NARA PERIOD (A.D. 710-794)

NARA PERIOD (710-794)

Great Nara Buddha
The Nara Period (A.D. 710-794) began with the completion of initial construction of Heijo (Nara), Japan’s first true capital and first true city, in 710. Before Nara was made the capital the capital was changed with each new emperor so that he would not be jinxed by the death of his predecessor. Japan’s Imperial Family resided in Nara and gradually extended its authority across the country. Until then the capital, or the seat of the throne, had been moved frequently within the area around the present cities of Nara, Kyoto, and Osaka.

According to the Metropolitan Museum of Art: “Until the eighth century, a new capital city was founded and a new imperial palace constructed each time a new emperor succeeded to the throne. The reorganization of the Japanese court into a more complex system based on the Chinese model, whereby the emperor ruled the entire country through hand-picked governors who administered laws and extracted taxes, intensified the desire for a permanent capital. Heijokyo in Nara was chosen to serve this purpose in 710. Also inspired by Chinese precedent, Japan’s first histories, the Kojiki and Nihon shoki, were compiled at this time. Chinese precedent can again be seen in the decision by the Japanese court to adopt Buddhism as the official religion and begin the faith’s most active period of imperial patronage, constructing large temples in the capital, as well as many others in the provinces throughout the country. [Source:Metropolitan Museum of Art \^/]

The Nara period is also known from a cultural point of view as the Tenpyo era. The name was taken from a period between 724 and 749 during Emperor Shomu’s reign, and it came to represent the entire Nara period and beyond due to the flourishing of Buddhist culture. 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.

Websites on Nara- and Heian-Period Japan: Essay on Nara and Heian Periods ; Wikipedia article on the Nara Period Wikipedia ; Wikipedia article on the Heian Period Wikipedia ; Essay on the Japanese Missions to Tang China ; Kusado Sengen, Excavated Medieval Town ; Kojiki, Nihongi and Sacred Shinto Texts ; Imperial Household Agency; List of Emperors of Japan ; Nara Nara Prefecture site ; Temples and Shrines in Nara Park: Kofukuji site; 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 ; Heian Art at the British Museum ; Nara Art at the Tokyo National Museum ; Early Japanese History Websites: Aileen Kawagoe, Heritage of Japan website,; 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

Nara City and the Name Nara

Map of the major buildings in Heijokyo (Nara)

The establishment of the capital city “Heijo-kyo” (Nara), where the Japanese court was bsased, in A.D. 710, marked the beginning of the Nara Period. When the capital of Japan was moved 18.4 kilometer from Fujiwara-kyo to present-day Nara city, a unprecedented construction boom ensued. The temples Yakushji, Asuakdera (now Gangoji) and Daikandaiji (now Daianji) were moved to the new sites and Kofukiji was built by Fujiwara Fuhito, the nobleman who orchestrated the move to Nara.

Nara was the first permanent capital of Japan. Modeled after Changan, the capital of Tang Dynasty China, the city was divided into western capital and eastern capitals, which together measured 4.9 kilometers from north to south and 4.3 kilometers from east to west. Geyoko, an extension of the eastern side of the eastern capital was 2.1 kilometers from north to south and 1.6 kilometers from east to west.

About 100,000 people are thought to have lived in Nara, with the royal family and nobles numbering about 100. The grounds of the one-kilometer-square Heijo Palace was located in the north. It was encircled by a roofed earthen wall. Inside were the Imperial domiciles, business quarters, gardens and other areas. Some of the buildings were built in a Chinese style. Although Nara was the permanent capital, it was not the only one. After the rebellion of Fujiwara no Hirotsugu in 740, Emperor Shomu moved the capital three times. In 744, the court was moved briefly to Naniwa-kyo which then became the new capital, before returning to Heijo-kyo, when the construction of the Great Buddha resumed.

