Nara period in Japanese History


The Nara period of the history of Japan includes the time from 710CE to 794CE.

Japanese culture during this period was agricultural and focused on village life. Most of the inhabitants followed Shintoism, a religion based on the worship of ancestral and natural spirits named kami.

During this period, Empress Genmei instituted the capital of present-day Nara (Heijō-kyō). The capital at Nara mirrored Chang’an, the capital city of the Chinese Tang dynasty. 

Economic and administrative developments during the Nara Period

In Early Japan, the capital was generally moved after the death of an emperor because of the old belief that a place of death was contaminated. Bureaucratization and government changes led to the institution of a firm imperial capital at Heijō-kyō, or Nara, in 710 CE. Nara was Japan’s prime urban center. It had a population of 200,000, and around 10,000 individuals worked in government jobs.

Administrative and economic activity increased during the Nara era. Roads joined Nara to provincial capitals, and taxes were secured more routinely. Coins were coined, if not extensively used. Outside the Nara area, however, there was little economic activity, and in the provinces, the old Shōtoku land reform systems weakened. By the mid 18th century, shōen (landed estates), one of the most potent economic systems in early Japan, began to evolve as a result of searching for a more flexible form of landholding. The local government gradually became more self-sufficient, while the collapse of the old land distribution system and the increase in taxes led to the loss of land by many people who became the “wave people” (furōsha). Some of these once “public people” were privately hired by large landholders, and “public lands” increasingly reverted to the land estates ( shōen)

Factional combat at the royal court continued throughout the Nara period. Imperial family members, leading court families like the Fujiwara, and Buddhist priests all fought for supremacy. Earlier during this period, Prince Nagaya grabbed power at the court after the death of Fujiwara no Fuhito. Fuhito was replaced by four sons, Umakai, Muchimaro, Maro, and Fusasaki. They put Emperor Shōmu, the monarch by Fuhito’s daughter, on the throne. In 729, they restrained Nagaya and recaptured the city. 

However, after a dangerous outbreak of smallpox spread from Kyūshū in 735, all four brothers died, resulting in a brief reduction in the dominance of Fujiwara. In 740, a member of the Fujiwara race, Hirotsugu, propelled a revolt from his base in Fukuoka, Kyushu. Although overwhelmed, it is without a doubt that the Emperor was profoundly shocked about these events. He relocated the palace a couple of times in only five years from 740, until he ultimately returned to Nara. In the late Nara period, financial responsibilities on the state grew, and the court began dismissing insignificant officials. In 792, a universal draft was dropped, and district heads were allowed to settle private militia forces for regional police work. The decentralization of power became the rule despite the improvements in the Nara period. Finally, to regain control, the capital was moved in 784 to Nagaoka-kyō and 794 to Heian-kyō (Heian-kyō means Tranquility and Capital of Peace), about 26 km north of Nara. By the late 11th century, the city was called Kyoto (capital city), the honor it has had ever since.

Literature in the Nara period

Combined efforts by the imperial court to preserve its history produced the first Japanese literature works in the Nara period. Works such as the Nihon Shoki and the Kojiki were political, used to list, and, therefore, justify and secure the sovereignty of the emperors’ rule within Japan.

With the spread of written language, Japanese writing, known in Japanese as waka, began. The most extensive and longest-surviving collection of Japanese poetry, the Man’yōshū, was composed between 600 and 759 CE. This, and other Nara texts, used Chinese alphabets and characters to represent Japanese sounds, known as man’yōgana.

Buddhism in the Nara

A significant cultural evolution of the era was the stable institution of Buddhism. Buddhism was presented by Baekje in the 6th century but had a mediocre reception until the Nara period when Emperor Shōmu enthusiastically adopted it. Shōmu and his Fujiwara consort were passionate Buddhists and actively assisted the spread of Buddhism, making it the “keeper of the state” and a way of establishing Japanese institutions. 

Tōdai-ji Temple

During Shōmu’s reign, the Tōdai-ji (Tōdai-ji means Great Eastern Temple) was constructed. A 16-meter high Great Buddha statue was placed inside. Buddha was recognized with the Sun Goddess, and a evolving sync of Shinto and Buddhism followed. 

International relations during the Nara Period

The Nara court imported Chinese culture, education, and knowledge by assigning diplomatic representatives known as kentōshi to the Tang court. Many Japanese students, both Buddhist and lay priests, studied in Chang’an and Luoyang. One student named Abe no Nakamaro cleared the Chinese civil examination to be designated to China’s governmental posts. He served as Governor-General in Annam from 761 CE onwards. Many scholars who came back from China were promoted to high government posts.

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