Nara
The Japanese chronicles, grandiose temples and the rise of the Fujiwara clan
710 - 794
author Armand Sadovschi, May 2018
The Nara period takes its name from the Japanese imperial city, dominated by the dynasty of Tenmu. Buddhism evolved and was separated in different autonomous sects, playing a key political role. The artistic and cultural accomplishments were unprecedented. For example, Shinto and Buddhist temples like Kasuga Taisha and Todaiji, or poetry collections and ancient chronicles like Manyoshu, Kojiki or Nihon Shoki represent creations protected by the UNESCO patrimony. All of these wonders, the national army, and a huge bureaucratic system exercited a tremendous pressure on the economy. Almost 30% of the population died in a smallpox epidemic. If the previous era was marked by a constant fight between clans that supported the Shinto religion and the clans that promoted Buddhism, Nara has known another struggle of two opposing coalitions. As the political and social reforms from the Asuka were strengthened, centralization was supported by the imperial family and by the descents of Tenmu. They wanted to rule Japan without the implication of non imperial clans. The opposing side was led by the Fujiwara no Fuhito and his clan, the most powerful aristocratic family from the Classical Antiquity of Japan.

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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.

The Japanese emperors continued the reforms of centralization begun in Asuka jidai. This eventually led to the general discontent of the nobles. A rebellion against the emperor was started by Fujiwara Hirotsugu. He was supported by important Shinto clans from the southern part of Kyushu. They contested the Yamato dominance and the imposition of Buddhism. With a strong army of 20,000 soldiers, emperor Shomu won the war and killed Hirotsugu. Ironically, even though the rebellion was defeated, the Fujiwara clan continued to have the most important political role in the imperial court.

In order to appease the unrest, emperor Shomu canceled the clear separation of religion from politics. The Kokubunji system was proclaimed. The holy temple network of Todaiji was built, and functioned as a national temple. Furthermore, in each province a Buddhist monastery was constructed. The autonomy given to the Buddhist monks turned out to be unwise. Because they offered services to the poor, Buddhist monks became very popular among common folk. In time, they were able to train, develop martial arts that became a legend in their own right, and even put together small armies that could offer them political power.

Common people suffered because of the ambitious investments of their political elite. The vast majority of the population was vulnerable to crop failure, starvation, epidemics and natural disasters. The national collective farming system was breaking down. In order to keep up with all the bureaucratic data, the central government hired 10,000 functionaries. Under those conditions, the emperor gave back the peasants’ rights of inheritance over their land. The plan backfired when local warlords and clan leaders started to act more autonomously, bypassing the imperial authority.

One of the most famous Buddhist monks from Nara jidai was Dokyo. Using his influence over Empress Koken, he managed to be named heir to the imperial throne. Only through the intervention of the Fujiwara clan was his entronment avoided, and Dokyo was exiled. This incident shows how important the monopoly of Buddhism was. The failure of the coup had another consequence. From now on, only men could be named emperors and directly rule the country. On the other hand, compared to the rest of the world, the ancient Japanese noble women had many rights: to be educated, to own private property, and even the right to fight in wars.

Because of repeated nationwide epidemics and starvation, Japan lost around 30% of its population during the century of Nara jidai. This disaster was created by the occurrence of viruses which up until then had been unknown, and by the lack of farming land. Instead of redirecting funds in order to tackle this grave situation, the political elite prefered to invest in the building of temples and ambitious infrastructure projects. Their isolation from the real local problems did not prevent them from suffering. For example, a dynastic crisis started when all four of Fujiwara Fuhito’s heirs died in a smallpox epidemic.

The entire burden of taxes was carried by the peasants, who were already suffering from poverty. Nobles and Buddhist monks were exempt from taxes. The discontent of the majority of the population was suppressed by a national army. Most of the soldiers were loyal to the emperor as long as they were paid. These serious problems were interpreted by emperor Shomu as a divine sign that he must push forward with the promotion of Buddhism. The costs of the project exhausted the national treasury and the soldiers started to be more loyal to local lords who could pay them better.

The Otomo, Tachibana and Fujiwara clans fought by the means of complex political scheming and assassinations in order to gain control of the central government and the power to manipulate the emperor. At the end of Nara jidai, the Fujiwara clan won the competition and started to rule in the name of the emperors as regents. Leaving aside the political, economic and social environment of the era, Nara jidai remained in the history of Japan as a symbol for cultural development. This is when the great ancient chronicles and collections of poems like Kojiki, Nihon shoki, Kaifuso and Manyoshu were written.

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.

At the end of Asuka jidai, Japan was defeated by a Silla-Tang alliance at the battle of Baekgang in 663. A few years later, Silla turned against its former ally, and this motivated the Tang emperor to try to reconcile with Japan. Historians discovered a Japanese report sent to the emperor in 671. It seems that a huge Tang diplomatic mission reached the shores of Japan. The ships carried six hundred Chinese and fourteen hundred Japanese prisoners of war. The mission was a failure because emperor Tenmu was busy fighting a civil war and consolidating his internal powerbase.

According to the Japanese historian Naoki Kojiro, the base for the political reforms in the Nara jidai was created by one of the last rulers of the previous era, Emperor Tenmu. His reign wasn’t based only on military or economic force, but on the ideological legitimacy given by state religion. A new generation of nobility was created, a ruling class promoted on the basis of their services for the emperor and for the nation. For local nobles, access to the imperial court meant access to real political power. In a comparative sense, Tenmu played the role of Louis the XIV of France when he forced the aristocracy to move to Versailles.

Nara jidai was different from what had happened in the past because the Japanese imperial house preferred to focus on social and political reforms instead of developing their military. All the foreign contacts they had in this period of time with the Korean kingdoms of Silla and Balhae, or with the Chinese Tang dynasty, were peaceful. The Japanese emissaries were particularly interested in gathering Buddhist and Confucian texts. The idea of any military expedition in Korea was abandoned as it had become clear that Silla and Tang had their own problems and didn’t intend to invade Japan.

