Asuka Culture (飛鳥文化)

Asuka Culture was a Buddhist culture that flourished mainly in Yamato Province under Empress Suiko. It generally covers the era from the introduction of Buddhism in Japan through the Taika Reforms.

It was an abundantly cosmopolitan culture, influenced by the Northern and Southern Dynasties period culture of the Chinese continent, which was introduced to Japan via the Korean kingdoms of Baekje and Goguryeo. It was the first prosperous period of Buddhist culture and saw the construction of many large temples.

Buddhist culture

Buddhism was officially introduced into Japan via Baekje either during the reign of Emperor Senka in 538 or the reign of Emperor Kinmei in 552. According to the "Nihonshoki" (Chronicles of Japan), the introduction of Buddhism into Japan was spearheaded by SOGA no Iname, who enshrined a gilt bronze statue of Shakyamuni that had been presented, together with some sutras, to the Imperial court by King Seong of Baekje, in his house at Oharida and purified his house in Mukuhara, converting it into Kogen-ji Temple.

A dispute over the adoption of Buddhism between the Soga clan, who had greatly contributed to dissemination of Buddhism in Japan, and their opponents, the Mononobe clan led to conflict between SOGA no Umako and MONONOBE no Moriya. Following the Soga's victory, Buddhist culture developed under the Soga clan and the clan-affiliated Okimi (King, a term used before "Emperor" became common), mainly in and around the capital Asuka-kyo, home to the Yamato royalty.

Buddhism in Asuka was supported by monks from Baekje and Goguryeo. In 595, two monks, Eji from Goguryeo and Eso from Baekje, arrived in Japan and became naturalized. The next year, they began living in Asuka-dera Temple.

Buddhist architecture

Contrary to the intentions of devotees, Asuka-dera Temple and Shitenno-ji Temple became state-administered temples. Craftsmen engaged in the construction of Buddhist temples and statures in Japan were mainly settlers from Korea and their descendants. In 594, following the issue of an imperial decree promoting Buddhism, many powerful clans competed to build private temples (known as uji-dera) for the Emperor and their ancestors.

Shitenno-ji Temple
Naniwa (Osaka)
This was founded by Prince Shotoku as the first fully-fledged state-sponsored temple in Japan.

Hoko-ji Temple (Asuka-dera Temple, Ango-in)
Construction began in 588 during the reign of Emperor Sushun and was completed in 596 during the reign of Empress Suiko. The central figure in the construction was SOGA no Umako. The tera no tsukasa (head official of the temple) was Umako's eldest son, Zentoku. Although it was the first full-scale private temple in Japan, it strongly resembled a state-owned temple due to the support it received from the Soga clan-controlled royal family.

The temple's design resembled that of Shitenno-ji Temple, with the Nanmon (South Gate), Chumon (Central Gate), pagoda, kondo (main hall) and kodo (lecture hall) running in a straight line from south to north. It had two additional kondo situated to the east and west of the pagoda, with a corridor from the Chumon Gate that went around them and converged behind the kondo. The site of the main kondo is now occupied by the Ango-in Hall, which houses the Kondo-butsu or Asuka Daibutsu (a gilt bronze statue of Buddha in a sitting position), believed to have been made by KURATSUKURI no Tori.

According to the "Nihonshoki," Buddha's ashes were buried under the central foundation stone of the pagoda in 593. Following its construction, most imperial palaces were built in the Asuka area centered around Asuka-dera Temple. The central line (middle road) between Asuka-dera Temple's central axis and that of Kawahara-dera Temple, which was built in the last year of Emperor Tenchi's reign or the first year of Emperor Tenmu's reign, became one of standards in the design of Emperor Tenmu's capital, Fujiwara-kyo, and the distance between both axial lines became a standard measurement of grid lines for allotment of land in Asuka.

Kudara-daiji Temple
This was the Imperial Family's first Buddhist temple, completed in 639 by Emperor Jomei and, after his death, succeeded by his consort, Empress Kogyoku, and his son, Emperor Tenchi. It is now identified with the site of Kibiike Abandoned Temple. When completed, Kudara-daiji Temple far surpassed the scale of the Soga clan's Asuka-dera Temple. It was one of the top temples in East Asia at the time, with its towering nine-story pagoda, equivalent to a modern twenty-five story building, two times higher than Horyu-ji Temple's five-story pagoda.

