Emperor Tenji

In 645, Prince Naka-no-Oe together with Nakatomo no Kamatari, a powerful politician at the time, led a coup to oust the powerful Soga clan of their control over the Yamato court. Soga bo Iruka was assassinated by Kamatari, who emerged as the most powerful man in Japan after Prince Shotoku’s death and was the founder of the Fujiwara clan. Asuka Itabuki no Miya ruins in Asuka are believed to be to be the ruins of the palace of Emperor Kogyoku. It is thought that Soga bo Iruka was assassinated there.

Kamatari and Naka assumed the position of minister of the center, and Kamatari was granted a new family name--Fujiwara--in recognition of his great service to the imperial family. Fujiwara Kamatari became the first in a long line of court aristocrats. Another, long- lasting change was the use of the name Nihon, or sometimes Dai Nippon (Great Japan) in diplomatic documents and chronicles. [Source: Library of Congress *]

Following the reigns of Naka’s uncle and mother, Naka assumed the throne as Emperor Tenji in 662, taking the additional title tenno (heavenly sovereign). This new title was intended to improve the Yamato clan’s image and to emphasize the divine origins of the imperial family in the hope of keeping it above political frays, such as those precipitated by the Soga clan. Within the imperial family, however, power struggles continued as the emperor’s brother and son vied for the throne. The brother, who later reigned as Emperor Tenmu, consolidated Tenji’s reforms and state power in the imperial court. *

Emperor Tenji’ put in place a series of codifications of law based on the Chinese model of central government. Collectively, the codes are known as the Taika Reforms and they had the effect of reforming the political system into a centralized government by the emperor.

Websites: Yamato Period Wikipedia article on the Yamato period Wikipedia article ; Kojiki, Nihongi and Sacred Shinto Texts sacred-texts.com ; Imperial Household Agency kunaicho.go.jp/eindexList of Emperors of Japan friesian.com ; Buddhism and Prince Shotoku onmarkproductions.com ; Essay on the Japanese Missions to Tang China aboutjapan.japansociety.org . References: 1) The Chronicles of Wa, Gishiwajinden by Wes Injerd; 2) Wa (Japan), Wikipedia; 3) Excerpts from the History of the Kingdom of Wei, Columbia University’s Primary Source Document Asia for Educators. Asuka Wikipedia article on Asuka Wikipedia ; Asuka Park asuka-park.go.jp ; Asuka Historical Museum asukanet.gr.jp ; UNESCO World Heritage sites ; 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 ; Good Japanese History Websites: ; Wikipedia article on History of Japan Wikipedia ; Samurai Archives samurai-archives.com ; National Museum of Japanese History rekihaku.ac.jp ; English Translations of Important Historical Documents hi.u-tokyo.ac.jp/iriki

Taika Reforms

Fujiwara clan emblem

The Taika Reforms of 645 were a political movement to restore power to the Imperial family from a powerful clan. The Taika reforms attempted to centralize much of Japan according to Chinese Tang Dynasty bureaucratic models and philosophical values. According to Columbia University’s Asia for Educators: “In the decades after the death of Prince Shotoku, and in spite of the vision articulated in his constitution of 604, clan rivalries continued to characterize Japanese political life. Finally, in 645, a coup d’état brought to power a new group of leaders with a renewed commitment to the remaking of Japan’s government on a Chinese model. In a series of edicts, the court sought to centralize political power, create state institutions mirroring China’s imperial bureaucracy, and establish national landholding and taxation systems. Many historians have considered the Taika Reforms the genesis of the Japanese imperial state. “Taika” was the reign and era name assumed by the Emperor Kotoku in 645; in keeping with the reformist spirit of the day, Taika means “great transformation.” [Source: Asia for Educators Columbia University, Primary Sources with DBQs, afe.easia.columbia.edu ]

The Taika Reform, influenced by Chinese practices, started with land redistribution, aimed at ending the existing landholding system of the great clans and their control over domains and occupational groups. What were once called "private lands and private people" became "public lands and public people," as the court now sought to assert its control over all of Japan and to make the people direct subjects of the throne. Land was no longer hereditary but reverted to the state at the death of the owner. Taxes were levied on harvests and on silk, cotton, cloth, thread, and other products. A corvée (labor) tax was established for military conscription and building public works. The hereditary titles of clan chieftains were abolished, and three ministries were established to advise the throne (the minister of the left, the minister of the right, and the minister of the center, or the chancellor). The country was divided into provinces headed by governors appointed by the court, and the provinces were further divided into districts and villages. [Source: Library of Congress *]

