The Asuka / Fujiwara Capitals

An Outline of the Asuka and Fujiwara Capitals Exhibit

 It has become clear, through excavations continued in Asuka and Fujiwara capitals district over the past thirty years, that the political and cultural center of Japan existed in this pastoral belt some 1300 years in the distant past, the stage for the colorful history played out in the Nihon shoki (Chronicles of Japan from the Earliest Times to A.D.697, compiled in 720). The current exhibit, centered on the results of excavations conducted by the National Research Institute for Cultural Properties, Nara, is a broad display of the most recently obtained images of Asuka and the Fujiwara Capital. Just what has been shown by these investigations about Asuka, about the capital at Fujiwara?

1. Buddhism Gives Asuka a New Look
(1) Buddhist cloisters - the latest in architecture. In the seventh century, a time when pit dwellings and surface-level buildings were prevalent, the first full-scaled Buddhist cloister at Asukadera temple was a colorful Chinese-style compound laid out as a single pagoda and three main halls, the buildings standing on base stones atop podiums and having vermillion-painted columns, white walls with green windows filled with vertical rails, and tile roofs. In excavations conducted at Asukadera, the direct influence of the Paekche kingdom and elsewhere on the Korean Peninsula can be found at every turn.

(2) Discovery of the oldest wooden Buddhist architectural remains at Yamadadera temple. In the excavation at Yamadadera temple, the complete form of the cloister`s collapsed eastern sector was uncovered. As the discovery of wooden architecture older than Horyuji, which had been the sole example from which the structure of Asuka period buildings could be learned, this was a find of tremendous historic value. These temples enshrined various types of Buddhist images, and were decorated with murals and Buddha-image tiles. Without doubt, Buddhist cloisters played the lead role in giving Asuka a new look.2. Palaces and Temples Crowd Asuka: Discoveries of Palace after Palace Discoveries made in the environs of the Asuka temples include the ishigami site, a facility for banquets and entertaining important guests; the Mizuochi site, thought to have housed a water clock; the site presumed to be the Oharida palace; the site traditionally regarded as the Asuka Itabuki palace but thought to be the Kiyomihara palace; the Shima palace along with other palaces and gardens; the turtle-shaped stone basin of the Sakafune-ishi site; and so forth. The area stretching from the Mizuochi to the Ishigami sites links up with the Tsukinoki plaza to the west of Asukadera temple, together comprising a single area for banquets. Also, from the ponds discovered at Ishigami and Asukakyo enchi sites, it has become clear that many of the carved stone figures of Asuka, which have long been regarded as puzzling, were used as water fountains. A concrete image of Asuka has thus emerged as place in which palaces and temples stood crowded one after another, crisscrossed with roads and water channels running between them.

3. An Astounding Treasure House of Ancient Crafts: The Asuka-ike Site
(1) The beginnings of the ancient autocratic state as seen in "Tenno" mokkan. The configuration sought for Japan in the Asuka period was a bureaucratic state with the Tenno (emperor) at the apex, under the rule of law as contained in the Ritsuryo codes (a formal body of penal and administrative laws). From mokkan (wooden documents) recovered at Asuka-ike site, it was verified for the first time that the term "Tenno" traces back to the reign of Emperor Tenmu (r. 673-686). As Tenmu was the ruler who enacted the Asuka Kiyomihara the administrative code, it is fitting to apply the title of "Tenno" to him. Mokkan inscribed with the characters "Tenno" are thus symbols indicating that a political order modeled on the ancient Chinese-style autocratic state had been established by this time.
(2) Discovery of fuhonsen, the oldest copper coins. Coins called fuhonsen were also discovered at the Asuka-ike site, a find regarded as rewriting the history texts. No one had suspected that coins bearing Chinese characters were in circulation prior to the minting of Wado kaichin, widely regarded as the oldest currency in Japan. The circulation of money is the heart of an economic policy befitting a unified nation, and its presence lends even greater significance to this formative period of the Japanese ancient state.
(3) State monopoly of top-level technology. Workshops that made carious craft goods were lined up at the Asuka-ike site. The products they handled were not for the common people, but first-class items for decorating the inner sanctuaries and Buddha images of temples, or for use at the palace. The exquisite quality of treasures of the Shosoin, or the craft items and resplendent ornaments which have been handed down at carious temples in Nara is well known, and it is highly significant that detailed information has been found for the first time on the tools and techniques of the artisans who made them, and on the places where they worked.

4. A Fundamental Change in the Netherworld
 Thirty years ago, the discovery that was called the greatest of the postwar period was the murals of the Takamatsuzuka tomb. Seeming as if they had received direct influence from the Asian continent, the murals depict a completely different image of the netherworld from that seen in other Kofun period materials. In the murals of the Kitora tomb, which have become a new focus of interest, an image taken from the Chinese zodiac, not seen at Takamatsuzuka, was depicted together with the four Chinese directional deities. The combination of images of constellations, the four directional deities, and the twelve zodiac signs is nothing other than an expression of the doctrine of Yin-Yang and the Five Elements, the world view of the ancient Chinese, and indicates that the philosophy of nation building based on China as model was influenced even in its view of the afterworld. Who were the occupants of these tombs, which show so much influence of the Asian continent?

5. Fujiwara: A Capital of Great Size but Short Duration
 For the operation of the Ritsuryo state, a center was needed to house the central government and its offices, the bureaucrats who worked there and their dwellings, and the commercial activity necessary to support all of these. This meant the construction of permanent capital. Fujiwara was the first capital built as a Chinese-style city which came close to completing this formula. The streets were built on a regular grid like the lines of a go-board, and a palace was built at the center, housing the structures where the Emperor lived, together with the offices of central government. Excavation of the interior of the palace district continues every year, and the remains of various offices have been discovered , in addition to those of the Imperial Audience hall and the Halls of State Compound. it is worth noting that the Fujiwara capital was much larger in area than previously presumed, rivaling the nara capital in size, and also that it was built on a different architectural concept than the latter. But it is necessary to ask again why a capital of such great size was abandoned after such a short duration of only sixteen years, and the seat of government moved from Fujiwara to the Nara capital.
 In the excavations conducted in 2001, several thousand mokkan were unearthed from the city street sector lying southeast of Suzaku gate. Fro their contents it is possible to glimpse the tension, just after the enactment (in 701) of the Taiho Ritsuryo codes, of officials performing their duties in accordance with the new laws. The legal order that was brought near to completion with the Taiho codes, and the outlines of the state polity founded upon them, are in many ways the starting point of the social order in which the japanese people are integrated today. The image seen though the excavations of Asuka and Fujiwara capitals is the primordial form of present day Japanese society.


National Institutes for Cultural Heritage Nara National Research Institute for Cultural Properties

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