Tenmu was the first strong Japanese emperor who claimed to be the heir of the sun goddess Amaterasu, making him the representative of one of the most important deities of the Shinto pantheon. All the edicts started with a phrase that stated that the emperor's laws are the expression of a god. The emperor had the absolute power to appoint all the important priests, to organize the most sacred rituals and to rank the most relevant shrines worthy of worship. Before his reign, all those decisions were negotiated with other clan leaders. This type of both secular and sacred power held by the emperor became a long-standing tradition.

Just two years before the Nara capital was finished, copper mining was discovered in Japan. This made historians speculate that the administrative reforms of the Nara jidai were more closely linked to wider technological developments than to religious or political causes.

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.

At first, relations between the Tang dynasty and Japan were very tense because of their clash over the domination of the Korean Peninsula. Japan lost the war and for a while was afraid that the Tang dynasty would invade them. When they realized that the Chinese empire had other plans and other important enemies, the Japanese once again began to send numerous official missions in order to learn from the Tang. Still, the political atmosphere between the two countries remained rigid because Japan wanted to be considered an equal partner of the Tang. At the end of Nara jidai, Japan chose to partially isolate itself from the continent.

Even though diplomatic relations were limited, contacts between China and Japan were plentiful at a private level. Japanese nobles, scholars and religious leaders visited China in order to gain a proper education, and many Chinese elites visited and even settled in Japan. Moreover, the cultural assimilation was favored by constant trade relations between the the states, but also between individuals. Thanks to this, beginning from Nara jidai, Japan managed to catch up a significant part of the technological and cultural gap, adapting the imported ideas to the specific local context and creating a profound national identity.

From an economic point of view, the total population mattered more than today. Almost every economic activity was related to the brute force of the workers, especially in agriculture, which was the most important economic field and source of income. More food stimulated population growth, a population that could work and be taxed, and the centralized incomes could be used in building infrastructure, improving trade and sanitary conditions, exploring new technologies and investing in cultural activities. This positive circle created another population boom and so the Tang empire became so advanced.

A larger population also meant that populated empires could mount huge armies to dominate their rivals, and even if they suffered a major defeat, the soldiers could easily be replaced. The Tang empire reached hegemony under Emperor Xuanzong, who was contemporary with the Nara period. At its largest, the Tang empire covered 5.4 million square kilometers, representing 3.6% of the world’s land surface and a population of almost 80 million people, while the whole of Europe back then had only 25 or 30 million people.

The first major reform made by the Tang dynasty was a strict set of laws about governing. Those legal codes inspired Japan in Asuka jidai to create the Ritsuryo system of law, the most important being the Taiho code. The Korean kingdoms made their own versions of administrative codes. Starting from the previous versions, the Japanese Yoro Code was promulgated in 757, this time covering more than just administrative problems, also incorporating a civil and penal code for the general population. Many parts of the actual legal text have been preserved up until present times.

The greatest emperors of the Tang dynasty were Taizong, Gaozong and Xuanzong. Although a cruel leader who executed his father and his brothers in order to ascend to the throne, Emperor Taizong was also a brilliant general who expanded the borders of the Tang and was very tolerant with all spiritual views, like Buddhism, Confucianism and Taoism. Actually, he even allowed Christianity into seventh century China, but the religion only became popular from the sixteenth century on. Gaozong fell ill and the actual power was held by his wife, Empress Wu Zetian. She was the only notable female ruler of ancient China.

Gaozong was only a puppet emperor, the real power being held from the shadows by his first concubine, Wu Zetian. After he died, Wu Zetian proclaimed herself empress. She was an authoritarian leader, building a network of spies and a secret police force, but she also encouraged education, economic investments in infrastructure and promoted a bureaucracy based on merit. Xuanzong was an enlightened emperor who created a professional army and strengthened the empire by securing the Silk Road trade networks with the Middle East and Europe and creating the foundations for the Indian Ocean trade.

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.

Another important innovation was the woodblock print that, at least theoretically, made books available for the general population. These works not only contained literature or history, but were also dedicated to the latest discoveries in medicine, making the people more aware about how they could prevent the spread of diseases. This technology was imported into Nara jidai, and the publishing of books, especially the ones that had Buddhist teachings, grew exponentially.

According to The Cambridge History of Japan Volume 1, the political and administrative reforms were clearly influenced by what was happening on the continent. ‘Whereas the king of Paekche stood well above and apart from his ministers and the Koguryo king’s position was largely nominal, the ruler of Silla headed a political order that seemed to be a product of ruling-class will. Therefore when Temmu began to build what has been called Japan’s imperial system, he and his advisers gave special attention to Silla’s ritual mode of control as well as to Chinese conceptions of sovereignty.’

Religion in Nara Japan was also influenced by China and Korea. In a simplified version, Japanese Buddhism belongs to Mahayana Buddhism, one of the two main branches of Buddhism. More than 50% of Buddhist worshipers are Mahayana, while 35% belong to Theravada, the other major branch. Although Buddhism originated in India, most of the Mahayama adepts are located in China, Mongolia, Korea, Japan, Bangladesh, Nepal, Vietnam, Indonesia and Malaysia. Theravada strictly follows the teachings of Buddha, while Mahayana represents a wider collection of philosophical texts.

The unofficial contacts made between China and Japan were also beneficial. For example, Abe no Nakamaro went to the Tang imperial court to study Chinese poetry. He became an important politician and poet for the Tang, being appointed governor of the rebellious province of Annam, a kingdom located in today’s north Vietnam. On the other side, Kibi no Makibi also studied in China for seventeen years and returned to Japan, bringing back home much useful information. He introduced to the Japanese the game named ‘Go’, a complicated Asian version of chess that later became a national sport.

Because of his experience in China, Kibi no Makibi was honored and promoted to the most important positions. He was minister of the right, the third man in state, and one of the architects who planned the construction of the famous Todaiji monastery. Kibi no Makibi was also the general who defeated the Emi rebellion. With profound knowledge of the Buddhist and Confucian teachings, Makibi tried to implement new reforms that would save the centralized system. Some historians even consider him to be one of the authors who invented an early form of kana, the Japanese writing system.

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.