The reforms failed because of the desire of some major clans to go their own way. Although it did not constitute a legal code, the Taika Reform (Taika means great change) mandated a series of reforms that established the ritsuryo system of social, fiscal, and administrative mechanisms of the seventh to tenth centuries. Ritsu was a code of penal laws, while ry was an administrative code. Combined, the two terms came to describe a system of patrimonial rule based on an elaborate legal code that emerged from the Taika Reform. *

Taika Reform Edict

The Reform edict of Taika reads: “As soon as the New Year’s ceremonies were over, the Emperor promulgated the following edict of reforms: I) Let the following be abolished: the titles held by imperial princes to serfs granted by imperial decrees (“koshiro”); the title to lands held directly by the imperial court (“miyake”); and private titles to lands and workers held by ministers and functionaries (“omi”, “muraji”and “tomo no miyatsuko”) of the court, by local nobles (“kuni no miyatsuko”), and by village chiefs (“mura no obito”). [Source: “Japan: A Documentary History: The Dawn of History to the Late Tokugawa Period”, edited by David J. Lu (Armonk, New York: M. E. Sharpe, 1997), 27-29; Asia for Educators Columbia University, Primary Sources with DBQs, afe.easia.columbia.edu ]

Isshi inicident

In lieu thereof, sustenance households 1shall be granted to those of the rank of Daibu (chief of a bureau or of a ward) and upwards on a scale corresponding to their positions. … It is said that the duty of the Daibu is to govern the people. If they discharge their task diligently, the people will have trust in them. Therefore it is for the benefit of the people that the revenue of the Daibu shall be increased. [1, The term “sustenance households” is a loose translation of the Japanese term “hehito”or “fuko”. It refers to a certain number of households, which were assigned to the officials in place of the serfs taken from them. Generally taxes remitted by these households became personal income of the officials. The rights to these sustenance households were hereditary]

II) For the first time, the capital shall be placed under an administrative system. In the metropolitan (or capital) region, governors (“kuni no tsukasa”) and prefects (“koi no tsukasa”) shall be appointed. Barriers and outposts shall be erected, and guards and post horses for transportation and communication purposes shall be provided. Furthermore bell.tokens shall be made and mountains and rivers shall be regulated. 2 One alderman (“osa”) shall be appointed for each ward (“bo”or “machi”) in the capital, and one chief alderman (unakashi”) for four wards. The latter shall be responsible for maintaining the household registers and investigating criminal matters. The chief alderman shall be chosen from those men belonging to the wards, of unblemished character, strong and upright, who can discharge the duties of the time effectively. In principle, aldermen of rural villages (“ri”) or of city wards, shall be selected from ordinary subjects belonging to the villages of city wards, who are sincere, incorrupt and of strong disposition. [2, Bell-tokens entitled their bearers to use post-horses, which were kept for official use only. By the regulation of mountains and rivers is meant the posting of guards at ferries and mountain passes, thus delimiting the boundaries between provinces.

Districts are classified as greater, middle and lesser districts, with districts of forty villages constituting greater districts; of from four to thirty villages constituting middle districts; and of three or fewer villages constituting lesser districts. The prefects for these districts shall be chosen from local nobles (“kuni no miyatsuko”), of unblemished character, strong and upright, who can discharge the duties of the time effectively. They shall be appointed as prefects (“tairei”) and vice prefects (“shorei”). Men of ability and intelligence, who are skilled in writing and arithmetic shall be appointed to assist them in the tasks of governance and book.keeping. … III) It is hereby decreed that household registers, tax registers, and rules for allocation and redistribution of land shall be established. [The “denryo”(land regulations) says: “In distributing land, two tan shall be given to a man as his allotment land, and two.thirds of that amount to a woman.”]

