HISTORY OF THE NARA PERIOD (A.D. 710-794)

CONSTRUCTION OF HEIJO-KO (NARA)


Heijo-kyo

Shinichi Yanagawa wrote in the Daily Yomiuri, “In Heijo Palace, the construction of an Imperial domicile and other buildings began just after the Imperial verdict to relocate the capital in 708. In 710, Fujiwara no Fuhito, an influential noble and politician who orchestrated the capital’s relocation, began reconstructing his family’s temple, Kofukuji, in the Ge-kyo area of the capital. Three state-run temples of Yakushiji, Daikandaiji (now Daianji) and Asukadera (now Gangoji) moved to the capital, and reconstruction started between 716 and 718, according to Ohashi. The streets of the nation’s first full-fledged capital were arranged in a grid, modeled after Changan, the ancient capital of the Tang dynasty. [Source: Shinichi Yanagawa, Daily Yomiuri, January 7, 2010]

“The dimensions of its main section, which was divided into U-kyo (western capital) and Sa-kyo (eastern capital), were 4.8 kilometers from north to south and 4.3 kilometers from east to west. The Ge-kyo section, an extension of Sa-kyo east of its northeastern section, ran 1.6 kilometers from east to west and 2.1 kilometers from north to south. About 100,000 people are thought to have lived in the capital, with Imperial family members and court nobles totaling a little more than 100, according to the Nara National Research Institute for Cultural Properties. The grounds of the one-kilometer square Heijo Palace, which was located in the northern end of the main grounds, were encircled by a roofed earthen wall. Inside were the Imperial domicile, government business quarters, gardens and other areas. Palace buildings such as the Daigoku-den Imperial audience hall were built in traditional Chinese styles.

The residences of nobles, officials and others and commercial areas were built during the construction boom. Some other famous temples such as Toshodaiji and Saidaiji were built in the capital after completion of the Great Buddha. The influence of the Tenpyo era can still be seen in the design and cultural artifacts of temples in Nara. “The Heijo-kyo relocation created opportunities for the elite workers to further improve their skills as several major projects were carried out simultaneously in the capital over about 30 years,”Kanshu Tsutsui, the chief administrator of Todaji, told the Daily Yomiuri. “They were inspired by seeing the construction sites where others were working, and many Buddhist statues were made while the temples were renovated.” Because the building boom had already begun to decline when the Great Buddha project was ordered by the emperor, it was greeted enthusiastically by the workers. To carry out the project, government forces joined with the people using all available technologies. “In that period, travel was restricted, but those who wanted to join the project were allowed to come to the capital.”

Good Websites on Nara- and Heian-Period Japan: Essay on Nara and Heian Periods aboutjapan.japansociety.org ; Ancient Japan Links on Archeolink archaeolink.com ; Wikipedia article on the Nara Period Wikipedia ; Wikipedia article on the Heian Period Wikipedia ; Essay on the Japanese Missions to Tang China aboutjapan.japansociety.org ; Kusado Sengen, Excavated Medieval Town mars.dti.ne.jp ; Kojiki, Nihongi and Sacred Shinto Texts sacred-texts.com ; Good Photos of Yamato, Nara and Heian Sites at Japan-Photo Archive japan-photo.de ; List of Emperors of Japan friesian.com ;

Nara Nara Prefecture site pref.nara.jp ;Nara City site narashikanko.jp Temples and Shrines in Nara Park Kofukuji site kohfukuji.com ; Yamasa yamasa.org ; UNESCO World Heritage site: UNESCO website; Kasuga Taisha Shrine (in Nara Park) Wikipedia Wikipedia ; Japan Guide japan-guide.com ; UNESCO World Heritage site: UNESCO website Todaiji Temple Wikipedia Wikipedia UNESCO World Heritage site: UNESCO website Toshodaiji Japan Guide japan-guide.com UNESCO World Heritage site: UNESCO website Shosoin Treasury Repository and Nara Museum aris.ss.uci.edu