Another measure taken by the emperors in order to bolster their political power and centralize the system was to build permanent impressive capitals where all the elite of the ruling class could live. The first city created for this purpose was Fujiwara, a place discovered by the archaeologists. The capital was erected by the empress Jingu at the end of Asuka jidai. The architecture tried to imitate the Tang Chinese city of Lo-Yang. Fujiwara was 3 square kilometers long and 2 kilometers wide. After that, the emperors became even more ambitious and started a far bigger project, the Nara capital.

Chang’an was defended by a 12-meter high wall and by a water ditch 8 meters wide. The city had a total surface area of 78 square kilometers. Chang’an was not only huge and inhabited by a cosmopolitan population, but also had a very advanced infrastructure with stone roads, canals, parks, gardens, streams, public pools and fountains. Only the Persian Baghdad and Byzantine Constantinople were cities that could be compared with the might of Chang’an. Nara had no defensive walls because it was protected from three sides by mountains and it was connected with the main trading rivers from Japan.

The authors Noritake Tsuda and Patricia Graham use a beautiful comparison to highlight the influence of the Chang’an capital. ‘Indeed, China was to Japan what Athens was to Rome. China was then an extremely rich and strong nation, and her capital was the very center of all the civilization and culture under the sun. Therefore Persians, Armenians, and Indians all brought their religious works of art, and many kinds of merchandise to her capital. (...) The people in the capital were leading very luxurious lives. Even a petty housemaid wore a silk dress.’

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.

The Tang empire gradually lost its former glory because of two main causes. Firstly, it relied too much on the personal qualities of the emperor. After the death of the enlightened emperor Xuanzong, all of his heirs proved to be mediocre leaders, concerned more about personal pleasure than matters of state. Secondly, the An Lushan Rebellion exhausted the national treasury and the available manpower for recruiting a huge army. Although order was restored, the civil war showed that the imperial rule could be contested. This encouraged further revolts in the next two centuries.

The Tang empire lost all its western provinces because it was forced to fight the Yan dynasty. An Lushan even managed to temporarily conquer and sack the imperial capital, Chang’an. Furthermore, An Lushan was supported by ethnic minorities from the empire, especially nomadic tribes and Arabs. The war deepened the ethnic tensions. All Japanese and Korean emissaries were stuck in China, while the Chinese emissaries in Japan were forced to settle in the archipelago.

At least one million people died in battle. Some historians observed the national census before and after the war and calculated the death toll by adding the ones that died because of the famine and epidemics provoked by the war. The numbers are controversial but all historians agree that the rebellion represented, from a proportional perspective, one of the greatest humanitarian disasters in universal history. The estimates range from 36 million victims, representing one-sixth of the world’s population, to at least 13 million deaths, 5% of the world population.

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.

Japan’s diplomatic relations with Silla, Balhae or even Tang were limited to commercial, technological, religious and cultural interests. It could be said that the foreign affairs strategy of Nara jidai Japan became ‘apolitical’ because it had no core interest in continental military affairs as long the balance of power was stable and it guaranteed the security of the country. As Japan became even more evolved and discovered new methods of mining and silk processing, it was less dependent on foreign commerce.

In the matter of security, Japan’s main problem was food supply and fighting the spread of diseases. The foreign markets at that time provided no reliable source that could replace the lack in rice production. The power of the Tang empire was still intimidating, but decreasing. In religious and cultural terms, there was no need for further imports as the Japanese elites were able to learn all the important scientific methods and mystical teachings from the continent. They even started to explore new works of art and religious beliefs, specific only to Japan, as a result of a complex admixture of ideas. A national conscience was gradually growing.

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.

The whole system of belief was based on a compromise between the divine rights of the emperor and traditional clan-based politics. Naoki Kojiro describes how the political authority was divided between these two pillars. ‘The emperor could approve or disapprove a recommendation but could not make amendments. Usually he approved. In principle, then, the emperor had dictatorial power, but in practice, his power was limited by the consultative authority of the Council of State.’ The two pillars also had a weak spot: because the clans were so influential, after an emperor died, they battled over who should be the imperial heir.

The very beginning of any political organization in the Yayoi period was created by different aristocratic families. Unlike the vast open land of China, the geography of Japan was decisive in facilitating a very strong decentralized political system. The mountainous wooded landscape and the multitude of rivers favored autonomous local communities that could defend themselves efficiently so no local warlord could conquer them all. The very core of the Japanese state existed as a compromise between all these local communities that agreed upon appointing a divine emperor, the heir of the sun goddess Amaterasu.

On one hand, the divine authority of the Japanese emperor was higher than the religious authority of the Chinese emperor. On the other hand, the Chinese aristocracy was much weaker than the Japanese and had little influence over the court. The Chinese emperor was limited by the Mandate of Heaven doctrine, meaning that his subjects could rebel if he was profoundly unjust. The Japanese emperor was theoretically untouchable but he could not rule effectively without the consent of the major clans.

The emperor had the power to defeat the greatest clan from his time but he was not strong enough to defeat the first three or five major clans at once. As a result, the sovereign was always forced to balance opposite parties in order to keep his throne and the general peace. From a national perspective, the system had advantages and disadvantages. Any form of despotism was limited and local nobles could be better at administering their estates than a central government. This also meant political instability, a weak state, with a very limited treasury, being more of a respected mediator than a firm coordinator of nationwide projects.

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.

Although the Japanese political system took inspiration from China and Korea, there were also important differences. Because of his absolute sacrality, the Japanese emperor had far more authority than his continental counterparts. The Kojiki and Nihon Shoki chronicles were the result of trying to codify this belief which began with Emperor Tenmu. This Shinto state ideology was further strengthened by adding a new element. The emperors from Nara jidai became not only living gods, but they were also the protectors and promoters of Buddhism.

Kojiki was written in old Japanese using Chinese characters, at the direct order of Empress Genmei. Besides the mythical and historical stories mentioned in the text, Kojiki also contains short poems and songs from Japanese folklore. The scroll is divided into three parts. Kamitsumaki tells the story of the creation of the world and the gods. The second chapter is named Nakatsumaki, continuing with the life of the first legendary emperor of Japan, Jimmu, and ending with the sixteenth emperor. The third chapter, Shimotsumaki, is more historically accurate, focusing on the Japanese dynasty from the sixteenth to the thirty third emperor.

