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Smithsonian Folklife Festival
The Silk Road

Nara Gate

Geography & History


Japan is a nation of islands, together about the size of Montana. While there are many little islands, there are four large islands: from north to south they are Hokkaido, Honshu, Shikoku (to the east of southern Honshu), and Kyushu. Nara is in the southern part of Honshu. Japan is filled with mountains and volcanoes, and less than one-fifth of the land is suitable for agriculture or cities. It is the seas around Japan that have been the communication and trade link among the islands and with the rest of the world. It was by ship that foreign influences came into Japan and that foreigners often tried to invade Japan.

While it had communication with Asia through trade and diplomacy, Japan over much of its history has successfully protected itself from invasion. Twice in the 13th century Kublai Khan, the Mongol emperor of China and grandson of Genghis (Chinghis) Khan β€” who had once controlled much of the Silk Road β€” tried to invade Japan. He sent his ships across the Korean Strait and the East China Sea (approximately 150 miles), sure that he would triumph, but the Japanese fought most fiercely, and the Japanese emperor prayed for divine intervention. A storm, which the Japanese called a kamikaze (divine wind), destroyed 400 ships in the first attack and 4,000 in the second. After that, Kublai Khan did not try again.


A traveler along the Silk Road might be excited to know that the ideas and goods he carried would get all the way to Japan, but very few who traveled the Silk Road would ever get to Japan themselves. Because it is an island nation, Japan was distant from much of the activity along the Silk Road. Most of the personal interactions of Japanese with foreigners, especially during the 7th–10th centuries, were with Chinese and Koreans. Domestically, Japan was not always at peace during this time. Strong family clans contended for power. Assassinations, intrigue, marriage alliances, and betrayal were rife. Out of these contending forces emerged a new imperial court and a centralized government.

Nara was established to show off the new imperial dignity and the newly gained unity. Modeled after Chang'an, the capital city of the Tang dynasty in China, Nara added magnificent wooden Buddhist temples that gave a new grandeur to the city. Buddhism, brought to Japan from China, was embraced by the imperial court at Nara β€” especially Emperor Shomu and his daughter Empress Koken, who fell under the influence of a particularly ambitious priest. After the empress's death the new emperor Kammu reassessed the power of the temples and monasteries and decided to move the political capital away from Nara. In 794, he moved his court to present-day Kyoto, which remained the capital for 400 years. Kyoto, too, was modeled after the great city of Chang'an. The newly reinvigorated court maintained its legal and administrative code, which was based on Chinese practices and other cultural adaptations from China.

The leaders of Japan continued to protect it from outside invasion and to observe a certain aloofness from its Asian neighbors. Sadly, it also went through many periods of chaos and civil war, all the while maintaining the centrality, while not always the power, of the imperial family. In 1600 the new clan that controlled the imperial house restricted access to Japan's ports and limited international interchange. In 1853 Commodore Matthew C. Perry sailed into the Bay of Tokyo to negotiate a trade agreement with Japan and to reestablish communication between Japan and the United States.

Click to enlarge and view captions

Click images to enlarge and view captions

  • Music: On the day of the consecration ceremony for the Great Buddha at Todaiji, masked dancers paraded in front of the Great Buddha. The dancers probably carried flutes, hip drums, and small cymbals as they processed, with their masks made of wood. Originally from China, the masks came to Japan from Korea. In Japan, the masked dance is known as gigaku. The famous Shosoin Repository at Todaiji has a magnificent collection of gigaku masks including some of the oldest in the world.
  • It would not be unusual for Emperor Shomu and his consort to spend time in their palace in Nara listening to music, or even playing themselves. Much of the music they enjoyed would be in the style of the Tang court in China, and much of it would be played on Japanese instruments that are modeled on Chinese instruments. For instance, the koto, a zither-like instrument, was modeled on the Chinese qin. It would have silk strings and might be made of Japanese cypress wood. The emperor and his consort might have also listened to the music of the shamisen, a long-necked three-stringed wooden instrument with a small soundboard.