400 (?)- 794 A.D.

It is somewhere about the commencement of the fifth century that Japanese records begin to be kept officially, that Japanese chronicles begin to assume credibility, and that Japanese "history" really begins to be more or less reliable. Yet scholars are inclined to be skeptical also about the records of the fifth century. And there is some reason for doubting the records of that period, because it "may justly be called the blackest era in the history of Japanese imperialism." Yōriaku (457-479 A.D.), on account of "wholesale slaughter" of members of the imperial family, has been called the "Nero of Japanese history."Seinei (480-484) "carried out a similar massacre"; while Buretsu, or Muretsu (499-506), "ranks even below Yōriaku as a fierce and merciless despot." It is, therefore, perhaps not strange that great families having administrative power "behaved with the utmost arrogance." Of these, the most prominent were the Mononobe and Soga families.

The predominance of certain families was largely due to the fact that the old patriarchal system of government prevailed. We must, however, be careful to interpret the word "family," not in the narrow sense in which it is commonly used in the Occident, but in the broader sense in which the word familia was used by the Romans. Naturally, therefore, in Old Japan, "the family which possessed the greatest number of kinsfolk possessed also the greatest power in the state." It was also true that, "as the Emperor held his power through his birth and the position of his family," in the same way "the most powerful families had hereditary rights to the highest offices." This point must be kept in mind through the whole course of Japanese history.

About the middle of the sixth century Japan entered upon a new era, known as the Asuka Period (550-700), which is the era of the introduction of Buddhism into Japan. It was in the year 552, during the reign of the Emperor Kimmei (540-571), that an envoy came from Kudara, one of the Korean provinces, with an image of Buddha and books explaining Buddhist doctrine. He also stated that all people from India to Korea were followers of Buddhism, which excelled all other religions. The Emperor is said to have remarked, upon hearing a brief explanation of this teaching: "Never from former days until now have we had the opportunity of listening to so wonderful a doctrine." He felt inclined to adopt the new faith; but, meeting opposition among his ministers, he gave the image to Soga, his prime minister, "with permission to worship it by way of trial." And when a pestilence visited the nation, it was not unnaturally considered a punishment for abandoning the Japanese Kami for the worship of a strange god. Soga, however, escaped the fate of Socrates for a similar offense. And, in the reign of Bidatsu (572-585), Buddhist books, images, image-makers, priests, and a nun were sent over from Korea; and in 587, during the short reign of Yōmei (586, 587), the Buddhist party at court triumphed.

Soon after this comes the red-letter reign of the Empress Suiko (593-628), with whose name and fame must be associated her nephew and prime minister, Umayado, best known by his posthumous title, Prince Shōtoku. This reign is marked by several important matters.

In the first place, there was compiled in 620 a history, the Kiōjiki, "the first known work of this kind"; but it was unfortunately destroyed by fire.

In the second place, the zeal of both the Empress and Shōtoku in behalf of Buddhism was so great that the latter especially has been called "the founder of Japanese Buddhism." Murdoch calls him "the Constantine of Japanese Buddhism." According to Knox, Buddhism "became the established religion" in 621 A.D.

In the third place, this was the time of the beginnings of Japanese painting. This art was borrowed from China; the first teachers were Buddhist priests from Korea in the sixth century; and the first school of painting in Japan is, therefore, called a Buddhist school. "The oldest picture in Japan of which there is any authentic record was painted, probably by a Korean priest in the beginning of the seventh century, on the plaster wall of the Buddhist temple Hōriōji at Nara."

In the fourth place, according to Asakawa, with the reign of Suiko began "the conscious adoption of Chinese political doctrines and institutions." This included, for instance, the lunar calendar (602), a code of court etiquette, the exchange of envoys, "the commencement of [formal] intercourse with China." And the most important manifestation of Chinese influence was seen in the "first written law[s]," Shōtoku Seventeen-Article Constitution, in accordance with which he organized the administration in such a way as to make it a real imperialism. And this was done, not so much by specific statutes, as by a series of "glittering generalities" of moral and political maxims.

When Shōtoku, who had been made Prince Imperial, died, his loss was mourned by all the people. "They all said, 'The sun and moon have lost their brightness.' " Longford has well stated his achievements in the following words:

He left behind him peace where he had found strife and anarchy, the light of civilization in the place of the darkness of semi-barbarism, the knowledge and practice of art and science where there had been none before, reverential observance of a religion which was destined to mould the character of his countrymen for more than a thousand years.
And yet Shōtoku, like most reformers, did not live to see the full fruition of his hopes. This result was not realized till the Taikwa Reformation, which takes its name from the Taikwa Era, which covered the first few years (645-649) of the reign of the Emperor Kōtoku (645-654). The name "Taikwa Reform[s]" belongs really to a series of changes extending over a period of more than half a century (645-700); but it is often, for convenience, called the "Reform of 645," and has been denominated "a great turning-point" in the history of Japan. Taken with the Restoration of 1868, "it forms one of the greatest crises of the national career of the Japanese people"; or, if the rise of Japanese feudalism is added, it is one of "three great historical incidents." This reform was, according to Asakawa, "Chinese in its organization of the state, and Japanese in its theory of sovereignty"; for the emperor became the actual ruler, so that this is the great "imperialistic" era.

