ASUKA PERIOD (A.D. 538 TO 710)

ASUKA PERIOD (A.D. 538 TO 710)

replica of Asuka woman’s clothes
The Asuka Period (A.D. 538 or 592-710) is a little-understood period when Japanese culture was developing and defining itself and the first powerful centralized Japanese state was established. Asuka is the name of ancient city (near Nara), where the kingdom was centered. The capital of Japan from 694 to 710 was nearby in Fujiwara. The Asuka Period began with accession of Empress Suiko to the Japanese throne in 592 and the establishment of Toyura Palace. It ended when Empress Genmei relocated the capital to Heijokyo (Nara) in A.D. 710.

The Yamato state evolved still further during the Asuka period, which is named after the Asuka region, south of modern Nara, the site of numerous temporary imperial capitals established during the period. The Asuka period is known for its significant artistic, social, and political transformations, which had their origins in the late Kofun period. [Source: Library of Congress *]

The Yamato court, concentrated in the Asuka region, exercised power over clans in Kyushu and Honshu, bestowing titles, some hereditary, on clan chieftains. The Yamato name became synonymous with all of Japan as the Yamato rulers suppressed the clans and acquired agricultural lands. Based on Chinese models (including the adoption of the Chinese written language), they developed a central administration and an imperial court attended by subordinate clan chieftains but with no permanent capital. By the mid-seventh century, the agricultural lands had grown to a substantial public domain, subject to central policy. The basic administrative unit was the county, and society was organized into occupation groups. Most people were farmers; other were fishers, weavers, potters, artisans, armorers, and ritual specialists. *

The Soga had intermarried with the imperial family, and by A.D. 587 Soga Umako, the Soga chieftain, was powerful enough to install his nephew as emperor and later to assassinate him and replace him with the Empress Suiko (r. A.D. 593-628). Suiko, the first of eight sovereign empresses, was merely a figurehead for Umako and Prince Regent Shotoku Taishi (A.D. 574-622).

Websites: Yamato Period Wikipedia article on the Yamato period Wikipedia article ; Kojiki, Nihongi and Sacred Shinto Texts ; Imperial Household Agency of Emperors of Japan ; Buddhism and Prince Shotoku ; Essay on the Japanese Missions to Tang China . 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 Historical Museum ; UNESCO World Heritage sites ; Early Japanese History Websites: Aileen Kawagoe, Heritage of Japan website,; Essay on Early Japan ; Japanese Archeology ; Ancient Japan Links on Archeolink ; Good Japanese History Websites: ; Wikipedia article on History of Japan Wikipedia ; Samurai Archives ; National Museum of Japanese History ; English Translations of Important Historical Documents

Advancements During the Asuka Period

Ritual fountain

According to the Metropolitan Museum of Art: “Japan’s first historical epoch–the Asuka period, named for the area near Nara where the court resided–coincides with the introduction of Buddhism into the country.This new religion contained many ideas and images that were radically different from the concerns of native Shinto. Along with Buddhism, other important foreign concepts and practices, including the Chinese written language, the practice of recording history, the use of coins, and the standardization of weights and measures–all of which supported the creation of a single-ruler state based on the Chinese model of a centralized, bureaucratic government–were imported from China and Korea. Taken together, these imports had a profound impact on all aspects of Japanese society. [Source: Metropolitan Museum of Art \^/]

Aileen Kawagoe wrote in Heritage of Japan: “The Asuka Period marked an era when Buddhism blossomed in Japan. Tumulus-building activities of the earlier age were replaced by temple and capital building efforts. It was a time for the development of new politics, economy, society, and reforms. Japan evolved from the old Yamato administration and the allied clans to an Imperial system (based on the legal codes of the Nara and Heian era) — so the era is considered to be one of the formation of an ancient autocratic state. [Source: Aileen Kawagoe, Heritage of Japan website, ]

“Although the capital was moved frequently, the beginning of the Asuka era is associated with the Suiko Dynasty’s Toyura no miya Shrine and Oharita no miya Shrine, with most of the succeeding Shrines staying within the Asuka region (with only three capitals moving outside of Asuka). The three eras – Naniwa no miya Shrine’s Emperor Koutoku and Tenchi, and Oumiootsu no miya Shrine’s Emperor Koubun’s eras -lasted less than 15 years, all the while maintaining the Rusu no Tsukasa Shrine in Asuka (Shrine of Absence). Therefore Asuka was never abandonned completely.

