Nara jidai is a relative short period of time in the history of Japan, placed between Asuka jidai and Heian jidai. The name of the era is given by its capital, called at that time Heijokyo, later renamed Nara. The capital was built after the foundation of Chang-an, the great capital of the Chinese Tang dynasty. It was a period of slow transition from a centralized state to a more decentralized one. Culture flourished under the inspiration of the Tang empire and the Korean kingdoms Silla and Balhae. At the same time, Japan started to consolidate its own national identity and managed to build temples that are now under the protection of the UNESCO patrimony.
There is a clear difference between Asuka and Nara. Nara jidai was an era defined by two opposing forces: centralization coming from the imperial family versus the decentralization sought by the aristocratic clans. The first part of the period was dominated by the emperor and his close advisors, but the end of the era marked the rise of the Fujiwara family as the real rulers of Japan. From an ideological perspective, Buddhism and Confucianism were favored by the elites, while most of the peasants preserved their Shinto traditional faith. However, comparatively, Buddhism won the most ground in a short period of time.
The Tang dynasty, especially during the first part of the period, is considered by many historians as the Golden Age in Chinese history. Most researchers agree upon the fact that under the Tang, many technological breakthroughs were made. The most amazing ones were: new discoveries in the practice of medicine, architecture, literature and philosophy, gunpowder used for fireworks, huge libraries for Confucianist scholars, gas stoves, fireproofing, mechanized clocks and motorized figurines, air conditioning using water-powered fan wheels and jet streams from fountains. By countless indicators, Tang was the most advanced empire in the world at that era.
The might of the Tang empire provided an almost perfect model for Japan in terms of political organization and the culture of the elites. For example, Emperor Xuanzong promoted a humanistic legalist system. The death penalty was abolished and farmers could no longer be taken into the army by force. In the field of high culture, during the time of the Tang dynasty, more than 50,000 literary works were produced. This clearly had an influence over Japan, who created lenient sets of laws and started its own vast cultural, philosophical, and artistic expressions in the whole Classical Antiquity period.
At the city’s height, Nara had more than 200,000 inhabitants, representing between 4% to 6% of the total Japanese population. The new Japanese capital was a faithful copy of the Tang capital Chang’an, today named Xi’an. The Tang capital was the greatest city of its era, with more that 1.2 million inhabitants. According to a census carried out by the Chinese empire in 742, if the people living in smaller cities around Chang’an were counted, the whole metropolitan population reached 2 million persons. To fully understand the size of the Chinese imperial capital we should note that the total population of the British Isles at that time numbered no more than one million people.
The An Lushan Rebellion was actually a civil war within the Tang empire. It started when a Tang general named An Lushan unleashed a rebellion against the Tang emperors. He conquered all of northern China and proclaimed a new northern empire, the Yan dynasty. After eight years of fierce battles, he was defeated and peace was restored. Although Tang was victorious, the war marked the beginning of the slow downfall of the empire. The An Lushan Rebellion is important for Japanese history because the devastation of the war severed the connections between the two civilizations. The Korean kingdom of Balhae was now the only indirect gateway to the Chinese wonders.
As long as Silla remained an enemy of the Tang empire, Japan tried to improve its relations with Silla. This suddenly changed in 698, when rebels from the northern part of the Korean Peninsula and Manchuria defeated the Tang empire. They formed a multi-ethnic kingdom called Balhae and considered themselves the rightful continuators of the Koguryo kingdom. Koguryo was an old ally of Japan, destroyed by the Tang-Silla alliance. Because of these reasons, Japan acknowledged Balhae in 728 and symbolically supported them against Silla. In response, Silla tried and partially managed to reconcile with the Tang empire. A new balance of power was formed.
Japanese national conscience in Nara jidai was limited to the imperial family, the big aristocracy, some high ranking officials, generals and intellectuals. Thanks to special and unprecedented conditions, the Japanese state was both centralized and decentralized. It was centralized because the emperor was perceived as a divine national symbol and because the Japanese reformed the political system to mirror the great Tang empire. At the same time it was decentralized because the power of the capital depended on harmonious relations between the emperor, clan leaders and other local nobles.
