Nara Period (710-784)

The Nara Period (奈良時代 Nara jidai) is the historical period beginning in 710, the year the capital was moved from Fujiwarakyō to Heijōkyō (the modern-day city of Nara), and ending in 784 when the capital was moved to Nagaokakyō. The ten years at Nagaokakyō (784-794) are usually included in the Nara Period, however, giving it an end-date of 794.

The Nara Period marked the height of the Chinese-inspired ritsuryō (律令) system of government as well as the active introduction of other aspects of Chinese civilisation. To make Buddhism the spiritual base of centralised political authority, provincial temples (kokubunji) were established throughout Japan. The Nara Period saw the establishment of Buddhism as the religion of the court and, by extension, of the state, and a new height in intellectual and cultural achievements as exemplified in the building of the Great Hall of the Tōdaiji temple, as well as the compilation of Japan’s first chronicles, the Kojiki (古事記, 712) and the Nihon Shoki (日本書紀, 720). Under the influence of Tang China, the arts flourished in what is known as the Tempyō (天平) culture. During the middle period, however, a power struggle broke out among the court nobility. Modifications in the land-tenure system led to the accumulation of vast tracts of private land (荘園 or 庄園 shōen) by nobles and religious institutions, resulting in the collapse of the kōchi kōmin (公地公民) system of public ownership of land and the disintegration of the ritsuryō system. The final years of the Nara Period witnessed increasing poverty among the peasants, who were overburdened by taxes, and growing numbers of homeless wanderers.

Ritsuryō System

In the context of political history, the Nara period may have begun with the promulgation of the Taihō Code (大宝律令 Taihō-ritsuryō) in 701. Under the code, the centralising reforms inaugurated by the Taika Reforms (645) were pushed forward, and the period saw the firm establishment of the emperor as the head of a Chinese-style ritsuryō state. Under the ritsuryō system, the central government was headed by the dajōkan (太政官 Grand Council of State), which presided over eight ministries. The government was staffed by officials appointed by the emperor and bidden to act as his loyal servants. The country was divided into provinces (国 kuni or kokii), which in turn were divided into districts (郡 gun or kōri), villages (郷 ), and hamlets (里 ri or sato). An early Nara-period document lists 67 provinces, comprising 555 districts, 4,012 villages, and 12,036 hamlets. The provinces were administered by governors (国司 kokushi), who were sent out from the capital. All the people were considered the emperor’s subjects and were expected to obey the officials who acted in his name.

All rice land was declared public domain. Under the handen shūju (班田収授) system the land was redistributed every six years to all males and females over six years of age. A male received 2 tan (1 tan (段) = 0.12 hectare or 0.3 acres), a female two-thirds that amount. To ensure proper allocation of rice land, the census register was updated every six years. The authority of the imperial court at the time extended as far south as the islands off the tip of Kyūshū and as far north as Akitajō, in what is now Akita Prefecture. The population in this area is estimated to have been about 5 to 6 million and the acreage of rice land about 601,000 chō (about 721,200 hectares or 1.8 million acres). It is evident that even after taking into consideration the ratio of males to females, there was not enough land. Judging from historical materials, however, the handen system and the census registration seem to have been implemented throughout the country with little resistance. The allotted rice land was called kubunden (口分田). Holders of kubunden were liable to corvée (雑徭 zōyō), a rice tax (租 so), a handicraft or local products tax (調 chō). There was also a handicraft or local products tax (庸 ) instead of labour.

To strengthen administrative and military communications with the provinces and to facilitate the payment of taxes, the government established a network of post stations (駅制 ekisei) on the public roads connecting the capital and provincial seats of government. The rice and produce taxes that had hitherto been paid to local chieftains were now sent directly to the central government.

A faithful imitation of the Chinese system of government was bound to have negative side-effects, for it was unsuited to Japan’s agricultural reality. According to a document of 730, in the province of Awa (present-day Chiba Prefecture), 412 out of 414 households were listed as being at the bare subsistence level. The figures for Echizen Province (modern Fukui Prefecture) in that year tell the same story: of 1,019 households, 996 were found to be poverty-stricken. The tax burden fell most heavily on the peasants, and the number of those who absconded increased at an alarming rate. At the same time, under the Sanze isshin no hō (723) and the Konden eisei shizai hō (743), reclaimed wasteland was recognised as private property for one or three generations, or in perpetuity. Nobles and religious institutions were able to appropriate extensive landholdings, which were exempted from taxes. Vagrant peasants in search of a livelihood converged upon these lands. Herein lay the fundamental contradiction of the Nara landholding system.

