Summary of the Nara and Heian Periods

Justin Aukema
April 21, 2016

"A Scene of Azumaya" from the Genji monogatari emaki

(My reference material for this is mainly James Huffman's Japan in World History. I have also included other sources and links within the text. Please let me know if I have improperly and insufficiently cited or referenced anyone.)

During the Yamato Era (250 – 710 C.E.), the ruler Temmu (r. 673 – 686), as well as his wife, Jitō, strengthened the centralizing policies begun by Suiko and Prince Shōtoku. For instance, they strengthened the army and establish regional heads based on families who had close ties to them. As we have seen in previous lectures, Temmu also turned to history to solidify his rule. Namely he did this by commissioning the writing of the mytho-history the Kojiki in 673. The Kojiki invented the concept of “divine descent” and traced the origin of this from the first emperor, Jimmu.

“Then began the struggles between the grandson of the Sun Goddess and the descendants of Impetuous Male. The conflict ended when the god... retaining spiritual power only gave up his temporal power to the Sun Goddess' grandson. From the latter descended a prince who is known as the first emperor of Japan — Jimmu — whose reign the Japanese have fixed as beginning in 660 BCE. Thus was created a divine sovereign who is still worshipped as the first in a ‘lineal succession unbroken for ages eternal.’”

See example of the Kojiki and Nihon shoki here

Temmu was the first to refer to himself as tennō, the Heavenly Sovereign and, as the Kojiki also makes clear, he appealed his legitimacy to rule by claiming to be descended from the gods.

The writing of the Kojiki, however, was not completed until the reign of Empress Gemmei (r. 707 – 715) who commanded Ō no Yasumaro to complete the task in 711. With history now firmly behind them, Gemmei and her successors could turn to establishing the more material byproducts of their rule. Namely, during this time the first permanent capital is established at Nara, marking the beginning of the Nara Period (710 – 794 C.E.). Imitating the Chinese capital of Chang’an, Nara was laid out on a grid with the palace situated in the north. It covered 72 square blocks, stretched eight miles around, and had a population of 100,000. Nara remained the capital for 75 years and through eight imperial reigns.

The major political development of the Nara Period was the establishment of the Yōrō codes, a system of legal and administrative codes, in 718. This established the ritsuryō system and was modeled on the Chinese Tang Dynasty’s system of rule. The ritsuryō were a massive attempt at further centralization of governance and rule, with the emperor at the top. The laws also regulated social life, including marriage and divorce, and implemented a system of taxes. Furthermore, they divided the land into provinces (kuni) and more than 500 districts.

“When a household absconds, the group shall be responsible for its pursuit.” (ctd. in Lu 1997)

“The seven grounds for divorce of a wife by her husband are: (1) if she is childless (e.g., without a male child); (2) if she commits adultery; (3) if she disobeys her parents-in-law; (4) if she talks too much; (5) if she steals; (6) if she is jealous; and (7) if she has a bad disease.” (ctd. in Lu 1997)

In the cultural and religious sphere, the Nara Period witnessed the further expansion of Buddhism. This was carried out especially by the most influential emperor during that time, Emperor Shōmu. He oversaw the building of the giant Buddha statue at Tōdaiji and also aided to reconcile Buddhism and Shintō under ryōbu (two-facet) Shintō. Furthermore, gagaku court music with shakuhachi and koto boomed at this time, and some of Japan’s most famous works of poetry such as the Man’yōshū, a collection of 4,500 poems, mostly in the form of tanka, were written.

Since in Karu lived my wife,
I wished to be with her to my heart's content;
But I could not visit her constantly
Because of so many watching eyes —
Men would know of our troth,
Had I sought her too often.
So our love remained secret like a rock-pent pool;
I cherished her in my heart,
Looking to after-time when we should be together,
And lived secure in my trust
As one riding a great ship.
Suddenly there came a messenger
Who told me she was dead —
Was gone like a yellow leaf of autumn
Dead as the day dies with the setting sun,
Lost as the bright moon is lost behind the cloud
Alas, she is no more, whose soul
Was bent to mine like the bending seaweed.

See more on the Man’yōshū here

After a period of turmoil from the late 760s, the capital was once again moved, this time to Heian, later known as Kyōtō and a new era began – the Heian Era (794 – 1185 C.E.). The Heian Era is marked by almost 400 years of relative peace and security. Moreover, it is known for its many cultural developments, which have a lasting impact on society and the arts today.

