Nara Period in Japan: Art, Architecture & Clothing

Instructor: David Juliao

David has a bachelor's degree in architecture, has done research in architecture, arts and design and has worked in the field for several years.

In this lesson, learn about the Nara Period in Japan and its Chinese- and Buddhist-inspired artwork. We will explore the main characteristics of the architecture, clothing, and other forms of art from this period.

The Nara Period

The foreign influences are not new to Japanese society. In the 8th century, many technologies and cultural aspects of neighboring China were brought to Japan. The Nara period covers most of that time, from year 710 until 794.

The Nara period started with the establishment of a new capital for the Imperial Court. That change greatly influenced the development of the economy, government, and society. This period was later named after the city of Nara, which is where the first capital was located.

Empress Genmei and her successors developed Nara into a center of modernity, religion, and innovation where she emulated many aspects of the Chinese culture and incorporated them into the Japanese society. During this period, Buddhism was also brought to Japan, thus modifying many aspects of the daily life, local laws, and rituals. Architecture and other forms of art were also greatly influenced.

Nara Architecture

The architecture during the Nara period borrowed many elements from the Tang Dynasty in China, which was deeply focused on Buddhism. As a result, most important monuments from this time are Buddhist temples.

The city of Nara itself is a noted work of this time. By the time Empress Genmei assumed power, she devoted herself to the construction of a city inspired in Chang'an (modern Xi'an, capital of China at the time). The new city was named Heijo-kyo.

The urban designers duplicated many important elements of the Chinese capital, such as the grid layout for streets. This city was an important point of the Silk Road, became a center of Buddhist worship in Japan and is also known for the Heijo Palace, home of Empress Genmei.

Model of the Heijo Palace
Model of the Heijo Palace

Most buildings of this period were made out of wood, usually painted in red, black and golden colors. The roofs were commonly covered with blue-tinted tiles and the ends of the roof that project from the walls, known as eaves, were usually elevated on the corners.

Most buildings of this time have suffered earthquakes, fires, and other severe damage so there are not many examples still standing.

The Seven Great Temples of Nanto

The government ordered the construction of seven Buddhist temples in the city of Nara. These religious buildings consisted of the main hall, a sanctuary hall, where the temple treasures were displayed, a Zen room for meditation, and a pagoda. This layout was also common in Chinese Buddhist temples. One of the temples, the Todai-ji is considered of particular importance for its large bronze Buddha statue.

Model of the Todai-ji Temple
Model of the Todai-ji Temple

The Heijo Palace

The palace served as the imperial residence in the new capital. It was built following a large rectangular layout and had several surrounding structures for the use of the Emperor and advisers. Some of them were ceremonial, while others were merely administrative. There were also areas for the servants. The Inner Palace was separated from the rest of the complex and was the residence of the Emperor.

Nara Clothing

Clothing was also influenced by the Chinese fashion of the times. During the Nara periods, laws regarding fashion were dictated specifying what to wear on different occasions, such as funerals and celebrations. Starting in 718, new fashions were promoted. The use of Tarikubi robes for women and Agekubi robes for men was popularized. These were the origins of modern kimonos.

Figures Dressed with Nara Clothing
Figures Dressed with Nara Clothing

The Tarikubi Robes

This clothing had several layers and consisted of two parts. The upper part was a heavy jacket with different patterns on the chest and collar, very long sleeves with floral motives and a long pashmina (shawl) used over the shoulders. The lower part was a skirt that started over the waist, it had an apron and a belt to adjust the attire to the body. Women also wore heavy makeup and their hair pulled up tight above the head.

The Agekubi Robes

The Agekubi robes were similar in size and form to the female Tarikubi but were usually of darker colors. The Agekubi was also split into two parts with the same pattern and color for both of them. The attire was adjusted with a belt, usually in silver or golden colors. Men styled their hair in a similar fashion to women, but they used a small stick to divide their hair in two with a well-defined part.

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