The Asuka Period (飛鳥時代 Asuka jidai) is defined as a subdivision of the Yamato Period (ca 250-710 CE) or – by other accounts – as the Late Kofun Period, variously dated but centered in the reign (593-628) of Empress Suiko (推古天皇 Suiko-tennō, 554-628), the first of Japan’s eight empress regnants. First used at the beginning of the twentieth century by historians of art and architecture, the term in its narrow sense designates the years from Suiko’s accession (593) to the Taika Reforms (大化の改新 Taika no Kaishin, 645), a period characterised by the adoption of continental art forms and technology from Korea.
In this scheme, the latter part of the Asuka Period is referred to as the Hakuhō Period (白鳳時代 Hakuhō jidai), centered in the reign (672-686) of Emperor Temmu (天武天皇 Tenmu-tennō, 631-686) and extending from 645 to the establishment of the capital at Heijōkyō (平城京, modern-day Nara) in 710, a period marked by direct cultural and technological influences from Tang (T’ang) China. The Asuka Period in its broadest sense designates the years from the introduction of Buddhism (traditionally 538 or 552) to 710. In the past, political historians often limited the Asuka Period to the years 593-622, when Prince Shōtoku (聖徳太子 Shōtoku Taishi, 574-622), served as regent for Suiko and began to create a centralised, bureaucratic state on the Chinese model; but today there is a tendency to use the broader definition. As the term “Asuka Period” is so imprecisely defined and easily misunderstood, historical writings more commonly refer instead to a specific year-name (年号 nengō) or the reign of a specific sovereign.
Located in the present-day village by the same name, Asuka (飛鳥) in Nara Prefecture was the site of successive imperial palaces from the mid-sixth century to the mid-seventh century. Strongly influenced by Buddhism, which was introduced to Japan in the sixth century (traditionally in either 538 or 552), Asuka culture represented assimilation of the Chinese culture of the Northern and Southern Dynasties (386-589), transmitted to Japan by Korean immigrants (帰化人 kikajin).
Chinese and Korean influence is particularly noticeable in much of the architecture and art of the Hōryū-ji Temple, located some distance north of Asuka but usually classified as an example of Asuka Buddhist culture. Representative Asuka pictorial art includes the paintings decorating the doors of the Tamamushi Shrine at Hōryū-ji and the Tenjukoku Shūchō, an embroidered mandala, at Chūgū-ji (中宮寺). Greek influence can be seen in the entases of pillars, and Persian influence, in arabesque patterns.
Relations with Korea
The relations with Korea in the sixth and seventh centuries were complicated. Japan tried to hold its colony of Mimana (任那, Gaya 가야 in Korean) in the southern part of the Korean peninsula against Silla, which was trying to unify the peninsula, by cultivating the southern Korean kingdom of Paekche. Paekche dispatched Buddhist monks, temple architects, sculptors, tilemakers, and painters to Japan toward the end of the sixth century; and in the early seventh century, a Paekche priest brought over books and taught calendar-making, astrology, and magical practices. Continental music and dances were introduced shortly after that via Paekche, and the Yuanjiali, a Chinese calendar, was in use from about 604 to around 690. These gifts thus doubled Paekche’s contributions to Japanese culture since, in the fifth century, it had sent over readers of the Chinese classics and heads of the craftsmen associations of potters, saddlers, brocade weavers, and painters.
Nevertheless, it was not exclusively one-way traffic. The arrival of the first Buddhist articles by emissary in either 538 or 552 was accompanied by requests from Paekche for aid against Silla. Japan on occasion sent aid but was unable to comply with any degree of effectiveness as controls over Kyūshū leaders were inadequate for prosecuting a war against Silla. With its deteriorating internal conditions in the late seventh century, Japan was in no position to stand up to an alliance of the Tang (T’ang) dynasty and Silla.
Finally, however, the situation became so critical that it merited full imperial attention, and Empress Saimei (斉明天皇 Saimei-tennō) herself (r 655-661) went to Kyūshū to direct military activities. But the empress died there in 661, and her successor was unable to prevent the destruction of the Japanese fleet by Silla in the Battle of Hakusukinoe off the coast of Korea two years later. To counter an expected attack from Korea, the effort was hurriedly put into the construction of local defences in Kyūshū. The invasion never came, however, and the loss of Mimana, on the whole, proved to be beneficial to Japan since the country then devoted itself to internal development and was soon despatching emissaries to China. Silla turned its back on Japan as it moved toward consolidating its position on the peninsula.
