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History, Chinese-Style Monarchy

Taiho Code, Taika reforms, Shotoku Taishi, taikun, Todaiji

For all of their expanding influence, the Yamato rulers were in no sense absolute monarchs, nor were their powers clearly defined. They relied on chiefs of subordinate uji (clans) to manage local peasant populations. However, the uji controlled their own territories, and chieftains in remote parts of the country often challenged Yamato authority.

In the 7th century the Yamato rulers embarked on a massive importation of Chinese political institutions, laws, and practices to strengthen their position. The Yamato court was impressed by Chinaís Sui and Tang dynasties, which reunified the Chinese monarchical state after nearly 400 years of division. These dynasties ruled China from the 6th century to the 10th century. The turn toward the continent was promoted by the chiefs of the Soga clan, who managed the Yamato rulerís treasury and had become powerful patrons of Buddhism. By intermarrying with the royal family, the Soga gained increasing power at court, at times dominating the Yamato rulers.

The introduction of the Chinese political model in Japan is often attributed to Shotoku Taishi, a member of the Yamato lineage and regent to the female ruler Suiko. Japanese tradition credits Prince Shotoku with introducing a hierarchy of ranks for court officials in 603 and composing 17 injunctions (sometimes called the Seventeen-Article Constitution) in 604. Aimed primarily at officials, the injunctions outline the qualities necessary for good government, drawing heavily on Confucian ethical and political ideas. They emphasize, for example, that state officials should be selected on the basis of talent and virtue rather than heredity.

No significant institutional changes occurred, however, until 645. In that year, the Yamato prince Naka no Oe (later the ruler Tenji) engineered a coup that ended the power of the Soga at court. Naka no Oe then set about consolidating the power of the central government, drawing up a series of reforms in 645 and 646 with the help of scholars and monks who had studied in China. The Taika reforms, as they came to be known, were intended to undercut the influence of the powerful clan chieftains. To do this, the reforms abolished the clan chieftainsí control over local land and people, dispatched provincial officials to supplant them, and promulgated a new system of ranks, taxation, and administration. These reforms marked the beginning of the conversion of the Yamato ruler from a great lord (taikun) to an emperor (tenno).

In 710 the reorganized imperial court established a new Chinese-style capital at Heijo-kyo (the modern city of Nara). Laid out in a rectangular grid, it housed the ministries and offices of a new Chinese-style bureaucracy. The Taiho Code of 701 and the Yoro Code of 718, elaborate sets of laws modeled on those of Chinaís Tang dynasty, established a penal code and outlined administrative organization and procedures. Japanís new imperial state was highly centralized. Appointed officials, organized into eight hierarchical ranks, administered the government. The country was divided into provinces managed by governors who were dispatched from the capital.

The economic base of the imperial court, with its expanded bureaucracy and new capital, was a land and tax system modeled on the Chinese system. The government surveyed all cultivated land in the country and took a population census. It then granted an allotment of land to every man and woman over the age of six. The codes specified that every six years a new census was to be taken, and land was to be reallocated based on any population changes. The purpose of the land redistribution was to provide the adult population with enough land to feed itself. In return, landholders were obliged to pay taxes in the form of rice, labor, or some local product. The Japanese government seems to have conducted regular surveys throughout the country during most of the 8th century.

The imperial government continued to maintain contacts with the Asian continent through diplomatic embassies sent to Chinaís Sui and Tang courts. Between 701 and 777 the Japanese court dispatched seven missions to China, each comprising 500 to 600 people. Many students and scholars accompanied these missions and often remained in China for years. The flow of people reinforced the flow of culture. Students, scholars, and monks returned to Japan with new forms of Buddhist practice, new ideas about writing history, and new styles of literature. Indirect contact with India, Central Asia, and western Asia also enriched the higher culture at Japanís imperial court. An imperial treasure house that still exists in Nara, the Shosoin, is filled with ceramics, lacquerware, silk cloths, and other luxury goods brought in from all over Asia.

The capital at Heijo-kyo was also the site of many large and powerful Buddhist temples and monasteries, a number of them financed by the new imperial state. The most impressive was Todaiji, built between 743 and 752 as the centerpiece of a nationwide system of temples. It housed a huge statue of the Buddha, estimated to have required 338 tons of copper and 16 tons of gold. The Buddhist priesthood acquired enormous political influence, especially during the reigns of several female emperors in the mid-8th century. The emperor Kammu, hoping to escape the influence of the Buddhist temples, moved the capital in 784 to Nagaoka, and then in 794 to Heian-kyo (the modern city of Kyoto), where the imperial palace remained almost without interruption until 1868.

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