About Dazaifu City Japan Heritage
The Western Capital of Ancient Japan
~Exchange Hub with East Asia~
There once was a capital in Kyushu in western Japan, a place called Dazaifu.
1300 years ago, there was a government office called Dazaifu, which was described as the “Emperor’s distant Imperial Court” (in Man'yoshu) and also called “one of the biggest cities in Japan” (in Shoku Nihongi). Throughout ancient times and the middle-ages, Dazaifu flourished with advanced culture brought from the national capital of Japan as well as from abroad.
1300 years ago, the Tang Dynasty of China was prospering as a global empire. Surrounding nations made every effort to bring in literature, culture and the political system of the Tang Dynasty, and Japan was no exception. Awata-no-Mahito, one of the Japanese envoys to Tang China during Japan’s Taiho era, brought back the latest information from the mainland and contributed to the promotion of national reform. This helped Japan to enter the Nara period, which is said to be the most internationalized era in Japanese history.
In Chang’an, the capital of Tang Dynasty China, Awata-no-Mahito was treated well by the Chinese Emperor. Chang’an was the most advanced city in East Asia at that time. Based on the information he collected during his visit, Heijokyo and Dazaifu were built. Although Tsukushi already had fortresses such as Mizuki, Onojo and Kii Fortress modeled after the imperial capital of the Baekje Kingdom (one of the ancient three kingdoms of Korea) during Tenji Dynasty, the city was reborn as a “western capital” after Awata-no-Mahito, who actually studied the Tang capital firsthand, was assigned to Dazaifu and got directly involved in city building.
It turned out to be a full-scale city-building which utilized fortresses of the previous era, including Mizuki, Onojo and Kii Fortress. Town blocks in a grid pattern (Dazaifu Jobo) were created with the length of approximately 2 km in four directions. The Dazaifu Government Office and related offices were placed in the central north of the town and Suzaku Avenue was laid out in front. Its width was a quarter of Chang’an Cheng’s Suzaku Avenue and half of Heijokyo’s Suzaku Avenue, making it the second largest in Japan. Facilities like those in the capital, such as educational institutions (gakko-in) for children of government officials, temples with connections to the Emperor (Kanzeon-ji Temple and Hannya-ji Temple), the Guest House (Kyaku-kan) and other residences were built in the city. Buildings with roof tiles bearing the same lotus patterns as those of the national capital stood side by side, and gargoyles bearing the lion faces that Awata-no-Mahito saw in Tang China looked down upon the comings and goings. Kando extended in four directions facilitating the exchange of cultural artifacts and culture.
As can be seen from above, Dazaifu was built in line with the specifications that were an international standard for capitals in East Asia at the time. It was a western capital, which the ancient state built to display the prestige and internationalism of Japan to those who visited. In this way, the international city was born as a place where bustling foreign delegations and merchants regularly came and went and imported goods were actively traded. It was founded on Tsukushi, the center of international exchange even before "the western capital" was esatablished.
In this western capital, foreign delegations were welcomed and diplomacy and trade were conducted by the state. Foreign delegations (guests) first arrived at Tsukushi-no-murotsumi (Koro-kan) on the coast of Hakata Bay and then headed for Dazaifu. To get there from Tsukushi-no-murotsumi, they proceeded on a national road that extended straight to Dazaifu, reached the West Gate of Mizuki (which was built during Emperor Tenji’s reign), went further north on Suzaku Avenue from the presumed Rajo-mon Gate while viewing the streets of Dazaifu, and finally entered Kyaku-kan to stay. As for diplomatic protocols, delegations left Kyaku-kan, went north on Suzaku Avenue and headed for the Dazaifu Government Office in a dignified manner. At the Government Office, a ceremony and a hospitality banquet would be held with accompanying music. Elegant tableware from Japan, Tang and Shilla was prepared and luxurious cuisine was served for foreign delegates who were staying in Dazaifu. Tea, which had been introduced from China, was sometimes served as well.
When Dazaifu was the western capital, people with cultural knowledge gathered to entertain foreign guests. Many intellectuals such as Ganjin, Kukai and Saicho, who were distinguished Buddhist priests, also often stayed, as Dazaifu was an exchange hub for such people. These activities promoted the inflow and accumulation of new cultures. One example was Ono-no-Takamura, who excelled in calligraphy, painting and poetry in the early Heian period. He would chant Chinese poems with guests from the Tang Dynasty at Koro-kan of Dazaifu, and deepen friendships. Also, at a plum-blossom party hosted at the residence of Otomo-no-Tabito, the Governor–General of Dazaifu at the time, which was described in Man'yoshu, a new cultural practice was created. Participants presented waka poems while viewing plum blossoms that had only recently been introduced from Tang China. Man'yoshu poets composed poems while being in love with the scenery of Tsukushi including Onojo and Suita Hot Spring (Futsukaichi Hot Spring).
From that time, plum blossoms (along with the legend of Sugawara-no-Michizane) came to be loved as a flower deeply linked with Dazaifu. It was said that Sugawara-no-Michizane in the Dazaifu era led an uncomfortable life at the South Hall facing Suzaku Avenue. After his death, when he was enshrined at Dazaifu Tenmangu Shrine, the Jinko event that celebrates the temporal transfer of deity came to be held between the South Hall and Tenmangu. This Jinko event is conducted in Heian-period style, and is still observed every year on Autumn Equinox Day, using roads following the ancient land allotment including the Dazaifu Jobo grid pattern.
Kanzeon-ji Temple is handing down the collections of many cultures and products of civilization which have been gathered by the exchanges of culture in “The Western Capital” down to this day. Kanzeon-ji Temple was a national temple that was built on the wish of Emperor Tenji. Genbo, who had the honor of directly receiving a Buddhist priest’s stole from Emperor Xuan Zong of the Tang Dynasty, held a ceremony to mark its completion. Many sculptures reflecting the influence of the national capital and continental cultures, including the 5-meter Kanzeon Bosatsu statue, were built in rapid succession. This temple used a Bugaku band to entertain foreign delegations at banquets. The masks used on these occasions still remain. In addition, Ganjin stayed at Kanzeon-ji Temple after landing in Japan. It is where he presented the first Buddhist commandments in Japan to those who wished to be official Buddhist priests. Because of this history, this temple is included among the three official ordination halls in Japan, and has produced many priests. The ordination hall itself that was used to deliver the commandments of Buddhism still exists today. Many priests who came back from Tang China, including Kukai, had extended stays at this temple. It is where they transcribed Buddhist scriptures brought from China. Also here is Kanzeon-ji’s bronze Bonsho bell, the oldest bell in Japan and the very bell that Sugawara-no-Michizane wrote about in the Chinese-style poem entitled “Mon wo Idezu” (I am not feeling like going out of the gate), in the verse that reads “I just listen to the sound of Kanzeon-ji’s bell.”
These are some of the ways that Dazaifu located in Tsukushi served as a western capital, built by the Imperial Court to promote diplomacy and trade. It was established following the lead of the national capitals of the Baekje Kingdom and Tang China, where the advanced cultures of East Asia were exchanged with Japanese culture. Legacies to this history can be found throughout Tsukushi and it continues to fascinate people as one of the most important ancient capitals of Japan.