The most appreciated specialist on Kojiki was Motoori Norinaga, who created a collection of 44 volumes with observations on the ancient chronicles. The oldest manuscript of Kojiki that still survives today is a copy of the original scroll, dated from 1371.

The main authors of Nihon Shoki were O no Yasumaro and Prince Toneri, one of the sons of Emperor Tenmu and the father of the future Emperor Junnin. The work was dedicated to the ruling Empress Gensho. The manuscripts were written in classical Chinese and respected the basic structure of Kojiki. The new text was more detailed, starting from mythological beginnings and ending with the reign of Empress Jito. Furthermore, it had a far more moralistic approach. Great Japanese leaders were awarded by the gods, while the bad commanders were punished by fate.

Nihon Shoki also worked as an early form of grammar book, having notes in which the reader learned how to pronounce in Japanese the classical Chinese characters. The manuscript was impressive in size, with thirty volumes. It is more accurate than Kojiki, especially from the chapters that tackle the period from the fifth to the eighth century, because it was actually based on official documents from the imperial archive, the archive of the Chinese empire and Korean kingdom of Paekche that no longer exist. Another interesting feature is that Nihon Shoki focuses more on foreign contacts and external politics.

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.

Japan tried to learn from the failed experience in Korea. The political reforms were highly influenced by the new foreign threats. Naoki Kojiro explains the international context: ‘When comparing Japan’s organizational arrangements with those of the Korean states, Tenmu and his ministers must have noted that Paekche and Koguryo had been plagued by disunity and dissension, which seemed to account for their subjugation by Chinese armies.’ In contrast, the victorious kingdom of Silla and the Tang Empire were centralized states where highly skilled ministers represented a vital part of the political system.

The government became highly centralized. The absolute sovereign was the emperor. Below him two important institutions governed the country: The Council of Kami Affairs and the Council of State. The Council of Kami Affairs dealt with religious matters, while the Council of State dealt with political problems. The Council of State was coordinated by a Chancellor and was divided into three departments: Minister of the Left, Minister of the Right and The Four Senior Counselors. These three departments worked like three vice prime ministers for the acting ruler, the emperor.

The Chancellor not only acted as a prime minister, but was also the closest advisor to the emperor, and on many occasions, he was a highly educated teacher for the emperor when the sovereign was just a child, preparing him to be an absolute commander. This is why a Chancellor had a tremendous influence over all political matters for a long period of time. Usually, he was changed only when a new emperor was enthroned, but there were also many cases when the Chancellor rebelled against the new sovereign.

The Council of State could meet in the absence of the emperor, but no important decision could be made without his signature on the edicts. The Minister of the Left had to supervise four ministers dedicated more to internal affairs: Central Affairs, Personnel, Civil Affairs and Popular Affairs. The Minister of the Right held more responsibilities for external affairs: War, Imperial household, Treasury and Justice. Finally, The Four Senior Counselors protected the imperial court as Censors, controlling who entered and exited the capital, commanding the imperial guard and searching for possible traitors in the city.

According to the Japanese historian Naoki Kojiro, each ministerial department was divided into secretariats, bureaus and offices. The Department of Junior Counselors, The Department of Controller of the Left and of the Right were institutions that had the role of transmitting all the important decisions to the rest of the ministers and to local governors. Censors also had to supervise that all the officials behaved according to court etiquette, and that their daily conduct was moral.

Local administration also worked as a pyramid. ‘Each of the country’s sixty or more provinces was headed by a governor who usually had under him ten or more districts headed by district supervisors. Each district contained between two and twenty villages made up of fifty households each. A governor was appointed for a six-year term, but the district supervisors, usually selected from the local gentry, had no fixed term of office.’ In theory, the district supervisors controlled the local governor and the clan leaders. In practice, district supervisors had more to gain from collaborating with them.

The country was divided into five provinces around the capital and seven other regions. Historians believe that the permanent national army had at least one thousand soldiers in each important province and region. To these troops they added the imperial guard and the forces around Nara, making the total numbers rise to a minimum of 12,000 to 20,000 professional soldiers and a even larger number of reservists available in case of crisis. Most of the clan leaders were loyal to the emperor but the soldiers were far more loyal to the clan chieftain. In time, this would lead to the creation of the samurai warrior class.

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.

Fujiwara no Fuhito left behind four sons: Muchimaro, Umakai, Fusasaki and Maro. Together, they plotted to enthrone Prince Obito. Under pressure from the Fujiwara family, Empress Gensho abdicated. Prince Obito became Emperor Shomu. A few years later, Prince Nagaya was falsely accused of treason, forced to commit suicide, and his wife and children were executed. For a period of time, Emperor Shomu governed with the help of the Fujiwara brothers. All four of them suddenly died from a smallpox epidemic, leaving Shomu as a lone ruler supported only by his relatives.

Historians estimate that 30% of Japan’s population died in a smallpox epidemic that lasted from 735 to 737. Despite Emperor Shomu’s calls for national prayers, ten important officials from the Council of State died, including the four Fujiwara brothers. Belief in vengeful spirits was very powerful in ancient Japan. Many nobles thought that the great epidemic was caused by the ghosts of Prince Nagaya and his family who took revenge on the Fujiwara clan. Even though the national tragedy was a disaster for the Fujiwara, it actually made the clan stronger in the long term.

Witnessing the disasters which were happening during his reign, and being convinced that the death of his advisers was a divine sign, Emperor Shomu promoted Buddhism to an even larger scale. In order to honor their memory, Fujiwara no Fuhito heirs were declared protectors of the crown. The heirs of Fujiwara no Fusasaski continued his legacy, gaining the most important political positions at the end of Nara jidai and in the first part of Heian. Even when they finally lost their political influence in the late Heian jidai, Fujiwara remained the symbolic protectors of the imperial family till the beginning of the twentieth century.

740
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.

The great epidemic that took the lives of many court nobles impressed Emperor Shomu, who became a deeply religious person. A decisive moment was when his mother miraculously recovered. Shomu believed that the prayers of the monk Genbo were decisive. Apart from their ideological influence, Shomu was motivated by his own position to ignore the Fujiwara. Without a powerful clan to oppose him, the emperor could appoint only loyal subjects from unimportant clans and gain almost absolute political authority.