The project to build an imposing capital on the model of the Chinese capital of Chang’an (Ch’ang-an) was another instance of overzealous imitation. Many of the peasants conscripted for labour ran away; the thousands of restless peasants who assembled daily on the outskirts of Heijōkyō posed a continuous threat, necessitating the deployment of armed guardsmen at the palace arsenal and the emperor’s residence. It was to adjust the Taihō Code to native realities that the minister Fujiwara no Fuhito (藤原不比等, 659-720) began compiling the Yōrō Code (養老律令 Yōrō-ritsuryō) in 718.

Following the death of Fuhito in 720, the most powerful political figure was Prince Nagaya, but in 729 the prince was ordered by the emperor to commit suicide for allegedly inciting a rebellion. He had, in fact, been falsely accused by members of the Fujiwara family, who, it is believed, hoped to take advantage of the social unrest to seize political leadership from the imperial house. The death of all four of Fuhito’s sons in a smallpox epidemic in 737, however, put an end to the family’s imperial aspirations.

The Emperor Shōmu (聖武天皇 Shōmu-tennō, 701-756), who was married to Empress Kōmyō (光明皇后 Kōmyō-kōgō, 701–760), a daughter of Fuhito, was deeply disturbed by the course of events, and, in the hope that the powers of Buddhism would bring an end to epidemic disease and social ills, in 741 he ordered the construction of temples and nunneries (国分 kokubunji) in every province. This undertaking was completed only after many years. Shōmu also ordered in 743 the construction of a gigantic statue of the Buddha Vairocana so that the blessings of the Buddha would extend over the entire country. Known as the Great Buddha (大仏 daibutsu) of Tōdaiji, it was completed in 752 at great expense.

State expenditures thus went mainly for the construction of imposing religious edifices and statues. Buddhist arts and culture, centring on these good works, reached an unequalled richness and brilliance. Scholars were later to call the artistic efflorescence of this period Tempyō culture, after the era name (nengō) for the years 729-749.

Tempyō Culture and Embassies to China

The ripening of Tempyō (天平) culture was owed in no small measure to the resumption of relations with the Tang (T’ang) dynasty (618-907) of China. The sending of official envoys had been halted since the defeat of Japanese forces by the combined armies of Tang China and the Korean state of Silla in the Battle of Hakusukinoe in 663. In 701, it was decided to send an embassy to China, and the envoys set out for the continent the following year. Between 701 and 777 seven missions were dispatched, each comprising as many as 500 or 600 men.

The voyages across the sea were dangerous and often fatal; that they were undertaken indicates the eagerness with which the Japanese hoped to learn from China. Many students and scholars accompanied these embassies, a number remaining in China for many years. Some of them brought back foreign monks and new forms of Buddhism. They contributed significantly to the abundance of Tempyō culture, Gembō (玄昉, d. 746), Kibi no Makibi (吉備 真備, 695-775), and Abe no Nakamaro (阿倍 仲麻呂, 698-770) are some of the more famous of these students. Gembō returned with more than 5,000 sutras, while Kibi no Makibi, who had studied Confucianism, military science, and ceremonial rites, set up an educational program for future government officials. The Chinese monk Jianzhen (or Ganjin, 鑒真 or 鑑真; 688–763) finally reached Japan in 754 after four unsuccessful attempts. He conveyed the teachings of the Risshū (律宗) sect and founded the Tōshōdaiji (唐招提寺) temple in Nara.

Visitors came from as far away as Central and West Asia, Indonesia, Vietnam, Malaysia, and India, bolstering the dynamism and diversity of Tempyō culture. The quintessence of Nara art is represented in the thousands of objects preserved in the Shōsōin (正倉院), the treasure house of Tōdaiji in Nara. Although resonating with foreign influence, the Nara culture remained uniquely Japanese. The Chinese writing system was adopted, but the Japanese language remained intact. Furthermore, by using Chinese characters in a free and imaginative manner, the Japanese added significantly to the richness and subtlety of their language. The poetic anthology Man’yōshū (万葉集, “Collection of Ten Thousand Leaves”) is an outstanding masterpiece of the period. Japan’s first history, the Kojiki (古事記), was completed in 712; it was followed eight years later by another chronicle, the Nihon Shoki (日本書紀), which was written in Chinese (漢文 kanbun). The Fudoki (風土記), gazetteers that described local customs, topography, and products, were compiled around the same time. All these projects were completed amidst the administrative demands of land and tax reform.

