Taika Reforms

From New World Encyclopedia

The Taika Reforms (大化の改新, Taika no Kaishin, “Great Reformation of the Taika Era”) was a series of political and social innovations that were implemented in Japan through a set of doctrines established by Emperor Kōtoku in the year 646. The Taika Reforms followed the suppression of the powerful Soga clan in a coup d'état led by Prince Naka no Ōe (later the emperor Tenji) and Nakatomi Kamatari (later Fujiwara Kamatari) in 645 C.E.. The details of the edicts announcing these reforms were carefully worked out by Naka no Ōe, Nakatomi no Kamatari, and Emperor Kōtoku, who emulated the Chinese system of centralized government. Emperor Kōtoku followed the Chinese tradition of naming the eras of an emeror’s reign, and took the name "Taika" (大化), or "Great Reform" for the first part of his reign.

The Taika Reforms, based on Confucian ideas and political philosophies from China, began by abolishing private ownership of land and serfs, and establishing a feudal system. Lords could hold power within their lands and could still exercise hereditary rights to land and titles, but all land ultimately belonged to the Emperor, and all loyalties were to the Emperor of Japan, (Tennō), who ruled by the Decree of Heaven and exercised absolute authority. The independence of regional officials was severely curtailed, and an effective centralized administration, run by educated bureaucrats, was organized. An Imperial capital was created at Omi in the Chinese style, and the construction of a network of roads was begun. A census was conducted, collecting information not only about population density but about land use and productivity, and enabling the redistribution of land and a more equitable system of taxation. The final edicts attempted to introduce Chinese social practices. Envoys and students were dispatched to China to study everything from the Chinese writing system, literature, religion, and architecture, to the dietary habits of the time. The impact of the reforms can still be seen in Japanese cultural life.

In the Taika reforms, Japan emulated the centralized government of the Chinese T’ang Dynasty; the political development of China and Japan later took very different directions. As a small, relatively isolated island nation, a centralized imperial government could be organized on a practicable scale, while China's size, variety of tribes and ethnic groups, and belligerent neighbors made it difficult for the government to retain strict control.


Just prior to the Taika era, Japan had been united by the Soga clan into a loose association of clans ruled by warlords, and the Soga had dominated the imperial court for 50 years. When the regency of Shōtoku Taishi ended, the Soga clan, from which Shōtoku's ancestry was derived, took hegemony of the Yamato court. Members of the clan were opposed to Shotōku's son, Yamashiro Ōe, and killed him in 643. Under the reign of Empress Kōgyoku (皇極天皇, Kōgyoku Tennō, 594–August 24, 661), the thirty-fifth Emperor of Japan, the head of the Soga clan, Soga no Iruka, ruled over the court, styling his mansion the “Imperial Palace” and calling his sons “princes.”

Those who opposed Soga's dictatorship included the Empress's brother Karu ( Emperor Kōtoku, 孝徳天皇), the Empress's son Naka no Ōe (中大兄皇子), along with his friend Nakatomi no Kamatari (中臣鎌足), and her son-in-law Soga no Ishikawamaro (Iruka's cousin). In 645, they ended Iruka's regime with a coup d'etat in the Isshi Incident (乙巳の変). Empress Kōgyoku abdicated her throne, and her brother Karu ascended and became Emperor Kōtoku.

The new Emperor Kōtoku, together with the Imperial Prince Naka no Ōe, began to issue a series of reform measures that culminated in the Taika Reform Edicts of 646. Empress Kōgyoku’s son, Naka no Ōe, and his close friend, Nakatomi Kamatari (founder of the Fujiwara clan) are considered to be the architects of the Taika reforms, with Naka no Ōe doing much of the meticulous planning and Kamatari putting the new edicts into effect. Crown Prince Naka no Ōe had considerable influence over his uncle, while Nakatomi Kamatari served as Minister of the Interior. At this time, two scholars, Takamuko no Kuromaro (高向玄理), a noble of Korean ancestry in the Yamato court, and priest Min, were assigned to the position of kuni no hakushi (国博士; National Doctor). Both had accompanied Ono no Imoko (小野妹子) on his travels to Sui Dynasty China, where they stayed for more than a decade, and probably played a major role in compiling the edicts which essentially founded the Japanese imperial government, modeled on the Chinese system.

