Japan’s first historical epoch–the Asuka period, named for the area near Nara where the court resided–coincides with the introduction of Buddhism into the country. Along with Buddhism, other important foreign concepts and practices, all of which supported the creation of a single-ruler state based on the Chinese model of a centralized, bureaucratic government–were imported from China and Korea.
Because of the ancient belief that a place of death was polluted, until the eighth century a new capital city was founded and a new imperial palace constructed each time a new emperor succeeded to the throne. The reorganization of the Japanese court into a more complex system based on the Chinese model, whereby the emperor ruled the entire country through hand-picked governors who administered laws and extracted taxes, intensified the desire for a permanent capital. During the reign of Genmei-tennō, Heijō-kyō in Nara was chosen to serve this purpose in 710, becoming the country’s first permanent capital. It was modelled on the Chinese Tang dynasty (618–907) capital, Chang-an.
With the adoption of the imperial title tennō, translated from the Chinese t’ien-huang, or “heavenly emperor,” the Chinese concept of the emperor as the supreme symbol of central government rule was incorporated into the native Japanese interpretation of the emperor as also the leading Shintō cult figure.
It was during this period that imperial power was cemented and the dogma of imperial succession from the sun goddess, Amaterasu, was codified in the Kojiki and Nihon Shoki. The Nara Period was also marked by the development of two powerful schools of Buddhism, Tendai and the more esoteric Shingon, and the ascendancy of Buddhism in general.
The politics of the Nara period comprises three main themes:
- domination by the Fujiwara clan and its struggles against its rivals mainly the Tachibana and Otomo families, joined by certain discontents from the imperial family.
- the attempt by the government to enforce its influence nationwide at the expense of local power holders
- the parallel attempt of the Buddhist temple to establish its authority at the expense of the government.
To increase tax revenue for the government, communications were improved nationwide by the establishment of post stations (ekisei) on public roads, thus allowing tax rice to be delivered to the capital instead of going to local clan leaders. Later on, population increase and the concomitant increase in demand for food undermined this system when the government declared that anyone who reclaimed unused land for rice production could have ownership to that land, setting the basis for large privately owned tax-free estates, or shōen.
Cultivators on the shōen were required to yield part of their crop to the owners in return for their protection, further enriching the estate holders. Most of these shōen were Buddhist, meaning the temple's hand was strengthened against the government. The push for new land came up against aboriginal north-eastern tribes who responded vigorously in a rebellion that took years to suppress. The last emperor of the period, Kōnin-tennō, tried to reassert imperial discipline by relieving the countryside of its most egregious burden and heartfelt grievance: forced military service. This was replaced by a system of regular forces, thus creating the basis of the warrior class.
The period is notable for having three reigning empresses: Genmei, Genshō, and Kōken (who reigned twice, later as Shōtoku). Shōtoku had a notorious affair with a Buddhist priest called Dōkyō, and she even named him as her successor, but the court rejected this choice and Dōkyō was exiled. It would be another 800 years before a woman sat on the Japanese imperial throne again. Their reigns are perhaps indicative of a slightly better lot for women in wider society, certainly in comparison to contemporary China. In Nara Japan, for example, women could own land.
The era came to an end when the Kanmu-tennō decided to move the capital in an attempt to remove the court from the intrigues and power plays of the Buddhist establishment at Nara which had grown wealthy and powerful. At first, Kanmu relocated the capital to Nagaoka-kyō (15km from Kyōto) in 784, but due to continual flooding on the nearby rivers, relocated the capital again to Heian-kyō (Kyōto) in 794, thus starting the Heian Period which would last into the 12th century.
Emperors during Nara Period:
- Genmei-tennō 元明天皇 (707–715)
- Genshō-tennō 元正天皇 (715–724)
- Shōmu-tennō 聖武天皇 (724–749)
- Kōken-tennō 孝謙天皇 (749–758)
- Junnin-tennō 淳仁天皇 (758–764), dethroned by Kōken
- Shōtoku-tennō 称徳天皇 (764–770). second reign of Kōken
- Kōnin-tennō 光仁天皇 (770–781)
- Kanmu-tennō 桓武天皇 (781–806)