The word “Nara” is said to be derived from the Korean word meaning “country”. But not everyone agrees weith this explaination. Zashikiwarashi posted on the Heritage of Japan website: To my knowledge, it is Koreans, perhaps only Koreans, who think (or believe) that the Japanese place name “Nara” is derived from the Korean word meaning “country.”... When the ancient Korean immigrants first settled in Japan, they certainly named their new settlements after their places of origin, such as Korai and Niiza, to name a few. But I don’t think there is the slightest possibility that they named any of their settlements “Nara.” As you know, when the first European immigrants settled in America, they named many of their new settlements after their places of origin. But did they ever name any of their settlements “Country”? No, never. The word “country” is a common noun and naming some particular place “Country” would be ridiculous. And this would also be true with the common Korean noun “nara” for the same reason. [Source: Heritage Japan website, August 3, 2010, ]

“A quick search shows that the Korean word “nara” first appears in the record from the medieval period. It is unknown what word was actually used to signify “country” in the earlier period contemporary to the Nara Period. The Nara City web site tells that “Nara” is derived from its terrain, with flat land profiles and gentle slopes.Another site says that the name is derived from Mount Nara, which was named when the government army trod down on the grasses while they were setting up a camp on the mountain (though I doubt this is a true story). Today Mount Nara is known to be the site of the graveyard for some ancient imperial family members. All in all, it seems that the Koreans’ claim – that “Nara” is derived from the Korean word meaning “country” – is mostly turned down by the local government and history-savvy Japanese bloggers and citizens, as well as historians.

Nara Timeline

708: Relocation of the Capital to Nara is decided. Buddhism introduced from Paekche, Korea. [Source: Nara National Research Institute for Cultural Properties ]

Kojiki. a Nara-era historical text

710: Capital moves to Nara.

712: Kojiki (Records of Ancient Matters) complete.

712: Emperor Xuansong of Tang enthroned.

720: Nihon Shoki (Chronicle of Japan) completed. 724: Emperor Shomu enthroned.

729: Prince Nagaya forced to commit suicide on suspicion of treason.

737: Smallpox epidemic breaks out; four brothers of the Fujiwara Family (Muchimaro, etc.) di.

740: Fujiwara no Hirotsugu’s rebellion takes plac.

740: Capital moves to Kuni.

741: Government orders the erection of provincial temples.

742: Shigaraki Palace erected.

Sutra attributed to Emperor Shomu

744: Capital moves to Naniwa.

745: Capital returns to Nara.

745: Hokkeji temple erected.

752: Consecration held of the newly made colossal Buddha figure at Todaiji temple.

754: Priest Jianzhen arrives from Tang.

757: Tachibana no Naramaro’s uprising occurs.

757: Yoro code put into effect.

757: Nara palace remodeled.

764: Production of one million miniature pagodas started.

770: Priest Dokyo falls from power.

773: Yobai Palace completed.

780: An Lushan’s rebellion breaks out in Tang.

784: Capital moves to Nagaoka.

794: Capital moves to Heian. 806: Retired Emperor Heizei moves to the Nara palace.

824: Retired Emperor Heizei dies.

864: Abandoned Nara capital reverts to rice paddies by this time.

Nara Period Imperial Rulers (710–794)

Empress Gemmei

Genmei (707–715).

Gensho (715–724).

Shomu (724–749).

Koken (749–758).

Junnin (758–764).

Shotoku (764–770).

Konin (770–781).

Kanmu (781–806).

[Source: Yoshinori Munemura, Independent Scholar, Metropolitan Museum of Art]

Derivation of the Name Nippon

Aileen Kawagoe wrote in Heritage of Japan: Before Japan had relations with China, it was known as Yamato and Hi no moto, which means ‘source of the sun’. Both Nippon and Nihon literally mean ‘the sun’s origin’ and are often translated as the Land of the Rising Sun. This nomenclature comes from the Imperial correspondence with the Chinese Sui Dynasty and refers to Japan’s eastward position relative to China. The Nara period of the eighth century marked the first emergence of a strong central Japanese state, centered on an imperial court in the city of Heijo-kyo (in modern-day Nara) that aggressively adopted Chinese administrative practices, arts, sciences and technology. [Source: Aileen Kawagoe, Heritage of Japan website, ]

“The 945 CE Tang shu “Book of Tang” (199A) was said to have the oldest Chinese reference to Rìben . [However, earlier dates have emerged see Xin Tang Shu and Haruyuki below] The “Eastern Barbarian” section lists both Wakoku and Nipponkoku , giving three explanations: Nippon is an alternate name for Wa, or the Japanese disliked Wakoku because it was “inelegant; coarse” , or Nippon was once a small part of the old Wakoku. The 1050 CE Xin Tang Shu “New Book of Tang”, which has a Riben heading for Japan under the “Eastern Barbarians”, gives more details.

