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Index |  History |  Highlights |  WhatWhenWhere
Origins and tradition
4th - 7th century AD
8th century
     The first Japanese texts
     Heian or Kyoto
     Relations with China

9th - 12th century
13th - 17th century
17th - 18th century
After the war
To be completed

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Nara: 710

Until the early 8th century the Japanese court has been peripatetic, moving from town to town. But the increasing weight of imperial bureaucracy now suggests the need for a capital city. In 710 the empress decrees that one shall be built in the Yamato plain.

Nara is closely modelled on the T'ang capital at Xi'an; the fashion for all things Chinese is now at its peak. So is the influence of Buddhism. It has been decreed in 685 that every household shall have a Buddhist family shrine, and the avenues of Nara are lined with magnificent monasteries. Nara remains the capital city for less than a century before the next move (to Kyoto), but it sees the first flowering of Japanese culture.


Printed Buddhist texts in Korea and Japan: 750-768

The invention of printing is a striking achievement of Buddhists in east Asia. Korea takes the lead. The world's earliest known printed document is a sutra printed on a single sheet of paper in Korea in750.

This is closely followed in Japan by a bold experiment in mass circulation (precisely the area in which printed material has the advantage over manuscript). In768, in devoutly Buddhist Nara, the empress commissions a huge edition of a lucky charm or prayer. It is said that the project takes six years to complete and that the number of copies printed, for distribution to pilgrims, is a million. Many have survived.


The first Japanese texts: 8th century

A powerful influence reaching Japan from China (along with Buddhism, the bureaucracy of Confucianism and even the game of go) is Chinese literature and the Chinese script. When the first texts reach Japan, perhaps in the 4th century AD, the Japanese language has not yet been written down. The first Japanese scribes adapt the Chinese characters to the needs of a very different language, in an unnatural alliance which has remained awkward ever since.

The earliest surviving works in Japanese date from the flowering of court life at Nara in the 8th century. There are compilations of legend and history, and a magnificent anthology of early Japanese poems.


The historical works are the Kojiki, or 'Records of Ancient Matters', compiled in712, and the Nihongi, or 'Written Chronicles of Japan', which follows in 720. Both are gathered from oral sources by court scholars, who read them to the emperor when required. Kojiki deals mainly with legend, whereas Nihongi brings Japanese history up to697.

From about759 a group of poets compile the Manyoshu, an anthology of some 4500 poems by more than 450 authors. The verses are simple, direct and powerful - particularly in the short 5-line form known as the tanka, which becomes an important and lasting part of the Japanese literary tradition.


Heian or Kyoto: from794

The new capital city, to which the court moves in 794, is - like its predecessor, Nara - closely modelled on the Chinese example of Xi'an. But it differs in one significant respect. This time the imperial palace does not have monasteries and temples for its immediate neighbours. The rulers of Japan remain fervently Buddhist. But they have learnt a valuable lesson - not to allow too much influence, in matters of state, to rich monks and abbots.

The new city is first called Heian-kyo ('capital of peace and tranquillity'), but soon becomes known by the simpler name Kyoto ('capital').


A new title, of great significance in later Japanese history, emerges briefly at the end of the 8th century. The government in Kyoto has difficulty in controlling a more primitive people, the Ainu, who live beyond the northern border of the imperial territory. A general sent to subdue them is given the resounding title sei-i-tai-shogun ('great general for the subjugation of the barbarians').

After a successful mission, he resigns his title. It will be revived, and made familiar in the shortened form of 'shogun', by feudal lords in later centuries exercising a military dictatorship.


Relations with China: 607 - 894

Japanese admiration for all things Chinese results in a long sequence of missions to the T'ang capital at Xi'an. The first ambassador sails from Japan in 607, returning the following year with a Chinese envoy. The twelfth mission departs in 838. But there is then a gap of more than fifty years before another ambassador is appointed in 894.

He declines to go, arguing that the T'ang dynasty is in trouble (he is right), that Buddhists in China are being persecuted, and that Japan should have no more to do with its erstwhile mentor. His report is accepted. Japan will continue to be influenced by China, but it will more confidently adapt foreign themes to local needs.


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