Murdoch characterizes this reform as follows:

The Yamato sovereign was no longer to be merely the head of the chief clan in Japan, with a feeble control over the other great clan chieftains, and with no direct control over the dependents of these. Henceforth he was really to be the Emperor of Japan. Every rood of the soil was theoretically supposed to have been surrendered to him, - that is to say, the theory of eminent domain was now effectually established. The land thus surrendered was then distributed to the subjects of the Emperor in approximately equal portions. The holders of these portions were subject to the national burden of taxation.
The Emperors Tenchi (662-671) and Mommu (697- 707) were the most prominent among those who succeeded in asserting their actual sovereignty. They were also eminent for their services in the cause of education, as the former established the first school and the latter organized the first university. Murdoch calls Tenchi"one of the most enlightened sovereigns that ever sat upon the throne of Japan." He extended a welcome to large bodies of Korean immigrants. Although his predecessor, his own mother, died in 661, and he practically became emperor at once, he did not formally assume the title until 668, but carried on the administration as Prince Imperial. And he always "continued to live in a house built of trees with the bark on."

In Mommu's reign, moreover, occurs the first instance of cremation, and the "Taikwa Reform" culminated in the "Taihō Statutes" which may be said to have codified the "laws" of Shōtoku. This code consisted of thirty chapters containing minute admonitions and prohibitions concerning all matters of civil law, and of twelve chapters of criminal statutes with penalties. The latter were five in number: capital punishment, exile, penal servitude, beating (with a stick), and scourging (with a whip). The regulations with reference to trade and commerce "suggest a well-ordered and strictly supervised system, but show also that officialdom usurped a right of arbitrary interference."

The Emperor Mommu, dying at the early age of twenty-five, was succeeded by his mother, known as the Empress Gemmyō (708-715). Her reign is memorable because in 710 A.D. the capital was removed to Nara, where it remained for about seventy-five years. Nara was Japan's "first great city and her first permanent capital"; it was "laid out as a replica of the Chinese capital of Hsian." This period is therefore called the "Nara Epoch," when, as a poet has expressed it,

Nara, the Imperial Capital, Blooms with prosperity, Even as the blossom blooms With rich color and sweet fragrance.
During this epoch political affairs were in some confusion, of which one illustration will suffice. The Empress Kōken, an ardent Buddhist, abdicated after a reign of eight years (749-757), and was succeeded by Prince Ōi, afterward known as the Emperor Junnin (758-764). The latter, however, owing to civil commotions, was dethroned and exiled to Awaji, and his mother again ascended the throne, but is known by another name, Shōtoku (765-770). "This was the first instance of an emperor being exiled," and "posterity gave to the sovereign thus unfortunately distinguished the name of the 'Dethroned Emperor of Awaji.' " And at this time a Buddhist monk, Dōkyō, was "the most powerful subject in the Empire - head of the church, spiritual director and chief physician to the Empress." He was even taken into the palace by his imperial mistress and given a kind of imperial title (Hō-ō). And it is said that, "incredible as it may sound, the monk was aiming at nothing less than supplanting the line of the sun-goddess on the imperial throne of Japan."

The Nara Epoch was pre-eminently a "woman's era." It is generally taken to cover, not merely the three-quarters of a century during which the capital was actually located at Nara, but also the few years following until the capital was located at Kyōto. The eight reigns of this period (710-794) include four by emperors and four by empresses. And altogether there have been only ten empresses besides Jingō.

The Nara Epoch was also a period of literary and aesthetic activity. In 712, in the reign of an empress, the Kojiki was completed; and in 720, in the reign of another empress, the Nihongi was finished. This is the period which Aston calls "the Golden Age of poetry," as especially illustrated by the Manyōshiu, or "Collection of Myriad Leaves." They numbered more than 4,000 pieces, chiefly tanka, or short poems of thirty-one syllables, but also including naga-uta, or long poems. Many of the authors of this period were women. The two most prominent poets represented in the Manyōshiu were Hitomaro and Akahito.

Aesthetic activity was manifested particularly in sculpture and metal work. It was the time of Gyōgi, "who ranks among Japan's greatest sculptors," and of the Dai Butsu, or Great Buddha, of Nara. This is 53 feet in height, and "is the greatest bronze statue that has ever been cast." It was also the time of the casting of the great bell in the temple known as Tōdaiji in Nara: this bell is 13 feet 6 inches high, with a diameter across the rim of 9 feet 1 inch, and it weighs over 40 tons. And the aforementioned temple, containing both the statue and the bell, itself dates back to the eighth century and is "yet almost as perfect as when first built."