End of the Period

Emperor Shōmu’s excessive zeal in spreading Buddhism imposed an intolerable burden on the peasants. In 757, under the pretext of alleviating a lot of the peasantry, Tachibana no Naramaro (橘奈良麻呂, 721-757) attempted a coup. Naramaro was the son of Tachibana no Moroe (橘諸兄, 684-757), an imperial prince and court official who had been put in charge of the government after the death of Fujiwara no Fuhito’s sons, and the coup was, in fact, an attempt to remove Fujiwara no Nakamaro (藤原仲麻呂, 706-764), who had usurped Moroe’s place. Nakamaro succeeded in thwarting the coup and realising that the plot had profited from peasant distress, he immediately reduced by half the most burdensome of the taxes, the zōyō (see above), which called for sixty days of labour a year. He also commuted the interest on all debts accumulated through the previous year. In 758, Nakamaro despatched officials throughout the country to listen to the peasants’ grievances and to give relief to the destitute. Within officialdom, he encouraged the observance of filial piety and renamed official ranks and ministries in the Chinese manner. He publicly commended his grandfather Fuhito for his work in drawing up the Taihō and Yōrō codes, and he enforced the latter in 757. The government, which had been dominated by Buddhism, now was more Confucian.

However, the reigning Empress Kōken (孝謙天皇 Kōken-tennō, 718-770) was displeased with the new measures. She dismissed Nakamaro and instead relied heavily on the priest Dōkyō (道鏡, 700-772), who she believed had cured her of an illness. In 764, Nakamaro instigated a rebellion but was captured and killed. Dōkyō was promoted to the rank of Dajō daijin zenji (太政大臣禅師 Priestly Grand Minister of State) and given the title of Hō-ō (法王 Priestly Retired Sovereign). The appointment of his fellow monks as religious councillors (法参議hosangi) sealed the dominance of the Buddhist clergy over court politics. Previous policies were reversed, and Buddhism once again became supreme. Finally, by an oracle (託宣 takusen) he claimed to have received at the Usa Hachiman-gū Shrine in Kyūshū , Dōkyō tried to have himself enthroned. He was thwarted by Fujiwara no Momokawa, Wake no Kiyomaro and others. When Empress Shōtoku (称徳天皇 Shōtoku-tennō, the name taken by Kōken when she reascended the throne in 764) died in 770, the Fujiwara had Dōkyō immediately banished to Shimotsuke (modern-day Tochigi Prefecture), where he died two years later.

After the death of Shōtoku, Fujiwara no Momokawa (藤原百川, 732-779) and his followers successfully countered the attempts of Kibi no Makibi to install the grandson of Emperor Temmu and enthroned the grandson of Emperor Tenji, 62-year-old Prince Shirakabe instead. As Emperor Kōnin (光仁天皇 Kōnin-tennō, 709-782), he became the last sovereign whose reign fell completely within the Nara Period.

His rule was distinguished by efforts to reduce national expenditures, discipline officials and monks, and rebuild farm villages. Government offices founded for the construction of religious edifices were either reduced in size or abolished altogether. Sinecures established outside the ritsuryō administrative framework to provide income for officials were eliminated. In 780, the staff of all government offices was reduced, and men conscripted from the provinces to work in the bureaucracy were allowed to return home. To encourage the return of dispossessed peasants who had left their homes to escape debts, a limit was set on the interest on borrowed seed rice. However, tax payments to the national coffers continued to plummet. As peasants became increasingly drawn into land-reclamation projects undertaken by nobles and temples, they were deprived of any gainful occupation of their own. The decay of the authority of the central government was felt as far away as northeastern Japan, where the Emishi or Ebisu (蝦夷) tribes rose in rebellion. The rebellion was to spread to other areas and pose a grave problem for years to follow.

The political and social problems then, which had been latent at the beginning of the period, surfaced through the years and by the last decades of the eighth century were so serious that not even Emperor Kōnin’s reforms could contain them. Their resolution would have to await a new beginning in the Heian Period (794-1185).


  • Imamura, Keiji, Prehistoric Japan: New perspectives on insular East Asia, University of Hawaii Press 1996
  • Nussbaum, Louis-Frédéric, Japan Encyclopedia, Harvard University Press 2005

Related links: