Woman in painting found in Nara, Japan wearing clothing style from Tang-era China

During the Asuka period (A.D. 538-710) official delegations, engineers, builders, Buddhist priests, sculptors, medical experts and other came to Japan from Korea. Goods from Central Asia made their way to Japan on the Silk Road via China and Korea. By the Nara Period (A.D. 710 to 794) trade links between Japan and Central Asia on the Silk Road were well established. Some regarded Nara as the last stop of the Silk Road. According to UNESCO: “Japan is one of the major countries in the eastern terminus of the historical Silk Roads that is well-known throughout the ages for its traditions, wealth and stunning art while it was far from the foreign visitors’ access.”

Treasures brought on the Silk Road include reindeer antlers, a Persian brocade, an amber and mother-of-pearl inlaid mirror, an inlaid red sandalwood go board of Emperor Shomu (701-756). The surface of the go board is made of ivory. On the sides are images of camels and designs associated with Central Asia. The go stones are pieces of ivory died red and navy blue.

Items from the Middle East and even Europe made there way to Japan on Silk Road trade routes. Fragments of Islamic ceramics dated to A.D. 768 have been dug up at the former site of Saidaji Temple in Nara, offering further proof of early trade between Japan and the West and links to the Silk Road. Many valuable pieces with Silk Road elements are housed in Nara’s Shosoin Treasure Repository of the Emperor.

The Shoso-in repository holds many artifacts that came from as far away as the Eastern Roman Empire. Among the thousands of objects preserved in the Shosoin, are cut-glass bowls, cups and pitchers from Persia, cups of Indian rhinoceros horn, musical instruments made by artisans of Tang China, inlaid with mother-of-pearl from the South Seas and lapis lazuli from Turkey, and boxes of persimmon and mulberry wood, crowns of silver and gold, burlap bags and silk brocades. The “haku-ruri no hei” (white glass ewer), which is clearly of Middle Eastern or Western Asian design, probably came from Iran, Iraq, or Syria. Items such as this are believed to have been acquired through the activities of Japanese envoys to the Tang dynasty, who brought back various items from overseas. Today, the acclaimed Research Centre for Silk Road Studies is located in Nara. [Source: Heritage Japan website, heritageofjapan.wordpress.com ]

Websites on Nara- and Heian-Period Japan: Essay on Nara and Heian Periods aboutjapan.japansociety.org ; 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 ; Imperial Household Agency kunaicho.go.jp/eindex; List of Emperors of Japan friesian.com ; Nara Nara Prefecture site pref.nara.jp ; Temples and Shrines in Nara Park: Kofukuji site kohfukuji.com; UNESCO World Heritage site: UNESCO website; Todaiji Temple Wikipedia Wikipedia UNESCO World Heritage site: UNESCO website; 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 ; Early Japanese History Websites: Aileen Kawagoe, Heritage of Japan website, heritageofjapan.wordpress.com; 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

Silk-Road-Era Treasures in Shosoin Repository in Nara Museum

Shosoin Repository
Shosoin Treasury Repository (near Todaiji in Nara Park, Nar) once contained a priceless collection of art objects that are now shown at Nara National Museum in the fall. Built to respond to changing weather conditions, Shosoin looks somewhat like a log cabin and is a rebuilt version of the structure that stood here in the 8th century. The building rests on 40 wooden pillars. Inside are three separate warehouses that have two floors connected by a set of stairs. The roof is made up of triangular timber that expands during wet weather to protect the interior from rain and shrinks during hot, dry weather to allow ventilation.

The original repository was built in the Nara Period (710-794) and dates to the same period as the treasures it once held inside. The only one of its kind still in existence in Japan, it was built under Empress Komyo to honor husband Emperor Shomu (701-756) after he died, and survived the fire that destroyed Todaiji. The heart of the collection is more than 600 items she contributed at a memorial service 49 days after the Emperor’s death. The treasures once belonged to the Imperial Family but were turned over to the state after World War II.