Fujiwara no Hirotsugu was a second-rank governor from Kyushu, and a great warrior and poet. He considered that his family was wronged by the imperial family. From his perspective, foreign Buddhist monks without any royal blood corrupted the emperor’s mind. Instead of taking pragmatic measures to help the poor farmers who suffered from famine and diseases, the emperor prefered to tax them further and built large Buddhist monasteries in order to appease the gods. Hirotsugu sent a official letter to Nara, but he received no reply. In those conditions, he declared himself a rebel.

The living conditions in Kyushu were so hard that, even though Hirotsugu held no important political or economic position, his charisma helped him to rapidly gather supporters. He quickly conquered all the island and formed an army of 15,000 soldiers, composed mostly of poorly armed infantry, untrained peasants, and some mounted local nobles and warlords. At first, Emperor Shomu had problems gathering a strong army under his command, but Hirotsugu made a fatal mistake. The Fujiwara rebel tried to ask for the help of the Korean kingdom of Silla, thus consolidating a national coalition against him.

Fujiwara no Hirotsugu divided his army into three parts in order to cut off the government forces. What seemed a great tactical maneuver proved to be a strategic mistake. Emperor Shomu promised amnesty for the rebels and put a price on Hirotsugu’s head. Half of his forces defected, especially the mounted nobles. Without most of his heavy cavalry, Hirotsugu was defeated at the battle of Itabitsu River by an imperial army of 25,000 warriors. It was the greatest battle of the Nara period. Fujiwara no Hirotsugu tried to run to Korea but was captured and executed.

Emperor Shomu was so afraid of the Hirotsugu rebellion in Kyushu that he temporarily retreated with his government from Nara to the eastern part of the country. Fujiwara no Hirotsugu was the son of Fujiwara no Umakai, and this branch of the family went extinct with him. On the other hand, the southern family of Fujiwara named Nanke gained imperial favor and managed to avenge him. The Buddhist monks Genbo and Kibi no Makibi were removed from their positions and exiled in Kyushu. Genbo suddenly died, with popular folklore noting that it was the ghost of Hirotsugu that killed him.

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.

Tachibana no Moroe was a practical minister who took many innovative measures to help the poor and encourage greater production in agriculture. He also stopped any expensive and unnecessary expenditure in the army, bureaucracy or infrastructure projects. His successors were not that wise, and reversed his reforms. The crisis was deepened by the dictature of Fujiwara no Nakamaro and by the exorbitant projects of Empress Koken.

The Japanese historian Naoki Kojiro gives an interesting example of the limits of Tachibana no Moroe’s reforms: ‘Probably the most spectacular economic measure was that enacted in 743, permitting a farmer who opened up virgin land for the cultivation of rice to gain title to that land in perpetuity. This decision violated the basic ritsuryo principle that all land belonged to the state. The new policy may have increased the amount of cultivated land and added to the state’s revenue, (...) this measure accelerated the accumulation of privately owned land, making the rich even richer and gradually undermining the ritsuryo system.’

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.

Since the Taika reforms, all the land was owned by the state. A farmer had the right to temporarily use the land until the centralized government decided to reorganize the plots of land. Peasants were not motivated to work for the state because of repeated crop failure caused by natural disasters, lack of proper irrigation and because they were overwhelmed by heavy taxation. The lack of food caused grave famines and diseases, making the emperor gradually allow private property on a larger scale.

Big local landowners took advantage of the situation. A respectable sized plot of fertile land almost guaranteed a better harvest in comparison with a small farmer, who paid high taxes in order to support the building of temples he would never see. Because of that, many farmers abandoned the lands given by the state and became ronin, meaning wanderers. They were hired by local nobles who could afford to offer better payment. In time, in order to protect their wealth, clan chieftains began to enlist and train warriors, forming small local personal armies.

In Nara jidai, a Japanese national conscience formed only in the ranks of a very few intellectual, political and religious elites. The rest of the population was illiterate and rarely did a peasant travel outside his province. The economic conditions encouraged farmers to be more loyal to their local warlord than to the distant emperor. Because they were more efficient in taking care of their farms, the big landowners were getting larger revenues. In return, they offered slightly better working conditions for the peasants. A circle of profit created many small local ‘states’ within the centralized state located in Nara.

Although the political organization was sophisticated, with strong institutions, the local administration had problems in reaching a high level of tax collection. The problem started with the district supervisors, elected from the local nobility. Because their term in office was usually for life, and many times their sons inherited the office, they all had vested interests in making sure that their provinces would thrive. This sometimes meant corruption and closing their eyes to lords who commited tax evasion and embezzlement. Thanks to their political connections, many district supervisors became local warlords themselves and founded new clans.

The Japanese political system resulted from a compromise between meritocracy and the divine rights of the aristocracy. In reality, even the emperor’s power was limited by the aristocracy. Unfortunately for the general well-being of the country, despite repeated attempts of reformation, the nobles still dominated the political class. Below the ministerial level, there were countless offices and ranks held by both young experts who passed a harsh examination process, and nobles. In reality, the vast majority of talented officials could not advance in their career because of the traditional clan system.

Corruption was also caused by the great inequalities in income between high ranking officials, usually nobles, and low-ranking officials, usually educated functionaries who rose from the common folks. For example, the office of the Minister of the Left gave the official the right of property over forty villages, all the income being exempt from taxing. In contrast, the low-ranking functionaries had a very small salary that tempted them to accept the bribes of a local warlord or a governor. The bribe was especially efficient when the clan leaders promised the low-ranking officials a place for their sons in the local nobility.

Even without an available office, nobles held by default an important rank in the Japanese social order. Their heirs had first priority when an administrative position became available. Furthermore, even those who reached an important position based on merit were tempted to promote their sons to key positions, becoming, in a few generations, nobles themself. Despite these facts, the Japanese political system was remarkably progressive for that era. It’s true that the Tang dynasty had an administration closer to the meritocratic ideal, but in contrast with Japan, there was no strong clan-based tradition in China.