Each fifty households shall be constituted into a village (“ri”), and in each village there shall be appointed an alderman. He shall be responsible for the maintenance of the household registers, the assigning of sowing of crops and cultivation of mulberry trees, prevention of offenses, and requisitioning of taxes and forced labor. … All rice fields shall be measured by a unit called a tan, which is thirty paces in length by twelve paces in breadth [One tan as existed then represented 0.294 acre]. Ten tan make one “cho”. For each tan, the tax (“so”or “denso”) shall be two sheaves and two bundles of rice; for each “cho”, the tax shall be twenty.two sheaves of rice.

IV) Old taxes and forced labor shall be replaced by a system of commuted taxes based on [the size of] the rice fields (“dencho”). These taxes shall consist of fine silk, coarse silk, raw silk, and floss silk, which are to be collected in accordance with what is produced in the locality. For each “cho”of rice field, the rate shall be one rod (i.e., 10 feet) of fine silk. For four “cho”of rice field, the rate shall be one piece of fine silk, which is forty feet in length by two and a half feet in width. If coarse silk is substituted, the rate shall be two rods per “cho”, and one piece of the same length and width as the fine silk for every two “cho”….

A separate household tax (“kocho”) shall also be levied, under which each household shall pay one rod and two feet of cloth, and a surtax consisting of salt and offerings. The latter may vary in accordance with what is produced in the locality. With regard to horses for public service, one horse of medium quality shall be contributed by every one hundred households, or one horse of superior quality by every two hundred households. If the horses have to be purchased, each household shall contribute one rod and two feet of cloth toward the purchase price. With regard to weapons, each person shall contribute a sword, armor, bow and arrows, a flag, and a drum.

Under the old system, one servant was supplied by every thirty households. This system shall be altered to allow every fifty households to furnish one servant to work for various officials. These fifty households shall be responsible for providing rations for one servant, by each household contributing two rods and two feet of cloth and five “masu” [Or sho. One sho equals 1.638 quarts] of rice in lieu of service (“yo orchikara shiro”).

Waiting women in the palace shall be selected from among good.looking sisters or daughters of officials of the rank of vice prefect or above. Every one hundred households shall be responsible for providing rations for one waiting woman. The cloth and rice supplied in lieu of service (“yo”) shall, in every respect, follow the same rule as for servants.

Taika Reforms and the Establishment of Japan’s Emperor System

Imperial seal of Japan

Kawagoe wrote: “Some of the most important arrangements written into the penal and administrative codes were: The restructuring of ranks in the administration of central affairs: the Asuka no Kiyomhara code of 689 added the office of 3 ministers the chancellor (daijo daijin), the minister of the left and the minister of the right, to the Council of State. Later, more offices were added to shape the imperial government along Chinese lines. The government was run by a system of offices ranging from those closest to the emperor to others at more at lower levels and from remote places. [Source: Aileen Kawagoe, Heritage of Japan website, heritageofjapan.wordpress.com]

“Under the emperor, were the two most important councils, the Council of State which ran the secular affairs of state, and the Council of Kami Affairs that oversaw all matters involving kami worship. The highest official was the Council of State’s chancellor who was served by the minister of the left and the minister of the right. Below these top ranking officials were four senior counselors. In consultation with one another, counselors and ministers made important policy decisions and recommended appointments and promotions for high-ranking officials. Each of the ministers of the left and right were responsible for four ministries that handled a range of court affairs, and matters relating to personnel, treasury, budget, household registers, taxes, irrigation, paddy fields. Inside each ministry were administrative organs of three types: secretariats (shiki); bureaus (ryo) and offices (tsukasa).

“The reforms served to put the emperor at the apex of the state, strengthening the sacred and secular authority of the ruling emperor. The codes placed no limitations on imperial authority, thus allowing the emperor despotic control. The establishment of a strong centralized government had the side-effects of diminishing the prominence of clan families that were local strongholds of power. Families that controlled the imperial family changed and waxed and waned with the times. Since the 4th and 5th century until the Taika Reform, each region of Japan was under the control of the powerful and near-autonomous wealthy family Gozoku. The consequence of the Taika Reform and the establishment a strong central government by the Japanese Royal Family was therefore the exclusion of the Gozoku power and authority.”

