Nara Court and Ceremony and the flowering of the Tempyo Culture

A recreation of Heijyokyo court ceremonies in dance and music

The court of the Nara period had resumed relations with Tang China sending many diplomatic missions to learn of Chinese methods and culture. As a direct result of those exchanges with the Chinese court, Japan saw new heights in intellectual and cultural development especially during the era between 729 and 749 which is termed the Tempyo culture.

Reconstruction of the Suzakumon or The Phoenix Gate, Heijyokyo (Nara). Functionaries and dignatories were often welcomed and received here and entertained by gagaku music and dance performances on a stage in front of this building.

Many visitors were received from faraway places in Central and West Asia, from India, Vietnam, Indonesia, Malaysia. When they first arrived in the capital city, they were received in grand style with pomp and ceremony in front of the Suzamon gate, an impressive piece of architecture. Japanese envoys and visitors to Japan brought with them many imported foreign cultural and Buddhist artefacts which spurred the development of a highly sophisticated aristocratic culture, music and the fine arts as well as the first flowering of Japanese literature. The culture of Heijokyo (=ancient Nara) is described thus in a famous poem that appears in the Manyoshu, Japan’s oldest anthology of poems:

Ao ni yoshi
Nara no miyako wa
Sakuhana no
Niou ga gotoku
Ima sakarinari

“The capital of Nara flourishes like a beautiful, fragrant flower in bloom” — Manyoshu

The Daigokuden and the Emperor’s morning court

Within the Nara palace (Heijo-kyu 平城宮) (as during Asuka times), every morning courtiers holding rank gathered before the Emperor in front of the Great Hall of government (dai-goku-den 大極殿), then they began their government duties and the bustle around the busy hub of the government ministries (chodoin 朝堂院). According to Nara period law codes, the daigoku-den’s gate was kept open while bureaucrats went about their duties in the chodoin. Thus the Great Hall or daigoku-den was an important building that functioned not only as a ceremonial place, but also as a place where the daily government duties were performed. (Later however during the Heian period, the daigoku-den and the dairi was to be separated physically and functionally.)

Ceremony and Music

One of the imperial edicts of the Late Nara Period which was a reading before Empress Gensho and the Princess Imperial who later became Empress Koken, and recorded in the Shoku Nihongi (797) reveals the importance of ceremony and music at court:

“The Sovereign Sage [a reference to Emperor Temmu] whose name is to be spoken with awe, that ruled the Great Land of Many Islands in the Kiyomibara Palace of Asuka, in governing and ordering the Realm, even as a God deemed that to control and soften both high and low, keeping them tranquil and peaceful, it was necessary to have everywhere and always these two things: Ceremony and Music.

Therefore He invented and composed this Dance, and We knowing this and desiring that it shall be received and handed on for ever, as lastingly as Heaven and Earth, have caused this August Child the Princess Imperial to learn it and humbly received it as a charge and now present it before Our August Sovereign.”

The records stated that in Tempyo XV, 5th month (743), the Princess Imperial danced at a banquet given to the high officials in the Palace.

Elsewhere the importance of the Emperor holding court and the displays of music and dance performances is evident in the Nihongi or Chronicles of Japan from the earliest times to A.D. 697, it is recorded that in (the years just before the court moved to Heijyokyo-Nara) A.D. 683 in the 12th year, Spring, 1st month, 2nd day of the reign of Emperor Temmu:

The functionaries paid their respects at Court. The Viceroy of Tsukushi, Shima, Tajihi no Mabito and others presented tribute of a three-legged sparrow. All from the Princes of the Blood down to the Ministers were invited in front of the Great Hall of Audience and a banquet was given them. On this occasion the three-legged sparrow was shown to the Ministers. ”

On the 18th day, the Emperor issued a decree saying:

“Hear it, all ye governors of provinces, Kuni no Miyakko, governors of districts and common people! Ever since we first rose to the vast dignity, there have been auspicious signs from Heaven, not one or two only, but many. …That they should appear repeatedly every year in this Our reign is, on the one hand, matter for awe, and on the other matter for rejoicing. Therefore the Princes of the Blood, the Princes, with the Ministers and functionaries, as well as the people of the Empire, join with Us in our joy.”…

On this day there was a performance in the Court of the Woharida dance and of the music of the three countries of Koryo, Paekche and Silla.

In A.D. 686, Shucho, 1st year, Spring, 1st month, 2nd day. The Emperor took his place in the Great Hall of Audience and gave a banquet to the Princes and High Officials. On this day the Emperor decreed, saying:

We shall now propose conundrums to the Princes and High Officials, and we promise prizes to those who give the right answers.” …

On this day Kudara no Nihiki presented to the Emperor a white agate.

9th day.  An invitation was given to the three higher ecclesiastics, the Rishhi, and also to the director and clerks of the Great Temple of the Great Palace, nine priests in all and they were entertained at a lay banquet. …

13th day. Men of talent, scholars, professors of Philosophy, were summoned to the Palace. Food was given to them and presents made to them. …

16th day.  The Emperor invited the Princes and High Officials to a banquet in the Great Audience Hall, and made them presents of coarse silk, floss silk, and cloth, varying according to the rank of each.

17th day. There was great revelry at Court. On this day the Emperor took his place in front of the Imperial muro [or Mimuro] building and made presents to performers, of various values. He also gave presents of clothing to singers.

Emperor Shomu, patron of culture and the fine arts

Emperor Shomu was the great patron of Tempyo culture and many objects were obtained or commissioned for his personal use, including goblets, musical instruments, exquisite clothing, fine furniture and furnishings. Many of these items from the 8th century survive till today as the five-time offerings made by Empress Komyo to Todaiji Temple, collectively known as the Shoso-in Treasures in Nara. Almost all of the Shosoin Treasures were made in Japan, China and the Korean Peninsula; half of the relics of Emperor Shomu which were made in China. The origins of the items were determined by experts based on an examination of the chemical composition of the raw materials, on the basis of the form and design, the production techniques and the overall visual effects as well as on the basis of written records.


Treasures of the Imperial Collections Splendor of Japanese Art (Part 2: Shosoin Treasures and Masterworks of the Calligraphy and Handscroll Genres)

Japan An Illustrated Encyclopedia (Kodansha, 1st ed.)

The Life of Ancient Japan Ed. Kurt Singer

3 responses to “Nara Court and Ceremony and the flowering of the Tempyo Culture

  1. Pingback: Origin of the koto and kayageum | Heritage of Japan

  2. This is a wonderful website that I found very helpful, but I noticed a small typo in that artifacts is spelled artefacts.

    • Thank you for your comments. However, there is no spelling error. This website uses UK English variants of spelling. Artefact is from Latin phrase arte factum, from ars skill + facere to make. Source: Collins English dictionary or Oxford dictonary, and is both the original usage as well as correct current usage for most of the English-speaking world.

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