Mt. Hiei and Enryaku-ji Temple Websites: Enryaku-ji Temple official site hieizan.or.jp; Photos taleofgenji.org ; Marathon monks Lehigh.edu ; Tale of Genji Sites: The Tale of Genji.org (Good Site) taleofgenji.org ; Murasaki Shikibu Biography womeninworldhistory.com ; Tale of Genji Links meijigakuin.ac.jp ; Nara and Heian Art Sites at the Metropolitan Museum in New York metmuseum.org ; Heian Art at the British Museum britishmuseum.org ; Nara Art at the Tokyo National Museum www.tnm.jp/en
Asuka Wikipedia article on Asuka Wikipedia ; Asuka Park asuka-park.go.jp ; Asuka Historical Museum asukanet.gr.jp ; UNESCO World Heritage sites ; Map: Asuka Park asuka-park.go.jp ; Getting There: Asuka is accessible from Nara, Kyoto and Osaka by train.

Good Early Japanese History Websites: Aileen Kawagoe, Heritage of Japan website, heritageofjapan.wordpress.com; Essay on Early Japan aboutjapan.japansociety.org ; Japanese Archeology www.t-net.ne.jp/~keally/index.htm ; Ancient Japan Links on Archeolink archaeolink.com ;Essay on Rice and History aboutjapan.japansociety.org

Good Japanese History Websites: ; Wikipedia article on History of Japan Wikipedia ; Samurai Archives samurai-archives.com ; National Museum of Japanese History rekihaku.ac.jp ; Japanese History Documentation Project openhistory.org/jhdp ; Cambridge University Bibliography of Japanese History to 1912 ames.cam.ac.uk ; Sengoku Daimyo sengokudaimyo.co ; English Translations of Important Historical Documents hi.u-tokyo.ac.jp/iriki ; WWW-VL: History: Japan (semi good but dated source ) vlib.iue.it/history/asia/Japan ; Forums Delphi Forums, Good Discussion Group on Japanese History forums.delphiforums.com/samuraihistory ; Tousando tousando.proboards.com

Prince Nagaya


Tomb of Prince Nagaya

Prince Nagaya (Nagaya-no-okimi or Nagaya-o, 684-729) was the grandson of Emperor Temmu and a politician of the Nara period. Aileen Kawagoe wrote in Heritage of Japan: His father was Prince Takechi and his mother Princess Minabe (a daughter of Emperor Tenji and Empress Gemmei’s sister). He married Princess Kibi (his cousin, a daughter of Empress Gemmei and Empress Gensho’s sister). It is a historically known fact that the mother, elder brother, and elder sister of his wife Princess Kibi, also granddaughter of Emperor Temmu, all occupied the throne. [Source: Heritage Japan website, heritageofjapan.wordpress.com <^>]

“Because of his impeccable royal pedigree in the Imperial family, he was a powerful personality in 8th century politics. Prince Nagaya held the post of Sadaijin (Minister of the Left, the highest regularly-held governmental post and roughly the equivalent to the modern-day prime minister) and led the government. <^>

“The Fujiwara clan was the most powerful rival clan of Nagaya. Fujiwara no Fuhito, the leader of the house, had been the most powerful courtier in the court in those days when this country was reigned by Empress Gensho, a cousin of Nagaya’s. After Fuhito’s death in 720, he seized complete power in the court. This power shift was the source of later conflicts between him and Fuhito’s four sons (Muchimaro, Fusasaki, Maro and Umakai) in the reign of Emperor Shomu. <^>

“In 729, Fuhito’s four sons accused and charged Prince Nagaya with the false crime of plotting a rebellion. As a result of the conspiracy of the Fujiwara Family who supported Emperor Shomu, Prince Nagaya was forced to kill himself in the same year. His wife, Princess Kibi, and his children were killed at the same time. After his death, it became clear that he was framed in a plot by the Fujiwara family, who sought to seize power. Thereafter, the life of Prince Nagaya’s is often recounted as a tale of tragedy.” <^>

Emperor Shomu


Emperor Shomu

Emperor Shomu (701-756, ruled 729-749) was the 45th emperor of Japan according to the traditional order of succession. The son of Emperor Mommu and Fujiwara no Miyako, a daughter of Fujiwara no Fuhito, he was still a child at the time of his father’s death; thus, Empresses Gemmei and Gensho occupied the throne before he acceded. In the 9th year of Gensho-tenno ‘s reign, the empress abdicated; and her younger brother received the succession. Shortly thereafter, Emperor Shomu is said to have acceded to the throne. Shomu reside in the Hezei Palace. Shomu is known as the first emperor whose consort was not born into the imperial household. His consort Komyo was a non-royal Fujiwara commoner. A ritsuryo office was created for the queen-consort, the Kogogushiki; and this bureaucratic innovation continued into the Heian period.Shomu had four Empresses and six Imperial sons and daughters. [Source: Wikipedia]