Each year only a few items from the treasury are shown for a couple of in late October and early November. Many of the items are stored in wooden cases called “karabitsu”. The staff of restorers and repairmen can spend hours repairing a single piece of cloth. Every year in early October the Emperor visits the storehouse for an examination and inspection.

musical instrument
kept in Shosoin
The items include the “Odo no Gosu” , a brass bowl with a pagoda-shaped lid used as an incense burner; the “Midori Ruri no Junikyoku Chohai” , a 12-lobed oblong cup of green glass with floral designs on surface that look like tulips; “Summie no Dankyu bow” , a toy designed to shoot balls instead of arrows; a wu-type musical instrument piece made of 17 small bamboo pipes set on a wooden receptacle with a pipe-like mouth piece with images of celestial children, birds in heaven and butterflies; and the “Koge Bachiru no Shaku” a red-stained ivory foot rule decorated with designs or animals, birds and flowers.

The “Kujakumon Shishu no Ban” is a Buddhist ritual banner embroidered with a peacock design that was displayed on the temple grounds during religious rituals. The banner is 81 centimeters long and 30 centimeters wide. It is believed to be have been made by court ladies but because there were no peacocks in Japan at the time it was made the design is thought to have come from abroad . Some of the cloth and textile pieces are in amazing condition considering how old they are.

Among the objects from ancient Korea and Tang dynasty (A.D. 618-907) China are a wooly Kasen rug, covered with floral designs; the “Mokuga Shitan no Kikyoku” , a red sandalwood go board; “Shichijo Shino Juhishoku no Kesa”, a quilted priest’s robe made of seven strips of molted colors that was worn by Emperor Shomu; “Saikaku no Nyoi” , a stick made of rhinoceros horn decorated with ivory, crystals, pearls and lapis lazuli; and the “Ruri no Tsubo” , a lazurite jar with a funnel-shaped mouth with beautiful cobalt blue glass originally used as a spittoon.

Some regard Nara as the eastern most terminal and last stop of the Silk Road. Treasures brought on the Silk Road include reindeer antlers, a Persian brocade, an amber and mother-of-pearl inlaid mirror, an inlaid red sandalwood go board of Emperor Shomu. The surface of the go board is made of ivory. On the sides are images of camels and designs associated with Central Asia. The go stones are pieces of ivory died red and navy blue. Website: Shosoin site aris.ss.uci.edu

Silk Road Links Between Nara-Era Japan, Korea and Tang Dynasty China

Kentoshi ship routes from Japan to China

Aileen Kawagoe wrote in Heritage of Japan: During the reigns of Empress Gemmei and Emperor Shomu during the Nara at the end of the 7th century, China, under the Tang Dynasty, was one of the most prosperous empires in world. Its territory reached as far as the edges of the Middle East, where there was flourishing trade exchanges between eastern and western cultures. The Persian and Hellenistic (Indo-Greek or Bactrian) Empires were China’s neighbours and together with China, these were the world’s leading civilizations, possessing the most advanced technologies in the world at the time. [Source: Heritage Japan website, heritageofjapan.wordpress.com ]

“The historic monuments of ancient Nara bear exceptional witness to the evolution of Japanese architecture and art as a result of cultural links with China and Korea which were to have a profound influence on future developments. The flowering of Japanese culture during the period when Nara was the capital is uniquely demonstrated by its architectural heritage. The layout of the Imperial Palace and the design of the surviving monuments in Nara are outstanding examples of the architecture and planning of early Asian capital cities. The Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines of Nara demonstrate the continuing spiritual power and influence of these religions in an exceptional manner”.

Buddhism was perhaps the most important Silk Road import to Japan. According to “Silla Korea and the Silk Road: Golden Age, Golden Threads“ by the Korea Society: “Although Silla (57 BCE–935 CE) imported many ideas and materials which had traveled along the Silk Road, it also served as a conduit to the Japanese archipelago for the same concepts and goods, particularly during the Unified Silla period (668–935). Buddhism was transmitted via the Silk Road from China to Korea and then to Japan. Its transmission was a byproduct of diplomatic activities among the three countries. Buddhism was introduced first to Koguryo (37 BCE–668 CE) from China in 372 and via Koguryo to Paekche (18 BCE–660 CE) in 384 and to Silla in 527. The Paekche court sent Buddhist monks and books to Japan starting in 552.”

