(POWER and CLASS IN JAPAN, 500 to 1333 -- continued)

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POWER and CLASS IN JAPAN, 500 to 1336 (2 of 7)

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Japan's Failed Reforms in the 700s

he T?dai-ji

Buddha in his Great Temple in Nara, the Todai-ji.

Sakanoue no Tamuramaro

Sakanoue no Tamuramaro, leading the emperor's forces against the Emishi, who were trying to hold on to their territory during the war of 774-81. The Emishi submitted to imperial authority or migrated further north, some to Hokkaido.

Japan had been growing economically, using better tools and fertilizer, more draft animals and better tools in their crafts. Better roads and a fleet of ships facilitated trade. Horses and fighting equipment continued to pour into Japan from the Asian continent. Japan was growing also in population, and they were expanding against indigenous hunter-gatherers, the Emishi and Ainu, on the main island, Honshu.

In 710, the capital moved from what is now Osaka to Nara, the new emperor moving to a new palace in order to avoid the pollution of his predecessor's death. Nara was a city of about 200,000 and modeled after China's great city, Chang'an, but without Chang'an's great walls. Japan was an island nation and the Japanese were less worried than the Chinese about invading armies.

At Nara in 743, the Emperor Shomu ordered the building of the Great Buddha Temple, the Todai-ji, while factionalism and conflicts continued at the emperor's court. The Nakatomi remained dominant. Various aristocrat families and Buddhist monks contended for influence under Nakatomi domination, and about 10,000 persons in Nara worked at government jobs.

The years 710 to 784 was a time of reforms. The whole of Japan (excluding the indigenous people) came under the discipline of the government at Nara. People paid taxes to the palace in the form of a percentage of what they grew, or in textiles, labor or military service. Roads linked Nara to provincial cities, and taxes were collected more efficiently. There were government projects such as building bridges, excavating canals, improving irrigation and building harbors. And land reform was created designed to help the common farmer.

But land reforms were circumvented or postponed. Another dynamic common elsewhere was occurring in Japan. Aristocratic families were growing in wealth and buying more land. Buddhist temples were also amassing wealth and buying more land. Land reclamation favored the wealthy, who could afford the costs involved. Less land was available to the common farmer, and tax exemptions were given to the most influential families.

Good works, however, were done by the Buddhists. Dedicated to serving common people, Buddhists initiated public works such as the founding of charity hospitals, free clinics, free lodging houses, orphanages and old people's homes. Buddhism was viewed with awe for inspiring good deeds and for its powers of magic in warding off calamity.

The Buddhists in Japan continued to see the material world as illusory, holding that reality was one's own consciousness and harmony under the Universal Buddha. But, of course, they continued to make accommodations with the material world. Buddhist monasteries had their own armies and were unscrupulous in making alliances. As readers of Chinese, some Buddhist monks became expert in administration and technical matters, such as engineering, and these monks served Japan much as the Latin reading clergy served in medieval Europe.

For common peasants calamity was, however, an overwhelming reality. Common peasants went into debt and if they could not repay their debts they were held in bondage or as slaves. Some peasants escaped to frontier areas. Some became vagrants, and some joined other peasants in working on great estates. The one-tenth or so of the population that became slaves were the possession of government bureaucrats, landlords and temples. The main concern of the court nobility, meanwhile, was ritual and ceremony. There, orchestras with string and percussion instruments played. People danced and wore brilliant costumes and fanciful masks.

In 749, during construction of the great Buddhist statue, Emperor Shomu's daughter succeeded to power, to become known as the Empress Kōken. She took Buddhist vows and brought Buddhist monks into the royal court. After nine years of rule, at the age of forty, she abdicated in favor of her third cousin and crown prince. In his mid-twenties he became Emperor Junnin. Junnin barely ruled, and six years later, in 764, the Empress Koken again ascended the throne, with a new name: Empress Shotoku. She appears to have fallen in love with a Buddhist monk, Kokyo, with whom she was rumored to share the same pillow. Empress Shotoku promoted Kokyo as her chief minister. She commissioned the printing of one million prayer charms and may have wanted to make Kokyo emperor. Nara society was shocked. The Fujiwara family stepped in and by 770 she was out of power. That same year she was dead. Henceforth women were to be exempted from imperial succession. And Buddhist monks were removed from the offices they held.

The new emperor, Kammu, wished to be free of influence from the Buddhist monasteries around Nara. In 784 he moved his court thirty-five miles northwest to Nagaoka, a new palace and royal court built there in five months by 300,000 men. To defray the expense of the move, taxes were increased – a burden felt by the peasantry.

Bad omens appeared at the new capital in the form of frequent epidemics and the death of an heir to the throne, and it was believed that his spirit had to be placated. So in 794, after only ten years at Nagaoka, the capital was moved again, to Heian-kyo – which means "Capital of Peace and Tranquility." It was another city modeled after Chang'an. Eventually, in the eleventh century, accompanying the failure of peace and tranquility, the capital was to be renamed Kyoto (pronounced KYOH-toe rather than Key-oh-toe) – which simply means "capital city."


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