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.

In their article, Jean-Pascal Bassino and Masanori Takashima made a summary of other important works that tackled economic matters from universal ancient history. They also make interesting considerations about the limits of such an approach because the data available for analysis is scarce and it often comes from uncertain sources. But this is not a reason to abandon the idea of economic ancient history. For example, studies from the end of the Roman Republic proved that the centralization of the state benefited only the aristocracy and that the inequalities grew even larger.

Jean-Pascal Bassino and Masanori Takashima observed that many late ancient societies went through a reformatory process. In a first category were the regions which resisted the central government. This type of society remained undeveloped from a technological, military and artistic point of view, but the general population lived a more egalitarian life, closer to the agrarian ideal, away from the strict control of taxation and military conscription. The second category was represented by the opposite situation, where the state became highly centralized in a short period of time. Ancient Japan was closer to the latter model.

In order to estimate the real situation in a certain period, economic history uses a complex methodology. To simplify, the scientist calculates what the food consumption at subsistence level is in a given region and compares the data with the level of population in that region. Furthermore, he adds the expenses created by the lifestyle of the aristocracy and the great infrastructure projects. They also use state archives and official documents to understand the system of taxation and the actual tax incomes, adding the flow of trade products.

Historians can estimate the GDP per capita of a population, to compare the income from one region to another, or the social inequalities between rural and urban areas. The article Paying the Price for Spiritual Enlightenment does just that on the subject of ancient Nara jidai, analyzing the cost and benefits of the great political reforms. They discovered that the tax pressure on income rose from 4% at the end of Kofun jidai, when the reforms started, to more than 15% in Nara jidai, at the height of the process of centralization. The provinces located far away from Nara were less affected.

According to William Wayne Farris, Japan’s population at the beginning of Nara jidai reached 6.4 million people, being the third developed region in terms of population from the late ancient world, after China and India. The most densely populated regions of Japan were northern Kyushu and the Kinai plain. At that time, almost one third of the Japanese originated from Korean and Chinese immigrants. Another ethnic minority was the Kumaso living in southern Kyushu, most probably descendants of the prehistoric Jomon people. Northern Honshu was dominated by the Emishi, also named Ainu.

Japan had only three major cities, with a population above 100,000 persons. Nara was the capital, Naniwa was the port trading center of the nation and Dazaifu was the biggest town in Kyushu, with a large military base and armory, in the case of a possible invasion from or of Korea. The birth rate was really high, but the average life expectancy was twenty five years because the infant mortality rate was at 50%, meaning that one in two children under the age of five died due to diseases and famine. Most of the adults had a remarkably long life expectancy for the period, of about forty years.

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.

The Kokubunji system also failed to secure the allegiance of the general population. Most of the political elite embraced the Buddhist faith but also respected Shinto traditions. Some peasants who were living near the Buddhist monasteries were converted. On the other hand, most of the Japanese chose to keep their Shinto faith. They even preserved the local folklore related to certain gods, spirits or mythical creatures. Practically, this measure accentuated the differences of perception between rich and poor, the aristocracy from the imperial court becoming unaware of relevant social realities.

With many adepts from their immediate location, the Buddhist monasteries could afford to expand and buy new lands. Again, the accumulation of wealth needed to be secured, so the monks started to build armies of their own. In time, these monasteries ceased to be loyal to a nationwide religious authority. Instead, many of them chose to collaborate and ally with local clan leaders and even challenged the authority of the emperor or invaded other provinces owned by different clans and monasteries. This phenomenon became even more widespread in the Heian era.

The syncretism between Buddhism and Shinto started in the Asuka jidai and continued in the Nara period. For example, the big Buddha Dainichi statue, meaning ‘The Great Sun Buddha’, was perceived by many as another symbol for the Shinto sun goddess Amaterasu. The Japanese emperors used this confusion in order to legitimize edicts. If laws tackled only material problems, and any material thing is changing, then it is the duty of the emperor, as the earthly representative of both Buddha and Amaterasu, to adapt the rules. The rest of the people should obey him and focus on their spiritual salvation.

From a dogmatic point of view, Nara jidai knew six different forms of Mahayana Buddhism: Risshu, Jojitsu, Kusha-shu, Hosso, Sanron, Kegon. Most of the contrasting beliefs were due to a varied origin of the faith, but the situation was also created by the tinted interpretation of Japanese scholars who could not agree with each other. Buddhism broke into more parts at the beginning of Heian jidai, creating a new separation between initiated and uninitiated believers.

Hosso was introduced to Japan by the Buddhist monk Dosho who studied under the protection of the Chinese Buddhist monk Xuanzang. His master traveled to India in order to learn about the religion from the source and left behind a record of his experience, Journey to the West. The basic principle of Hosso is meditation. The teachings are explained by Xuanzang in the book Discourse of the Theory of Consciousness-Only. The Jojitsu sect was brought to Japan by the Korean Buddhist monk Hyegwan from Koguryo. It focused on ritual practice, especially reading the sacred sutras.

It is not clear who was the first adept of the Sanron sect in Japan. The famous prince Shotoku was one of the practitioners of this form of religion. The sect was based on three sacred texts that explain three different stages of existence: realities of the physical world, emptiness and mystical knowledge. The texts are based on two great Indian philosophers in the eastern tradition: Nagarjuna and Aryadeva. The Kegon sect comes from Bodhisena, an Indian monk who settled in Japan. His sutras inspired the later creation of the Japanese written language, kana. He also influenced traditional dancing at the imperial court.

The Risshu sect originated from the famous Chinese blind monk Jianzhen who created a monastery near Nara. Because of that, he influenced most of the Japanese aristocracy from the capital. The abstract aspects of Buddhism were slightly neglected in the favor of a practical system of ethics, focusing on how the adepts should live a moral life. Some aspects of the Kusha-shu sect are related to the Risshu and the Jojitsu sects. The main teachings originate from the ancient Indian philosopher Vasubandhu. His opera has some similarities with German idealism, phenomenology, and Kantian epistemology.

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.

