Contact with Tang Dynasty China increased during the Nara Period (710-784). Paintings and sculpture during the period came to be modeled closely on the style of the contemporary T’ang dynasty.
The establishment of the capital city “Heijo-kyo” (平城京) in Nara (奈良) where the court had moved to, marked the beginning of the Nara Period. Based on the Tang model, Chang-an city, it was the first permanent capital of Japan from A.D. 710-784. The word “Nara” is thought to be derived from the Korean word meaning “country”.
Ruins of Heijyo Palace
The Nara period is characterized by the maturing of the ritsuryo system of government, inspired by the Chinese model, as well as the adoption of many other aspects of Chinese culture and technology.
During the Nara period the power and influence of Buddhism grew under the supervision of Buddhist monks who had studied in and returned from Tang China. Temples in Japan accumulated vast landholdings during this era, their priests gained tremendous political influence (particularly during the reigns of Emperor Shomu and Empress Shotoku). Buddhism in Japan had the stamp of Tang control: ten Buddhist masters who had studied in Tang China as well as the superintendents placed in charge of temple property, extended state control over all Buddhist matters.
With the burgeoning numbers of worshippers and clergy, many temples had to be constructed. There were about two hundred temples at the beginning of the period but over a thousand at the end of it. Thus Buddhism gained official recognition as the state religion, and the network of Buddhist temples served to buttress the authority of the central state.
Emperor Shomu created a statewide system of temples with Todai-ji Temple at its centre by decreeing that nationally-sponsored temples were to be built in the outlying provinces. The idea had originated with his great-grandfather Temmu who had decreed that Buddhist chapels be built in outlying areas. But unlike the small chapels of Temmu’s era and beyond what was seen in the Tang Chinese temple system, Emperor Shomu went much further to actually initiate ambitious building projects of grand temple compounds complete with seven-storied pagodas in outlying regions as well.
Another key difference: Emperor Shomu’s ambitious religious works of temple building, suggested by his edict of 741, were motivated by the wish to bring to end the series of national disasters (drought and poor crops) and the smallpox epidemic that had broken out in 735 , and to restore health and prosperity to the land. His new provincial temples were actually named the Golden-Light, Four-Heavenly-Kings, Protect-the-State temples.
Emperor Shomu (r. 729-749) became known as a great patron of Buddhism at the time, commissioning many works. Buddhist deities in bronze, wood, clay and lacquer were commissioned to fill temples.
One such famous and enduring work is the colossal bronze Buddha (Daibutsu) of Todai-ji temple. It was constructed to secure the prosperity and protection of the entire nation.
With the official state sponsorship of the arts and the commissioning of so many religious and cultural works, the Nara period is known for the flowering of the arts known as Tempyo culture.
And on the surface, it would appear that Nara enjoyed great prosperity, with Tempyo Buddhist arts thriving and peaking during the era. Ironically, the many palace and grandiose temple constructions such as Todaiji temple in Nara exhausted the state treasury. Later chroniclers accuse Emperor Shomu of having depleted the country’s reserves of bronze and precious metals through his massive undertaking of the casting of the bronze Daibutsu Buddha.
Those were times of uncertainty and instability — Nara society was stricken by rebellions, epidemics, droughts and storms. Life was hard for both aristocrats and commoners. With the hectic capital relocations, aristocrats were overworked with heavy administrative burdens and management difficulties. Arable land was often in shortage and records showed the yields of the field were not sufficient to meet the basic needs of the household. Excavations showed that dwelling sizes of commoners had actually shrunk as compared with previous eras. Common people found corvee labour and taxes too onerous that many abandoned their land and turned vagrant. The Nihon shoki reported poor crops in one area of Japan or another for almost every year of the period.
The bankruptcy of the court’s coffers notwithstanding, Heijokyo’s many surviving great monuments and cultural legacies — Buddhist temples, Shinto shrines and the excavated remains of the great Imperial Palace — provide a vivid picture of what life must have been like in the Japanese capital in the 8th century.
For more on the cultural influences of Tang China on the Tempyo culture of the Nara Period, see Nara court and ceremony and the flowering of Tempyo culture
[Note: Although Nara was the permanent capital, it was not the only one. After the rebellion of Fujiwara no Hirotsugu in 740, Emperor Shomu moved the capital three times. In 744, the court was moved briefly to Naniwa-kyō which then became the new capital, before returning to Heijō-kyō, when the construction of the Great Buddha resumed.]