Nara period (奈良時代, Nara jidai) of the history of Japan
covers the years from AD 710 to 794.
Empress Genmei established the
Heijō-kyō (present-day Nara). 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, or Kyoto, a decade later in 794.
Most of Japanese society during this period was agricultural in nature
and centered on villages. Most of the villagers followed a religion
based on the worship of natural and ancestral spirits called kami.
The capital at Nara was modeled after Chang'an, the capital city of
Tang China. In many other ways, the Japanese upper classes
patterned themselves after the Chinese, including adopting Chinese
written system, fashion, and the religion of Buddhism.
Nara period literature
2 Economic, livelihood, and administrative developments
3 Cultural developments and the establishment of Buddhism
4 International relations
6 See also
8 Further reading
Nara period literature
Concentrated efforts by the imperial court to record and document its
history produced the first works of
Japanese literature during the
Nara period. Works such as the
Kojiki and the
Nihon Shoki were
political in nature, 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. Over time, personal collections were
referenced to establish the first large collection of Japanese poetry
Man'yōshū sometime after 759. Chinese characters were used
to express sounds of Japanese until kana were invented. The Chinese
characters used to express the sounds of Japanese are known as
Economic, livelihood, and administrative developments
The primary building, i.e. the Daigoku-den at the
Heijō Palace (In
the center of the photograph: this is a modern version built for the
1300th anniversary of Nara becoming Japan's capital). Tōdai-ji's
Daibutsuden and Wakakusayama can be seen in the rear (January, 2010).
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. It is to be noted that the capital
was moved shortly (for reasons described later in this section) to
Kuni-kyō (present-day Kizugawa) in 740–744, to Naniwa-kyō
(present-day Osaka) 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 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
"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
this period, Prince
Nagaya seized power at the court after the death
of Fujiwara no Fuhito. Fuhito was succeeded by four sons, Muchimaro,
Umakai, Fusasaki, and Maro. They put Emperor Shōmu, the prince by
Fuhito's daughter, on the throne. In 729, they arrested
regained control. However, as the first outbreak of smallpox spread
from Kyūshū in 735, all four brothers were killed two years later,
resulting in temporary shrinking of Fujiwara's dominance. It is
without doubt that the Emperor was heavily shocked about this
disaster, and he moved the palace three times in only five years since
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
The East Pagoda of
Yakushi-ji temple was built in 730, during the Nara
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
The central government established temples called kokubunji in the
Tōdai-ji was the kokubunji of Yamato Province
(present-day Nara Prefecture).
Although these efforts stopped short of making
Buddhism the state
Buddhism heightened the status of the imperial family.
Buddhist influence at court increased under the two reigns of Shōmu's
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 —
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
Tōdai-ji temple. They are called
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
(正倉院文書). 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.
contribute greatly to the research of Japanese political and social
systems of the Nara period, while they even indicate the development
of Japanese writing systems (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 civilization by
sending diplomatic envoys known as kentōshi to the Tang court every
twenty years. Many Japanese students, both lay and Buddhist priests,
Chang'an and Luoyang. 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
An Lushan Rebellion
An Lushan Rebellion and remained in Japan.
Relations with the Korean kingdom of
Silla were initially peaceful,
with regular diplomatic exchanges. However, the rise of
Silla destabilized Japan-
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.
710: Japan's capital is moved from
Fujiwara-kyō to Heijō-kyō,
modeled after China's capital Chang'an
712: The collection of tales Kojiki
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
Emperor Shōmu issues a rescript to build the
Buddha), later to be completed and placed in Tōdai-ji, Nara
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
^ Dolan, Ronald E. and Worden, Robert L., ed. (1994) "Nara and Heian
Periods, A.D. 710–1185" Japan: A Country Study. Library of Congress,
Federal Research Division.
^ Ellington, Lucien (2009). Japan. Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO.
p. 28. ISBN 978-1-59884-162-6.
^ See Wybe Kuitert, Two Early Japanese Gardens 1991, 
^ Lockard, Craig A. (2009). Societies Networks And Transitions: Volume
B From 600 To 1750. Wadsworth. pp. 290–291.
Brown, Delmer M. (1993). Cambridge History of Japan: Ancient
Farris, William (1993). Japan's Medieval Population: Famine,
Fertility, and Warfare in a Transformative Age. University of Hawai'i
Ooms, Herman (2009). Imperial Politics and Symbolics in Ancient Japan:
The Tenmu Dynasty. pp. 650–800.
Sansom, George Bailey, G. B. (1978). Cambridge History of Japan:
Kornicki, Peter F. (2012). "The Hyakumantō darani and the origins of
printing in eighth-century Japan". International Journal of Asian
Bender, Ross (2012). Friday, Karl, ed. "Emperor, Aristocracy, and the
Ritsuryō State: Court Politics in Nara".
Japan Emerging: Premodern
History to 1850. Westview Press. Retrieved October 11, 2012.
Kojima, Noriyuki (1994). Shin Nihon Koten Bungaku Zenshū: Nihon Shoki
(vol. 1). Shōgakukan. ISBN 4-09-658002-3.
This article incorporates public domain material from the
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