The Nara period ( 奈良時代, Nara-jidai) of the history of Japan covers the years from about 710 to 784 C.E., during which the Empress Genmei (元明天皇, Gemmei Tennō) established the capital of Heijō-kyō (平城京, present-day Nara). Except for five years (740–745), when the capital was briefly moved again, it remained the capital of Japanese civilization until Emperor Kammu (桓武天皇, Kammu Tennō) established a new capital Nagaoka-kyō (長岡京) at Nagaoka in 784, before moving to Heian-kyō (平安京), Kyoto (京都), a decade later in 794.
During the Nara period, the power and influence of Buddhism in Japan expanded, and many new temples were built to accommodate the growing numbers of worshippers and clergy. Much of this activity was initiated by Emperor Shomu (聖武天皇, Shōmu Tennō) (701 – May 2, 756; r. 729–749), the 45th imperial ruler of Japan, and a great patron of Buddhism. To fill the temples, Buddhist deities in bronze, wood, clay, and lacquer were commissioned. The colossal bronze Buddha (Daibutsu) of Todai-ji temple was created to ensure the prosperity and protection of the entire nation. Due to increased contacts with China, the paintings and sculpture of this period were modeled closely on the style of the contemporary Tang dynasty. The capital at Nara was modeled after Chang'an (長安, present-day Xi'an, 西安), the capital city of Tang China (唐). In many other ways, the Japanese upper classes patterned themselves after the Chinese, adopting Chinese written characters (kanji, 漢字) and making Buddhism the official state religion, to the dismay of the ordinary people, who still followed the Shinto religion, based around the worship of natural and ancestral spirits (kami). The establishment of the capital at Nara marked the distinct alienation of the aristocratic ruling class from the agricultural society of ordinary people.
The Nara period saw a profound change in Japanese government brought about by the adoption of Chinese models of government, incorporating Confucian ideals. Before the Taihō Code (大宝律令, Taihō-ritsuryō) was established in 701 under the direction of Emperor Mommu, the capital was customarily moved after the death of each 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 (平城京), or Nara, in 710. The capital at Nara, which gave its name to the new period, was styled after the grand Chinese Tang dynasty (唐, 618–907) capital at Chang'an (長安). It was a carefully planned city, laid out on a rigorous grid, and was intended to be a permanent capital. (It was moved again only eighty years later.) Nara was Japan's first truly urban center. 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.
The capital was moved briefly, for political reasons, between 740 and 745; to Kunikyo (恭仁京, present-day Kamo) between 740 and 744, to Shigarakinomiya (紫香楽宮, present-day Shigaraki) in 744, and Naniwa-kyo (難波京, present-day Osaka) in 744–745. In 745 it was moved back to Nara.
The politics of the Nara period were characterized by the dominance of the Fujiwara clan and its struggles against its rivals, discontent among members of the imperial family, the efforts of the imperial government to impose nationwide control at the expense of local administrations, and the parallel attempt of the Buddhist temples to establish their authority at the expense of the imperial government. Factional fighting at the imperial court continued throughout the Nara period as imperial family members, leading court families such as the Fujiwara (藤原), Tachibana, and Otomo clans, and Buddhist priests all contended for influence. After the death of Fujiwara no Fuhito early in the Nara period, Prince Nagaya (長屋王, Nagaya-no-ōkimi, 684 – March 20, 729, a son of Prince Takechi and great-grandson of Emperor Temmu) seized power at the court. Fujiwara Fuhito was succeeded by four sons, Muchimaro, Umakai, Fusasaki, and Maro, who put Emperor Shomu, the prince by Fuhito's daughter, on the throne. In 729, they arrested Nagaya and regained control of the court. In 735, the first outbreak of smallpox spread from Kyushu, and two years later all four brothers died of the disease, resulting in the temporary loss of the Fujiwara clan's dominance. Undoubtedly the Emperor was shocked by this disaster, and this may have been the reason why, starting in 740, he moved his palace three times in five years, eventually returning 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 (長岡京) and in 794 to Heian-kyō (平安京, Capital of Peace and Tranquility), about twenty-six kilometers north of Nara. By the late eleventh century, Heian was popularly called Kyoto (京都, capital city).
