was not only a religious site, but also a powerful institution, as it served as the head temple of all the provincial Buddhist temples in Japan.

Through their patronage of Buddhism, the status of the imperial family was raised. It should be mentioned, however, that the adoption of Buddhism also caused a rift between the upper and lower classes. This is stems from the fact that most commoners still practiced Shinto, Japan original animistic religion. In any event, the influence of Buddhism at the Japanese court continued, and even increased, during the reign of Empress Koken (known also as Empress Shotoku during her second reign), Shomu’s daughter and immediate successor.

Empress Koken / Shotoku, who had two different names for each of her reigning periods. (Public domain)

Empress Koken / Shotoku, who had two different names for each of her reigning periods. ( Public domain )

The Rise Of Buddhist Power Threatens Imperial Family

During her first reign, the empress invited many Buddhist monks to the court. In 758 AD, the empress abdicated, on the advice of her cousin, Fujiwara no Nakamaro, in favor of her adopted son and heir, who became Emperor Junnin. In 764 AD, Nakamaro rebelled, as the former empress came to favor a faith healer by the name of Dokyo. The rebellion was easily crushed, the emperor deposed, and Koken returned to power, taking the name Empress Shotoku. To placate the Buddhist clergy, the empress had a million paper charms, known as the “Hyakumanto dharana” printed. Additionally, there were rumors that the empress wanted to make Dokyo emperor, though she died before this could materialize. 

The episode of Empress Koken / Shotoku illustrates the enormous political influence wielded by Buddhists at the imperial court of the Nara period. Outside the court, Buddhist institutions became centers of wealth and power. And, significantly, Buddhist temples became landholders, under the new “shoen” (“landed estates”) system. Under this system, anyone who reclaimed unused land for rice production could claim ownership of the land. As encouragement, these estates were exempted from taxes, whilst taxes on traditional cultivators were increased.

The introduction of the “shoen” was caused by the breakdown in the old system, whereby land for the cultivation of rice was declared as public land. Every six years, the lands would be reallocated, to prevent anyone from accumulating wealth and power. The increased demand for food, however, broke the traditional system, leading to its replacement with the “shoen” land ownership system.

Whilst the “shoen” solved the problem of the increased demand for food, it brought about another problem: the concentration of wealth and power in the hands of a landowning class. This was the issue the old system had sought to address. As many of the “shoen” holders were Buddhist temples, they became powerful landowners. The concentration of power in the hands of Buddhist institutions allowed them to compete with the imperial government.

At the same time, the government was attempting to assert central control over the provinces. This brought them into conflict with powerful local clans, who held sway in their respective regions. Moreover, the government had to deal with dissatisfaction amongst the local populace and rebellions. For instance, one of the results of the “shoen” was competition to lay claim to new lands. This led to increased pressure on the aboriginal tribes in the far northeast, who rose in rebellion. The government was only able to quell the rebellion after many years.

Nagaoka-kyo was briefly the Japanese capital after Nara but it was soon replaced by the construction of Heian-kyo (Kyoto today), with the capital’s original imperial palace at the top and key guardian Buddhist temples at the bottom. (Matsukaze / CC BY-SA 3.0)

Nagaoka-kyo was briefly the Japanese capital after Nara but it was soon replaced by the construction of Heian-kyo (Kyoto today), with the capital’s original imperial palace at the top and key guardian Buddhist temples at the bottom. (Matsukaze /  CC BY-SA 3.0 )

The End Of The Nara Period And The Birth Of Kyoto

The end of the Nara period is considered to have occurred either in 784 or 794 AD. In 784 AD, Emperor Kanmu moved the Japanese capital to Nagaoka-kyo. The move, apparently, was meant to allow the imperial court to free itself from the interference and threat of the Buddhist institutions based in Nara.

The new capital, however, was short-lived, as the nearby rivers constantly flooded Nagaoka-kyo. Thus, in 794 AD, the emperor moved once again, this time to Heian-kyo, today part of the city of Kyoto. The succeeding period, i.e., the Heian period, is named after this new capital. Kyoto would serve as the imperial capital of Japan for more than a millennium, until 1869, when the imperial court was transferred to Tokyo (old Edo).

After losing its status as Japan’s imperial capital, Nara declined in importance, and many left the city to join the imperial court in Nagaoka-kyo, and then Heian-kyo. Nevertheless, the city was not completely abandoned, and is today one of Japan’s most popular tourist destinations.

Apart from Todai-ji, there are other structures in the city that date to the Nara period. These include the remains of the Heijo-kyo palace, which was the site of the imperial residence and government offices, and the East Pagoda of the Yakushi-ji Temple.

Top image: The Great Buddha Hall of Todai-ji Temple in Nara, the world’s largest building for a long time.           Source:  Richie Chan  / Adobe Stock

By Wu Mingren

References 

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Comments

The chart shown with the caption beginning “The man’yogana writing script” is incorrect: the writing system shown is katakana, and man’yogana was much more complicated.

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