“Japan in former times was called Wa-nu. It is 14,000 li distant from our capital, situated to the southeast of Silla in the middle of the ocean. It is five months’ journey to cross Japan from east to west, and a three month’s journey from south to north. (145, tr. Tsunoda 1951:38) Regarding the change in autonyms, the Xin Tang Shu says: “In … 670, an embassy came to the Court [from Japan] to offer congratulations on the conquest of Koguryo. Around this time, the Japanese who had studied Chinese came to dislike the name Wa and changed it to Nippon. According to the words of the (Japanese) envoy himself, that name was chosen because the country was so close to where the sun rises. Some say, (on the other hand), that Japan was a small country which had been subjugated by the Wa, and that the latter took over its name. As this envoy was not truthful, doubt still remains. [The envoy] was, besides, boastful, and he said that the domains of his country were many thousands of square li and extended to the ocean on the south and on the west. In the northeast, he said, the country was bordered by mountain ranges beyond which lay the land of the hairy men. (145, tr. Tsunoda 1951:40)

“It has also been suggested (Haruyuki) that “Nippon” or “Nihon” was originally the name of a territory of Baekje dynasty based on a rubbed copy of Yegun’s inscription (678) .. discovered on July, 2011. Subsequent Chinese histories refer to Japan as Rìben and only mention Wo as an old name.”

Advances Made During the Nara Period

Provinces in Japan in 701 as defined by the Taiho Code

The Nara period was epoch-making because it was the first time the nation was under the rule of law. The laws of the time, known as Taiho Ritsuryo, stipulated that the emperor was obliged to show kindness to the people, provide them with medical treatment and care for the elderly and handicapped.Of the eight empresses that have ruled Japan, six reigned during the Nara period.

Before the Taiho Code was established, the capital was customarily moved after the death of an emperor because of the ancient belief that a place of death was polluted. Reforms and bureaucratization of government led to the establishment of a permanent imperial capital at Heijokyo, or Nara, in A.D. 710. It soon had a population of 200,000, representing nearly 4 percent of the country’s population, and some 10,000 people worked in government jobs. [Source: Library of Congress *]

Economic and administrative activity increased during the Nara period. Roads linked Nara to provincial capitals, and taxes were collected more efficiently and routinely. Coins were minted, if not widely used. Outside the Nara area, however, there was little commercial activity, and in the provinces the old Shotoku land reform systems declined. By the mid-eighth century, shoen (landed estates), one of the most important economic institutions in medieval Japan, began to rise as a result of the search for a more manageable form of landholding. Local administration gradually became more self-sufficient, while the breakdown of the old land distribution system and the rise of taxes led to the loss or abandonment of land by many people who became the e people," or ronin. Some of these formerly "public people" were privately employed by large landholders, and "public lands" increasingly reverted to the shoen. *

Factional fighting at the imperial court continued throughout the Nara period. Imperial family members, leading court families, such as the Fujiwara, and Buddhist priests all contended for influence. In the late Nara period, financial burdens on the state increased, and the court began dismissing nonessential officials. In 792 universal conscription was abandoned, and district heads were allowed to establish private militia forces for local police work. Decentralization of authority became the rule despite the reforms of the Nara period. *

Historical Records in the Nara Period

The earliest written records of Japan were the “Kojiki” (The Record of Ancient Matters), written in A.D. 712 with Chinese characters depicting the Japanese language, and the “Nihon Shoki” (Japanese Chronicles), a document compiles in 720 that chronicles Japan’s history from the birth of the first emperor to A.D. 697.