How did the Heian Era achieve this? Perhaps the main reason can be traced to the unique political structure at the time. Namely, political power moved from the hands of the emperors and into their advisors, in this case the Fujiwara family. The Fujiwara family adeptly manipulated the emperor system to their advantage, paying lip service to the myths of divine descent, while all the while holding the reigns. The imperial mythology, and using the emperor as a figure-head, is a theme that would continue to emerge periodically throughout Japanese history, most notably during the Meiji period and the postwar. By claiming that their power and legitimacy was bestowed on them by the emperor, the Fujiwara were essentially able to shield themselves from potential political rivals and attacks.

Occasionally, emperors attempted to reassert their power over the Fujiwara. A famous case of this occurred when two emperors attempted to give office to Michizane from the rival Sugawara family. However, the Fujiwara blocked this attempt and banished Michizane to northern Kyūshū where, two years later, he died of malnutrition. Michizane, however, lived on in popular culture where he became a vengeful spirit, wreaking havoc on the capital in the form of natural disasters and other calamities.

“Michizane Attacks the Palace in the form of the Thunder God”

Culturally, the Heian era saw a move further away from Chinese influence. A key example of this is the emergence of the Japanese writing script, kana, which contrasted with Chinese characters, previously the dominant mode of writing. This, in part, aided in a flourishing of prose writing and poetry during the era. The Heian Era is especially remembered for two masterpieces in “women’s prose” from this time: Murasaki Shikibu’s The Tale of Genji and Sei Shonagon’s The Pillow Book.

Things that Have Lost Their Power

A large boat which is high and dry in a creek at ebbtide.
A woman who has taken off her false locks to comb the short hair that remains.
A large tree that has been blown down in a gale and lies on its side with its roots in the air. ...
A man of no importance reprimanding an attendant (Morris 1971).

Stray Notes
One has been expecting someone, and ... there is a stealthy tapping at the door. One sends a maid to see who it is, and lies waiting, with some slight flutter of the breast. But the name one hears when she returns is that of someone completely different, who does not concern one at all. Of all depressing experiences, this is by far the worst (Keene 1955).

See examples from Sei Shonagon’s The Pillow Book here

And more sections from The Pillow Book and The Tale of Genji here

Men and women such as Ono Komachi also wrote poetry; the Kokinshū is an especially famous collection of verse from this time.

Color of the flower
Has already faded away,
While in idle thoughts
My life passes vainly by,
As I watch the long rains fall.

See full English translations of the Hyakunin isshū at The Japanese TextInitiative, The University of Virginia)

The peak of the Heian Era and Fujiwara power came under the rule of Michinaga in the early 11th century. Following this, emperors began to reassert their power through a system of retired emperors known as insei (“cloistered government”). Yet former emperors lacked the military strength to bolster their claims, and thus they were turned to powerful military families including the Taira and the Minamoto to secure their positions. As future decades would show, this turned out to be both a blessing and a curse for them.

Reading questions:
1.     What major changes and events occur during the reign of Emperor Temmu?
2.     Discuss the capital at Nara. What is it like?
3.     What are some major changes and events of the Nara period? Describe them.
4.     Briefly explain the ritsuryō system of legal and administrative codes
5.     Discuss some of the cultural developments of the Nara Period.
6.     Describe the political situation during the Heian Era. Who holds power and how do they do so?
7.     Describe some of the major cultural developments of the Heian Era.


Columbia University. Asia for Educators. Columbia University, 2013.

Huffman, James L. Japan in World History. Oxford University Press, 2010.

Keene, Donald. Anthology of Japanese Literature from the Earliest Era to the Mid-Nineteenth
Century. New York: Grove Press, 1955.

Lu, David John. Japan: A Documentary History. M.E. Sharpe, 1997.

Morris, Ivan tr. The Pillow Book of Sei Shōnagon. Middlesex, England: Penguin Books, 1971

University of Virginia Library. Japanese Text Initiative. Electronic Text Center. University
of Virginia, 2006.

Image sources

"A Scene of Azumaya" from the Genji monogatari emaki. Imperial court in Kyoto –
Genji Monogatari Emaki published by the Tokugawa Museum in Nagoya, Japan,

“Michizane Attacks the Palace in the form of the Thunder God”

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