Tachibana no Naramaro was an important politician of the Nara period, and one of the leaders of the Tachibana clan, a family that opposed the hegemony of the Fujiwara clan. His father, Tachibana no Moroe, was one of the favorite ministers of Emperor Shomu but the enthronement of Empress Koken ruined his plans. Koken appointed Fujiwara no Nakamaro to the position of Chancellor and ignored her father's will regarding the line of succession to the throne. In this context, Tachibana no Naramaro planned a coup in order to entrone one of Shomu’s heirs and to remove Fujiwara no Nakamaro from power.

Tachibana no Naramaro was betrayed and the empress learned about the coup. All the plotters were arrested. They acknowledged their guilt. Naramaro said in the interrogation room that he wanted to remove the government because the leaders of the court did nothing to help the common people. Because of their collaboration, Empress Koken decided to spare their lives and exile them. Fujiwara no Nakamaro disobeyed her orders and tortured the plotters. All of them died in prison. It was only the beginning of the conflict between Empress Koken and her main advisor, Fujiwara no Nakamaro.

In order to avoid further problems, Koken adopted a nephew of Emperor Shomu and abdicated in his favor. The new emperor named Junnin was just a puppet with no real power. Junnin married one of Nakamaro’s daughters. Fujiwara no Nakamaro became like an acting prime minister. He was very ambitious, trying to finally defeat all the Ainu resistance from the north of the country and even planned to organize an invasion of Korea. Nakamaro soon became a dictator, opposed even by his own clan, Fujiwara.

757
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.

Even though the Yoro Code tried to promote a meritocratic system, the members of aristocracy were protected and favored by the law. Depending on the crime committed, there were five main types of punishments: private or public whipping, private or public beating, penal servitude, exile and execution. Many of the local officials had all the judicial power in their province, so as long as they didn’t do anything to conflict with the central government, they could do whatever they wanted. Only the Council of State could decide about the death penalty or the exile of an important politician.

The Yoro Code was inspired from the Tang dynasty’s system of law. Because of that, historians were able to reconstruct the missing parts. From a political perspective, it was a very detailed account of the role and responsibility of each office. From a civil perspective, it clarified the exact amount of taxes for various activities and defined the status of private and public property. The penal part was very lenient, inspired by humanistic Confucian principles. The Yoro Code worked until the end of the tenth century. After that period, the ruling class started to completely ignore it and the text was forgotten.

Art
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.

The building of Todaiji, meaning The great eastern temple, was completed in 752 AD near the Nara capital. Todaiji is considered the biggest wooden building in the world from that century. It also had the tallest bronze statue of Buddha, measuring 15 meters in height and weighing 500 tons. The temple burned down at the end of the Heian jidai, but it was immediately reconstructed, with a new bronze statue of Buddha, 50 meters tall. Many other Buddhist temples were constructed in Nara jidai. The most famous were: Yamashina-ji, Sufuku-ji, Daian-ji, Taima-ji and Yakushi-ji.

Shosoin was a special building in the Todaiji monastery. Historians discovered there more than nine thousand ancient artifacts from the Nara jidai. The items were donated to the monastery by Empress Komyo in the memory of her husband, Emperor Shomu. The artifacts are protected by the UNESCO patrimony and, in order to be safely preserved, they cannot be exposed to the general public. The collection also contains various items and documents obtained through trade with the Chinese Tang dynasty, the Korean kingdoms, ancient India, Persia, Egypt and the Eastern Roman empire.

Tang China was influenced by two other great civilizations. The Persians commercialized various decorative art items such as hunting scenes and animals. The other source of inspiration came from the Indian Gupta style of Buddhist art. Both of them were also introduced in Nara Japan during Emperor Shomu’s reign. He was the one who created the special Shakyosho department, responsible for spreading and making copies of Buddhist texts. The manuscripts are also very valuable from an aesthetic perspective because the texts were decorated with various paintings of nature.

One of the most famous paintings of the Nara jidai was the Goddess of Beauty, an opera preserved at the Nara Imperial Museum. Sculpture of various Buddhist themes flourished. The main materials used for sculpting were bronze, wood, clay and dry-lacquer. Five impressive examples still exist today: Sho-kwannon sculpture from the Yakushiji monastery, the Indian-style sculpture of Shaka-muni, Sho-kwannon sculpture from the Kakurinji temple, and the Amida Triad with Two Disciples from the Horyu-ji monastery.

Kasuga Taisha was a Shinto shrine built near Nara by the Fujiwara family in order to glorify their ancestors. The deer is also considered a sacred animal in the region, remembering the old belief of bone divination from the prehistory of Jomon and Yayoi. Mark Cartwright describes an interesting ceremony held nowadays at the temple. ‘The pathway to the shrine is lined with stone lanterns donated by worshippers over the centuries. Many of these 2,000 lanterns are decorated with an image of a deer. All the lanterns at Kasuga are lit in a spectacular ceremony held each February and August.’

Painting was very evolved in that era. It had two major influences: The Chinese line composition and the Indian chiaroscuro style. Unfortunately, most of these paintings were lost. Historians know about their existence from the archives discovered in Buddhist monasteries like Todaiji. Some of the Buddha pictures were five meters tall. The art critic Noritake Tsuda describes the improvements that were made. ‘In a old document, kept at the Shosoin treasury, as many as seventeen different kinds of colors are mentioned. On the whole, the tone of the color of this age was bright and rich.’

Artistic expression could also be observed in textiles, metalworking, and musical instruments. At the beginning of the Nara jidai, the textile industry spread through the whole of Japan. Examples of silk fabrics like the famous Rokechi and Kyokechi were discovered at Shosoin. Metalworking focused on decorated silver vessels and bronze mirrors. Biwa was a musical instrument with a four-stringed psaltery. Noritake Tsuda describes such a specimen: ‘The surface and black side are all lacquered black and inlaid with gold and silver plates cut into figures, animals, flowers, birds, and butterflies.’

759
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.

Kaifuso was written in classical Chinese by the many Japanese elites: scholars, politicians, nobles and the emperors. In contrast with other works of literature from that timeline, some of the authors were females from the aristocracy. The collection was a purely elitistic one, containing only 120 poems. The greatest contributors were Awami Mifune, a distant heir to the emperor Kobun, and Prince Otsu, the son of Emperor Tenmu.