Fujiwara no Fuhito (藤原不比等: 659–720) was a powerful member of the imperial court of Japan during the Asuka and Nara periods. The second son of Fujiwara no Kamatari (or, according to one theory, of Emperor Tenji), he had sons by two women, Fujiwara no Muchimaro, Fujiwara no Fusasaki (681–737), Fujiwara no Umakai and Fujiwara no Maro, who became the founders of the four principal lineages of the Fujiwara clan: The South, North, Ceremonial, and Capital lineages. His son Fusasaki became the ancestor of the regent line of the Fujiwara clan. During the reign of Emperor Mommu (683–707), the government ordered that only the descendants of Fuhito could bear the Fujiwara surname and could be appointed to the office of Daijokan.
Fujiwara Fuhito first appeared as a courtier in 688. In 697, Prince Karu, the son of Prince Kusakabe and grandson of Emperor Temmu and Empress Jitō, was appointed crown prince. Fuhito strongly supported this appointment and won the favor of Empress Jitō, who began to promote him in the imperial court. Fuhito succeeded in elevating Prince Obito (later the emperor Shōmu, b. 701) to crown prince, and arranged the marriage of his daughter to Obito. Until then, only a member of the royal family could be promoted to Empress; Fuhito’s daughter became the first empress who did not derive from the imperial household.
Fujiwara Fuhito moved Yamashina-dera, the Buddhist temple supported by the Fujiwara, to Nara and renamed it Kōfuku-ji. After his death in 768 the Kasuga shrine, the main temple of the Fujiwara clan, was established near Kofuku-ji. He played a role in the establishment of state law, ritsuryo, in Japan, participating in the formulation of the Taihō Code and in its revision, the Yōrō ritsuryō. After his death the court honored him with two titles, 文忠公 (Bunchu Kō), and 淡海公 (Omi Kō, Lord of Omi) and with the office of Daijodaijin, the highest office of the court.
Economic and administrative activity increased during the Nara period. Coins were minted, if not widely used. Roads linked Nara to provincial capitals, and the establishment of post stations (ekisei) on public roads improved communications and ensured that rice taxes were delivered to the capital instead of being appropriated by local leaders. Outside the Nara area, however, there was little commercial activity, and in the provinces the old land reforms of Shōtoku declined. By the mid-eighth century, shōen (荘園, landed estates), one of the most important economic institutions in medieval Japan, began to emerge as a more manageable form of landholding. Rice-growing land had been initially declared public domain and reallocated every six years to prevent the localized accumulation of wealth and power. This system broke down when the demand for food increased and the government declared that anyone who reclaimed unused land for rice production could claim ownership of that land. This gave rise to large privately owed estates, shōen, which were not obliged to pay taxes, and increased the tax burden on traditional cultivators. The increase in taxes led to the loss or abandonment of land by many people who became known as the "wave people," or rōnin (浮浪人 or 浪人). Some of these formerly "public people" were privately employed by large landholders, and previously "public lands" increasingly reverted to the shōen. Many holders of shōen were Buddhist, strengthening the power of the Buddhists against the government. The competition to lay claim to new lands put pressure on aboriginal tribes in the northeast, who rose up in a rebellion that was not suppressed for years. The last emperor of the period, Emperor Kōnin (光仁天皇, Kōnin Tennō) (November 18, 709 – January 11, 782, r. 770–81), son of Prince Shiki and a grandson of Emperor Tenji, tried to reassert imperial discipline by replacing forced military service with a system of regular forces, thus creating the basis of the warrior class.
Most of Japanese society during the Nara period was agricultural in nature, centered around villages. Most of the villagers followed the Shinto religion, based around the worship of natural and ancestral spirits (kami). Ordinary Japanese lived in pit houses and worshipped the kami of natural forces and ancestors. The establishment of Nara, modeled on a Chinese capital, with lavish palaces and accumulated wealth, influenced by Buddhist thought and Chinese culture, brought about a dramatic alienation of Japanese aristocracy from the Japanese population.
Some of Japan's literary monuments were written during the Nara period. Concentrated efforts by the imperial court to record and document its history produced the first works of Japanese literature. The Kojiki (古事記) and the Nihon shoki (日本書紀), the first national histories, compiled in 712 and 720 respectively, were political in nature, intended to establish and justify the supremacy of the rule of the emperors in Japan.