Kojiki, meaning ‘Records of the ancient things’, was written by the scholar O no Yasumaro at the order of the emperor. Eight years later, another updated version called Nihon Shoki, largely translated ‘Chronicle of Japan’, was compiled by a team of scholars. Both of the ancient scrolls linked Shinto myths with the history of the Japanese emperors up until then, in order to legitimize their divine authority. Nihon Shoki and Nihongi corrected some misconceptions regarding the contribution of the major clans to the history of Japan. The texts are far more historically accurate when they refer to the fifth, sixth and seventh century AD: what happened before that timeline is more of a legend.
Political centralization was strengthened by a new set of laws. The first code was Omi, created at the order of Emperor Tenji. The Omi code was not preserved but it’s clear that the Taido code from 701 was actually an update of the Omi, since one reference says that Tenmu wanted to reform an already existing system of law. Furthermore, the administrative and penal code of Yoro appeared in 718 as a attempt to consolidate a system that started with Emperor Tenji. The most important measures were: to register all the households, to tax individuals, and to move the local and central administration and the national army under the firm imperial control.
Kamatari established the successful clan of Fujiwara, which had great influence over Emperor Tenji, contributing consistently to the Taika reforms from the Asuka jidai. His son Fujiwara no Fuhito continued the tradition and was one of the most important advisors of several emperors. Fuhito played a key role in the establishment of the Ritsuryo system of law. After his death, the main political figure was Prince Nagaya, the grandson of Emperor Tenmu. He gained complete control of the government for nine years but the Fujiwara family imposed their favorite on the throne in the person of Prince Obito.
The Fujiwara no Hirotsugu rebellion was very well documented in the historical collection of six volumes Shoku Nihongi, a work finished in 791. After the death of the four Fujiwara brothers in the epidemic, Prince Suzuka became the main advisor of the emperor. Suzuka was the brother of Prince Nagaya, and he wanted revenge on the Fujiwara clan. He appointed the Buddhist monks Genbo and Kibi no Makibi to key political positions. All the Fujiwara descendants were given insignificant posts in remote provinces. Fujiwara no Hirotsugu tried to remind Emperor Shomu that his own mother was a Fujiwara and that he owed his ascension to the throne to the clan.
Taking advantage of the death of all important Fujiwara clan members, the emperor appointed his relatives to key state positions and balanced the Fujiwara influence by bringing other important clans into the Council of State. Besides Prince Suzuka who was chancellor, Tachibana no Moroe was appointed minister of the right. Tachibana no Moroe had imperial blood, being the half brother of Empress Komyo and the distant heir of Emperor Bidatsu. He was also supported by the clans that had opposed Fujiwara in the past: Otomo and Saeki. After his death, the Fujiwara clan regained their status.
Economic and demographic growth dropped dramatically in Nara jidai. Measures like infrastructure building programs and promoting trade routes existed but they only focused on the towns and villages around the Nara region. The taxing system worked well only in the capital and in the main towns of the country, but failed to do the same in the countryside, where the vast majority of the population lived and worked. The political power and accumulation of wealth slowly shifted from the emperor toward the local warlords. It was the very beginning of the shoen system, a political order that created feudalism and the samurai warrior class.
In 2013, Jean-Pascal Bassino and Masanori Takashima wrote an article about the economic effects of the enlightenment from Asuka and Nara jidai. They have also calculated how expensive it was for the general population to build the great burial grounds from the Kofun jidai. Furthermore, in the book Japan to 1600: A Social and Economic History, William Wayne Farris offers various estimations about the general status of the economy and demography from the Nara jidai.
Other local power centers that undermined the legitimacy of the imperial court of Nara were the Buddhist monasteries. At first, the Kokubunji system was created in order to counterbalance the influence of clan leaders. The religious caste was exempt from taxes and enjoyed a large autonomy. Buddhist leaders competed with the authority of the nocal nobles, but they also refused to be loyal to the emperor. Organizing many humanitarian activities, Buddhist monks became very popular in the eyes of the general population. Numerous people were attracted to join the disciplined, but flourishing monastic lifestyle.
Empress Koken inherited the imperial throne after the retirement of her father, Emperor Shomu. She was one of the eight empresses in the history of Japan who directly ruled the country. Because of the worsening conditions of the general population and the inability of the central government to act on their behalf, Koken’s reign was marked by many attempted coups. With the help of her advisers, especially Fujiwara no Nakamaro, the empress anticipated and annihilated the political opposition.
