Asuka period

Asuka period

The Nihongo|Asuka period|飛鳥時代|asuka jidai, was a period in the history of Japan lasting from 538 to 710 (or 592-645), although its beginning could be said to overlap with the preceding Kofun period. The Yamato polity evolved much during the Asuka period, which is named after the Asuka region, about 25 km south to the modern city of Nara.

The Asuka period is also known for its significant artistic, social, and political transformations, having their origins in the late Kofun period, but largely affected by the arrival of Buddhism from Korea. The introduction of Buddhism has marked a change in Japanese society. The Asuka period is also distinguished by the change in the name of the country from Nihongo|Wa|倭 to Nihongo|Nihon|日本.

Artistically, the period can be further divided into two periods, the Asuka period (up to the Taika Reforms), where early Buddhist culture imports and infuences are seen from Northern Wei and Baekje, and Hakuhō period (after Taika Reform), in which more Sui and Tang influences appears. [cite book |author=Fred S. Kleiner, Christin J. Mamiya |title=Gardner's art through the ages |publisher=Thomson/Wadsworth |location=Belmont, CA |year=2005 |pages=222 |isbn=0-534-64095-8 |oclc= |doi=] [cite book | last = Rowthorne | first = Chris | title = Lonely Planet Japan | publisher = Lonely Planet Publications | location = Hawthorn | year = 2003 | pages = 34 | isbn = 1740591623 ]


The term "Asuka period" was first used to describe a period in the history of Japanese fine-arts and architecture. It was proposed by fine-arts scholars Nihongo|Sekino Tadasu|関野貞|Sekino Tadasu and Nihongo|Okakura Kakuzo|岡倉覚三|Okakura Kakuzo around 1900. Sekino dated the Asuka period as ending with the Taika Reform of 646. Okakura, however, saw it as ending with the transfer of the capital to the Nihongo|Heijō Palace|平城京 of Nara. Although historians generally use Okakura's dating, many historians of art and architecture prefer Sekino's dating, and use the term "Nihongo|Hakuhō period|白鳳時代|hakuhō jidai" to refer to the successive period.

The Yamato polity

The Yamato polity, which had emerged by the late 5th century, was distinguished by powerful great clans or extended families, including their dependents. Each clan was headed by a patriarch who performed sacred rites for the clan's nihongo|"kami"|神 to ensure the long-term welfare of the clan. Clan members were the aristocracy, and the kingly line that controlled the Yamato polity was at its pinnacle. The local chieftainship of Yamato arose to become the Imperial dynasty from the beginnings of Asuka period, at latest.citation
last = L. Worden
first = Robert
authorlink =
coauthors =
title = Kofun and Asuka Periods, ca. A.D. 250-710
journal = A Country Study: Japan
work =
publisher = Federal Research Division, Library of Congress
date = 1994
url =
format =
doi =
accessdate = 2007-04-06
] The Asuka period, as a sub-division of the nihongo|Yamato period|大和時代|"Yamato-jidai", is the first period of Japanese history when the Emperor of Japan ruled relatively uncontested from modern-day Nara Prefecture, then known as Yamato Province.

The Yamato polity, concentrated in the Asuka region, exercised power over clans in Kyūshū and Honshū, bestowing titles, some hereditary, on clan chieftains. The Yamato name became synonymous with all of Japan as the Yamato rulers suppressed the clans and acquired agricultural lands. Based on Chinese models (including the adoption of the Chinese written language), they developed a central administration and an imperial court attended by subordinate clan chieftains but with no permanent capital. By the mid-seventh century, the agricultural lands had grown to a substantial public domain, subject to central policy. The basic administrative unit of the nihongo|"Gokishichidō"|五畿七道 system was the county, and society was organized into occupation groups. Most people were farmers; other were fishers, weavers, potters, artisans, armorers, and ritual specialists.

The Yamato polity had ties to the Gaya confederacy of Korea, called nihongo|"Mimana"|任那 in Japanese. There is archaeological evidence from the kofun tombs, which show similarities in form, art, and clothing of the depicted nobles. A second source is the Nihon Shoki. For a time, many Japanese historiansFact|date=February 2007 claimed Gaya to be a colony of the Yamato stateFact|date=February 2007, a theory that is now widely rejected.

The Soga clan and Shōtoku Taishi

The nihongo|Soga clan|蘇我氏|Soga-shi intermarried with the imperial family, and by 587 Soga no Umako, the Soga chieftain, was powerful enough to install his nephew as emperor and later to assassinate him and replace him with the Empress Suiko (r. 593-628). Suiko, the first of eight sovereign empresses, was merely a figurehead for Umako and Prince Regent nihongo|Shōtoku Taishi|聖徳太子 (574-622).

Shōtoku, recognized as a great intellectual of this period of reform, was a devout Buddhist, and well-read in Chinese literature. He was influenced by Confucian principles, including the Mandate of Heaven, which suggested that the sovereign ruled at the will of a supreme force. Under Shōtoku's direction, Confucian models of rank and etiquette were adopted, and his nihongo|Seventeen-article constitution|憲法十七条|Kenpō jushichijō prescribed ways to bring harmony to a society chaotic in Confucian terms.

In addition, Shōtoku adopted the Chinese calendar, developed a system of trade roads (the aforementioned "Gokishichidō"), built numerous Buddhist temples, had court chronicles compiled, sent students to China to study Buddhism and Confucianism, and sent nihongo|Ono no Imoko|小野妹子|Ono-no-Imoko to China as an nihongo|emissary|遣隋使|Kenzuishi.

Six official missions of envoys, priests, and students were sent to China in the seventh century. Some remained twenty years or more; many of those who returned became prominent reformers.Fact|date=March 2008 The sending of such scholars for learning Chinese political systems showed significant change from envoys in the Kofun period, in which nihongo|Five kings of Wa|倭の五王|Wa no Go-ō sent envoys for approval of their domains.

In a move greatly resented by the Chinese, Shōtoku sought equality with the Chinese emperor by sending official correspondence, which was addressed ::"From the Son of Heaven in the Land of the Rising Sun to the Son of Heaven of the Land of the Setting Sun."

Some would argue that Shōtoku's bold step set a precedent - Japan never again accepted a "subordinate" status in its relations with China, except for Ashikaga Yoshimitsu, who accepted certain relationship with China in the 15th century. [citation | last = L. Worden| first = Robert| authorlink = | coauthors = | title = Kamakura and Muromachi Periods, 1185-1573, Economic and Cultural Developments| journal = A Country Study: Japan| work =| publisher = Federal Research Division, Library of Congress| date = 1994| url =| format =| doi =| accessdate = 2007-04-06 Yoshimitsu, in 1404, accepted the "King of Japan" title in his willingness to improve relations with China and to rid Japan of the wako threat, thus establishing trades with China. This was considered as tribute by the Chinese but the Japanese saw it as profitable trade. This relationship lasted for about 50 years.(see also "Sinocentrism").] As a result, Japan at this period was a state which received no title from Chinese dynasties while they did send tributes (有貢無封 "yūkō-mufū"). From the Chinese point of view, the class or position of Japan was demoted from previous centuries in which the kings received titles. On the other hand, Japan loosened political relationships with China and consequently established extraordinary cultural and intellectual relationships. [cite book |author=general editors, John W. Hall... [et al |title=The Cambridge history of Japan |publisher=Cambridge University Press |location=Cambridge, UK |year=1988 |pages=182-183 |isbn=0-521-22352-0 |oclc= |doi=] 隋唐使の赴倭とその儀礼問題 台湾大学歴史学系 高明士 []

Taika Reform and "ritsuryo" system

Taika Reform

About twenty years after the deaths of Shōtoku Taishi (in 622), Soga no Umako (in 626), and Empress Suiko (in 628), court intrigues over succession led to a palace coup in 645 against the Soga clan's monopolized control of the government. The revolt was led by nihongo|Prince Naka no Ōe|中大兄皇子|Naka no Ōe no Ōji and nihongo|Nakatomi no Kamatari|中臣鎌足 (Fujiwara no Kamatari), who seized control of the court from the Soga family and introduced the nihongo|Taika Reform|大化の改新|Taika no Kaishin. The Japanese era corresponding to the years 645-649 was thus named nihongo|"Taika"|大化, referring to the Reform, and meaning "great change." The revolt leading to the Taika Reform is commonly called the nihongo|Isshi Incident|乙巳の変|Isshi no hen, referring to the Chinese zodiac year in which the coup took place, 645.

Although it did not constitute a legal code, the Taika Reform mandated a series of reforms that established the nihongo|"ritsuryō"|律令 system of social, fiscal, and administrative mechanisms of the seventh to tenth centuries. nihongo|"Ritsu"|律 was a code of penal laws, while nihongo|"ryō"|令 was an administrative code. Combined, the two terms came to describe a system of patrimonial rule based on an elaborate legal code that emerged from the Taika Reform.

The Taika Reform, influenced by Chinese practices, started with land redistribution, aimed at ending the existing landholding system of the great clans and their control over domains and occupational groups. What were once called "private lands and private people" became nihongo|"public lands and public people"|公地公民|Kōchi-kōmin, as the court now sought to assert its control over all of Japan and to make the people direct subjects of the throne. Land was no longer hereditary but reverted to the state at the death of the owner. Taxes were levied on harvests and on silk, cotton, cloth, thread, and other products. A corvée (labor) tax was established for military conscription and building public works. The hereditary titles of clan chieftains were abolished, and three ministries were established to advise the throne:
* the nihongo|Minister of the Left|左大臣|Sa-daijin
* the nihongo|Minister of the Right|右大臣|U-daijin
* the nihongo|Chancellor of the Realm|太政大臣|Daijō-daijinThe country was divided into provinces headed by governors appointed by the court, and the provinces were further divided into districts and villages.

Naka no Ōe assumed the title of Crown Prince, and Kamatari was granted a new family name—nihongo|Fujiwara|藤原—in recognition of his great service to the imperial family. nihongo|Fujiwara no Kamatari|藤原鎌足 became the first in a long line of court aristocrats. Another, long-lasting change was the use of the name nihongo|Nihon|日本, or sometimes Dai Nippon (Great Japan) in diplomatic documents and chronicles. In 662, following the reigns of Naka no Ōe's uncle and mother, Naka no Ōe assumed the throne as nihongo|Emperor Tenji|天智天皇|Tenji Tennō, taking the additional title nihongo|Emperor of Japan|天皇|Tennō (heavenly sovereign). This new title was intended to improve the Yamato clan's image and to emphasize the divine origins of the imperial family in the hope of keeping it above political frays, such as those precipitated by the Soga clan. Within the imperial family, however, power struggles continued as the emperor's brother and son vied for the throne in the Jinshin War. The brother, who later reigned as Emperor Temmu, consolidated Tenji's reforms and state power in the imperial court.

"Ritsuryō" system

The "ritsuryō" system was codified in several stages. The nihongo|Ōmi Code|近江令, named after the provincial site of Emperor Tenji's court, was completed in about 668. Further codification took place with the promulgation by Empress Jito in 689 of the nihongo|Asuka Kiyomihara Code|飛鳥浄御原令, named for the location of the late Emperor Temmu's court. The "ritsuryō" system was further consolidated and codified in 701 under the nihongo|Taihō Code|大宝律令|Taihō Ritsuryō, which, except for a few modifications and being relegated to primarily ceremonial functions, remained in force until 1868.