“The introduction of Buddhism set off a protracted series of clan wars between the great Soga and Mononobe clans. The political battles eventually ended with the Soga clan’s success and domination. The feverish Buddhism-driven construction activities transformed Asuka, transformed Japan. They built temples and Buddhist cloisters, Chinese-style compounds. They built tall imposing pagodas and palaces. The buildings with their white walls and vermillion-painted columns, and white walls and green windows, and grand roof tiles made a striking sight for all who lived or visited the capital. Central government offices sprang all over the Asuka. Immigrants flooded the city, coveted for their skills. Many were from Paekche kingdom from the Korean peninsula and the direct influence of Paekche could be found everywhere one turned.

“The Chinese system of writing was known to have been in use in Japan in the 6th century, but the earliest existing inscriptions were from the 7th century found on the halos of Buddhist images, and onmokkan (wooden tallies used for recording the receipt of goods excavated from the Asuka no Itabuki Palace which was occupied by Empress Kogyoku /Saimei). Because written materials became more numerous during this time, Asuka period has been traditionally regarded as the beginning of the historic period in Japan.

“Asuka” as a Period Name

As a periodization term, "Asuka Period" was first used around the year 1900 in reference to architectural and art history, and had as its original proponents Sekino Tadashi and Okakura Tenshin. Sekino designated the "Asuka Period" as that era most strongly influenced by Korean art, extending, in his estimation, from the reign of Empress Suiko (592 - 628) up to the time of the Taika Reform (645).Okakura considered the "Asuka Period" to extend, in its broadest sense, from the introduction of Buddhism --' he favored choice of the date 552 - up to the transfer of the capital to Heijo (Nara) in 710, during most of which time the dynastic residence was to be found in one or another part of the Asuka region. However, for purposes of an "exact year demarcation," he limited the period to the interval between the introduction of Buddhism and the beginning of the reign of Emperor Tenji (667). Sekino conceived of the "Asuka Period" as that period leading up to what he termed the "Nara Period" (i.e., Hakuho and Tempyo Periods) characterized by influences from Tang China. while Okakura similarly conceived of the "Asuka Period,': in his narrower sense, as preceding what he termed the "Tempyo Period" (beginning in 667). [Source: Asuka Historical Museum]

According to present usage, "Asuka Period," when referring broadly to Japanese history as a whole, designates the time from around the reign of Empress Suiko up to the transfer of the capital to Heijo, in approximation of. the broader sense of the term as used by Okakura. However, since use of the term by itself is in many cases liable to imprecision, it is more common to employ such terms as "the first half of the 7th century" or the name of a specific emperor or empress. In the specific fields of art history, architecture and archaeology, however, the term "Asuka Period" is still commonly employed in the more narrow sense used by Sekino.


"Asuka" as a Place Name

Today the term "Asuka" commonly refers to a broad area centering around present-day Asuka-mura, but including parts of Kashihara-shi,Sakurai-shi,Takatori-cho, etc. However, in the 7th and 8th centuries, "Asuka" was used primarily in reference to the area bounded on the west by the Asuka River, bounded on the north by Mount Kagu (Kaguyama) , and having its southern boundary in the vicinity of the Tachibanadera. The more northerly area of the Fujiwara capital and also the present-day districts of Toyura. Hinokuma, etc. (within Asuka-mura) seem not at that time to have been included in the designation "Asuka." Today, Asuka is located in the present-day village of Asuka, (Takaichi District of) Nara Prefecture, [Source: Asuka Historical Museum]

It is not known exactly how Asuka got its name. It may have been named after the Common Crossbill bird, or isuka in Japanese, or after the landform, suka, meaning sandbar, sandbank or delta). Or according to another theory, it was named in honour of Asuka Nyorai, the Japanese equivalent of Akshobhya, one of the Five Buddhas of Wisdom, who was worshipped in the Asuka-dera (temple), the Asuka-niimasu-jinja (shrine for his manifestation as a Shinto god). [Source: Aileen Kawagoe, Heritage of Japan website, ]

In old documents, "Asuka" may be found written in various ways, with differing sets of Chinese characters. There is no single generally accepted explanation for the origin of writing "Asuka" with the two characters meaning. respectively, "to fly" and "bird." One hypothesis is that it derives from the stock epithet "of flying birds" ( tobu tori no) commonly prefixed to the place name "Asuka" in poetry. Another theory has it that these two characters were first applied as the result of the recorded appearance of what was alleged to be a particularly auspicious bird (shucho) in the year 685 (15th year of Emperor Tenmu’s reign). Other writings of the same place name use combinations of either two or three characters whose phonetic values render, in apposition,the sequence asu-ka, or a-su-ka. (See Japanese text for examples.)

