Taika Period - Early Medieval Japan
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Taika Japan

four japanese women standing in a group, in long dresses
Court attendants
(Takamatsuzuka Tomb, ca. 600s AD)

February 2017 - Now that Japan had declared independence from China, Empress Suiko and her successors tried to create a government for Japan that would be just as good as China's government. Empress Suiko ruled for 35 years before she died in 628 AD; Prince Shotoku had already died six years earlier, when he was only fifty years old. One of Bidatsu and Nukate-hime's grandsons, Emperor Jomei, ruled after Suiko, with Soga no Emishi, the new leader of the Soga family, as his adviser. After Jomei, the next Japanese ruler was Jomei's niece and wife, Empress Kogyoku. Kogyoku ruled for a couple of years, but then the Soga family tried to seize power. Jomei and Kogyoku's son Tenji killed Soga no Iruka right in front of her throne, and Soga no Emishi, Iruka's father, killed himself soon afterwards, ending the power of the Soga. Kogyoku stepped down to let her brother, Emperor KĊtoku, rule, with the backing of a new powerful family, the Fujiwara. When Kotoku died a few years later, Kogyoku stepped up again, and she ruled for another six years, with the help of Tenji, who had married into the Soga family. In 660, Korea, like Japan, became unified, and pushed out the Japanese colony there. In the next year Kogyoku died while preparing to personally lead her army to Korea to try to reconquer the colony.

white gate and stone steps among trees
Shinto tomb of Emperor Tenmu and
Empress Jito, ca. 700 AD
(thanks to Takanuka)

Tenji took over as Emperor, but he abandoned his mother's attack on Korea. In 662 Emperor Tenji published Japan's second important government document: its first formal law code, perhaps influenced by a general interest in law codes across Eurasia at this time. His youngest half-brother Tenmu succeeded him after a struggle. The Soga family tried to seize power again, and Tenmu threw them out in 645 AD and made a lot of changes in the government to make the emperors stronger and the other powerful Japanese families weaker. These changes, which we call the Taika Reforms, copied the changes made a little earlier by the Sui Dynasty emperor Wendi and T'ang Dynasty emperor T'ai Tsung in China: mainly, he redistributed the land, and created a stronger government bureaucracy including a lot of state-supported Buddhist monks and nuns, and built good roads like the Persians and the Romans.

Tenmu's niece (Tenji's daughter) Jito became empress after Tenmu died in 686 - just as the Empress Wu Chao was ruling China - and ruled for eleven years. Jito built a new planned city as her capital - as Li Shih-min had at Chang'an in China - to hold all the new administrators, and started a draft for soldiers to raise a more professional army. When Empress Jito got older, she retired (as the T'ang emperor Li Yuan had sixty years earlier), though she still had a lot of power. Jito's younger half-sister, the Empress Genmei, ruled after her, first as regent for her teenaged son Mommu, and then, when Mommu died at 25, on her own. In 707, Empress Genmei issued a new law code, the Taiho Code, formalizing the new administration, again copying T'ang Chinese laws. Empress Genmei also built a second, larger planned city for the new government, this time at Nara, and the government's move to Nara in 710 AD marks the end of the Yamato period.

Learn by doing: visit a Buddhist temple
Go on to the Nara period
More about Japan

Bibliography and further reading about Taika period Japan:

The Nara period
More about Japan
Ancient China
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Karen Carr is Associate Professor Emerita, Department of History, Portland State University. She holds a doctorate in Classical Art and Archaeology from the University of Michigan. Follow her on Instagram or Twitter, or buy her book, Vandals to Visigoths.
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