The Asuka period, from 538-710, was the latter of two periods which make up the Yamato period. Following the Kofun period and preceding the Nara period, Asuka marks the shift from kingly rule by the Yamato clan emerging out of Yayoi and Kofun period clan structures, to Imperial rule, informed by Chinese thought and forms. The Asuka period also saw the introduction of Buddhism, and of much Chinese political culture and philosophy, as well as bureaucratic structures and practices.
The Imperial capital moved several times over the course of the period, from Asuka in Yamato province to Naniwa (645-653), then back to Asuka (653-667), to Ôtsu-no-miya in Ômi province (667-672), and then to Fujiwara-kyô (694-710), before Nara (Heijô-kyô) was established as the first "permanent" capital in 710, marking the beginning of the Nara period.
The Asuka period saw the beginning of formal diplomatic missions dispatched to China. Roughly three to six kenzuishi, or "missions to Sui," were sent from 600 to 614, and once the Sui Dynasty gave way to the Tang Dynasty, the Yamato state sent kentôshi ("missions to Tang") beginning in 630. These missions played a profound role in introducing numerous aspects of Chinese culture into Japan, including legal and political systems, and court music and ritual dance. A message sent from Prince Shôtoku and carried to the Chinese Court by one of these missions in 608 is often cited as the earliest extant/known instance of the use of the phrase "Land of the Rising Sun" (albeit Hi izuru tokoro 日出づる処, and not Nihon or Nippon 日本) to refer to Japan. The term "Nihon" may have first appeared in 702.
Shôtoku Taishi played a key role in promoting Buddhism in Japan in the early years of the 7th century, establishing Hôryû-ji in 607, . The great temple of Kôfuku-ji in Nara was also established in this period, albeit somewhat later, in 669. The adoption of Buddhism brought with it a shift away from kofun-style burials, towards smaller, Buddhist-style burials, even for emperors. This marks a significant distinction from developments in China, where the rulers of the Sui and Tang Dynasties continued Imperial burial practices as part of their efforts to claim and maintain legitimacy, not shifting to Buddhist burials as quickly or as completely as in Japan.
Prince Naka-no-Ôe, who served as regent for Empress Suiko and later took the throne himself as Emperor Tenji, played a major role in establishing key law codes and governmental structures, most prominent among them the Taika Reforms of 645. Naka-no-Ôe was also prominent alongside Nakatomi no Kamatari in a plot to eliminate the Soga clan in 645, thus ending their influence at court. This incident also saw the emergence of the Fujiwara clan, which was to become quite prominent and influential in the Heian period, as Kamatari was granted the clan name Fujiwara for his service to the throne.
The early years of the 660s saw the Yamato state ally itself with the Korean kingdom of Paekche, against an alliance of the Korean kingdom of Silla and Tang Dynasty China, in a war over dominance on the Korean peninsula. This ended in defeat for the Japanese and their Paekche allies at the 663 Battle of Hakusukinoe, after which Japanese involvement in, or engagement with, Korea was restrained for some time. Silla conquered the entire Korean peninsula in 668, and fear of Silla or Tang reprisals caused the Yamato Imperial government to put much effort into strengthening coastal defenses, in preparation for an attack which never came.
A prominent succession dispute, known as the Jinshin War, took place in 672 as Emperor Tenji's brother Prince Ôama and Tenji's son Prince Ôtomo vied for power. Ôama eventually defeated his nephew, and took the throne as Emperor Temmu, ruling until 686.
Either Empress Jitô (r. 686-697) or her predecessor Emperor Temmu were likely the first Japanese ruler to hold the title tennô ("Emperor"), marking the shift from "Wa" or "Yamato," and the beginning of an Imperial Japanese state.
The Taihô Ritsuryô Codes were put into place in 701, building upon the Taika Reforms and other legal codes, further establishing a foundational legal and political structure for the Japanese Imperial state, based on Chinese models. These included systems of court ranks, incorporating Chinese systems alongside native Japanese inventions such as the kabane system.
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- Gallery labels. Imperial Envoys to Tang China : Early Japanese Encounters with Continental Culture Exhibition. Nara National Museum. April through June 2010.
- Conrad Schirokauer, et al, A Brief History of Chinese and Japanese Civilizations, Fourth Edition, Cengage Learning (2012), 104.
- Albert M. Craig, The Heritage of Japanese Civilization, Second Edition, Prentice Hall (2011), 17.; Amino Yoshihiko, Alan Christy (trans.), Rethinking Japanese History, Center for Japanese Studies, University of Michigan (2012), 247.