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Nara Period (710-794)

Before the Taiho Code was established, the capital was customarily moved after the death of an emperor because of the ancient belief that a place of death was polluted. Reforms and bureaucratization of government led to the establishment of a permanent imperial capital at Heijokyo, or Nara, in A.D. 710. The capital at Nara, which gave its name to the new period (710-94), was styled after the grand Chinese Tang Dynasty (618-907) capital at Chang'an and was the first truly urban center in Japan. It soon had a population of 200,000, representing nearly 4 percent of the country's population, and some 10,000 people worked in government jobs.

Economic and administrative activity increased during the Nara period. Roads linked Nara to provincial capitals, and taxes were collected more efficiently and routinely. Coins were minted, if not widely used. Outside the Nara area, however, there was little commercial activity, and in the provinces the old Shotoku land reform systems declined. By the mid-eighth century, shoen (landed estates), one of the most important economic institutions in medieval Japan, began to rise as a result of the search for a more manageable form of landholding. Local administration gradually became more self-sufficient, while the breakdown of the old land distribution system and the rise of taxes led to the loss or abandonment of land by many people who became the "wave people," or ronin (see Glossary). Some of these formerly "public people" were privately employed by large landholders, and "public lands" increasingly reverted to the shoen.

Some of Japan's literary monuments were written during the Nara period, including the Kojiki and Nihongi, the first national histories compiled in 712 and 720, respectively; the Man'yoshu (Collection of Ten Thousand Leaves), an anthology of poems; and the Kaifuso (Fond Recollections of Poetry), an anthology written in Chinese by Japanese emperors and princes. Another major cultural development of the era was the permanent establishment of Buddhism in Japan. Buddhism had been introduced in the sixth century but had a mixed reception until the Nara period, when it was heartily embraced by Emperor Shomu. Shomu and his Fujiwara consort were fervent Buddhists and actively promoted the spread of Buddhism, making it the "guardian of the state" and strengthening Japanese institutions through still further Chinese acculturation. During Shomu's reign, the Todaiji (Great East Temple) was built, and within it was placed the Buddha Dainichi (Great Sun Buddha), a sixteen-meter-high, gilt-bronze statue. This Buddha was identified with the Sun Goddess, and from this point on, a gradual syncretism of Buddhism and Shinto ensued. Shomu declared himself the "Servant of the Three Treasures" of Buddhism: the Buddha, the law or teachings of Buddhism, and the Buddhist community.

Although these efforts stopped short of making Buddhism the state religion, Nara Buddhism heightened the status of the imperial family. Buddhist influence at court increased under the two reigns of Shomu's daughter. As Empress Koken (r. 749-58) she brought many Buddhist priests into court. Koken abdicated in 758 on the advice of her cousin, Fujiwara Nakamaro. When the retired empress came to favor a Buddhist faith healer named Dokyo, Nakamaro rose up in arms in 764 but was quickly crushed. Koken charged the ruling emperor with colluding with Nakamaro and had him deposed. Koken reascended the throne as Empress Shotoku (r. 764-770). The empress commissioned the printing of 1 million prayer charms--the Hyakumanto dharani--many examples of which survive. The small scrolls, dating from 770, are among the earliest printed works in the world. Shotoku had the charms printed to placate the Buddhist clergy. She may even have wanted to make Dokyo emperor, but she died before she could act. Her actions shocked Nara society and led to the exclusion of women from imperial succession and the removal of Buddhist priests from positions of political authority.

Factional fighting at the imperial court continued throughout the Nara period. Imperial family members, leading court families, such as the Fujiwara, and Buddhist priests all contended for influence. In the late Nara period, financial burdens on the state increased, and the court began dismissing nonessential officials. In 792 universal conscription was abandoned, and district heads were allowed to establish private militia forces for local police work. Decentralization of authority became the rule despite the reforms of the Nara period. Eventually, to return control to imperial hands, the capital was moved in 784 to Nagaoka and in 794 to Heiankyo (Capital of Peace and Tranquillity), or Heian, about twenty-six kilometers north of Nara. By the late eleventh century, the city was popularly called Kyoto (Capital City), the name it has had every since.




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Page last modified: 20-11-2011 19:18:59 ZULU