Though "Ritsu" of the code was adopted from the Chinese system, "Ryō" was arranged in a local style. Some scholars argues that the it was to certain extent based on Chinese models. [William Wayne Farris, "Sacred Texts and Buried Treasures: Issues on the Historical Archaeology of Ancient Japan", University of Hawaii Press, 1998. [] . ]

The Taihō Code provided for Confucian-model penal provisions (light rather than harsh punishments) and Chinese-style central administration through the "nihongo|Jingi-kan|神祇官" (Department of Rites), which was devoted to Shinto and court rituals, and the "nihongo|Daijō-kan|太政官" (Department of State), with its eight ministries (for central administration, ceremonies, civil affairs, the imperial household, justice, military affairs, people's affairs, and the treasury). Although the Chinese-style civil service examination system was not adopted, nihongo|the college office|大学寮|Daigaku-Ryō was founded for training future bureaucrats based on the Confucian classics. Tradition circumvented the system, however, as aristocratic birth continued to be the main qualification for higher position, and titles were soon hereditary again. The Taihō Code did not address the selection of the sovereign. Several empresses reigned from the fifth to the eighth centuries, but after 770 succession was restricted to males, usually from father to son, although sometimes from ruler to brother or uncle.

nihongo|Fujiwara Fuhito|藤原不比等, son of Nakatomi no Kamatari, was among those who produced the Taihō Ritsuryō. According to a history book nihongo|Shoku Nihongi|續日本紀, two of the 19 members of the committee drafting the Taiho Code were Chinese priests (Shoku-Shugen and Satsu-Koukaku). [續日本紀 卷第一 文武紀一 [] ] [『続日本紀』国史大系版 [] ] Chinese priests also took an active part as linguistic specialists, and received rewards two times from the Empress Jito.

Foreign relations

From 600 to 659, Japan sent seven emissaries to T'ang China. But for the next 32 years, during a period when Japan was formulating its laws based on Chinese texts, none were sent. Though Japan cut off diplomatic relations with China, Japan sent 11 emissaries to Silla, and Silla is also recorded in Nihon Shoki as sending embassies to Japan 17 times during the reigns of Emperor Temmu and Empress Jitō. The ruling classes of Yamato and Baekje were on amicable terms, and Yamato deployed its navy to aid Baekje, in 660-663, against an invasion by Silla and T'ang China (see battle of Baekgang).

As an alternative to journeying to China, many priests from the Three Kingdoms of Korea were sent to Japan. As a result, This also created the incidental effect of Japanese military support for Baekje.Sansom, George (1958). 'A History of Japan to 1334'. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press. 47-49.] Some well-known priests who came from Korea Nihongo|Eji|慧慈 or 恵慈, Nihongo|Ekan|慧灌, Nihongo|Eso|慧聡 and Nihongo|Kanroku|觀勒 or 観勒.. Eji, who came from Goguryeo was a tutor to Prince Shotoku, and counseled him politically. [Encyclopedia of World Biography on Shotoku Taishi [] ]


Chinese and Korean immigrants who became naturalized in ancient Japan were called nihongo|torai-jin|渡来人. They introduced many aspects of their language, culture, and traditions to their adoptive country. Japan gave preferential treatment to these "torai-jin" because the Yamato Court valued their knowledge and culture. According to the record of nihongo|"Shinsen-shōjiroku"|新撰姓氏録, an aristocratic list of names that the Yamato Imperial Court officially compiled in 815, one quarter of the noble families on the list had their origins in China or Korea. 163 of the 1182 listed were from China, and 154 were from the Korean peninsula (104 from Baekje, 41 from Goguryeo, and 9 from Silla and Gaya).cite book| url=| title=The Japanese Experience: A Short History of Japan| first=W. G.| last=Beasley| publisher=University of California Press| id=ISBN 0-520-22560-0| year=Aug 31, 2000]

However, these immigrants are generally treated as lower class in "Kabane" systems which classifies the various clan members of the court. They are generally ranked as "Atai", "Miyatsuko", or "Fubito", while members of ruling clans such as Soga, Mononobe, and Nakatomi are ranked as "Omi" or "Muraji".


