The of the history of Japan
covers the years from AD 710 to 794. Empress Genmei
established the capital of Heijō-kyō
). Except for a five-year period (740–745), when the capital was briefly moved again, it remained the capital of Japanese civilization until Emperor Kanmu
established a new capital, Nagaoka-kyō
, in 784, before moving to Heian-kyō
, modern Kyoto
, a decade later in 794.
Japanese society during this period was predominately agricultural and centered on village
life. Most of the villagers followed Shinto
ism, a religion based on the worship of natural and ancestral spirits named ''kami
The capital at Nara was modeled after Chang'an
, the capital city of the Tang dynasty
. In many other ways, the Japanese upper classes patterned themselves after the Chinese, including adopting the Chinese writing system, Chinese fashion, and a Chinese version of Buddhism
Nara period literature
Concentrated efforts by the imperial court
to record its history produced the first works of Japanese literature
during the Nara period. Works such as the ''Kojiki
'' and the ''Nihon Shoki
'' were political, used to record and therefore justify and establish the supremacy of the rule of the emperors within Japan
With the spread of written language, the writing of Japanese poetry
, known in Japanese as ''waka
'', began. The largest and longest-surviving collection of Japanese poetry, the ''Man'yōshū
'', was compiled from poems mostly composed between 600 and 759 CE.
This, and other Nara texts, used Chinese characters to express the sounds of Japanese
, known as ''man'yōgana
Economic, livelihood, and administrative developments
Before the Taihō 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 Heijō-kyō
, or Nara
, in AD 710.
The capital was moved shortly (for reasons described later in this section) to Kuni-kyō
) in 740–744, to Naniwa-kyō
) in 744–745, to Shigarakinomiya (紫香楽宮, present-day Shigaraki
) in 745, and moved back to Nara in 745. Nara was Japan's first truly urban center. It soon had a population of 200,000 (representing nearly 7% of the country's population) and some 10,000 people worked in government jobs.
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 Shōtoku
land reform systems declined. By the mid-eighth century, ''shōen
'' (landed estates), one of the most important economic institutions in prehistoric 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 "wave people" (''furōsha
''). Some of these formerly "public people" were privately employed by large landholders, and "public lands" increasingly reverted to the ''shōen''.
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. Earlier during this period, Prince Nagaya
seized power at the court after the death of Fujiwara no Fuhito
. Fuhito was succeeded by four sons, Muchimaro
, and Maro. They put Emperor Shōmu, the prince by Fuhito's daughter, on the throne. In 729, they arrested Nagaya and regained control. However, as a major outbreak of smallpox
spread from Kyūshū in 735, all four brothers died two years later, resulting in temporary reduction in the Fujiwara dominance. In 740, a member of the Fujiwara clan, Hirotsugu, launched a rebellion from his base in Fukuoka, Kyushu. Although defeated, it is without doubt that the Emperor was heavily shocked about these events, and he moved the palace three times in only five years from 740, until he eventually returned to Nara. 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. Eventually, to return control to imperial hands, the capital was moved in 784 to Nagaoka-kyō
and in 794 to Heian-kyō
(literally Capital of Peace and Tranquility), about twenty-six kilometers north of Nara. By the late eleventh century, the city was popularly called Kyoto
(capital city), the name it has had ever since.
Cultural developments and the establishment of Buddhism
Some of Japan's literary monuments were written during the Nara period, including the ''Kojiki
'' and ''Nihon Shoki
'', the first national histories, compiled in 712 and 720 respectively; the ''Man'yōshū
'', an anthology of poems; and the ''Kaifūsō
'', an anthology written in Chinese by Japanese emperors and princes.
Another major cultural development of the era was the permanent establishment of Buddhism
. Buddhism was introduced by Baekje
in the sixth century but had a mixed reception until the Nara period, when it was heartily embraced by Emperor Shōmu
. Shōmu and his Fujiwara consort were fervent Buddhists and actively promoted the spread of Buddhism, making it the "guardian of the state" and a way of strengthening Japanese institutions.
During Shōmu's reign, the Tōdai-ji
(literally Eastern Great Temple) was built. Within it was placed the Great Buddha Daibutsu
: a 16-metre-high, gilt-bronze statue. This Buddha was identified with the Sun Goddess, and a gradual syncretism of Buddhism and Shinto ensued. Shōmu declared himself the "Servant of the Three Treasures
" of Buddhism: the Buddha, the law or teachings of Buddhism, and the Buddhist community.