“The corpus of knowledge, ideas, arts and technology was transmitted to Japan, not just by direct missions between the two countries, but also by trade and cultural conduits from the royal and elite factions of Korean peninsula and incoming migrants from the peninsular and continent.”

Genetic Links Between Japanese, Mongols of People Central Asia and the Silk Road

There also genetic links between Japanese and the Silk Road countries of Central Asia. A team led by Yoshihiko Katsuyama, Shinshu University School of Medicine, reported: “The genetic polymorphism at four variable number of tandem repeats (D1S80, D4S43, COL2A1, D17S5) and one short tandem repeat (ACTBP2) loci was assessed by polymerase chain reaction analysis of genomic DNA obtained from blood samples of eight human populations (Japanese, Northern Han, Hui, Uygur, Kazakh, Saudi Arabian, Greek, Italian). […] A dendrogram constructed by the neighbor-joining method based on the allele frequencies of the five loci suggested that the five Asian populations (Japanese, Northern Han, Hui, Uygur, and Kazakh) formed one cluster, whereas the two European populations and one West Asian population (Italian, Greek, and Saudi Arabian) formed another. The genetic relationship among these populations may have been greatly influenced by admixture as a result of the migration of individuals along the Silk Road throughout history.” [Source: “Genetic Relationships among Japanese, Northern Han, Hui, Uygur, Kazakh, Greek, Saudi Arabian, and Italian Populations Based on Allelic Frequencies at Four VNTR (D1S80, D4S43, COL2A1, D17S5) and One STR (ACTBP2) Loci.” Human Heredity 48 (1998): pages 126-137. by Yoshihiko Katsuyama, et al ~~]

“Many ethnic groups now live in Central Asia as a result of migration of their ancestors to this region. In the 17th century, the Mongols led by Genghis Khan conquered the area from China to Eastern Europe. Moreover, many ethnic migrations took place along the Silk Road, leading to the settlement of East Asia, including the islands of Japan. The D17S5 VNTR polymorphism located on human chromosome 17 is characterized by a 70-bp core repeat. A total of 14 alleles was observed in the eight human populations studied. The distribution patterns for alleles 1 and 2 among the eight populations differed markedly. Allele 1 was more frequent in the Japanese, Northern Han, and Hui populations than in the Kazakh, Uygur, Greek, and Italian populations. ~~

Silk Road trade routes

“Two previous studies of genetic distance for various human populations were based on genetic markers associated with human leukocyte antigen (HLA) and immunoglobulins (Gm) loci. Imanishi et al. constructed a dendrogram based on the allele frequencies of two serologically typed HLA-A and HLA-B class I loci of 77 ethnic groups. The 77 populations were classified into four distinct groups (African, Oceanian, Asian, and Caucasoid), and populationslocated on the boundaries of these four groups were located on the borders between groups on the phylogenetic tree. The analysis revealed that several populations in central Asia, including the Ukrainian, Kazakh, and Uygur populations, were on the border between the Caucasoid and Asian groups, whereas the Japanese, Korean, and Tibetan populations were positioned on the border between the Asian and Oceanian groups. ~~

