Capitals of Japan – 4 – Nagaoka-kyou

April 5, 2011

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.



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