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6.13: Asuka, Nara and Heian Periods (538 CE – 1185 CE)

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    Asuka Period

    The Asuka Period lasted from 538 CE to 710 CE and is known for its social and artistic transformations based on the introduction of Buddhism from the Koreans. The country was ruled by separate clans and during the Asuka period, the beginnings of an imperial dynasty developed. They set up the “five cities, seven roads” system and organized people into groups of occupationally categories; farmers, weavers, potters, fishers, artisans, and others. They adopted the Chinese calendar, built temples, made trade roads and sent students to China to study.

    Tori style Buddha
    6.64 Tori style Buddha

    The Asuka people constructed homes and temples from wood, unfortunately, very few pieces of their buildings survived the deterioration of the environment. Generally, sculptures were based on Buddha (6.64), and the characteristics of the Tori style (prominent sculptor Kuratsukuri Tori) with symmetrically folded clothing, almond-shaped eyes, the right hand raised as the left lies on the leg, the elongated head topped by perfectly curled hair, and a prominent smile called the “archaic smile”.

    Nara Period

    The Nara Period was exceptionally short, existing from 710 CE to 794 CE. Most of the people lived on farms centered around small villages; nonetheless these literate people produced a recorded history of their short time in Japan. During the abbreviated Nara period, they minted coins, had a thriving economic market, and a centralized government. Through the efforts of the Nara imperial court, they were able to record and preserve poetry and literature and with the spread of the written word, the Waka poetry format was created. Waka poetry was the fi

    6.65 Buddha (Daibutsu)
     The Great Buddha Temple
    6.66 The Great Buddha Temple

    Buddhism became the state religion leading to the construction of multiple temples including the great Buddha Temple at Todaj-ji (6.66) constructed in 728 CE to house the exceptional sculpture of the Great Buddha (Daibutsu) (6.65). The enormous statue of the sitting Buddha was sculpted with bronze and gilded in gold. Even in the sitting position, the statue is fifteen meters high, almost completely filling the temple. The face is five meters, wide shoulders are twenty-eight meters across and on his head are nine hundred and sixty closely positioned curls.

    Heian Period

    The last part of the classical Japanese history is from 794 CE to 1185 CE in the Heian Period, the high point and considered the golden age of harmony and peace. Buddhism spread throughout Japan and has methodically influenced the Japanese culture since. However, this period also saw the rise of the samurai class and the foundations of feudal Japan. The warrior class became a big influence in the courts as the shoguns rose in power, influencing artwork to record triumphs like the Battle of Dan-no-ura, (6.67), a major sea battle in the control of Japan.

    Battle of Dan-no-ura
    6.67 Battle of Dan-no-ura

    In spite of internal turmoil for the Heian people, there was a period of artistic and cultural growth with a specific interest in poetry and literature, a continuation of the Nara Period. Two new types of lettering were invented; Katakana, a simplified script based on Chinese, also Hiragana, a more cursive style that was distinctly Japanese. The women of the court were the artists of script-writing and painted vibrantly colored images documenting court life (6.68). Both upper-class men and women were trained in the arts and were expected to become experts in visual and performing arts.

    Bamboo River
    6.68 Bamboo River

    In this period, beauty became an essential part of who was considered a good person. Aristocrats powdered their faces with white dust and blackened their teeth. A male’s ideal beauty was a faint mustache and thin goatee while women wore brightly red painted lips and shaved their eyebrows to draw a new one much higher on their faces. Women had long black hair and wore an elaborate robe, twelve layers of cloth each in a specific color combination.

    This page titled 6.13: Asuka, Nara and Heian Periods (538 CE – 1185 CE) is shared under a CC BY 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Deborah Gustlin & Zoe Gustlin (ASCCC Open Educational Resources Initiative) .