Chinese characters, known as man'yōgana (万葉仮名), were adapted for use as phonetic expressions of the Japanese language. The spread of written language led to the writing of Japanese poetry, known in Japanese as waka (和歌). Sometime after 759, personal collections were compiled and edited to create the first large anthology of Japanese poetry, the Man'yōshū (万葉集, “Ten Thousand Leaves”), and the Kaifūsō (懐風藻, Fond Recollections of Poetry), 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 (聖武天皇, Shōmu Tennō). 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. Several schools of Buddhist thought from Tang China made their way to Japan. The Nara emperors deeply reverenced a Buddhist teaching called the Sutra of Golden Light which presented Buddha not only as a historical human being, but also as the Law or Truth of the universe, and promoted a life of reason. According to the sutra, all human law must reflect the Ultimate Law of the universe; since law was a phenomenon of the material world, it was subject to change. Japanese rulers used this concept to justify the adaptation of laws to changing circumstances.
During Shōmu's reign, the Tōdai-ji (東大寺, Great Eastern Temple) was built, and within it was placed the Buddha Dainichi (Great Sun Buddha), a sixteen-meter, 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 also established temples called kokubunji (国分寺) in the provinces. The Tōdaiji was the kokubunji of Yamato Province (大和国, present-day Nara Prefecture, 奈良県).
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 (孝謙天皇, Kōken Tennō, r. 749–758), she brought many Buddhist priests into court. Kōken abdicated in 758 on the advice of her cousin, Fujiwara no Nakamaro (藤原 仲麻呂). When the retired empress came to favor a Buddhist faith healer named Dokyo (道鏡), Nakamaro rose up in arms in 764 but was quickly crushed. Kōken charged the ruling emperor with colluding with Nakamaro and had him deposed, then reascended the throne as Empress Shōtoku (称徳天皇, Shōtoku Tennō, r. 764–770). The empress commissioned the printing of one million prayer charms, the Hyakumanto dharani (百万塔陀羅尼), 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 Dokyo emperor, but died before she could accomplish this. 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 Shomu and Shotoku are archived in Shosoin at the Tōdai-ji temple. They are called Shōsōin treasures, and illustrate the cosmopolitan culture also known as Tempyo culture. Imported treasures show various influences of Silk Road areas, including China, Korea, India, and the Islamic Empire. Also, Shosoin stores more than 10,000 paper documents, so-called Shōsōin documents (正倉院文書). These are records written on the reverse side of the sutras or in the wrappings of imported items, and survived as a result of the recycling of discarded official documents. Shōsōin documents contribute greatly to the research of Japanese political and social systems of the Nara period, and even document the development of the Japanese writing systems (such as katakana).
The Nara court aggressively imported Chinese civilization by sending diplomatic envoys to the Tang (唐) court every twenty years (known as Kentō-shi, Imperial embassies to China, 遣唐使). Many Japanese students, both lay and Buddhist priests, studied in Chang'an (長安) and Luoyang (洛陽). One student named Abe no Nakamaro (阿倍 仲麻呂) passed the Chinese civil examination and was appointed to governmental posts in China. He served as Governor-General in Annam (安南), or Chinese Vietnam, from 761 through 767. Many students who returned to their homeland, such as Kibi no Makibi (吉備 真備), were promoted to high government posts
Tang 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 (渤海). The Chinese local mission could not return home due to the rebellion of An Lu Shan, and ended up becoming naturalized in Japan.
Relations with the Korean kingdom of Silla (新羅) were initially peaceful, with regular diplomatic exchanges. But the rise of Balhae north of Silla destabilized the Japan-Silla relations. Balhae sent its first mission in 728 to Nara, which welcomed them as the successor to Goguryeo (高句麗), with which Japan was allied until Silla unified the Three Kingdoms of Korea. The friendly diplomatic and commercial intercourse with Balhae continued until the Korean kingdom was conquered by the Khitan (契丹, or Liao dynasty, 遼) in the tenth century. Relations with Silla deteriorated as it strengthened ties with Tang.
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