The introduction of Buddhism is described in the Nihon shoki (日本書紀 “The Chronicles of Japan”, 720) as an event of 552 that pitted the powerful Soga family against the Mononobe and Nakatomi families during the reign of Emperor Kimmei (欽明天皇 Kinmei-tennō, 509–571). To develop a new state religion that would exercise a powerful influence over the people as well as its political rivals, the Soga adopted Buddhist practices, built temples, and sponsored the clergy. The third ruler after Kimmei’s receipt of the Buddhist articles, Emperor Yōmei (用明天皇 Yōmei-tennō, 518–587), was a Buddhist, as were all his successors. During the Soga-dominated decades of the late sixth and early seventh centuries, Koreans were warmly welcomed into Japan, and special attention was given to monks thought to be bearing the latest tidings. These trends were vigorously resisted by the Mononobe and Nakatomi families, but Soga no Umako successfully destroyed the Mononobe in a battle in 587. Buddhism after that made substantial progress under the patronage of Prince Shōtoku.
Shōtoku retained a Korean tutor and read, interpreted, and expounded several sutras, exploring the devotional aspects of the religion and influencing the mode of cloister life through his convictions. He was connected with the construction of several temples, including the shitennoji, though tradition associates him with many more. Nevertheless, a strong Confucian orientation is also apparent in the Jūshichijō kenpō (十七条憲法, Seventeen-Article Constitution), which the Nihon shoki credits him with writing. Prince Shōtoku’s efforts at propagating Buddhism helped to pave the way for the general adoption of the religion even after the patron Soga family was eradicated for their court excesses in 645.
A Nihon shoki entry for 594 notes that the ranking nobles, the omi and muraji, competed with each other in building temples. A census of temples in 624 listed 46 staffed by 816 monks and 569 nuns, but the biggest momentum for temple building came during the interval following the banning of tomb construction in 646 and preceding the imposition of limits on private temple construction after 710. About 483 temples were erected during this period, and the clergy expanded phenomenally, creating new political power, and imperial donations were made in 680 to the 24 temples in the capital. A Nihon shoki record for 690 mentions gifts to 3,363 priests manning seven temples and another to 329 priests in three temples.
In 643, an event occurred which led to a court intrigue against the Soga family, Soga no Iruka (蘇我入鹿), after exhausting all other means of preventing Prince Shōtoku’s son, Prince Yamashiro no Oe, from being appointed emperor, finally caused the death of Yamashiro, his wives, and attendants. A revolt against Soga oppression was led by Prince Naka no Oe, later Emperor Tenji (天智天皇 Tenji-tennō, 626-672) and Nakatomi no Kamatari (later named Fujiwara no Kamatari). Iruka was assassinated in 645 at the Itabuki palace in the presence of Empress Kōgyoku (皇極天皇), who later reigned as Saimei (see above) and Korean emissaries; his father, Emishi, committed suicide the next day. To remove the court from the Soga-dominated region of Asuka, the capital was transferred to Naniwa at the edge of Osaka Bay. The edicts of the Taika Reform were issued from there a year later, in 646, by Emperor Kōtoku (孝徳天皇 Kōtoku-tennō, 596-654). The new era, which had begun in 645, was given the name Great Change (大化 Taika), thus starting the nengō system.
The Taika Reforms brought on a score of new policies and practices, all intended to subordinate land and human resources to imperial authority, diminish the power of the leading families at the court, and provide an economic system of support for the new political structure. The instruments set up to administer the provisions of the reforms consisted of eight ministries supervised by the Grand Council of State (太政官 dajōkan), whose chief administrator was the grand minister of state (太政大臣 daijōdaijin). Following in rank were the Ministers of the Left and Right (左大臣 sadaijin and 右大臣 udaijin), with numerous lower officials in charge of departments, bureaus, and offices. Moreover, the Twelve Level Cap and Rank System (冠位十二階 Kan’i Jūnikai), established by Prince Shōtoku in 604, was expanded. Emperor Kōtoku increased the initial twelve ranks to 19 in 649, and Emperor Tenji revised these to 26 ranks in 664. Appointment and promotion to these bureaucratic ranks were based more on individual merit than hereditary status. Tenji also issued a set of civil and penal codes (Ōmi Code 近江令 ōmiryō) in 668 from Otsu in Ōmi Province (modern-day Shiga Prefecture), where he had moved his palace from Naniwa.