Both documents presented myths as if they were history, inserted fictitious rulers, and claimed the Japanese had a divine purpose on earth. It is likely based on oral tradition preserved by court officials who were blind and responsible for ritual and music.

The “Kojiki” is the oldest existing chronicle and oldest book written in Japanese. The “Nihon Shoki” has traditionally been a source of nationalist propaganda and was required reading for all schoolchildren until after World War II. Some scholars believe it was penned nu Fujiwara no Fuhito (659-720), one of the patriarchs of the Fujiwara clan to gloss over the murderous acts committed in the clan’s rise to power.

An excavation at a train yard in Dazaifu, near Fukuoka in Kyushu, has revealed the remains of two large, prestigious buildings, as well as expensive eating utensils and pottery. The finds, including tin and copper alloy spoons, Chinese and Korean pots, and Nara tricolored ware (the finest tableware in Japan at the time), dated to the 8th and 9th centuries. The assemblage appears to identify the site as a diplomatic facility, mentioned in ancient documents, that housed and fed envoys from China and Korea. [Source: Nobumasa Inoue, Board of Education of Dazaifu, Japan]

Nihon shoki

Myth Behind the Establishment of the Capital of Japan in Nara

Describing the mythological establishment of the Japanese capital in Nara, Kevin Short, a cultural anthropology professor in Tokyo, wrote in the Daily Yomiuri, “When Amaterasu the Sun Goddess wished to establish a kingdom here on earth, she equipped her grandson with rice seeds and various imperial paraphernalia and sent him down to the island of Kyushu. A few generations later, however, the heir to the throne, Iwarehiko (Jimmu), decided that the land could be better governed from a more central location, and set out on a journey to the east.” [Source: Kevin Short, Daily Yomiuri, June 17, 2010]

“After sailing through the Seto Inland Sea, the imperial expedition landed on the shores of what is now Osaka. From here they planned to push eastward over the Ikoma and Kongo mountains into the fertile Nara Basin. Before they could even gain a foothold, however, they were turned away by fierce resistance from the local clans. Back in their boats they sailed south then eastward, rounding the Kii Peninsula and landing somewhere near modern day Nachi-Katsuura in Wakayama Prefecture. From here the route to the Nara Basin lay to the north, passing over a long stretch of steep, densely forested mountains. Once in the forest the expedition quickly lost their way. Furthermore, enthralled in a powerful spell woven by a local bear sorcerer, all the men fell into a deep stupor.”

“But Amaterasu the Sun Goddess was not ready to abandon her descendent and protege. From the High Plain of Heaven she had a magical seven-pronged sword sent down and presented to Ihare. With sword in hand, the sorcerer’s spell immediately dissolved. Next, Amaterasu dispatched her own familiar spirit, a giant three-legged solar crow called the Yata-garasu, which guided the expedition along the difficult mountain path all the way to Yoshino at the southern edge of the Nara Basin.”

“Arriving in Nara, Iwarehiko subdued all the rebellious clans and established the kingdom of Yamato. In history books he is better known as Jimmu, the first in Japan’s long line of imperial emperors that still continues today.”

Ritsuryo System

assassination of Soga no Emishi in 645

The Taika Reform 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. [Source: Library of Congress *]

After the death of Soga no Emishi in 645, the rulers and administrators in Asuka adopted reforms that led to the formation of a Chinese-style state known as the ritsuryo state. Measures were taken to increase the emperor’s autocratic power by making Buddhism a state religion. Buddhist temples and Buddhist worship were used in support of the ruler’s authority, similar to what had taken place in China and Korea. Compilation of the Ritsuryo legal code and official historic chronicles began in 681.