An example of a typical descendant clan is the Yamatonoaya clan ("東漢氏"), which is descended from Emperor Ling of Han. This clan's leader was Achi-no-Omi ("阿智使主"). According to the Nihongi, during Emperor Kimmei's reign the Hata clan ("秦氏"), descendants of Qin Shi Huang, introduced sericulture (silk production). The Kawachino-Fumi clan ("西文氏"), descendants of Gaozu of Han, introduced Chinese writing to the Yamato court, according to the "Shinsen-shōjiroku". The Takamoku clan is a descendant of Cao Pi. [cite web| url=| title="Shinsen-shōjiroku" shizoku ichiran 『新撰姓氏録』氏族一覧|publisher=transcribed by Kazuhide Kitagawa|accessdate=2006-10-16] [cite web| url=| title=Nihon no myōji 7000 ketsu seishi ruibetsu taikan Takamuko uji 日本の苗字7000傑 姓氏類別大観 高向氏| accessdate=2006-10-16] nihongo|Takamuko no Kuromaro|高向玄理 was a central member of the committee which wrote the Taika Reform. nihongo|Tori Busshi|止利仏師, also from China, was one of the most active artists in the Asuka period.

In 660, one of the three kingdoms of Korea, Baekje, fell to Silla and T'ang China. Subsequently, quite a large number of refugees from Baekje migrated to Japan. The Yamato Imperial Court accepted the royal family and the refugees of Baekje. The royal family of Baekje received the name "Kudara no Konikishi" (百済王, lit. "king of Baekje") by the Japanese Emperor.

Introduction of Buddhism

The introduction of nihongo|Buddhism|仏教|Bukkyō to Japan is attributed to the Baekje king Seong in 538, exposing Japan to a new body of religious doctrine. The Soga clan, a Japanese court family that rose to prominence with the ascension of the Emperor Kimmei about 531, favored the adoption of Buddhism and of governmental and cultural models based on Chinese Confucianism. But some at the Yamato court—such as the Nakatomi family, which was responsible for performing Shinto rituals at court, and the Mononobe, a military clan—were set on maintaining their prerogatives and resisted the alien religious influence of Buddhism. The Soga introduced Chinese-modeled fiscal policies, established the first national treasury, and considered the kingdoms of Korea as trade partners rather than as objects of territorial expansion. Acrimony continued between the Soga and the Nakatomi and Mononobe clans for more than a century, during which the Soga temporarily emerged ascendant. In the Taika Reform, the Funeral Simplification Edict was proclaimed, and building of large "kofun" (tumuli) was banned. The edict also regulated size and shape of "kofun" by classes. As a result, later "kofun", though much smaller, were distinguished by elaborate frescoes. Paintings and decorations of those "kofun" indicate the spread of Taoism and Buddhism in this period. The Takamatsuzuka Kofun and Kitora Kofun are the most famous for their wall paintings.Fact|date=April 2007

With the dawn of the Asuka period the use of elaborate kofun tombs by the imperial family and other elite fell out of use because of prevailing new Buddhist beliefs, which put greater emphasis on the transience of human life. Commoners and the elite in outlying regions, however, continued to use kofun until the late seventh century, and simpler but distinctive tombs continued in use throughout the following period.

Influence of Taoism

Taoism was also introduced during the Asuka period. In the mid-7th century, Empress Saimei built a Taoist temple at Mt. Tōnomine (多武峯談山). The octagonal shape of monarchs' tombs of this age and the celestial maps drawn in Kitora and Takamatsuzuka also reflect the Taoist cosmology. "Tennō" (Emperor), the new title of the Japanese monarch in this period, could also be argued to derive from the name of the supreme God of Taoism, "Tenko-Taitei"(天皇大帝), the God of PolarisFact|date=February 2007.