Civil War in Asuka-era Japan: Prince Otomo Vs. Prince Oama

Emperor Kobun (Prince Otomo)

Aileen Kawagoe wrote in Heritage of Japan: “In 671, Emperor Tenji named Prince Otomo who was his favorite son by a beloved courtesan, to the office of chancellor, the highest ministerial post of all. Under terms of the new administrative code, a chancellor had to be an imperial son acting as regent (sessho) for the emperor, so this appointment was in effect an announcement that Prince Otomo was to succeed the emperor, instead of the crown prince Prince Oama. This was an unexpected turn of events as the crown prince (who was the younger brother of Tenji) had been appointed by the court as successor earlier in 664. It may be supposed that the disappointment and discontentment felt by the crown prince led to the scene reportedly created by the crown prince at a party given in the new Otsu palace during 668 … the crown prince is said to have seized a spear, suddenly ramming it into the floor. [Source: Aileen Kawagoe, Heritage of Japan website, heritageofjapan.wordpress.com]

“After Emperor Tenji’s death, a struggle for the succession to the Imperial Throne occurred between Prince Otomo and Tenji’s younger brother Prince Oama (who later became Emperor Tenmu). War broke out in the six month of 672 (according to Nihon shoki) when Prince Oama, believing that a plot was afoot at the Omi court against him, issued orders to mobilize troops based in his Yuno estate in the district of Ahachima as well as those of provincial governors. The outcome of the war would depend on who could obtain the support of leaders in Japan’s eastern and northern provinces, so Prince Oama and his sons moved quickly by heading off across the mountains to the eastern provinces of Iga and Ise.

“Meanwhile, Prince Otomo headed out to obtain military support from leaders in the west and south, but his plans were fouled as the governors of Kibi and Tsukushi refused to cooperate. Prince Oama meanwhile had a difficult task as he was aided by only small bands of soldiers. However, he was aided by the governor of Ise Province who sent 500 soldiers to close the Suzuka pass so that he could not be pursued from the capital. Eventually, he was able to defeat Prince Otomo by mustering two armies: one that crossed the mountains from Ise into Yamato and the other that advanced down the Fuwa road toward the capital. With those two armies, Prince Oama won his decisive victory. Prince Otomo committed suicide while his minister of the right was executed, his heirs and supporters sent into exile.

Emperor Tenmu

Emperor Tenmu (Prince Oama)

“Following the civil war (which is known today as the Jinshin conflict of 672) and the end of Emperor Tenji’s reign, Prince Oama ascended the throne as Emperor Tenmu. The title Tenno (Emperor) was used from the time of Tenmu (673-686).

In 673, Emperor Tenmu moved the capital from Otsu back to the Yamato province, on the Kiyomihara Plain. He named his new capital Asuka, and reigned from his new imperial palace Kiyomihara Miya in Asuka.” The Manyoshu includes a poem written soon after the end of Jinshin conflict of 672 that refers to Emperor Tenmu’s capital:
Our Sovereign, a god
Has made an Imperial City,
Out of the stretch of swamps,
Where chestnut horses sank,
Their bellies. — Otomo Miyuki

In A.D. 675, in line with the Buddhist beliefs gainst the killing of animals, Emperor Tenmu decreed a prohibition on the consumption of cattle, horses, dogs, monkeys, and chickens during the 4th-9th months of the year; to break the law would mean a death sentence. Monkey was eaten prior to this time, but was eaten more in a ritualistic style for medicinal purposes. Chickens were often domesticated as pets, while cattle and horses were rare and treated as such. A cow or horse would be ritually sacrificed on the first day of rice paddy cultivation, a ritual introduced from China. Emperor Tenmu’s decree, however, did not ban the consumption of deer or wild boar, which were important to the Japanese diet at that time. [Source: Wikipedia]

Famous medieval Japanese clans such as the Tairas and Minamotos — and later many powerful families — owed their existence to a bit of foresight on the part Emperor Tenmu. F.W. Seal wrote in Samurai Archives: “ Concerned that in time the Imperial house would grow to an unmanageable size and cost, Tenmu declared that descendants of the emperors in the sixth generation were to be deprived of the rank of prince and instead receive a family name. This began to be observed in the time of Kammu (ruled and provided the genesis of the Taira and Minamoto. [Source: F.W. Seal, Samurai Archives samurai-archives.com |~|]