The Yoro administrative, penal and civil code was created in 718 by the great Fujiwara no Fuhito but was applied starting from 757. It was a more evolved continuation of the past codes of law, especially the Taiho code. The promulgation of the code was postponed so much because it was considered too progressive, and the aristocracy was convinced that the act undermined their power in the favor of the emperor and his close advisors. Some parts of the penal code were lost, but the administrative part is preserved today in an almost complete version. When Fujiwara no Nakamaro, one of Fuhito’s nephews, finally managed to apply the code, the nobility protested.
Art in Nara jidai was represented principally by architecture, but also by painting, music, literature, metalworking and textiles. The most impressive accomplishments in this field were Todaiji, a Buddhist national religious center, and the Shinto shrine Kasuga Taisha. Both are considered national treasures and are under the protection of the UNESCO patrimony. Like many other aspects, the Nara art was influenced by Tang romanticism.
Fudoki was an encyclopedia ordered by Empress Genmei about the local geography, history, Shinto myths, traditional poems and general things related to folklore. The information was gathered by officials who were sent to supervise all forty-eight provinces. The work on the scrolls started in 713 AD and it took twenty years to complete. Kaifuso, ‘The Found Recollections of poetry’ was the first important collection of Chinese poetry in the history in Japan, published in 751 AD. A few years later, the far more famous anthology Manyoshu, ‘The collection of 10,000 Leaves’, containing 4,500 poems, was compiled at the initiative of the Otomo clan.
Fujiwara no Nakamaro was the son of Fujiwara no Muchimaro, one of the great four clan leaders who died in the epidemic. After empress Koken abdicated, Nakamaro gradually tried to manipulate and control Emperor Junnin. Without aristocratic political support, the only possible way by which Nakamaro could remain in power was to claim that he spoke in the name of the sovereign. In doing so, he entered into conflict with the former empress, who still wanted to influence policy. After a short civil war, Fujiwara no Nakamaro and his family were killed, and Junnin was exiled. Empress Koken regained the throne with a new title, Empress Shotoku.
The government of Empress Shotoku was ruled by the Buddhist monk Dokyo, with the help of Fujiwara no Toyonari, the brother of the rebel Nakamaro. Dokyo was given the title of Buddhist King, a strange position that gave him the responsibilities of a divine emperor. They organized large scale prayers for those who died in the rebellion. Empress Shotoku never married and didn’t have children. Without an heir, she named Dokyo as her successor and after her death, the Buddhist monk tried to enthrone himself but the Fujiwara clan staged a coup and exiled him. Because of this incident, women in Japan no longer had the right to become acting ruling empress.
Empress Shotoku’s greatest achievement was the creation of Hyakumanto Darani, an imperial edict that ordered the creation of over one million wooden pagodas dedicated to Buddhist teachings and prayers. The scrolls were hand copied, but also printed using a early technology of woodblock printing. The process took six years to complete. All the copies were sent to all the corners of the country, each monastery having its own collection. It was the first such attempt in the history of Japan and the scale of the project was probably the biggest in the world at that time. The downside of it was the exhaustion of the imperial treasury and political instability.
Unlike the previous emperors from Nara jidai, Emperor Konin wasn’t a descendant of Emperor Tenmu. He belonged to the Tenji imperial line. In the meantime, the Fujiwara clan regained their lost political influence from the time of Fuhito no Fujiwara. All the important clan leaders of the Fujiwara debated about the general problems of the country and reached the conclusion that they should support any emperor outside the Tenmu line because all of them had the ambition to rule as dictators, without the support of local clans.
Emperor Kanmu is the leader who finally managed to the defeat the Ainu resistance, conquering the remaining northern part of Honshu and expelling them into Hokkaido. Kanmu was also remembered for a long reign of 25 years and for leaving behind a great biological legacy. He had 32 children with 16 different wives and concubines. Three of them would become important emperors and some of his boys would create the great Taira warrior clan, a powerful aristocratic family from the Heian and early Kamakura period. Ariwara no Narihira, one of the greatest Japanese classical poets, was his nephew.
A highly centralized political system adopted from China was incompatible with Japanese natural social organization. It was only a matter of time until its downfall. The state simply could not gather the information from the provinces in a timely manner and collect taxes in a satisfactory percentage. Building many large monuments instead of focusing on infrastructure or agriculture deepened the crisis. The costs of having such a large bureaucratic mechanism were too large, so the emperors were forced to fire thousands of officials. Without enough funds or political or popular support, Emperor Kanmu was forced to disband the national conscripted army.