Under, Emperor Shomu, the Imperial family resided in Heijo (Nara) and gradually extended their authority over the country. Early governments at Nara, and later Kyoto, were modeled after the Chinese imperial government, with a civil service system, and a court and nobles underneath the emperor. Initially Buddhism was promoted, especially by Emperor Shomu, who ordered the construction of Todaiji Temple and Daibutsi (Great Buddha) in Nara, and issued a decree for the construction of state Buddhist temples in each province.

Emperor Shomu was the great patron of Tempyo culture and the arts. Many objects obtained or commissioned for his personal use, including goblets, musical instruments, exquisite clothing, fine furniture and furnishings survive today in the Shoso-in Treasures in Nara after his wife Empress Komyo presented them as offering to Todaiji Temple. Almost all of the Shosoin Treasures were made in Japan, China and the Korean Peninsula, with half being from China. The origins of the items were determined by analysis of the chemical composition of the raw materials, as well as their form. design, production techniques and written records.

Empress Komyo


Empress Komyo by Aoki Shigeru

Empress Komyo was daughter of Fujiwara Fuhito and the wife of Emperor Shomu. A devout Buddhist who was sort of like a 8th century Mother Teresa, she dedicated herself to helping orphans and the sick through a series of nunneries opened up across Japan; founded the Hokkeji Imperial Convent, which still stands today, to serve as an ashram for women and a place to practice flower arranging; and built the Shoso-in repository to store treasures that belonged to her husband. According to legend she often engaged in healing the sick herself and once sucked the puss from a leper, who thereupon turned tin Ashukubutsu, a Buddhist image of medicine.

Komyo, a Fujiwara similarly to Shomu’s mother, was born in the same year as the emperor. She was the first commoner chosen as imperial consort. The couple rarely parted company and Shomu proclaimed that his wife would help during his rule, “My consort shall have affairs to govern.” [Source: Heritage Japan website, heritageofjapan.wordpress.com <^>]

Komyo’s lament after Shomu’s death reflects the love she felt for him: “Alas! Who could have anticipated the dark river of death that separates this world from the next? To our great sorrow, there could be no prolongation of his august life on earth, and the trees have shed their leaves. Time flows on, and nine and forty days have now elapsed; I was unaware of the passage of time, since my grief was growing ever deeper and my sadness even heavier. <^>

“Opening the earth will reveal no sign; and to appeal to heaven brings me no solace. So I desire to give succor to his august spirit by the performance of this good deed, and therefore, for the sake of the late emperor, these various articles which he handled girdles, ivory scepters, bows and errows, collection of calligraphy, musical instruments, and the rest, which are in truth rare national treasures I donate to the Todaiji as a votive offering to the Vairocana Buddha, various other buddhas, bodhisattvas, and all the saints.” <^>

Emperor Shomu’s Bed and Shoes

Among the items associated with Emperor Shomu (701-756) on display at the Exhibition of Shoso-in Treasures at the Nara National Museum in 2014 was a set of two “beds” — gosho” (Japanese cypress bed frame) — said to have been used by the Emperor and Empress. Also on display was a “shitanmokuga no kyoshoku” a red sandalwood armrest. [Source: Yomiuri Shimbun, November 11, 2014]

The Yomiuri Shimbun reported: Each bed was made from a Japanese cypress, measuring 237.5 centimeters in length and 118.5 centimeters in width. An established theory is that the set is believed to have been used as a double bed for Emperor Shomu and Empress Komyo (701-760). However, Kazuko Koizumi, president of the Japan Society for the History of Interiors, Furniture and Tools says that large furniture used back then was believed to have been used together with another piece of furniture and that one of these beds would have been too small for a nobleman. Therefore, a view arose that two of the beds were put together for use by the emperor and two were put together for the empress.