Ikuraga-dera Temple (Horyu-ji Temple)
It was built at the wish of Prince Shotoku. It is the oldest wooden building in Japan.

Hata-dera Temple (Koryu-ji Temple)... Hata clan
Shibukawa-ji Abandoned Temple... Mononobe clan (Omuraji no Moriya), in Shibukawa-cho, Yao City, Osaka Prefecture
The Mononobe clan also became Buddhist. Stories of the disputes over the worship or abolishment of Buddhism were handed down by the Soga clan, but there really existed a struggle for political power between SOGA no Umako and MONONOBE no Moriya.

Mineoka-ji Temple... Kadono, Kyoto City
Sakata-dera Temple... Minamibuchi, Asuka-mura
Although some Nara period structural platforms have been excavated, no remnants from the Asuka period have been found.

Toyura-ji Temple... SOGA no Emishi


Northern Wei style... Introduced via Goguryeo
This style was characterized by solemn and majestic masculine figures with apricot kernel-shaped eyes, lips of a sharp crescent shape and symmetric and geometric patterns on their clothes.

Statue of Shakyamuni at Asuka-ji Temple (also known as the Asuka-daibutsu)
Made by KURATSUKURI no Tori.
Statues of Shakyamuni triads in Horyu-ji Temple's kondo
Made by KURATSUKURI no Tori.
Statue of Kuze Kannon in Horyu-ji Temple's Yume-dono (Hall of Dreams)
Liang style (Southern Dynasty) (a style from the Northern and Southern Dynasties period)・・・introduced into Japan via Silla and Baekje. Statues are tall and rounded and features include an archaic smile and clothes with a variety of folds.

Statue of Kudara Kannon at Horyu-ji Temple
Miroku Bosatsu Hanka Shiyui statue (Maitreya Bodhisattva sitting contemplatively in the half-lotus position) at Koryu-ji Temple
Hanka Shiyui statue (possibly of Maitreya Bodhisattva or, according to the temple history, of Nyoirin Kannon) at Chugu-ji Temple


The "Sangyogisho" (Three Sutra Annotations) is believed to have been written by Prince Shotoku who was deeply committed to Buddhism. The quote on Tenjukoku Mandara Shucho (a piece of embroidered silk) 'the real world is false and temporary, only the Buddha is true' is said to show how Prince Shotoku was feeling in his later life.

Tenjukoku Mandara Shucho
Chugu-ji Temple
Embroideries, brocades and other dyed or woven fabric works of Buddhist images have been handed down from generation to generation.

Throughout the Asuka area, there can be found many stone objects such as the Saruishi (Monkey Stones), Doso-jin (travelers' guardian deity) carved form stone and Tachibana-dera Temple's Nimen-ishi (Double-faced Stone), all of which are considered religious relics.

Other legacies

Gwalleuk (or Kanroku in Japanese), a monk from Baekje, presented calendars and books of astronomy and geography.

Damjing (or Doncho in Japanese), a monk from Goguryeo, introduced methods for producing paint, paper and sumi (Chinese ink).

Palaces of the Asuka period

Toyura no Miya Palace
Toyura-dera Temple, an uji-dera (clan temple) of the Soga clan was remade into this palace,.
Empress Suiko

Oharida no Miya Palace
This palace became a prototype of subsequent palaces. In 603, Empress Suiko moved to this palace.

Asuka Itabuki no Miya Palace
In 643, Empress Kogyoku ascended the throne, and in 645, the Taika Reforms began.
Later Asuka Okamoto no Miya Palace
Immediately after the Jinshin War, Emperor Tenmu moved his residence here.
Asuka Kiyomigahara no Miya Palace
This palace consisted of an inner compound and an outer compound, with the inner compound further divided into northern and southern sections. The main palace building was located in the northern section, and the chodo (Imperial Court Hall) and the South Gate stood in the southern section.

[Original Japanese]