Nara (Heijō-kyō) — The Capital of Japan in the 8th Century

Mosaicked aerial photo over the site of the ancient capital Nara.
Enlarged image (305Kbytes)

Photo by the Geographical Survey Institute of Japan (mosaicked and retouched).

With the beauty of green (tiled roofs) and vermilion (pillars),
The imperial city of Nara is now in its glory,
Like the brilliance of flowers in full bloom.
— By Ono-no-Oyu, Man’yō-shū No. 328.

Man’yō-shū, Japan’s first anthology and compiled in the 8th century, consists of about 4,500 Japanese poems. In the above poem, Ono-no-Oyu, then the vice-governor of Dazaifu (the local authority near modern Fukuoka, which had jurisdiction over Kyushu) thought of the prosperity of Nara, the capital of Japan at the time.

Nara was the capital of Japan from 710 AD to 784 AD. This period was relatively short compared to the capital era of Kyoto, which lasted for over a millennium. Nevertheless, it was important because in this period Japan conducted a most active communication with East Asian nations and established political and legal (ritsuryō) systems by borrowing from the corresponding Chinese systems.

The following text is part of the edict that decreed the transfer of the capital. It was issued by the Japanese government (then located in Fujiwara-kyō) on the 15th day, 2nd month, 1st year of the Wadō Era (March 11, 708 AD by the Julian calendar). It was recorded in Shoku-Nihongi, the second official history of Japan after Nihon-shoki, which was compiled in the last decade of the 8th century. It reflected the influence of the geographical idea of ancient China.



In ancient times, the kings of the Yin Dynasty* restored their country after transferring the capital five times. The sovereigns of the Zhou Dynasty** ensured peace in their country after establishing the capital three times. The rulers of both dynasties reasonably moved their residences. Today, as for the site of Nara, the layout of the four animals*** is in accord with the model, mountains guard the site in three directions,**** and the divinations suggest good fortune. We should build a new capital at this site. Materials for construction, as the need arises, should be listed and reported. Construction of streets and bridges should be started after the autumn harvest so that the people who are willing to render services***** would not be disturbed. Plans should be carefully worked out so that they would not be changed subsequently.

* Ancient dynasty of China, also called Shang (? ~ 11th century BC)
** Ancient dynasty of China (11th century BC ~ 256 BC)
*** Symbols of the four directions in the Chinese geomancy are the Black Tortoise of the North, the Azure Dragon of the East, the White Tiger of the West, and the Red Bird of the South.
**** Namely, the North, East and West.
***** Rhetoric borrowed from a Chinese classic. Shijing, a classical Chinese anthology compiled in the Zhou period, includes a phrase ‘Zi-lai’ (meaning ‘children coming’) to describe people rendering services voluntarily. In reality, of course, those services to construct the capital were imposed upon people as mandatory just like taxes.


The borrowing of systems was also reflected in the style of city planning. The ancient capital shared with other East Asian capitals such features as a rectangular shape and grid-patterns for streets. This way of city planning (Jō-Bō System) was modeled on the Chinese planning system. We can see in the above aerial photo, taken in 1961, the traces of those features in the street and canal patterns and square-shaped reservoirs. However, Nara did not follow the Chinese model in every way. For example, unlike its continental counterparts, Nara never had city walls.

The following text included in Shoku-Nihongi mentions a decree issued on the 8th day, 11th month, 1st year of the Jinki era (December 2, 724 AD by the Julian calendar). From this text, we realize that people of the ruling class at the time were conscious of the importance of visual effects of the urban landscape.



On the day of Jia-Zi* in the eleventh month, the cabinet offered a proposal to the emperor as follows; We hear that, in ancient times, lives were so simple that people lived in caves in winter and nests in summer. In recent years, the noble people live in palaces instead. We also have the capital for residence of the emperor. Since the capital is visited by people from remote provinces and foreign countries, how can we express the virtue of the emperor if the capital lacks magnificence? Houses roofed by wood and thatch are hangovers from the middle ages. They are vulnerable to damage and compel useless expenses to people. We offer a proposal to decree that the authorities should instruct noblemen and wealthy commoners to equip their houses with tiled roofs, vermilion pillars and white walls. The proposal was admitted.

* First day of the Chinese zodiac cycle.


Obviously this decree was impracticable for Japanese houses at the time. Even in the later centuries, houses with tiled roofs were rare except for Buddhist temples and government buildings. In the screens depicting the landscape of Kyoto (so-called Rakuchū-Rakugai-zu), we have precise images of the capital in the 16th century. In viewing these screens, however, we find that most of the houses of all classes are roofed by wood or thatch.

Coming alone to the Western Marketplace,
I bought a silk dress without my partner’s eyes and comments,
It’s really disappointing shopping!
— Author unknown, Man’yō-shū No. 1264.

From the above poem, we can suppose that the citizens of Nara enjoyed shopping in the official marketplaces (Eastern and Western). The following text is the edict issued in the new year’s day of the 2nd year of the Enryaku era (February 6, 783 AD by the Julian calendar), which was recorded in Shoku-Nihongi.



On this day, an edict was issued as follows; Colors of dresses for princesses and court ladies are prescribed in the law according to their court ranks, and unsuited clothes are prohibited. In these days, the authorities have been so tolerant that they have never enforced these rules. Even women of the commoner’s class wear clothes of the prohibited colors freely so the order of social status is ignored. Hereafter the rules should be enforced strictly and the offender should be penalized by the law. Detailed prescription is provided in another list.


From the above text we can imagine that the variety of clothing materials in the market had increased so that the authorities had become unable to control them. Construction of road networks under the ritsuryō (legal) system seems to have promoted production of every sort of commodities in the remote provinces. Peace and political stability for decades had brought consumer society to the capital. The age of Nara, however, was drawing to an end. Emperor Kammu, the sovereign at the time, had made up his mind to transfer the capital to renew the public feelings.

By Noboru Ogata, Kyoto University

Last Updated: 04/April/2009