Also displayed were bright red shoes with gold and white painted detailed edging, measuring 31.5 cm long were decorated with flower-shaped metal studes that are embedded with pearls, colored glass and crystals. The shoes are said to have been worn by Emperor Shomu at the Consecration Ceremony of the Great Buddha in Nara in 752.

Establishment of Buddhism in Japan


A major cultural development of the Nara and Heian eras was the permanent establishment of Buddhism in Japan. Buddhism had been introduced in the sixth century but had a mixed reception until the Nara period, when it was heartily embraced by Emperor Shomu. Shomu and his Fujiwara consort were fervent Buddhists and actively promoted the spread of Buddhism, making it the "guardian of the state" and strengthening Japanese institutions through still further Chinese acculturation. During Shomu’s reign, the Todaiji (Great East Temple) was built, and within it was placed the Buddha Dainichi (Great Sun Buddha), a sixteen-meter-high, gilt-bronze statue. This Buddha was identified with the Sun Goddess, and from this point on, a gradual syncretism of Buddhism and Shinto ensued. Shomu declared himself the "Servant of the Three Treasures" of Buddhism: the Buddha, the law or teachings of Buddhism, and the Buddhist community. [Source: Library of Congress ]

Kawagoe wrote: During the Nara Period, “Buddhism had already gathered momentum in Japan and the number of priests and nuns had increased greatly as well. While in the early years Buddhist clerics were governed by high-ranking priests known as sogo – chosen with considerable autonomy by the Buddhist community, over the years and by 701, the imperial court issued more and more sets of regulations to govern priests and nuns and their daily lives and personal activities. Collectively, these regulations were called the Soni Ryo and Provision Article 27 of Yoro Soni Ryo made it clear that the government sought to prohibit preaching outside temple precincts and to force priests and nuns to live and work within their religious communities. [Source: Heritage Japan website, heritageofjapan.wordpress.com <^>]

“During the Nara period the power and influence of Buddhism grew under the supervision of Buddhist monks who had studied in and returned from Tang China. Temples in Japan accumulated vast landholdings during this era, their priests gained tremendous political influence (particularly during the reigns of Emperor Shomu and Empress Shotoku). Buddhism in Japan had the stamp of Tang control: ten Buddhist masters who had studied in Tang China as well as the superintendents placed in charge of temple property, extended state control over all Buddhist matters. With the burgeoning numbers of worshippers and clergy, many temples had to be constructed. There were about two hundred temples at the beginning of the period but over a thousand at the end of it. Thus Buddhism gained official recognition as the state religion, and the network of Buddhist temples served to buttress the authority of the central state. <^>

“During this time, there flourished in Nara six major well-known schools of groups of teachers and students who focused each on a particular doctrinal system of study. All of these academic schools were affiliated to Todai-ji Temple and were the “officially recognized” religious centres, signifying the central importance of the Todaiji Temple. However, Nara Buddhism encompassed more than these six schools and the temples of Nara Buddhism were not exclusively affiliated with any school.” <^>

Empress Koken (Shotoku) and Rise of Buddhist Power in Japan


Empress Koken

Although these efforts stopped short of making Buddhism the state religion, Nara Buddhism heightened the status of the imperial family. Buddhist influence at court increased under the two reigns of Shomu’s daughter. As Empress Koken (r. 749-58) she brought many Buddhist priests into court. Koken abdicated in 758 on the advice of her cousin, Fujiwara Nakamaro. When the retired empress came to favor a Buddhist faith healer named Dokyo, Nakamaro rose up in arms in 764 but was quickly crushed. Koken charged the ruling emperor with colluding with Nakamaro and had him deposed. [Source: Library of Congress *]

Koken reascended the throne as Empress Shotoku (r. 764-770). The empress commissioned the printing of 1 million prayer charms--the Hyakumanto dharani--many examples of which survive. The small scrolls, dating from 770, are among the earliest printed works in the world. Shotoku had the charms printed to placate the Buddhist clergy. She may even have wanted to make Dokyo emperor, but she died before she could act. Her actions shocked Nara society and led to the exclusion of women from imperial succession and the removal of Buddhist priests from positions of political authority. *

The first known example of mass printing was ordered by the Japan nun-empress Koken (718-770) to avoid a recurrence of a smallpox epidemic that occurred in 735-37. To expel the demons of disease she ordered 116 priests to have the people of Japan build one million four-and-half-inch-high, three-story pagodas with twenty lines of text written inside. The prayers were made with the world’s oldest known examples of copper printing on paper.