“Matsumoto showed that Mongoloid populations were characterized by four Gm haplotypes (Gm ag, Gm axg, Gm ab3st, and Gm afb1b3) and could be divided into two groups: A northern group characterized by high frequencies of the haplotypes Gm ag and Gm ab3st and a low frequency of Gm afb1b3, and a southern group characterized by a high frequency of Gm afb1b3 and low frequencies of Gm ag and Gm ab3st. The Japanese and Northern Han belong to the northern group on the basis of these criteria. In contrast, the Hui and Uygur populations showed five Gm haplotypes: Gm fb1b3, characteristic of Caucasoids, in addition to the four Gm haplotypes observed in Mongoloids. The Uygur population was characterized by a high prevalence of the Caucasoid haplotype Gm fb1b3, whereas the Hui population showed a higher frequency of the Mongoloid haplotype Gm afb1b3. As suggested by Matsumoto [31], the actual genetic distances shown in table 8 also support the fact that the Hui population is basically Asian with some European admixture (Hui vs. Northern Han and Italian: 0.130 and 0.175), while the Uygur population is basically European with some Asian admixture (Uygur vs. Northern Han and Italian: 0.150 and 0.149). ~~

“A dendrogram constructed by the neighbor-joining method based on the allele frequencies of the five loci revealed that five Asian populations (Japanese, Northern Han, Hui, Uygur, and Kazakh) formed one cluster, whereas the two European populations and one West Asian population (Italian, Greek, and Saudi Arabian) formed another at a genetic distance of 0.068. The geographically neighboring populations were closely related according to this approach. These genetic relationships among these neighboring populations may have been substantially influenced as a result of admixture through migration along the Silk Road. Our phylogenetic tree analysis also demonstrated the close racial relationship between the Japanese and Northern Han. ~~

“The main result of another study “Population origins in Mongolia: genetic structure analysis of ancient and modern DNA.” was that there was genetic similarity observed among Mongolian samples from different periods and geographic areas. Many Mongols live in the independent country of Mongolia. Others live in the Inner Mongolia region of north-central China. There are also Mongols in parts of Russia. There are two main divisions of the Mongol people: eastern Mongols (Khalkha Mongols who are the most numerous, Inner Mongolians, and Buryats) and Oirats. Yet another study showed these northern populations arrived there more than 30,000 years ago before the Last Glacial Maximum (LFM) (corroborated by Siberia’s extensive Upper Palaeolithic archaeological record), and before the expansion of other later populations from the south, post-LGM around 15,000 years ago. ~~

Fifth Century Roman Glass Beads Found near Kyoto: Silk Road Links to Japan?

Roman glass beads

In 2012, it was announced that three five-millimeter-in- diameter pieces of glass jewellery believed to have been made by Roman craftsmen, were found in an ancient tomb at Nagaokakyo near Kyoto, in western Japan. The Bangkok Post reported: “Tests have revealed three glass beads discovered in the Fifth Century “Utsukushi” burial mound in Nagaoka, near Kyoto, were probably made some time between the first and the fourth century, the Nara National Research Institute for Cultural Properties said.The government-backed institute has recently finished analysing components of the glass beads, measuring five millimetres (0.2 inches) in diametre, with tiny fragments of gilt attached. It found that the light yellow beads were made with natron, a chemical used to melt glass by craftsmen in the empire, which succeeded the Roman Republic in 27 B.C. and was ultimately ended by the Fall of Constantinople in 1453. [Source: Bangkok Post, June 22, 2012]

The beads, which have a hole through the middle, were made with a multilayering technique — a relatively sophisticated method in which craftsmen piled up layers of glass, often sandwiching gold leaf in between. “They are one of the oldest multilayered glass products found in Japan, and very rare accessories that were believed to be made in the Roman Empire and sent to Japan,” said Tomomi Tamura, a researcher at the institute. The Roman Empire was concentrated around the Mediterranean Sea and stretched northwards to occupy present-day England. The finding in Japan, some 10,000 kilometers (6,000 miles) from Italy, may shed some light on how far east its influence reached, Tamura said. “It will also lead to further studies on how they could have got all the way to Japan,” she said.