Early History of Asuka

Asuka 3000 years ago in the Jomon Period: At this time the Asuka region was covered by woodlands and moors with deer and wild boar. Humans were already settled in scattered locations. They made use of earthen vessels and stone tools, and lived by hunting wild animals and collecting fruits and berries. [Source: Asuka Historical Museum]

Asuka 2000 years ago in the Yayoi Period: In Asuka at this time there were wet rice fields and agricultural villages. Over time, iron blades made their appearance, replacing implements of stone. Among the people, there was a distinctions between those who exercised control and those who were controlled.

Asuka 1600 years ago in the Korfun Period: In the Japanese islands at this time, members of the ruling house and powerful clans were vigorously pushing for the unification of the country. As one means of displaying their power they built large tumulus graves (kofun) for themselves made of large stones and high mounds of earth. Asuka at this time had not yet attained its later distinction as the country’s administrative center, and tumulus graves were not yet being built here. It is worth noting that at this time, or soon thereafter, newcomers arriving from the Korean peninsula were beginning to settle throughout the area of present-day Asuka Village (Asuka-mura) and in other nearby localities.

Asuka 1,400 years ago at the beginning of the "Asuka Period": Together with the acquisition of power and influence by the Soga clan, a wealthy family which exercised some degree of control over the immigrant settlers in the region, Asuka rapidly became a center of politics and culture. The newly arrived Buddhist culture first bloomed here. Temples, imperial residences and the homes of wealthy and influential families were built in close proximity to one another, and the ancient Japanese nation-state, with Asuka at its focal point, proceeded to take form.

Asuka Timeline

Buddha head from Yamadadera

538: Buddhism introduced from Paekche, Korea (also said to be 552). [Source: Nara National Research Institute for Cultural Properties ; Charles T. Keally, Professor of Archaeology and Anthropology (retired), Sophia University, Tokyo, ]

Late 500s: Struggles between Soga Umako and Mononobe Moriya.

587: Soga defeats Mononobe.

588-596: Craftsmen from Paekche build Hoko-ji (Asuka-dera).

589: Sui Dynasty unifies China.

592: Empress Suiko enthroned at the Toyura Palace, Asuka after Soga Umako kills Sushun Tenno and installs Suiko.

593: Shotoku Taishi (Prince Shotoku) becomes active in Japanese history (d. 622 at age 49).

594: Buddhism becomes the official religion.

603: Imperial palace moves to th Oharida Palace.

604: Seventeen Article Constitution promulgated.

606: Sakatadera temple erected.

607: Ono no Imoko sent to Sui China.

607: Construction of the Horyuji temple begins under Shotoku Taishi.

618: Tang Dynasty defeats Sui.

620: Shotoku Taishi and Soga Umako edit the first major documents produced in Japan.

630: First delegation sent to Tang China.

641: Construction of Yamadadera temple begins.

Shotoku Taishi as a Young Man

645: First use of the nengo (reign date) dating system (the first nengo is Taika).

645: Prince Nakano Oe assassinates Soga no Iruka.

646: Taika Reforms begin; these reforms discourage the building of large mound tombs. For some historians this marks the beginning of the Hakuho period. 658: Abe-no-Hirafu battles the Emishi and the Mishihase; 659 he pacifies the Emishi; 660 he battles the Mishihase again.

663: United force of Japan and Paekche (northern Korea) loses to the Tang army. Wa and Paekche forces are defeated at the Paekchon River (Hakusukinoe or Hakusonk in Japanese) by the T'ang and Silla forces.

670: First census register compiled.

673: Emperor Tenmu enthroned at the Asuka Kiyomihara palace.

676: Silla unifies the Korean peninsula.

681: Compilation of the Ritsuryo legal code and official historic chronicles begin.

685: Buddhism becomes the mandatory religion.

689: Asuka Kiyomihara Code enacted.

690: Empress Zetianwuhou of Tang enthroned.

694: Capital moved to Fujiwara-kyo, the first "permanent" capital.

701: Taiho Code put into effect.

708: Wado Kaichin (bronze coin) issued.

708: Horyu-ji rebuilt.

708: Relocation of the Capital to Nara is decided.

710: Capital moves to Nara (Heijo-kyo).

Asuka Period Imperial Rulers (A.D. 538–710)

Kimmei (539-571 in the Nihon Shoki, probably correct).

