In the spring of 793, Emperor Kanmu was convinced by Wake no Kyomaro to abandon the delay-plagued construction of a capital at Nagaoka and asked Fujiwara no Oguromaro and Ki no Kosami to determine the auspices of a site for a new capital. The site was at Uta, the mausolea area for Kanmu’s imperial lineage in the upper end of what is now called the Kyoto basin.

At that time, most prominent inhabitants of the area were the Hata (members of a rich and powerful clan that claimed Chinese descent but seems to have come most immediately from Korea) and, in the souther part, the Haji. The presence of those clans may have been one of its chief attractions for Kammu and his advisers: Kammu himself was the maternal grandson of a Haji woman and Fujiwara no Tanetsugu and Oguromaro were intimately related with the Hata.

Following the advice of Wake no Kiyomaro, Kanmu himself had twice used the pretext of a hunting expedition to visit and inspect the Uta area and confirm his decision.

Oguromaro was appointed to supervise the construction of the new imperial palace and had to deal with several complex tasks, such as controlling the numerous streams that flowed though the area (a project in which he might have been helped by his Hata in-laws, with their wealth, experience, and engineering skills).

A 1696 Japanese woodblock map of Kyoto.

Although his palace was still in the early stages of construction, Kanmu moved to the new imperial seat in the late autumn of 794. Few weeks later, he issued an edict conferring on the capital city its official name and renaming (or, rather, selecting different Chinese characters for the name of) the province in which the site was located:

Enclosed collar-and-sash by mountains and streams, the province here makes a natural citadel. Because of that configuration, we devise a new designation for it: let this Postmontane [Yamashiro] Province be renamed the Province of the Mountain Citadel [Yamashiro]. Moreover, the joyfully
flocking people and the singers of praise raise their different voices in identical words, naming this the Capital of Peace and Tranquillity [Heian-kyou, 平安京].

The city covered an area measuring 4.5 km from East to West and 5.2 km from North to South, organized in a grid pattern. The Imperial Palace (Dairai) was placed in the centre Northern city limits; the Suzaku-oji had a width of 83m. At the souther end of it, the monumental gate called Rashōmon (羅城門) was built. The name of the gate can be written also as 羅生門 and this choice was popularized by a noh play of the same title, written by Kanze Nobumitsu (1435-1516). This gate inspired other artists: “Rashomon” is the title of a short novel by Ryunosuke Akutagawa first published in 1915 and of the renowned film of 1950 by Kurosawa, based on the novel by Akutagawa.

The area of the city was divided into 40 Jo (about 120m) square “Cho” (町) by major (oji) and minor streets (koji). There were two large markets, West Market (西市) and East Market (東市), facing the seventh street, Shichijō-ōji (七条大路). Tō-ji (東寺, “East Temple”) and Sai-ji (西寺, “West Temple”) were Buddhist temples built on the southern edge of the capital. An imperial garden called Shinsenen (ja:神泉苑) was adjacent to the Daidairi.

The capital outside the Greater Imperial Palace was divided into western and eastern halves, the line of demarcation being Suzaku Avenue. The western part of the city was swampy and dangerous, since it  overlapped the wetlands formed by the Katsura River, and even by the 9th century little progress had been made in developing the area. By the 10th century,he district had become so dilapidated that it began to be used as farmland, something which had previously been forbidden within the city limits.

With the exception of an area in the north of the Right Capital near to the palace, the residential areas which housed the aristocracy were all situated in the Left Capital, with the highest aristocracy such as the Fujiwara clan gathering in the northernmost part of the district.

Heian may rightly be called the first successful city in Japan, not only because it survived and prospered, unlike previous capitals, but also because it is there that we can see for the first time in Japanese history the distinctive characteristics of what urban life and civilization. It appears in several ways, but the most fundamental were the diversity of the population and the population’s removal from primary modes of production, with a variety of occupations and social differences that clearly distinguished the urban society from that of the countryside, where agriculture tended to monopolize the economy, and specialization of labor and social differentiation were limited.

Heian-kyou was the capital of Japan for over one thousand years, from 794 to 1868, with an interruption in 1180, when it was temporarily moved to Fukuhara-kyou (福原京).

A movement in favour of returning the capital to Heijou-kyou arose in 810 A.D. during a standoff over the emperor’s succession. However, Emperor Saga thought that keeping the capital in Heian would be best for the stability of the country and resisted this movement, naming Heian-kyou “Yorozuyo no Miya” (the eternal city.)

With the advent of the Kamakura and Edo Shogunate, Heian lost its importanceas a seat of power; however it kept its formal role as a capital until the Meiji restoration.


The Doukyou affair

April 20, 2011

In my post about Nagaoka-kyou I mentioned the Doukyou affair – now let’s see something more on the topic.

Doukyou (道鏡, 700 – May 13, 772) was a Buddhist monk of the Hossou school. He was born in the Yuge family, in the lineage of the Mononobe clan (yes, the conservatives that had opposed the introduction of Buddhism in 538 – but a couple of centuries can change many things…) so he was known also as Yuge no Doukyou (弓削道鏡). He had been a disciple of the monk Gien and learned Sanskrit from Rouben. In addition, it was said that he acquired the spells of Esoteric Buddhism while studying in the mountains of Yamato Province.