The art of this period is thought to have been to some extent the indirect result of a "wave of Greek feeling," which had "produced in India a kind of Greco-Buddhist art." This came to Japan through Central Asia, China, and Korea, whence at this period came "letters, religion, philosophy, literature, law, ethics, medicine, science, and art," "the most potent factors in any civilization." In the famous temple Hōriōji, near Nara, scholars find Indian, Chinese, and Greek styles of architecture. "The pillars of the outer gate are partly Doric; other parts, for example, the roof, the windows, and the galleries, are Chinese, while the interior is Indian." And Dillon says, of the art of the Nara Period, that "nothing is more remarkable than the undoubted presence of Persian, more precisely of Sassanian, motives in a considerable number of cases." In another place he alludes to "Indian or Saracenic" motives "in the symmetrical patterns."

From what has already been written, it is quite evident that this was a period of strong Buddhist influence in all lines of civilization. It is true that Confucianism had also entered Japan (in the sixth century); but "it remained practically stationary for a thousand years," and Buddhism was "the dominant force in the thoughts of Japan."

This was the period of the origin and development of the first six sects of Japanese Buddhism, of which Nara was the "center of propagation." These ancient sects are the Kusha, the Jōjitsu, the Ritsu, the Hossō, the Sanron, and the Kegon, of which all except the last one have become extinct. The earliest of these were the Jōjitsu and the Sanron, followed by the Hossō and the Kusha, all in the seventh century; while the Kegon and the Ritsu sects date from the eighth century. The Kusha, the Jōjitsu, and the Ritsu sects belong to the school known as Hinayana, or Smaller Vehicle; the Hossō and the Sanron sects to that known as the Middle Path (Madhiyamika); and the Kegon sect to that called Mahayana, or Greater Vehicle.

The Kusha sect taught "control of the passions and the government of thought," and "the burden of its philosophy is materialism." The Jōjitsu teaching was "pure nihilism, or the non-existence of both self and matter." The Ritsu sect "occupied itself exclusively with the higher ethics, the higher meditations, and the higher knowledge" and "exerted a powerful influence on the court" at Nara, which was made "beautiful to the eyes of faith as well as of sight." The Hossō doctrine was "subjective idealism," including "complete indifference to mundane affairs," because "thought only is real."

The Sanron Shō, or Three Shastra sect, allowed "greater breadth of view and catholicity of opinion"; but "the burden of this sect's teaching is infinite negation or absolute nihilism." In the teaching of the Kegon sect "matter and thought are one" and its doctrine was "the unconditioned or realistic pantheism."

And even in this early period of the history of Buddhism in Japan we begin to find evidence of the truth of the statement that "Buddhism is essentially a religion of compromise." About the middle of the eighth century, when Japan was visited by famine and pestilence, the Shintō disciples laid the calamities at the door of the "strange faith." But "the great Buddhist priest Gyōgi saved the situation by a singularly clever theory. He taught that the sun-goddess. . . . had been merely an incarnation of the Buddha, and that the same was true of all the members of the Shintō pantheon." And it was to celebrate this reconciliation of Shintō and Buddhism that the Dai Butsu was set up at Nara; "the copper used for the body of the image representing the Shintō faith, the gold that covered it typifying Buddhism." This theory was afterward organized into what was known as Ryōbu Shintō, of which more later.

To summarize the influence of Buddhism upon Japanese civilization there is nothing better than Chamberlain's words:

All education was for centuries in Buddhist hands, as was the care of the poor and sick; Buddhism introduced art, introduced medicine, moulded the folk-lore of the country, created its dramatic poetry, deeply influenced politics and every sphere of social and intellectual activity. In a word, Buddhism was the teacher under whose instruction the Japanese nation grew up.
One way in which Buddhist influence was soon felt in political affairs was by encouraging the practice of abdication, so that the emperors and empresses might retire to a life of seclusion and meditation in monastery or convent. And this led gradually to great abuses. Energetic individuals of a noble family, in that way, got the administration into their own hands. As early as the middle of the seventh century (645) the Fujiwara family commenced to monopolize the civil offices and to supply wives or concubines to the degenerate emperors. This kind of "supervising statesmanship" they continued, with more or less success, for four or five centuries. And during the greater part of that period they were the practical rulers of the Empire, so that it is about time to bring to a close this era specially denominated "imperialistic." And there is no more convenient date than 794 A.D., when the Emperor Kwammu (782-805) located his capital at a place known as Uda, renamed Heian-kyō, or "Capital of Peace," but best known as Miyako or Kyōto.