Kofun are large earthen burial mounds that provide the name for the era spanning the fourth through early eighth centuries. The burial mounds were constructed for members of the ruling class, and were first built in the area corresponding to modern Nara and Osaka in central Japan. An increase in their numbers and geographical distribution over time indicates a trend towards the solidification of a central government. Kofun were surrounded by moats. The mounds within the moats generally took the form of a large triangular shape penetrating a circle. Clay cylinders called haniwa adorned the slopes and perimeters of the mounds, as well as the entrance to the tomb. Some of the cylinders, particularly those associated with kofun in eastern Japan, featured figurines set on top of them. In the early part of the era, pits dug vertically into the mounds produced the tomb chamber, but in time, horizontal tomb chambers with corridors leading out of the mounds took their place. Along with this change came the decoration of the walls of the tomb with paintings that showed an awareness of continental symbolism. Furthermore, goods excavated from tombs dating to the latter part of the period demonstrate a similarity to contemporaneous burial practices in Korea. Tomb goods uncovered include metal mirrors, weapons, and elaborate headdresses, as well as a new type of gray stoneware called Sue ware. In addition to advances in metallurgy, new continental technologies such as the potter’s wheel and the kiln came to be used for ceramic production from the middle of the Kofun era.
The Kofun period overlaps with two other time periods known as the Asuka (593–710) and the Hakuhō (672–686), during which new cultural features developed, but mound burials persisted. The Asuka period is named for a powerful group that occupied an area south of modern day Nara. It begins with the date of the issuing of the Seventeen Article Constitution by the prince Shōtoku and ends with the transference of the capital to what is now Kyoto. During the Asuka era, Buddhism was introduced to Japan along with numerous Chinese and Korean cultural features. These imports included including a bureaucratic governmental system as well as Chinese ideographs, which were adapted for written Japanese. A civil war was fought over the legitimacy of Buddhism versus that of the indigenous Shinto religious tradition. Ultimately, the traditions were found to be compatible, and state sponsorship of Buddhist art and architecture saw rapid expansion. Early Buddhist temples were built based upon various models from Korea and China, and Buddhist sculptures in wood, stone, bronze, clay, and lacquer were produced. Many sculptures were based upon prototypes in the style of the Chinese Northern Wei (386–535) dynasty. The Hakuhō period corresponds to the reign dates of the Emperor Tenmu. During this period, the influence of Chinese Sui (589–618) and early Tang dynasty (618–907) Buddhist painting, sculpture, and architectural styles became pronounced. Two major temples, Hōryūji and Yakushiji, survive from the Hakuhō period. At the same time, the Yayoi–inspired architecture of the major Shinto site of worship, the Ise Shrine, was standardized. Its structures, along with those at the Izumo Shrine complex, served as prototypes for subsequent shrines.
The Nara period is named for the location of a new capital built in 710 that was formally known as Heijōkyō. As with the establishment of other capitals before it, one reason for the move was the custom of abandoning capitals upon the death of an emperor. The layout of the capital closely reflected Chinese concepts of statecraft, constructed as it was in a grid system following the precedent of the Chinese national capital Chang’an. During this era, Chinese literary culture inspired the first national histories, the Kojiki, written in 712, and the Nihon shoki, written in 720, as well as the compilation of a major anthology of poems, the Manyōshū. Buddhism became the official religion of the state, thus ensuring an emphasis on the production of Buddhist arts. Emperor Shōmu, who ruled Heijōkyō from 724 to 756, devised a state sponsored system of monasteries and convents, the function of which was to protect the state through Buddhist practice in each region of Japan. The central effort in this scheme was the construction of a temple known as Tōdaiji that housed a gilt bronze image of the Buddha Vairocana standing over fifty feet tall. So elaborate were the requirements for the architecture, sculpture, and adornments of the temple complex that a special governmental bureau to oversee the project was established in 748. Many among the community of artists working in the capital came from families who had immigrated from China or Korea. Artists were organized into a series of government run workshops, which included offices of painting, metalwork, lacquer, carpentry, and sutra transcription, as well as into a number of workshops associated with the main temples in the capital. Shōmu also sent emissaries to China and Korea, who returned with objects and designs that originated from many points along the Silk Road. These objects, along with works produced in Japan, were transferred to the Shōsōin storehouse several years after Shōmu’s death in 756. They provide a wealth of information on eighth century innovations in painting, lacquer, and other media. By the end of the Nara period, the power balance between the imperial family and the monastic communities that grew up around the six schools of Buddhism active in the capital became unstable, giving rise to an initiative to remove the secular power base to a new location where it could wield stronger authority over religious institutions.
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Weeder, E. ed., The Rise of a Great Tradition: Japanese Archaeological Ceramics from the Jōmon through Heian Periods (10,500 B.C. to A.D. 1185). (New York: Japan Society, 1990)