In contrast to Kaifuso, Manyoshu was closer to Japanese folklore. Some of the poems from Manyoshu dealt with Chinese themes like Taoist or Confucian principles, but the majority were dedicated to the Japanese landscape and thematic problems. Manyoshu was divided into twenty volumes, containing long and short poems, but also some short stories in prose. Unlike any Japanese literary opera before it, this collection cleary represented the authentic Japanese spirit. The style of the scrolls is far more emotional and expressive, a feature that would become definitive for Japanese literature.

The title of Manyoshu is controverted. Some historians think that it means ‘Collection of countless words’, and some translate it by the name ‘A collection to last ten thousand ages’. The collection includes popular poems and cult poems produced between the 5th and 8th century AD. The greatest poets of Manyoshu were: Kakinomoto no Hitomaro, Yamabe no Akahito, Otomo no Tabito and Yamanoue no Okura.

Kakinomoto no Hitomaro was the most appreciated poet at the imperial court from his era, while Okura was known as the most inspired poet who wrote about the common people. Hitomaro was the favourite poet of three Japanese sovereigns: Tenmu, Jito and Monmu. Yamanoue no Okura was a Korean immigrant from the destroyed kingdom of Paekche. Yamabe no Akahito is remembered for his long journeys in the country alongside Emperor Shomu, traveling that inspired him to write about the beauty of Japanese nature. Otomo no Tabito was not only an appreciated poet, but also a skillful warrior.

764
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.

Like her father, Empress Koken was a convinced follower of Buddhism. From a retired position, she took over actual control over the government, leaving Junnin with only symbolic roles. Her main advisor was Dokyo, a Buddhist monk. Some historians even believe that Dokyo was her lover. In response, Fujiwara no Nakamaro fled from the Nara capital and gathered an army. The supporters of Koken wanted an emperor who would rule over political affairs, while the allies of Fujiwara no Nakamaro believed that the role of emperor must be a symbolic one.

Fujiwara no Nakamaro managed to steal the imperial seals and had, at least theoretically, control over the army in the Nara region. In reality, his authoritarian rule made him unpopular among the aristocracy, and even his clan was against him. Fujiwara no Kurajimaro convinced the main forces to take the side of Empress Koken. Kurajimaro was the son of Umakai, one of the four Fujiwara brothers. Furthermore, Koken appointed the exiled Buddhist monk Kibi no Makibi as one of the commanders of her troops. After two short battles at the Lake Biwa, the rebels were destroyed.

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.

Dokyo tried to convince the empress and the imperial court that he must be heir to the crown by bringing, and most probably bribing an oracle to say that the god of war and archery, Hachiman, promised peace and fortune if the Buddhist monk was named emperor. Together with the Fujiwara clan, Wake no Kiyomaro brought another oracle who proclaimed that no man without aristocratic blood should ascend to the throne. Dokyo was arrested and exiled. Empress Shotoku was succeeded by Prince Shirakabe, a grandson of Emperor Tenji. The new emperor was named Konin.

770
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.

Paper was invented in China between the first century and the second century AD but woodblock printing appeared there in the seventh century AD. No copies have survived until today. The first example of a preserved woodblock printing was discovered in a Buddhist monastery in the Korean kingdom of Silla, dated in 751. Obviously, the technology was imported from Tang China. The second attempt was the massive project of Hyakumanto Darani from 764 - 770. The printing press would be introduced to Europe many years later, by the discovery made by Johannes Gutenberg in 1440.

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 Konin made attempts to save the economy of the country, stopping any expensive project, but with little effect. The payments for the bureaucratic system and the national army were too costly on their own. The Cambridge History of Japan Volume 1 highlights this idea: ‘Unnecessary offices not listed in the administrative code were abolished, resulting in the dismissal of numerous provincial and central government officials. (...) It also enacted some military reform, shifting the burden of the military service from poor to rich farmers.’

The Fujiwara clan had an important voice in the imperial court, and Emperor Konin was an efficient ruler, but the pressure coming from Tenmu descendants forced him to abdicate in favor of his son, Prince Yamabe. The prince took the title of Emperor Kanmu. Other plots soon followed. Fujiwara no Uona occupied the position of the minister of the left, and was the son of Fujiwara no Fusasaki. He was falsely accused of treason and sent into exile. His place in the Council of State was taken by Fujiwara no Tamaro.

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.

An interesting fact is that Emperor Kanmu’s mother was a descendant of the destroyed Korean kingdom of Paeckhe. For the first time, Akihito, the current emperor of Japan, publicly recognized the fact that the Japanese imperial bloodline was influenced by Korea. This is true especially from the early phases of the history of Japan till Asuka and Nara jidai.

Sakanoue no Tamuramaro was the military commander who defeated the Ainu tribes from Honshu. Most of the Ainu migrated to Hokkaido but some remained to serve as mercenaries or even became small local lords with their own estates in the north of the country. For his services, Emperor Kanmu awarded Sakanoue with the title of ‘Shogun’, meaning ‘The supreme general who defeated the barbarians’. Later on in the feudal period, the title of Shogun came to mean something else altogether, representing the military dictator of Japan, a period when the emperor had only a symbolic role.

Emperor Kanmu wanted to escape from the strong Buddhist influence located around Nara so he moved the capital to Nagaoka. The project was a disaster and the new city was flooded. Advised by the Fujiwara clan and by Wake no Kiyomaro, the emperor finally moved the capital to Heian. Wake no Kiyomaro was the same Japanese politician who demonstrated the imposture of Buddhist monk Dokyo. The movement from Nara was also motivated by the will of the Fujiwara clan to counteract the power of Tenmu's descendants, who had too many supporters in Nara.

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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.

In order to escape from the never-ending conflicts at the imperial court, the new sovereign moved the capital from Nagaoka to Heian in 794. At the end of the eleventh century, the new capital gained the name that remained in the memory of collective history: Kyoto, the capital. Kyoto remained the political capital until the Tokugawa jidai and is still considered the symbolic imperial capital and the most important historical city from Japan. The imperial palace was named Heian no Miya, meaning ‘the palace of tranquility and peace’.