Kawagoe wrote: “How, exactly, the beads got to Japan is not known. They could have been recent purchases, or heirlooms handed down from parent to child for centuries before their burial, or they could have come to Japan along with the many Chinese and Korean immigrants who became naturalized Japanese and held important positions at the Yamato court during the Kofun period (250-538 A.D.). The tomb itself dates back to the Yamato period of Japanese history, an era marked by inter-provincial warfare when the Imperial capitol was located in Nara. But to be sure, the Silk Road complex of trading networks on sea and land that ran from Europe through Africa, Arabia, Persia, India, China, and Korea to Japan and back again was how they traveled from Rome to Japan. Traders did local legs of the massive voyage, stopping at market cities to sell their goods which would then be traded again a little further away and so on, until silk from China wound up adorning Roman emperors and Roman gold-flecked glassware jewels ended up the prized possession of a 5th century Japanese nobleman.”

High-Tech Archaeology Used to Check Ancient Japan-Silk Road Connection

X-ray fluorescence analyzer

Hirohiko Nakamura wrote in the Asahi Shimbun: “Advances in chemical analysis are helping archaeologists to gain a better understanding of what early inhabitants of the Japanese islands were like. By blending conventional archaeological research with the latest advances in chemistry, scientists are slowly unraveling many of these mysteries. A team led by Tokyo University of Science professor Izumi Nakai has developed a special X-ray fluorescence (XRF) analyzer for chemical analysis, which can detect different types of elements and their concentration. Many decorative items, such as glass beads less than 1 centimeter in diameter, have been found in sites dating to Japan’s Yayoi Pottery Culture (300 B.C.-A.D. 300) and in tumuli built during the Kofun Period (third century to seventh century). [Source: Hirohiko Nakamura, Asahi Shimbun, January 17, 2014 **]

“Glass was not made in Japan at this time, which means the beads came from overseas. But from where is not known. Unlike ordinary glass objects, it is difficult to speculate on the origins of simple glass beads based on their ornamentation or patterns. Nakai’s team hopes to reveal the origin of ancient Japanese glass through chemical analysis. The elemental composition of glass varies, depending on where it is made. Researchers can figure out where glass in ancient Japan was brought from by using an XRF analyzer to compare samples from Japan and elsewhere. **

“Nakai’s team analyzed glass beads excavated from over 100 tumuli and archaeological sites across Japan, as well as cultural properties kept at Todaiji temple in Nara and Byodoin temple’s Phoenix Hall in Kyoto Prefecture. They also examined artifacts from sites in Turkey and Syria as well as Laos, Vietnam and elsewhere. Many beads excavated in western Japan are alumina soda-lime glass, which contains a large amount of aluminum. The results of the analysis showed that even the beads’ trace components closely matched glass found at sites in India and Southeast Asia. Pigments used to color the glass were also of the same type and composition. “We were able to scientifically prove a very high likelihood that ancient glass in Japan was carried from Southeast Asia and South Asia by maritime trade,” Nakai said. “This shows us that ancient people used the maritime Silk Road in addition to the overland Silk Road to carry goods to and from West Asia.”“ **

Silk Road Islamic Ceramic Fragments Found in Nara

slamic ceramic fragments found at Nara’s Saidaiji site

In 2009, researchers said they excavated Silk Road Islamic ceramic fragments from Nara’s Saidaiji site. The Yomiuri Shimbun reported: “Nineteen fragments of Islamic ceramicware made in western Asia have been excavated at the former site of Saidaiji temple in Nara, the Nara Municipal Board of Education announced, representing the oldest find of its kind in the nation and providing new clues about the history of cultural exchange in Asia. [Source: Yomiuri Shimbun, July 4, 2009 |~|]

“The fragments from the base and body of the jar, which is estimated to date back to the late eighth century, were discovered along with a wooden strip on which the Chinese characters for “Jingokeiun Ninen,” referring to the era and year corresponding to 768, are written in Chinese ink. The Islamic ceramic fragments are the oldest of their kind discovered in the nation. It also is a rare find internationally, in that it is possible to identify the era in which the jar was made. |~|

“The jar is believed to have been carried to Japan from western Asia by the maritime silk road route via China. An official of the municipal board of education said, “The discovery is valuable because it tells us about the history of maritime traffic and cultural exchange in Asia.” The fragments were excavated from a ditch at the former site of Saidaiji temple, in the western area of the remains of Heijokyo palace.” |~|