China and Nara-Era Japan

The Nara period is characterized by the maturing of the ritsuryo system of government, inspired by the Chinese model, as well as the adoption of many other aspects of Chinese culture and technology. Delegations of Chinese and Japanese diplomats, envoys and representatives traveled on Japanese-made, double-masted Kentoshi ships between Japan and Tang dynasty China from A.D. 630 and 894. The ships were sturdy 30-meter-long ocean-going vessels with a 15-meter-high main masts and squarish bows that looked like car ramps. What the envoys learned while they were in China had a great impact on Japan.

Kawagoe wrote: From the 8th century to 9th century, Japan was greatly influenced by China and its cosmopolitan civilization at Changan and Luoyang. At this time, Japan already had in place a sophisticated centralized bureaucracy and legal system. The imperial government had in the previous era established the legal Taiho Ritsuryo or the Taiho Code. [Source: Heritage Japan website, heritageofjapan.wordpress.com <^>]

“When Empress Gemmei decided to move her capital to Nara in 710, the city was designed and planned using Chang-an, the Tang Dynasty capital, as their model. Between 710 and 784, when the Japanese capital was located at Nara, the period was called the Tempyo Period or Nara Period.” Changan was designed to be cosmically aligned with the heavens (an idea explored by A. Aveni in “Bringing the Sky Down to Earth”), a cosmic worldview was inherited by Japan during the Nara period. <^>

“During the Nara period the power and influence of Buddhism grew under the supervision of Buddhist monks who had studied in and returned from Tang China. Temples in Japan accumulated vast landholdings during this era, their priests gained tremendous political influence (particularly during the reigns of Emperor Shomu and Empress Shotoku). Buddhism in Japan had the stamp of Tang control: ten Buddhist masters who had studied in Tang China as well as the superintendents placed in charge of temple property, extended state control over all Buddhist matters. <^>


Japanese ambassador traveling to China


Rebellions, Disease, Wasteful Spending and Decline in Nara Period

Kawagoe wrote: Constructions of the many palace and grandiose temples such as Todaiji temple in Nara exhausted the state treasury. Emperor Shomu is depicted (by later chronicles) of having depleted the country’s reserves of bronze and precious metals through his massive undertaking of the casting of the bronze Daibutsu Buddha. [Source: Heritage Japan website, heritageofjapan.wordpress.com <^>]

“Rebellions added to man-made woes, and natural disasters periodically hit Nara society hard. There were terrible recurring epidemics, particularly the smallpox outbreak of the mid-730's, and droughts and storms. Life was hard for both aristocrats and commoners. With the hectic capital relocations, aristocrats were overworked with heavy administrative burdens and management difficulties. Contact with the continent probably brought the pathogens to Japan, that must have disseminated quickly on the highway system that had been developed for traveling envoys, monks, soldiers, couriers, conveyors of tribute, and labourers spurred the spread of communicable diseases. <^>

“Overworked, undernourished and weakened with the hard life that the common people were already leading, many probably fell like flies when an epidemic struck. In any event, the producer segment of society is thought to have decimated in the 8th century epidemics — by some estimates, the loss of human life may have amounted to 25 percent of the population or more. Population losses were worst in the Kinai Basin where population was most concentrated and urban. Some of the Manyoshu poems contain soulful laments of common people about the hardships of the day. <^>

“The projects of constant relocations to new capital cities, and the many construction projects brought great burdens for aristocrats and commoners. But commoners were subject to more onerous taxes, labour levies and produce and service duties. Workers had to be conscripted using corvee or hired labour. Apart from the state-sponsored projects, aristocrats also mobilized their own crews or hijacked imperial labourers for their own projects to build mansions, household temples and shrines at the new capital site. Labourers suffered from overwork and malnutrition…many fled their duties. <^>