Kawagoe wrote: “ Before the Soga leader’s death, the Buddhism that was practiced in the capital had the stamp of the Soga clan on it as it had been the key patron of Buddhism and the ujidera temple complexes were in the control of the Soga clan. After his death however, actions were taken to sever established Buddhist temples from Soga patronage and the control of temple complexes was placed under the charge of emperors and empresses instead. This marked the beginning of the period known as ritsuryo Buddhism. [Source: Aileen Kawagoe, Heritage of Japan website,]

The ritsuryo system was codified in several stages. The mi Code, named after the provincial site of Emperor Tenji’s court, was completed in about A.D. 668. Further codification took place with the promulgation by Empress Jito in 689 of the Asuka- Kiyomihara Code, named for the location of the late Emperor Temmu’s court. The ritsuryo system was further consolidated and codified in 701 under the Taiho Ritsuryo (Great Treasure Code or Taiho Code), which, except for a few modifications and being relegated to primarily ceremonial functions, remained in force until 1868. The Taiho Code provided for Confucian-model penal provisions (light rather than harsh punishments) and Chinese-style central administration through the Department of Rites, which was devoted to Shinto and court rituals, and the Department of State, with its eight ministries (for central administration, ceremonies, civil affairs, the imperial household, justice, military affairs, people’s affairs, and the treasury). A Chinese-style civil service examination system based on the Confucian classics was also adopted. Tradition circumvented the system, however, as aristocratic birth continued to be the main qualification for higher position. The Taiho Code did not address the selection of the sovereign. Several empresses reigned from the fifth to the eighth centuries, but after 770 succession was restricted to males, usually from father to son, although sometimes from ruler to brother or uncle. *

Nara-Era Parliament in Shiga?

Emperor Shomu

In November 2000, archeologists said they may have found a parliament building, called “chodo,” at excavated site of the Shigaraki-no-miya Palace of Emperor Shomu (701-756) near Otsu, Shiga Prefecture. The Japan Times reported: Archaeologists said they have excavated a site that contains the possible foundations of an eighth century Parliament building in the town of Shigaraki in the prefecture. The foundations suggest the building measured about 92 meters by 12 meters, according to researchers from the Shigaraki municipal education board. [Source: Japan Times, November 23, 2000 ^^^]

“The foundations were discovered on a site believed to be where the Shigaraki-no-miya Palace once stood in a town that Emperor Shomu (701-756) used as the country’s capital for about five months in 745. Other ruins believed to have been part of the Emperor’s residence had previously been uncovered at the site, the researchers said. Statesmen and officials are believed to have discussed politics on behalf of the Emperor in this type of Parliament building, called “chodo,” they said. The scale of the building appears to be similar to that of one unearthed earlier at the ancient capital of Heijo, currently the city of Nara. The structure is unique, however, because it seems to have had eaves on the north side as well as the east and west, according to researchers. ^^^

“The remains of what appears to have been main thoroughfares as well as the ruins of some bridges that ran along them were also discovered, presenting the strongest evidence to date that the site is indeed that of the Shigaraki-no-miya Palace, they added. The ruins of what appears to have been a road that was as much as 12 meters wide were also found, with a nearby tree trunk confirmed by researchers to have been from a tree cut down around 744. Up to now, a site roughly 2 km to the south had been believed to be the site of the former capital.

Nara-Era Coinage

From the end of the seventh century to the eighth century, Japan introduced various social systems from China (Tang Dynasty) in order to build a centralized government based on the “ritsuryo” code. During this process, coins modeled after Chinese ones were issued. Three types of copper coins were minted in the Nara period (eighth century), including the Wado Kaichin coin, and nine types in the Heian period (from the end of the eighth century). However, Japan subsequently suspended the mintage and circulation of coins. [Source: Bank of Japan Currency Museum ]

The ritsuryo code-based government minted 12 kinds of copper coins, including the Wado Kaichin. The coins became smaller in size and lower in quality (lead content increased due to a shortage of copper) over time and the exchange rate was set at one new coin for 10 old coins. This resulted in a rapid decrease in the value of the copper coins, and people subsequently lost faith in the value of the coins. The government suspended minting copper coins in the mid 10th century; the last coin was called the Kengen Taiho minted in 958.

The Naganobori copper mine (presently located in Yamaguchi Prefecture), is believed to be one of the largest copper production sites of ancient Japan. From 9th century, its copper production began to decrease, while the production of lead increased. See Asuka-Era Coinage

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons: Nara Buddha: Ray Kinnane; 2) Nara Man: , MIT education

Text Sources: 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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