Manichaeism Cosmology Found on a Painting in Japan

Manicheans painted in wetsern Chinese cave

In September 2010, a team of Japanese researchers said they had found a painting that appears to describe the cosmology of Manichaeism, a religion that thrived mainly in Eurasia between the third and seventh centuries and spread along the Silk Road . Kyodo reported: “The painting, currently owned by an individual in Japan, measures 137.1 centimeters long and 56.6 centimeters wide, and depicts Manichaeism’s cosmic view in vivid colors on a silk cloth. The researchers, led by Yutaka Yoshida, a linguist and Kyoto University professor, said it is probably the only painting currently known that covers Manichaeism’s cosmologic view in complete form. [Source: Kyodo Japan Times, September 28, 2010]

“The painting was probably produced by a painter in China’s Zhejiang and Fujian provinces around the time of the Yuan dynasty, which ruled China and Mongolia from 1271 to 1368. How and when the painting arrived in Japan is a mystery, the team said. The researchers concluded that the painting is Manichaean because it includes a priest wearing a white shawl with red piping that is characteristic of Manichaean priests.

The team said the conclusion is supported by Manichaean materials found earlier in China’s Xinjiang autonomous region. Under the Manichaean view of the universe, the world is formed by 10 layers of heaven and eight layers of the Earth. The painting depicts paradise in its uppermost part, the sun and moon below it, and then the 10 layers of heaven, the Earth and hell in the lowermost part. Angels, demons and 12 constellations, such as Scorpio and Pisces, are also included.

A mushroom-shaped mountain, called Mount Meru, is shown on the ground where humans live. Manichaeism was founded in the third century by the prophet Mani of Mesopotamia in present-day Iraq. Incorporating thoughts from Zoroastrianism, Christianity and Buddhism, it developed into a global religion. It thrived between the third and seventh centuries in Europe, northern Africa, central Asia and China. It fell into decline around the 11th century before dying out.

Similarities Between Nara and Central Asian Architecture

stone tile with phoenix, a symbol that originated in Iran

Kawagoe wrote: The azekura loghouse-on-stilts style of Nara’s Todaiji Shosoin Repository appears to be very similar to and may have had its origins in the Siberian log houses of Central Asia. The walls are constructed of horizontally stacked azeki, or cross-sections of lumber, with each cross-section being triangular (or hexagular).” This compares with the architectural technique on a Western Siberian (Khanty) sacred shrine. [Source: Heritage Japan website, heritageofjapan.wordpress.com ]

“While the Shosoin Treasury contemporaneous with Todaiji (743), was built in the middle of the 8th century, the architecture appears to have been used in earlier times perhaps since the 3rd or 4th century, emerging with the Bronze/Iron Age of Japan, and so they may have been techniques introduced from the Altai bronze-making region either by Buriat, Altai-Siberian or Tibetan immigrants (See Tibetan-Yunnan Zhongdian buildings on stilts architecture and rammed earth, stoneworks – the name of Zhongdian County, capital of Diqing Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture in southwestern China’s Yunnan Province was changed to Shangri-La County in 2001).

“Azekura storehouse architecture differs markedly from the earlier Yayoi Period grain warehouses. The Isonokami Shrine is one of the oldest extant Shinto shrines in Japan, was highly regarded in the ancient era, and frequented by many members of the imperial family. Located at the northern end of the Yamanobe no michi, the oldest road in Japan, it played a pivotal role in Japan’s early history, especially during the 3rd to 5th centuries.”

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons, Islamic fragments: Yomiuri Shimbun

Text Sources: Aileen Kawagoe, Heritage of Japan website, heritageofjapan.wordpress.com ; Charles T. Keally, Professor of Archaeology and Anthropology (retired), Sophia University, Tokyo, <a href="http://www.t-net.ne.jp/~keally/palaeol.html ++; 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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