Emperor Tenmu’s Strengthens the Imperial System by Strengthening Buddhism

Empress Jito, wife of Tenmu

The Jinshin Revolt in 672 under the leadership of Emperor Tenmu effectively placed Japan under the control of a strong centralized government based on the emperor system and modeled on the Chinese imperial system. Kawagoe wrote: Emperor Tenmu who reigned briefly after his victory in the civil war of 672, moved first to maintain and strengthen his control of the imperial system through strengthening his spiritual authority. He upgraded the Ise Shrine where ancestral kami of the imperial hosue (Amaterasu the Sun Goddess was worshiped), again like Suiko had, highlighting his role as chief priest for kami worship for the entire nation. And he had scribes compile the chronicles that would justify and sanctify the position of emperors as direct descendants of the Sun Goddess. [Source: Aileen Kawagoe, Heritage of Japan website, heritageofjapan.wordpress.com]

“In his role as patron of Buddhism (which seemed secondary to that of kami worship), he demonstrated some support of Buddhism by initiating the practice of having Buddhist scripture readings at Kawara-dera temple, ordering that animals be set free in the provinces, paying stipends to Buddhist priests and nuns and holding Buddhist retreats at the imperial palace. Significantly, he had the old Takechi no O-dera renamed the Great Official Temple (Daikan Daiji) – in effect, designating the temple as the new centerpiece of the new ritsuryo Buddhist system. The temple had a nine-storied pagoda comparable in grandeur to the seven-storied pagoda that would be built later at more famous Todai-ji.

“From the Daikan Daiji, Buddhist ceremonies and institutions spread to outlying regions. By 677, lectures were held in the provinces on Buddhist sutras known as the “state-protecting sutras“; the “Golden Light” and the “Benevolent Kings” sutras. These sutras clearly show their intended effect to deliver promises of protection for states and their leaders. The sixth chapter of the Golden Light Sutra which was highly regarded, went like this: “the Four Deva Kings, the Guardians of the World, promise with all their numberless followers (demons and spirits) to protect their kings (together with their families and countries), who attentively listen to this sutra and respectfully make offerings, receiving and keeping this holy text.” In a similar mode, the fifth chapter of the Benevolent Kings Sutra emphasized the protection of states: “There were in former times 5000 kings of countries, who always read this sutra, and who in their present life have got their reward. In the same way, you, sixteen Great Kings, must practice the Rite of Protecting the Country, and you must obey, read and explain this sutra. If in future ages, the kings of countries wish to protect their kingdoms and their own bodies, they too must act in the same way.” The two sutras containing the basic doctrines of ritsuryo Buddhism, feature prominently in the development of the ritsuryo system and continued to be honored throughout the Nara period.

Tenmu's and Jito's tomb

“In 685, Emperor Tenmu ordered “Buddhist chapels to be built in every house of the several provinces”;” Buddhist images and Buddhist sutras … to be placed therein; and Buddha … to be worshiped and offerings to be made” … in effect extending the reach of his state temple system, radiating outward from the Daikan Daiji to the outlying provinces. Finally, the Emperor Tenmu had constructed for Empress Jito’s sake, the Yakushi Temple. Although ironically, it was Tenmu who died and Empress Jito who continued the building of the Yakushi Temple, the Yakushi Temple was prominent for the Yakushi triad (that is regarded as a treasure of the pre-Nara period today) and the Yakushi sutra which contained the Buddhist teaching of the perfect Buddha of Healing (Yakushi Nyorai), who, in unsurpassed wisdom, vowed to bless individuals on the path to Buddhahood. The Yakushi triad sculpture was a splendid symbol of the healing Buddha (flanked by two attendant bodhisattvas (deities who attend the Buddha on the path to Enlightenment) of the sun and of the moon. That belief in the mysterious power of the healing Buddha was an important aspect of ritsuryo Buddhism that helped Buddhism to continue to spread and prosper in later times.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons,

Text Sources: Aileen Kawagoe, Heritage of Japan website, heritageofjapan.wordpress.com; Charles T. Keally, Professor of Archaeology and Anthropology (retired), Sophia University, Tokyo, ++; Topics in Japanese Cultural History” by Gregory Smits, Penn State University 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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