The central government established temples called ''kokubunji''
in the provinces
. The Tōdai-ji was the kokubunji of Yamato Province
(present-day Nara Prefecture
Although these efforts stopped short of making Buddhism the state religion, Nara Buddhism heightened the status of the imperial family. Buddhist influence at court increased under the two reigns of Shōmu's daughter. As Empress Kōken
(r. 749–758) she brought many Buddhist priests into court. Kōken abdicated in 758 on the advice of her cousin, Fujiwara no Nakamaro
. When the retired empress came to favor a Buddhist faith healer named Dōkyō
, Nakamaro rose up in arms in 764
but was quickly crushed. Kōken charged the ruling emperor with colluding with Nakamaro and had him deposed. Kōken reascended the throne as Empress Shōtoku (r. 764–770).
The empress commissioned the printing of 1 million prayer charms — the Hyakumantō Darani
— many examples of which survive. The small scrolls, dating from 770, are among the earliest printed works in the world. Shōtoku had the charms printed to placate the Buddhist clergy. She may even have wanted to make Dōkyō emperor, but she died before she could act. Her actions shocked Nara society and led to the exclusion of women from imperial succession and the removal of Buddhist priests from positions of political authority.
Many of the Japanese artworks and imported treasures from other countries during the era of Emperors Shōmu and Shōtoku are archived in Shōsō-in
of Tōdai-ji temple. They are called Shōsōin treasures and illustrate the cosmopolitan culture known as Tempyō culture
. Imported treasures show cultural influences of Silk Road
areas, including China, Korea, India, and the Islamic Empire. Shosoin stores more than 10,000 paper documents so-called . These are records written in the reverse side of the sutra or in the wrapping of imported items that survived as a result of reusing wasted official documents. Shōsōin documents contribute greatly to the research of Japanese political and social systems of the Nara period, while they even indicate the development of Japanese writing system
s (such as katakana
The first authentically Japanese gardens were built in the city Nara at the end of the eighth century. Shorelines and stone settings were naturalistic, different from the heavier, earlier continental mode of constructing pond edges. Two such gardens have been found at excavations; both were used for poetry-writing festivities.
The Nara court aggressively imported Chinese
knowledge about civilization (Tang Dynasty
) by sending diplomatic envoys known as kentōshi
to the Tang
court every twenty years. Many Japanese students, both lay and Buddhist priests, studied in Chang'an
. One student named Abe no Nakamaro
passed the Chinese civil examination
to be appointed to governmental posts in China. He served as Governor-General in Annam
or Chinese Vietnam
from 761 through 767. Many students who returned from China, such as Kibi no Makibi
, were promoted to high government posts.
China never sent official envoys to Japan, for Japanese kings, or emperors as they styled themselves, did not seek investiture from the Chinese emperor. A local Chinese government in Lower Yangzi Valley sent a mission to Japan to return Japanese envoys who entered China through Balhae
. The Chinese local mission could not return home due to the An Lushan Rebellion
and remained in Japan.
The Hayato people
(隼人) in Southern Kyushu
frequently resisted rule by the Yamato dynasty
during the Nara period. They are believed to be of Austronesian
origin and had a unique culture that was different from the Japanese people.
[The Hayato dance appears repeatedly in the Kojiki, Nihon Shoki, and Shoku Nihongi, performed on the occasion of paying tribute to the court and for the benefit of foreign visitors.]
However, they were eventually subjugated by the Ritsuryō
Relations with the Korea
n kingdom of Silla
were initially peaceful, with regular diplomatic exchanges. However, the rise of Balhae
north of Silla destabilized Japan-Silla relations. Balhae
sent its first mission in 728 to Nara, which welcomed them as the successor state to Goguryeo
, with which Japan had been allied until Silla unified the Three Kingdoms of Korea
's capital is moved from Fujiwara-kyō
, modeled after China
's capital Chang'an
*712: The collection of tales ''Kojiki
*717: The Hōshi Ryokan
is founded, and it survives to become Japan's (and the world's) second oldest known hotel in 2012. (The oldest was founded in 705.)
*720: The collection of tales ''Nihon Shoki
*735–737: A devastating smallpox epidemic
spread from Kyushu to eastern Honshu and Nara, killing an estimated one-third of the Japanese population in these areas.
The epidemic is said to have led to the construction of several prominent Buddhist structures during this time period as a form of appeasement.
*743: Emperor Shōmu
issues a rescript to build the ''Daibutsu'' (Great Buddha), later to be completed and placed in Tōdai-ji
*752: The Great Buddha (Daibutsu
) at Tōdai-ji was completed
*759: The poetic anthology ''Man'yōshū
*784: The emperor moves the capital to Nagaoka
*788: The Buddhist monk Saichō
founds the monastery of Mt Hiei
, near Kyoto
, which becomes a vast ensemble of temples
*Fujiwara no Hirotsugu Rebellion
Category:8th century in Japan