The introduction of Buddhism to the Japanese archipelago from China and Korea in the sixth century causes momentous changes amounting to a fundamentally different way of life for the Japanese. Along with the foreign faith, Japan establishes and maintains for 400 years close connections with the Chinese and Korean courts and adopts a more sophisticated culture. This new culture is essentially Chinese and includes literature, philosophy, art, architecture, science, medicine, and statecraft. Most important is the introduction of the Chinese writing system, revolutionizing Japan, which heretofore had no writing system of its own, and ushering in the country’s historical period.
During the peaceful and prosperous Heian period, Japanese civilization reaches its maturity, as imported continental influences are absorbed and adapted to native preferences and as interest in maintaining official ties with the mainland wanes. Encouraged by the imperial family and the powerful Fujiwara clan, who reign as imperial regents from the late ninth to the end of the eleventh century, literature, painting, music, and the decorative arts reach a peak of aesthetic and technical sophistication and a distinctive national style emerges. The poems, illustrated narrative handscrolls, and Buddhist images of the Heian era, which tend to appeal to or express human emotions, are visually rich and decorative, and have a highly refined style.
The king of the Korean kingdom of Paekche, an ardent Buddhist, sends a message to the Japanese emperor Kinmei (r. 532–71) describing the Buddhist faith as “most excellent” and urging him to embrace it. While this is the traditional account of the introduction of Buddhism into Japan, in actuality the Japanese court probably learned of the religion earlier from Korean and Chinese traders and immigrants.
The capital is established in a series of sites in the Asuka valley in the central Yamato plain, power base of the Sun clan, which secures the imperial throne. Until 710, the capital city is usually moved after the death of the reigning emperor. Aversion to the defilement of the deceased is the most frequently cited reason for these moves, although political considerations probably also play an important role.
Prince Shotoku (574–622) becomes regent for his niece, Empress Suiko (r. 592–628). During his regency, which lasts until 622, the prince institutes a number of important political and social reforms meant to centralize government control and strengthen imperial authority. A devout Buddhist, Shotoku passes an edict promoting the Buddhist faith and gives imperial support to the construction of several important temples. He is also credited with writing insightful commentaries on several sutras (Buddhist texts), including the highly influential Lotus Sutra.
Prince Shotoku sends the first official Japanese mission to China. Seven years later, another embassy carries a letter from Shotoku to the Chinese emperor, addressing the latter as the ruler of the “land of the setting sun,” and signed by the ruler of the “land of the rising sun.” This is the first known use of this phrase, which forms the base of the name Japan (the two characters used for Japan literally mean “sun” and “origin” and are pronounced Nihon or Nippon in modern Japanese, and Riben in Mandarin Chinese, source of the English name Japan).
The Buddhist temple Horyuji is established in the Asuka region. This monastic compound is Japan’s earliest extant Buddhist temple and contains the world’s oldest surviving wood structure. Housed in the temple are bronze statues of Buddhist deities attributed to the preeminent sculptor Tori Busshi, the first artist known in Japan by name.
The Taika Reform is issued by Emperor Kotoku (r. 645–54) to strengthen imperial political and economic authority while weakening the position of aristocratic families. Based on the Chinese system, all agricultural land becomes the property of the emperor and all inhabitants his subjects. A merit-based bureaucracy is established, and expanded in 701 by the Taiho Code, to govern the imperial domain.
Following Chinese precedent, the Gagakuryo (Bureau of Court Music) is formed. Numerous types of sacred and secular music and dance are performed at court, including compositions from China, Korea, Central Asia, and Japan.
The imperial headquarters are moved from Asuka to Nara, which becomes the country’s first permanent capital. Built according to a grid pattern, Nara is modeled on the Tang Chinese capital Chang’an (present-day Xi’an), but without city walls and gates. Efforts to establish Buddhism as the official state religion inspires the construction of many Buddhist temples within city limits.
Japan’s first history and oldest surviving literary work, the Kojiki (Record of Ancient Times), is completed. This imperially commissioned collection of ancient songs, legends, genealogies, and descriptions of religious rites chronicles Japan’s development from its creation to approximately 500 A.D. It is expanded by the Nihon shoki (History of Japan), which is completed in 720.
Emperor Shomu establishes an official scriptorium (Shakyoshi, later called Shakyojo) within the grounds of the imperial palace. The scribes who work in this bureau, along with supervisors, paper mounters, and assistants, are chosen by means of an arduous examination process, which tests a candidate’s knowledge of Chinese characters and ability to write in regular script calligraphy. Like the officially sponsored scriptoria in major temples in Nara, the primary task of the court scriptorium at this time seems to be to provide temples with copies of Buddhist texts.
After a smallpox epidemic, Emperor Shomu (r. 724–49) orders the construction of the Buddhist temple Todaiji, the most ambitious religious project of the Nara period. The monumental main hall, which is the largest wooden building in the world, houses a colossal, gilded bronze image of the seated Vairochana Buddha (Jpn. Birushana Butsu). Northeast of the main hall stands the Shoso-in, repository for dozens of Emperor Shomu’s treasures—including paintings, glassware, jewelry, textiles, and musical instruments from China, Persia, Central Asia, and the Middle East.
The Man’yoshu (Collection of Myriad Leaves), the oldest surviving anthology of Japanese poetry, is completed and marks the beginning of Japan’s written poetic tradition. Human emotions and the natural world are two prominent themes in this collection of more than 4,500 poems. The most important author included in the Man’yoshu is the courtier Kakinomoto no Hitomaro (active ca. 685–705), who is considered one of the greatest poets in Japanese history.
The capital moves to Heian-kyo (present-day Kyoto), “Capital of Peace and Tranquility,” beginning the Heian period. Kyoto remains the imperial seat until 1868. Initially, fearing a revival of the political meddling by the Buddhist clergy that plagued the Nara court, the government allows only two Buddhist temples to be built within the city confines.
The Buddhist monk Saicho (posthumous title, Dengyo Daishi, 767–822) is sent to China on an official mission. Upon his return, Saicho introduces the Tendai school, which is centered around the teachings of the Lotus Sutra. After returning from the same mission to China, the monk Kukai (posthumous title, Kobo Daishi, 774–835) introduces Shingon, a school of Esoteric Buddhism. Esoteric Buddhism emphasizes the use of elaborate rituals, appeals for help to a large pantheon of deities, and practices secret incantations to achieve enlightenment in one lifetime. It is especially appealing to the Japanese aristocracy and profoundly affects the life and arts of the Early Heian period.
According to legend, Emperor Saga (r. 809–23) is the first Japanese sovereign to drink tea, imported from China by monks. The upper classes adopt this beverage for medicinal uses until the twelfth century, when it becomes associated with Zen Buddhist practice.
The aristocratic Fujiwara family consolidates its position at court when Fujiwara Yoshifusa (804–872) succeeds in establishing his grandson as Emperor Seiwa (r. 858–76), with himself acting as regent. The practice of marrying their daughters to emperors and serving as regents to the resulting sons, who are frequently enthroned at a young age, forms the basis of Fujiwara influence.
The imperial court discontinues official missions to China, beginning a period in which native artistic traditions develop and flourish.
By the middle Heian period, sword making had reached a level of development marking the beginning of a purely Japanese style. These swords had the features and refinements that marked them as distinctly Japanese: curvature, a ridgeline, a temper line, and the jihada (forging) pattern. After this, the traditional art of Japanese sword making continues until the present day.
“Japan, 500–1000 A.D.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/ht/?period=06®ion=eaj (October 2001)