Empress Suiko

Bidatsu (572-585 in the Nihon Shoki, probably correct).

Yomei (585-587 in the Nihon Shoki, probably correct).

Sushun (587-592 in the Nihon Shoki, probably correct).

Suiko (592-628 in the Nihon Shoki, probably correct, female/empress).

Jomei (629-641 in the Nihon Shoki, probably correct).

Kogyoku (642-645 in the Nihon Shoki, probably correct, female/empress).

Kotoku (645-654 in the Nihon Shoki, probably correct).

Saimei (655-661 in the Nihon Shoki, probably correct, female/empress).

Tenji (662-671 in the Nihon Shoki, probably correct).

Kobun (671-672 in the Nihon Shoki, probably correct).

Temmu (673-686 in the Nihon Shoki, probably correct).

Jito (690-697 in the Nihon Shoki, probably correct, female/empress).

Mommu (697-707 in the Nihon Shoki, probably correct).

Gemmei (707-715 in the Nihon Shoki, probably correct, female/empress).

[Source: Charles T. Keally, Professor of Archaeology and Anthropology (retired), Sophia University, Tokyo, , The Nihon Shoki is an ancient history record finished in A.D. 720]

Rise of the Solar Uji and the Nakatomi/Fujiwara

According to “Topics in Japanese Cultural History”: As its name implies, this uji claimed descent from the sun (or its equivalent, the solar deity Amaterasu). Archaeological evidence strongly suggests that this uji changed its alleged ancestor several times in the distant past, but by the sixth century, if not earlier, it was claiming descent from the sun, a claim that continued into modern times. Did the other powerful uji allied with it believe this claim of solar descent? It is hard to say with certainty, but they did seem to recognize the superiority of the solar uji, at least in theory. In practice, however, there were numerous occasions when theoretically subordinate allied uji threatened to usurp the solar uji’s superior position. An uji with the name Soga, for example, came very close to eliminating and replacing the solar uji during the early 600s. With assistance of members of other, non-Soga uji who also felt threatened by the powerful Soga, leading members of the solar uji launched a violent attack on the Soga in 645, killing its leaders. [Source: “Topics in Japanese Cultural History” by Gregory Smits, Penn State University ~]

“To consolidate its victory, the solar uji declared its head "emperor" of the Japanese islands. So it is only from this time that most of the Japanese islands came under the control of a centrally-located monarch--at least in name. So now let us change its name from solar uji to imperial clan or imperial family. In fact, however, the newly-named imperial clan lacked the military power to enforce its claims of emperorship at this time. As before, it had to rely on the backing of its allies. The major difference was that instead of the Soga uji, it was an uji called Nakatomi that now wielded the predominance of power in the confederation. In 669, the head of the imperial clan granted the Nakatomi a new name in honor of their service. Henceforth, this powerful uji was called Fujiwara. As we will see, although requiring two centuries to accomplish, the Fujiwara eventually usurped most of the power of the imperial clan. But they learned from the Soga’s fate and never sought to call themselves emperors or to take over the emperor’s position directly. Instead, they ruled from behind the scenes and preferred marriage politics to the politics of military force--but we are getting ahead of ourselves. ~

Returning to the late seventh century, even with Fujiwara support, the new imperial clan lacked the military power necessary for it to rule in both name and in fact as a central monarch. This situation changed in 673 when Tenmu (r. 673-686) came to the throne as emperor. Though a member of the imperial family, Tenmu was not the legitimate heir to the throne. He took over the throne by force, which may have been a good thing for the imperial family in hindsight. The reason?--Tenmu possessed significant military force in the form of soldiers loyal to him. With this force, he was able to make himself emperor both in name and in fact. Tenmu sought to bolster his own legitimacy on the throne and the legitimacy of the imperial family as emperors of the Japanese islands. He and his immediate successors went about this task along three main routes. First, they sought to re-organize the institutions of central government, a process that was not complete until the first decade of the eight century. Second, they sought to enhance their symbolic authority by re-organizing titles of nobility, rites and rituals, and, especially, by embracing and using Buddhism--a topic we explore later. Finally, Tenmu initiated the writing of two official histories, which were not completed until well into the with century. These official histories, Record of Ancient Matters (Kojiki, 712 ) and Chronicles of Japan (Nihongi, 720, also known as Nihonshoki). Not surprisingly, these official histories present narratives that legitimize the imperial family as the rightful, natural, heavenly-ordained rulers of the Japanese islands. The other powerful uji are also presented as having a rightful place in the order of things, albeit below that of the imperial family.” ~