Taoist belief was eventually amalgamated with Shintō and Buddhism to establish new styles of rituals. Onmyōdō, a sort of Japanese geomancy and cosmology, is one of the fruits of those religious mixtures. While the Asuka period started with conflict of religious belief between clans, later in the period, the imported religions became syncetized with Japan's native folk beliefs.

Art and architecture

Asuka culture

Some architectures built in the period still remain today. Wooden buildings at Hōryū-ji, built in seventh century, has some influence from Chinese and west Asian countries. For instance, the pillar in Hōryū-ji is similar to the pillar of Parthenon of ancient Greece, as seen in its entasis. The five-storied pagoda ("五重の塔") is the transformation from the Indian mound-like structure, Stupa.

Mural paintings in the Takamatsuzuka and Kitora kofun, which date from the fifth century, have strong influence from Tang Dynasty and Goguryeo wall painting. [cite book| url=| title=Sacred Texts and Buried Treasures: Issues on the Historical Archaeology of Ancient Japan| pages=95] [cite web| url=| title=Complex of Koguryo Tombs| publisher=UNESCO World Heritage Centre]

The Japanese Buddhist sculpture art of this period is believed to have followed the style of the Six Dynasties of China. The characteristics of the sculptures of this age is also referred to as Tori Style, taken from the name of the prominent sculptor Kuratsukuri Tori, grandson of Chinese immigrant Shiba Tatto. [cite web| url=| title=Tori style| work=Britannica Concise| publisher=Encyclopædia Britannica] Some of the characteristics of the style include marked, almond-shaped eyes, and symmetrically arranged folds in the clothing. The most striking and distinguishing feature of these sculptures is an expression of the smile that is called Archaic smile. Kudara Kanon at Hōryū-ji is the most prominent Buddhist sculpture in the period.

Hakuhō culture

The second stage of Buddhist art, coming after the Asuka (culture) period, is known as Hakuhō culture(白鳳文化) and is generally dated from the Taika Reform (646) until the moving of the capital to Nara in 710. During the latter half of the 8th century, a large number of songs and poems were composed and performed by various ranked people from warriors to the Emperor. The earliest collection of these poems is known as Man'yōshū. It includes works by several remarkable poets such as Princess Nukata and Kakinomoto Hitomaro. Waka, which literally means Japanese song, also emerged as a new form of poetry at this time. It was conceived as a term to distinguish native styles from those imported from China; within the umbrella of "waka" poetry, one of the more popular forms is known as "tanka". It consists of a total of 31 syllables divided over five lines, in the syllabic pattern 5/7/5/7/7. [cite web| url=| first=Taku| last=Kurashige| coauthors=Rie Yamada| title=Asuka Period| year=2003]


*538: The Korean kingdom of Baekje dispatches a delegation to introduce Buddhism to the Japanese emperor.
*593: Prince Shotoku is assigned as regent of Empress Suiko and promotes Buddhism with Soga clan.
*600: Yamato state sends the first official Japanese mission to China since 478.
*604: Prince Shotoku issues a Chinese-style constitution (Seventeen-article constitution), based on Confucian principles, which de facto inaugurated the Japanese Empire.
*607: Prince Shotoku builds the Buddhist temple Hōryūji in Ikaruga.
*645: Soga no Iruka and his father Emishi are killed in the Isshi Incident. Emperor Kōtoku ascends to the throne and strengthens imperial power over aristocratic clans (see Taika Reform), turning their states into provinces.
*663: Japanese navy was defeated by Silla-Tang allies in Battle of Baekgang, failing to restore Baekje.
*670: First Family registry (Kōgo-Nenjaku) was compiled.
*672: Prince Ōama, later Emperor Temmu usurped the throne by winning the civil war (Jinshin no Ran) against Emperor Kōbun.
*689: Asuka Kiyomihara Code was proclaimed.
*701: Taihō code was proclaimed.


* - [ Japan]

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