Zoyo Labour Levies, Cho and Yo Produce Taxes and High-Interest Loans

Kawagoe wrote: Adult males farmers had to supply labour of various types. They could be conscripted to work on local construction projects for a maximum period of 60 days. But Nara records indicate that they were often forced to work on private projects by provincial officials as well. In 757, the labour levy was reduced to thirty days per year. Or adult males could also be conscripted for military or police duty. Each household had to provide one soldier (heishi) for every four (later changed to one in three) of its males of age. But draft duty created hardship for the household because each soldier had to provide his own food and weapons. An early 9th century order from the Council of State lamented that “a household is doomed if one of its men is drafted.” The third kind of service expected was palace guard duty which call a person away for duty for up to a year. The Nihon shoki records another lament “I went to the capital as a guard in the prime of life but returned home with white hair.” Men were sent from distant points of eastern Japan to defend the borders of northern Kyushu. Their households were particularly miserable for tour duty lasted three years. [Source: Heritage Japan website, heritageofjapan.wordpress.com <^>]

“Labourers who worked on projects at the capital such as daily work in government offices for three years could be exempted from most taxes and assessments. However, labour for the construction projects at the Heijo, Shigaraki and Kuni capitals and at various temples and shrines was mainly supplied by hired labour (koeki) where men were compensated with money and food. <^>

“Major features of the Nara system were the produce (cho) taxes and produce taxes paid in lieu of labour levies (yo) that were collected from adult males. These were mainly textiles usually silk and hemp cloth, but dyes, lacquer, paper and salt were also included. Farmers who lived around the capital city were not required to pay either of those produce taxes in full but instead, they had to work as hired workers (koeki) for the central government. <^>

“An important source of revenue for the state government came from the interest paid on state loans (ko-suiko). Loans of seed rice were made in the winter or spring and were repaid at harvest time with an interest charge of 50 percent. Loans of rice or other consumer products were also made by private individuals too (shi-suiko) but at rates of 100 per cent, local government loans were preferred and they were often canceled when the borrower died. In 795, the rate of interest for ko-suiko was reduced to 30 percent. To increase state revenue, however, a larger problem had to be solved – the need to increase productivity and to raise rice yields and amount of land under cultivation.” <^>


Naruto rice field map


Land Grabs and Land Shortages in Nara-Era Japan

Kawagoe wrote: When Empress Genmei relocated from Fujiwara-kyo to the new capital in Heijyo-kyo in Nara, the government had to evict villagers from their fields in order to make way for the new capital’s construction projects. Diverse materials had to be transported from elsewhere. A large industry was carried on with craftsmen, artisans and carpenters producing roof tile, quarrying and sculpting foundation stones, sawing and chiseling wood for the buildings to be erected. To pay for all the work done, Empress Genmei pushed the collection of tributes and began minting coins forcing workers and aristocrats to accept them as payment for goods and services. [Source: Heritage Japan website, heritageofjapan.wordpress.com <^>]

“The great land grab and intensive use of farmed fields, according to scholars, had resulted in the “ecological overload” of the soil and land’s resources. For building Genmei’s new palace and temple complexes, the crews felled timbers from Omi and Iga provinces. This suggests that large quality timbers could no longer be obtained from the overlogged environs of the Nara basin. Aristocrats were disassembling their old buildings and reused the materials for their new residences. Heijyo-kyo’s building projects were completed amidst protests and discontent. <^>

“The reduction of forests may have reduced the area’s annual rainfall; the conversion of forested hillsides into fields exposed topsoil, caused water to flow more quickly to the sea, creating water runoff and erosion problems that led to alternating flood and drought cycles. Drought was reported for the years 693, 715 and 723 when many must have suffered from hunger and famine. Farmable and tillable arable land and quality woodland had become scarce as well. Rice yields were down, there were poor crops reported nearly every year of the Nihon shoki’s records. The allocations of landholdings for new temples and bureaucratic offices and palaces during the Nara period of construction activity had also created shortages of land for rice cultivation.” <^>

Land Grabs and Land Reallocation Laws in Nara-Era Japan


Fujiwara no Nakamaro Rebellion

Kawagoe wrote: “The shortage of rice land prompted the passing of a new law in 723 that stated that some newly developed land could be privately possessed by the developer and passed on to his descendants for three generations. There was a condition however that if an irrigation system already existed the land could only be held for as long as the developer of the land was alive. It is thought that the new land rulings were not very effective and very few new fields seemed to have been cultivated as a result of the new provision. [Source: Heritage Japan website, heritageofjapan.wordpress.com <^>]