In 761 he cured a mysterious illness of Empress Kouken, who had reigned from 749 to 758, then abdicating in favour of her cousin Emperor Junnin. The nature of their relationship was not clear, however they are often reasoned to have been lovers. At that time, Kouken was 43 years old, Doukyou was 61. The Nihon Ryoiki, written at the beginning of the ninth century, says “the priest Doukyou and the retired empress shared the same pillow”.

In the sixth month of 762, Koken became irritated with the ruling Emperor and decided to excercize her influence as a retired Empress, like her her mother, Empress Koumyou, had done. She suddenly left the detached palace at Hora and took up residence at a Buddhist temple in Nara, issuing an edict stating that “henceforth the emperor will conduct minor affairs of state, but important matters of state, including the dispensation of swards and punishments, will be handled by me”.

In 763 Doukyou was appointed Shosozu.

In 764 Fujiwara no Nakamaro plotted against the two; scholars have reasoned about the causes of his strong opposition, which are probably due not so much to an anti-Buddhist feeling, but rather to different opinions on the role of the Emperor, Koutoku favouring the Chinese model, in which the monarch had an actual power, while Nakamaro and his supporters preferred the usual practice of having the Emperor devoted to rituals and the current affairs in the hands of a related clan. Anyway, his rebellion failed, and he was executed in Lake Biwa with his wife and children.

On January 26, 765, Kouken reascended the throne with the new name of Empress Shoutoku (not to be confused with Prince Shoutoku). The same year Doukyou was appointed Daijin Zenji. In the next year he was promoted to Hō-ō (法王; king of the Dharma).

In 769 he obtained a divine proclamation from the Shinto god Hachiman at the Usa Shrine that prophesied peace in the realm if Doukyou were proclaimed Emperor. Shortly afterwards, Empress Shoutoku is said by the Shoku Nihongi to have herself received a message from Hachiman advising her to have the authenticity of the report checked. So she dispatched Wake no Kiyomaro to the Usa Shrine to find out what Hachiman’s wishes were.

The southern roumon of Usa Shrine.

Kiyomaro returned to the capital, he brought back quite a different version of the Hachiman oracle:

Ever since the founding of the Yamato state, emperors and empresses have been selected by their predecessors. But no minister has ever become emperor.
An emperor or empress must necessarily be selected from those who are in the Sun Goddess’s line of descent. A person not selected in accordance with this principle should be summarily rejected.

This report angered Doukyou, who used his influence to have an edict issued sending Kiyomaro into exile; he also had the tendons of Kiyomaro’s legs cut, and only the protection of the Fujiwara clan saved him from being killed.

The chief priest of the Usa Shrine may have been trying to ingratiate himself with Shotoku and Dokyo by passing along the first version, and the Fujiwara clan might have arranged for Kiyomaro to bring back the second. We do not know what really happened except that efforts to make Dokyo the emperor were blocked.

In the eighth month of 770 Shotoku suddenly died of smallpox, without having selected a successor. The Fujiwara managed to have Prince Shirakabe was enthroned as Emperor Kounin. Doukyou was removed from his high offices and was exiled to the province of Shimotsuke.

Wake no Kiyomaro was recalled from exile and appointed as both governor of Bizen Province and Udaijin. The following year, he had officials sent to Usa to investigate allegations of “fraudulent oracles”; in his later report, Wake no Kiyomaro stated that out of five oracles checked, two were found to be fabricated, so he had the head priest replaced by the previously disgraced one.


April 12, 2011

These days cherry blossoms are blooming – not only in Japan: today I went and see those in my city; this gave me the hint to write a post on the Japanese custom of Hanami.

Hanami at Himeji Castle


Hanami (花見) literally means “flower viewing” and usually refers to cherry blossom (sakura, 桜) viewing.

Sakura is a symbol of Japan; unlike other cherry trees it does not yield fruits and it’s grown only for its beautiful pink flowers.

Cherry blossoms flower at different times throughout Japan, according to the different climates. They start blooming in January in Okinawa, they are at their peak in late March to April in Honsh, and eventually they reach Hokkaido in May.

Evey year the weather bureau announces the blossom forecast (桜前線, sakurazensen ), so that people can plan their flower viewing.

Paper lanterns

In modern-day Japan, Hanami mostly consists of having an outdoor party beneath the Sakura trees during daytime or at night. Hanami at night is called Yozakura (夜桜, literally “night sakura”). In many places paper lanterns are hung for that purpose.

In places which are especially popular for hanami,  such as Ueno park and Aoyama Cemetary in Tokyo, it’s common to reserve a picnic spot in advance, since they are going to be very crowded. Usually, groups spread their picnic sheet early in the morning and either mark it with their name or have one of them positioned there, other friends arriving after work. The new employees are traditionally given this job of sitting all day long to reserve space for the company celebration (those who have seen “Bengoshi no Kuzu” might remember such a scene).

The picnic consists of a wide variety of foods, snack foods and sake or other drinks. The activities often include dancing and karaoke in addition to the cherry blossom viewing.