To implement the reforms, provincial boundaries were redefined, and headquarters and local bureaus were established (kokugun). A census was taken, taxes were levied, and official routes for tax collection were determined. Marked out in regular plots known as jori, tax-yielding land allotments were made to families and individuals, and then grouped as villages of roughly equal size. The building of kofun tomb mounds was forbidden except for those of fixed size for the very highest ranks, and various funeral practices, including horse sacrifice, were outlawed.
Emperor Temmu (天武天皇)
At the death of Emperor Tenji, who, as the former Prince Naka no Oe, had helped engineer the anti-Soga coup and Taika Reforms a particularly violent succession dispute known as the Jinshin War (壬申の乱 jinshin no ran) of 672 occurred. Tenji’s son, the preferred successor, was ousted by his uncle, Tenji’s brother, who ascended the throne as Emperor Temmu in 672. In a drastic realignment of the political hierarchy, Temmu promoted his allies and demoted his enemies, greatly strengthening the imperial position. Temmu’s restructuring of the uji-kabane system in 684 compares with the Taika Reforms in importance in altering the course of Japanese history.
The results of Temmu’s new eight-rank system (八色の姓 yakusa no kabane) can be seen in the early-ninth-century Shinsen Shōjiroku (新撰姓氏録) documents, which record the origins of the leading uji as deriving from the imperial line, from divine ancestry, or from immigrant descent. The two newly instituted top ranks, mahito and asomi, were composed primarily of the closest kinship groups of the imperial family. The third-ranking sukune were the main deity-descended uji, apart from the Sun Line, who had rendered valuable service to the throne. The imiki and michinoshi had no valid claims to imperial connections. With the institution of all these new ranks at the top, the earlier omi– and muraji-holding uji were displaced toward the bottom of the rank scale; in fact, neither Temmu nor Empress Jitō (持統天皇 Jitō-tennō, 645-703) made any appointments to most of the lower ranks.
Emperor Temmu moved back to Asuka 27 years after that area had been evacuated following the anti-Soga coup. His palace, the Asuka Kiyomihara no Miya, was occupied by himself and Empress Jitō until the building of the Fujiwara capital in 694. From there, Temmu initiated the compilation of the Asuka Kiyomihara Code, a law code which became the basis for the later Taihō Code of the early eighth century.
Fujiwarakyō (藤原京, 694-710)
Empress Jitō succeeded Temmu and actively worked for her husband’s projects. Her most formidable undertaking and the logical development in the drive for a stable political system was the building of the palace and capital city at Fujiwara in 694. Jitō abdicated only three years later in favour of her young grandson Mommu (r 697-707), a great-grandson of Tenji and son of Empress Gemmei (元明天皇 Gemmei-tennō, 660-721).
The Asuka-Kiyomihara Code had been completed and promulgated by Empress Jitō in 689. This was primarily embodied in the Taihō Code which Mommu drew up in 701 and which seem to have remained in force until 757, despite the writing of the yoro code and its presentation to the court in 718. In general terms, the Japanese followed the Chinese form and principles in their codes, especially in the penal codes, but tried to avoid some of the pitfalls created in the Chinese legal system, in particular, the inviolable rights of the bureaucracy.
In the late seventh century, almost all aspects of life came under government control. Clothing regulations in 681 contained 92 articles. Dress (commoners wore yellow, slaves black) was eventually put under the supervision of a Court Dress and Cap-Regulating Office in Emperor Mommu’s (文武天皇 Monmu-tennō, 683–707) time. The use of coins was also ordered by the government in 683 to boost the economy and simplify transactions. Coin production in Japan and the systematisation of business dealings was heralded by the standardisation of weights and measures in 702. The first Japanese coins, wadōkaichin (和同開珎) were minted in 708, modelled after the Tang coins minted in 621. Evidence for the swelling of the bureaucracy and written regulations are found in the thousands of wooden tablets (木簡 mokkan).
For several reasons, such as the growing lack of space, the provincial location of Fujiwara, and the increasing influence of the city’s Buddhist temples over the government, Emperor Mommu decided to build a larger capital in a more convenient place. The site chosen was in the northwestern comer of the Yamato basin, and there Empress Gemmei built the new capital of Heijōkyō (平城京, now the city of Nara). The capital was officially moved in 710, and that event is used to mark the beginning of the Nara Period (710-794).
- Imamura, Keiji, Prehistoric Japan: New perspectives on insular East Asia, University of Hawaii Press 1996
- Nussbaum, Louis-Frédéric, Japan Encyclopedia, Harvard University Press 2005
- Buddhism blossoms in Asuka (Heritage of Japan)
- Yamato Court (Japan Reference)
- Prince Shōtoku (Japan Reference)