Early influences of Korea on Japan

Korean Connections with Asuka-Era Japan

Kawagoe wrote: During the 660s, large numbers of Korean immigrants entered Japan following the Tang invasions of Korea … we know this both from Nihon shoki references as well as from the Korean styles and methods indicated in architecture, art and artefacts of the time. The immigrants came in two waves, one in 663 from Paekche and another in 668 from Koguryo. [Source: Aileen Kawagoe, Heritage of Japan website, ]

“From the Nihon shoki report, in the 663 migration wave, four hundred Paekche commoners were settled in the province of Omi, probably where new land was opened up for cultivating rice. According to the same report, one high-ranking Paekche refugee was granted court rank in Japan. Shortly after, two former Paekche ministers of state arrived in Japan with more than seven hundred Paekche men and women who were subsequently settled in the Kamo District of Omi Province. In the second wave of migration, 56 persons from Koguryo were settled in the province of Hitachi and 1,799 more Koguryo migrants were placed in Suruga as well as elsewhere in the east.

“Many of the immigrants were members of the elite, and among the Korean migrants flooding Japan were artisans, builders, administrators and various specialists whose special knowledge and services were used to strengthen the state, increase revenues and implement controls. In the year 671 as many as seventy Paekche officials were awarded Japanese court rank. The various fields in which these immigrants specialized e.g., military science, medicine, yin-yang philosophy, Confucian classics and the high ranks conferred upon them showed the Japanese court intended to make extensive use of Korean experts in what was probably an accelerated program of modernization of the country. Out of Paekche to Japan also came calendar makers, priests and diviners, temple builders, bronze casters and roof tile makers, specialists on continental music and dance and Chinese court ceremonies.”

Asuka Archeological Discoveries and the Korean Connection

women in Korean clothes
on murals inside
Takamatsu tomb
A large Asuka period pond, covering 5,000 square meters, found at Asukamura, Nara Prefecture, and believed to belong to palace of Emperor Temmu, is similar to Silla dynasty ponds found in South Korea in the 7th and 8th centuries. Seventh and 8th century tombs in Asuka have revealed images of creatures associated with the points of the Chinese and Korean compass: a blue dragon for east, a white tiger for west, an imaginary Chinese bird for south, and a turtle and snake for north.

Many historian believe these tombs provide proof that rulers in the Asuka, and possibly Yamato, periods were either Koreans or Chinese or strongly influenced by Korean or Chinese culture. Many Koreans believe they offer proof that Japanese Imperial family was founded by a Korean clan, something that Japanese nationalists vehemently deny is possible.

In 1972, archaeologists discovered well-preserved murals inside the Takamatsu tomb at the Asuka archeological site. Dated to the end of the seventh century, the murals contained images of tigers, dragons, and star constellations like those found in Korean and Chinese tombs. The people in some of the murals are wearing Korean-style clothes. Women, for example, depicted in murals in wore pleated skirts like those found in Korea at that time.

Chinese Connections with Asuka-Era Japan

7th century Japan-China document

Kawagoe wrote: Until the year 600, Chinese ideas, technology and influences came via Korea (particularly Paekche). The year 600 was the year when Empress Suiko despatched an official mission to China’s Sui court. Thereafter in the 7th century there was a huge increase in flow of methods and ideas directly from China. [Source: Aileen Kawagoe, Heritage of Japan website, ]

“China in the 6th century had become unified under General Yang Chien and following the new Sui dynasty, visitors to China including the Japanese, were dazzled by China’s walled palace-city, empire-wide canal system and other building projects; they were impressed by the complex bureaucracy that effected efficient control, by the detailed codifications of the law and the Confucian ideology in which emperors were honored as Sons of Heaven, and who commanded obedience; the Taoist teachings that legitimized imperial control.

“Through establishing its contacts with the continent, Japan then sought after the following: 1) the use of administrative techniques for increasing state power and for building of a powerful Chinese-style state; 2) various forms of Chinese learning; 3) the techniques of Chinese art(s); 4) the adoption of Chinese-style codes or codifications.”

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons,Asuka woman, MIT education; Asuka photos Asuka Museum and Asuka tourist information

Text Sources: Asuka Historical Museum; Aileen Kawagoe, Heritage of Japan website, Charles T. Keally, Professor of Archaeology and Anthropology (retired), Sophia University, Tokyo ++; Topics in Japanese Cultural History” by Gregory Smits, Penn State University ~; Asia for Educators Columbia University, Primary Sources with DBQs, ; 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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