Among elderly people and those who enjoy a more quiet style of Hanami, Ume (梅, plum blossom) viewing is another popular traditional celebration.

There are two theories on the origin of Hanami.

One of them says it orginates from the ancient court custom of Hana no En (花の宴, literally “flower banquet” ), a sort of elegant amusement among aristocats, who composed Tanka praising the blossoms of Ume tree. Such custom is said to have been practiced at Court from around Na

ra Period (710-784) to Heian Period (794-1185). During the reign of Emperor Saga, Sakura took the place of Ume as a typical flower for this celebration.

The word “Hanami” was first used as a term analogous to cherry blossom viewing in the Heian era novel “Genji monogatari”. Whilst a wisteria viewing party was also described, fro

"Under the Cherry Trees" by Kunisada, 1852

m this point on the terms “Hanami” was only used to describe cherry blossom viewing.

According to another theory, the origin of Hanami dates back to ancient Japanese rural culture, even before the Nara Period. Sakura trees were very important to the ancient Japanese farmers: they believed that Sagami, a deity who lived in the mountains during the cold winter season, would come down from to temporarily stay in Sakura trees and later move on to the rice fields.

Therefore,  the blooming of Sakura trees meant that the deity has arrived. Peasants made offerings of food and Sake, partaking them to share some time with the deity, praying for rich harvest in autumn. It is also said that the farmers divined that year’s harvest with Sakura, regarding when the blossoms fell all at once ephemerally in only a few days as a sign of bad luck.

According to Yoshida Kenko (1283? – 1350?), court Hanami and the Hanami in agricultural communities were different traditions, that later got together to develop into the present one.

During the Kamakura period (1185–1333), some of the court customs, including Hana no en, were handed down to the Samurai families from the court nobles, getting gradually merged with the rural worship of Sagami. The custom got more and more spread during the time and, during Edo period, was encouraged by the Shogunate: Tokugawa Yoshimune had a lot of Sakura trees planted in the suburbs in order to promote tourism and to improve the government’s economical situation in those days.

Traditionally, Hanami is seen as a meditation on life,  that such as Sakura is ephemeral even though beautiful. However, most of those who contemplate sakura nowadays are more interested in having fun rather than in thinking to the nature of human life. The teasing proverb “dumplings rather than flowers” (花より団子、 hana yori dango) hints at the real priorities for most cherry blossom viewers, meaning that they care mainly about the food and drinks accompanying a hanami party.

For those of you who are into pop culture, the title of the famous manga/anime “Hana yori dango” stems from this proverb, but it is written as “花より男子” (even though the usual reading of 男子 would be “danshi”), meaning “boys over flowers”.

Back to my project on Japanese capitals! The next big topic is going to be Heian-kyou, of course, but there is another city to mention before.

In late VIII Century, Buddhism was not just safely extablished, but had even gained a strong political influence, so much to be perceived as a threat for the imperial power. The scandal of the priest Doukyou, who managed to had Empress Shoutoku under his influence, threatened even the Imperial succession.

The danger of Buddhist interference in government was a factor in Emperor Kanmu’s decision to move the capital away from Heijou-kyou (Nara), even though the formal reason was that the new location had better water transportation routes. Actually, the fact he prevented Nara sects from establishing their temples in the new capitals suggests that the wish to escape the power of Buddhist clergy was a crucial reason.

So in the summer of 784, Kanmu directed that a site for a new capital be surveyed at Nagaoka (長岡), an area near the Katsura River about twenty miles northwest of Nara. At the end of the same year, he moved into his
new palace there.

The area where Nagaoka was built was also associated with Kanmu’s family line, being the home of his matriline (for those of my readers who are interested in the Korean heritage of the Imperial family: Kanmu mother was a Yamato, and her mother was a Korean-descended Haji, or Hanishi).

Emperor Kanmu

But the founding of the new city was accompained by a variety of misfortunes, both natural and political, that were interpreted as bad omens.

First of all, while the new seat was conveniently located for land and water communication, it was also flood-prone and located near a large marsh.

Moreover, political scandals were entagled with the founding of the city itself. The leading advocate for the transfer of the capital was Fujiwara no Tanetsugu, Kanmu’s chief adviser, whose maternal family, the Hata, was, like Kanmu’s, also of Korean lineage and also based in the Nagaoka area. On a night in the autumn of 785, while Emperor Kammu was temporarily absent from the city, Tanetsugu was killed at Nagaoka.

Kanmu’s younger brother, Prince Sawara, who appears to have clashed with Tanetsugu earlier, was soon implicated in the assassination, deposed, and condemned to exile to Awaji province – which he avoided, the chronicle alleges, by starving himself to death.

These tragic episodes were soon followed by famine, devastating floods, epidemic disease, and a series of deaths and illnesses in Kanmu’s family, which diviners had no difficulty in interpreting as the revenge of Sawara’s angry spirit. All those circumstances, together with a lively fear of what the prince’s spirit might do in the future, led Kanmu to decide in the early
spring of 793 to accept the advice of his confidant Wake no Kiyomaro, who had urged the emperor to seek a new location for the capital.