Nara and Kyoto

The origins of classical Japan are generally traced back to the kingdom of Nara (710-794), which emerged contemporaneously to the Tang dynasty (618-907) in China. The magnificent new capital of Hiejo-kyo was modelled on Chang'an, imperial seat of the Chinese Tang emperors. During the Nara period Japan received even more direct cultural and technological influences from China; Buddhism and Confucianism were harnessed in support of political authority, temples were constructed in the capital and each of the provinces, and a centralised administrative system was instituted.

This period also witnessed a flowering of literary creativity; the Man'yoshu, the first great anthology of Japanese poetry, was written during this period.

Towards the end of the 8th century, perhaps in order to escape increasing political interference by Buddhist monks, a new capital known as Heian-kyo was constructed in what is now Kyoto. This served as home to the imperial court and as capital of Japan from 794 until 1868, when the capital was moved to Edo (Tokyo).

The early years of the Heian period (794-1185) saw the full assimilation of Chinese culture, but this later gave way to a more distinctively Japanese aesthetic, expressed through the flowering of an elegant courtly culture.

Over the following centuries, as the emperors began to devote more time to leisure and scholarly pursuits, key government posts were increasingly controlled by nobles of the Fujiwara family. Meanwhile in the provinces a new power was on the rise, as fiercely independent samurai began to challenge the Fujiwara for supremacy, leading ultimately to the seizure of power by the Taira family in 1168-1178.