Japanese History: Nara Period - History Brought Alive
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Japanese History: Nara Period

The Nara period lasted from 710 to 794 CE. This was the time when Japan’s capital was in Heijo-kyo, or present-day Nara. This would become Japan’s first permanent capital city. Prior to this, a new capital was built for each Japanese Emperor. This was likely due to the concept of impurity we mentioned in the previous chapter. The death of the Emperor made the old capital impure, therefore a new one needed to be built. 

The capital at Nara was modeled after the Chinese capital and was the most lavish capital Japan had had thus far. The capital was moved a few times during the Nara period. In 740, Emperor Shōmu moved the capital to Kuni-kyo. In 743, it was moved to Shiragaki-kyo. Then in 745, the capital was moved back to Nara. Here it remained, until 784 when it was moved to Nagaoka-kyo. Then it was moved to Heian-kyo (modern day Kyoto) in 794. 

The Nara period was the period in which the Fujiwara clan began their rise to power by marrying their daughters to Emperors and high-ranking officials in the Imperial Court. In 645 CE, Prince Nakano Ōe (later known as Emperor Tenji) had led a coup against the powerful Soga clan and seized power for himself. Nakatomi Kamatari had assisted him in this coup. For his support, Emperor Tenji gave Nakatomi Kamatari the name Fujiwara. 

A series of government reforms followed this coup that was known as the Taika No Kaishin, or Taika era reforms. As Japan moved towards a more powerful centralized government, a series of laws were put in place that made the position of the Emperor more and more influential. 

During the Nara period, the Japanese also began writing. While there had been some writing during the prior Asuka period, it did not become widespread until the Nara period. It was in this period that the Nihon Shoki and Kojiki were written. These were a blend of history and myth that told the origin stories of Japan, Shinto legends, and solidified the legitimacy of the Japanese Emperors by claiming their direct descendants from the sun goddess, Amaterasu. The Nihon Shoki was written in Chinese, whereas the Kojiki was written in a blend of Chinese characters and unique Japanese characters. 

This increase in writing would set the stage for an explosion of writing and innovation in the Heian Period that followed.

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