Taika Reform

According to the reform edicts, the ruler was no longer a clan leader, but Emperor (Tennō), who ruled by the Decree of Heaven and exercised absolute authority. The reforms brought the warlords and clans which had recently been conquered and united, and their lands, under the control of the Emperor by establishing the basics of a feudal system. Lords could hold power within their lands and could still exercise hereditary rights to land and titles, but all land ultimately belonged to the Emperor, and all loyalties were to the Emperor above all other lords and masters. To set an example for other nobles, the Crown Prince surrendered his own private estates to the public domain under the Emperor's control.

The Taika Reform began with land reform, based on Confucian ideas and philosophies from China, but the true aim of the reforms was to centralize the government and to enhance the power of the imperial court, which was also based on Chinese governmental structure. One of the traditions adopted from China was the naming of eras in an emperor's reign; Emperor Kotoku took the era name Taika (“Great Change”) for the first half of his reign.

The Reform Edicts severely curtailed the independence of regional officials, creating an effective, centralized imperial government, and constituted the imperial court as a place where the people could bring their appeals and complaints. The final edicts attempted to end certain Japanese social practices, and introduce elements of Chinese culture. Envoys and students were dispatched to China to study everything from the Chinese writing system, literature, religion, and architecture, to the dietary habits of the time.

The Four Articles of the Reforms

Some of the reforms traditionally attributed to the Taika era probably occurred at a later period, but significant changes took place even during the first days and months of Emperor Kotoku’s reign. Immediately after the New Year’s celebrations in 646, he issued an imperial rescript consisting of Four Articles:

  • Article I abolished the private ownership of land and workers, deriving from "namesake," succession, village chieftainship, and other forms of titles. Instead, the government was to grant anyone with the rank of Daibu (chief of a ward or a bureau) and above, an income from state land.
  • Article II established a central capital metropolitan region, called the Kinai (畿内), or Inner Provinces, where a capital city was to be built and governors were to be appointed; and provided for the division of the country into wards and districts, and the appointment of men of strong and upright character to administer them.

For the first time, the capital shall be placed under an administrative system. In the metropolitan (or capital) region, governors (kuni no tsukasa) and prefects (kori no tsukasa) shall be appointed. Barriers and outposts shall be erected, and guards and post horses for transportation and communication purposes shall be provided. Furthermore bell-tokens shall be made and mountains and rivers shall be regulated. One alderman (osa) shall be appointed for each ward (ho or machi) in the capital, and one chief alderman (unakashi) for four wards. The latter shall be responsible for maintaining the household registers and investigating criminal matters. The chief alderman shall be chosen from those men belonging to the wards, of unblemished character, strong and upright, who can discharge the duties of the time effectively. In principle, aldermen of rural villages (ri) or of city wards, shall be selected from ordinary subjects belonging to the villages or city wards, who are sincere, incorrupt and of strong disposition. If a right man cannot be found in a village or ward in question, a man from the adjoining village or ward may be appointed. …

Districts are classified as greater, middle and lesser districts, with districts of forty villages constituting greater districts; of from four to thirty villages constituting middle districts; and of five or fewer villages constituting lesser districts. The prefects for these districts shall be chosen from local nobles (kuni no miyatsuko), of unblemished character, strong and upright, who can discharge the duties of the time effectively. They shall be appointed as prefects (tairei) and vice prefects (shorei). Men of ability and intelligence, who are skilled in writing and arithmetic shall be appointed to assist them in the tasks of governance and book-keeping.... From Article II of the Four Articles (Aston 1972).

  • Article III established population registers and provided for a census to be taken, as well as the equitable redistribution of rice-cultivating land, and organized the appointment of rural village heads.
  • Article IV abolished the old forms of taxes, and established a new and more equitable system based on the amount of land being cultivated. A separate tax was imposed on individual households, and districts were expected to contribute horses and weapons, and to provide rations for the servants for their administrators, according to the number of households in each district.

A separate household tax (kocho) shall also be levied, under which each household shall pay one rod and two feet of cloth, and a surtax consisting of salt and offerings. The latter may vary in accordance with what is produced in the locality. With regard to horses for public service, one horse of medium quality shall be contributed by every one hundred households, or one horse of superior quality by every two hundred households. If the horses have to be purchased, each household shall contribute one rod and two feet of cloth toward the purchase price. With regard to weapons, each person shall contribute a sword, armor, bow and arrows, a flag, and a drum.

Under the old system, one servant was supplied by every thirty households. This system shall be altered to allow every fifty households to furnish one servant to work for various officials. These fifty households shall be responsible for providing rations for one servant, by each household contributing two rods and two feet of cloth and five masu of rice in lieu of service (yo or chikara shiro). Waiting women in the palace shall be selected from among attractive sisters or daughters of officials of the rank of vice prefect or above. Every one hundred households shall be responsible for providing rations for one waiting woman. The cloth and rice supplied in lieu of service (yo) shall, in every respect, follow the same rule as for servants. From Article #4 of the Four Articles (Aston 1972).

In March of 646, Prince Naka no Ōe formally surrendered his private estates and his serfs to the state. Other nobles followed suit, and an edict in August made it mandatory for all nobles to surrender their lands. The census was conducted, collecting information not only about population density but about land use and productivity, enabling the redistribution of land and a tax system based on population size. An Imperial capital was created at Omi in the Chinese style, and large-scale land redistribution was carried out in the region of the capital. The construction of a network of roads was begun. For the first time, laws were codified and then substantially rewritten. Government departments similar to those of the T’ang Dynasty in China were established and staffed with trained bureaucrats, many of whom had studied in China.

Among the edicts prescribing social changes, the Emperor made a decree concerning burial traditions:

"We are informed that a Prince of the Western Land admonished his people, saying, 'Those who made interments in ancient times resorted to a high ground which they formed into a tomb. They did not pile up a mound, nor did they plant trees. The inner and outer coffin were merely enough to last till the bones decayed, the shroud was merely sufficient to last till the flesh decayed ... Deposit not in them gold or silver or copper or iron, and let earthenware objects alone represent the clay chariots and straw figures of antiquity. Let the interstices of the coffin be varnished. Let the offerings consist of rice presented three times, and let not pearls or jewels be placed in the mouth of the deceased. Bestow not jewel-shirts or jade armour. All these things are practices of the unenlightened vulgar.' ... Of late, the poverty of our people is absolutely owing to the construction of tombs.

When a man dies, there have been cases of people sacrificing themselves by strangulation, or of strangling others by way of sacrifice, or of compelling the dead man's horse to be sacrificed, or of burying valuables in the grave in honour of the dead, or of cutting off the hair, and stabbing the thighs and pronouncing an eulogy on the dead (while in this condition). Let all such old customs be entirely discontinued.

A certain book says, 'No gold or silver, no silk brocades, and no coloured stuffs are to be buried.' Again it is said, 'From the Ministers of all ranks down to the common people, it is not allowed to use gold or silver' (Aston 1972).


After the death of Emperoro Kotoku in 654, Prince Naka no Ōe refused to succeed him, and his mother returned to the throne as Empress Saimei (斉明天皇, Saimei Tennō), thirty-seventh emperor of Japan. In 661, Naka-no-Ōe became Emperor Tenji (天智天皇, Tenji-tennō, also known as Tenchi-tennō) the thirty-eighth emperor of Japan, and compiled the first Japanese legal code known to historians. Naka no Ōe’s influence ensured that the Taika Reforms were put into effect, and the new administrative structure became permanent.

Scholars often compare the impact of the Taika reforms to that of the Meiji Revolution which changed Japan 1,200 years later. Unlike the Meiji reforms, however, the Taika reforms were carefully thought out and proclaimed to the public before they were put into effect. Naka-no-Ōe and Nakatomi Kamatari carefully studied existing laws and practices to determine how improvements could be made.

The administrative structure created by the Taika edicts is still evident today in many aspects of Japanese local government, including the division of regions into administrative districts, and the authority placed in the hands of the bureaucracy. The Taika reforms also incorporated many aspects of Chinese society and religion into the culture of Japan, including the use of Chinese script for writing; Confucian ethics; styles of poetry, art and literature; and Buddhism.

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