“Twenty years later, another ruling allowed private individuals to hold the rice field land in perpetuity (“perpetuity” means for life” or “for an indefinitely long time”) as recognized by the state. Until this law was passed, the only person who had ever held land in perpetuity was Fujiwara no Kamatari, founder of the Fujiwara clan. But now, it was possible for aristocrats to own land privately and to pass it on to their descendants (and thus greatly improve their economic security). A later change in 743, restricted the amount of land according to one’s rank: land to be held by persons without rank amounted to only ten cho land while persons of the first rank could develop 500 cho. <^>

“At this point however, the new land provisions created difficulties for the ritsuryo system. With the increase in lands released for cultivation and development, with the great land grab, it became difficult to sort out which lands were state owned and which were privately held. While sorting out all the questions of who owned what land, the new allotments by the state were also delayed until the year 800. In fact, between 800 and 883 only three allocations of land were recorded for the Kinai area and between 800 and the beginning of the 10th century, not more than 5 or 6 were made in areas outside the Kinai. Nevertheless even with all the new problems, after the passing of the 743 law, large amounts of new rice land emerged.” <^>

End of the Nara Period

The Nara period ended when the Emperor moved the capital to several location and finally Kyoto to diffuse the power of the Buddhist elite. The Japanese imperial family viewed the sometimes meddlesome Buddhist clergy as a threat. Lorraine Witt wrote: “The climax of Buddhist power in politics occurred when a Buddhist monk, Dokyo, was given the position of In, a position of great influence and wealth usually reserved for a retired emperor. When Empress Koken took Dokyo as her lover, the court saw that he was only a step away from the throne. To prevent this Buddhist power, the court rebelled and established itself in a new city, Kyoto (794). [Source: Lorraine Witt, ]

But by that time, Nara-Era court was bankrupt and overextended from its massive building projects. According to the Metropolitan Museum of Art: “Only three-quarters of a century after Nara was built at enormous cost, the capital was moved again, motivated at least in part by a desire to escape the burdensome pressure of the Buddhist temples, which had grown wealthy and powerful. The excessive influence and avarice of the Buddhist establishment, the imposition of heavy taxes of rice, products, and corvée labor, and an increase in challenges to the authority of the central government by provincial officials led to social and political unrest in the last decades of this period. [Source:Metropolitan Museum of Art metmuseum.org \^/]

Kawagoe wrote: “On the surface, it would appear that Nara enjoyed great prosperity, with Tempyo Buddhist arts thriving and peaking during the era. Ironically, the many palace and grandiose temple constructions such as Todaiji temple in Nara exhausted the state treasury. Later chroniclers accuse Emperor Shomu of having depleted the country’s reserves of bronze and precious metals through his massive undertaking of the casting of the bronze Daibutsu Buddha. [Source: Heritage Japan website, heritageofjapan.wordpress.com <^>]

“Those were times of uncertainty and instability — Nara society was stricken by rebellions, epidemics, droughts and storms. Life was hard for both aristocrats and commoners. With the hectic capital relocations, aristocrats were overworked with heavy administrative burdens and management difficulties. Arable land was often in shortage and records showed the yields of the field were not sufficient to meet the basic needs of the household. Excavations showed that dwelling sizes of commoners had actually shrunk as compared with previous eras. Common people found corvee labour and taxes too onerous that many abandoned their land and turned vagrant. The Nihon shoki reported poor crops in one area of Japan or another for almost every year of the period.” <^>

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons: Ray Kinnane

Text Sources: Aileen Kawagoe, Heritage of Japan website, heritageofjapan.wordpress.com <^>; Charles T. Keally, Professor of Archaeology and Anthropology (retired), Sophia University, Tokyo, figal-sensei.org *~*; Asia for Educators Columbia University, Primary Sources with DBQs, afe.easia.columbia.edu ; Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Japan; Library of Congress; Japan National Tourist Organization (JNTO); New York Times; Washington Post; Los Angeles Times; Daily Yomiuri; Japan News; Times of London; National Geographic; The New Yorker; Reuters; Associated Press; Lonely Planet Guides; Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications. Many sources are cited at the end of the facts for which they are used.

Last updated September 2016

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