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Report on the talk ‘Building for the Sovereign and the Buddha: artisans and labourers in eighth-century Japan’

Yakushiji’s East Pagoda.

Ellen Van Goethem is a scholar of early Japanese Buddhism and Shinto working at the University of Kyushu. Her talk on the 16 May was a wonderful way to kick off a nine-day celebration of the Nara to Norwich project and the 25th anniversary of the Sainsbury Institute for the Study of Japanese Arts and Cultures. Ellen’s work is focused on the long eighth-century and, as with Nara to Norwich, crosses the disciplinary boundaries between art history, archaeology and history. The talk began with Ellen posing the question, who were the artisans and construction workers responsible for the construction of capital cities which, at the time, were new and technologically alien? These new urban landscapes were introduced, initially to the Nara basin, which previously had held largely dispersed and relatively modest settlements, at the behest of the Yamato rulers. This imperial ambition was not restricted to cities but also included the construction of great Buddhist temples. One of Ellen’s key insights is that the people who built both the cities and the temples were the same craftspeople.

Prior to the introduction of continental style buildings in the 6th and 7th centuries, pre-Buddhist buildings consisted of thatch or bark roofs and pillars were embedded in postholes supporting an elevated plank floor. Continental style buildings that came in with Buddhism and Chinese forms of construction instead possessed clay roof tiles with pillars supported on foundation stones and were built on a stone platform. This was a new technology imported from the continent and employing highly skilled artists and craftspeople. People with the skills to construct these buildings were rare and hence highly valued. The materials were also highly prized and there is evidence that there was much recycling with a pamphlet from Kuni suggesting that the Nara Audience Hall built between around 710 to 740 was reused, becoming the Kuni-kyō Audience Hall (740-744) and, remarkably, then moved and was rebuilt again at Yamashiro Kokubunji Temple, as the Golden Hall (744-?). The imperial family and its supporters employed a highly developed continental legal system along with a civil service based government and bureaucracy starting in the late 6th century but in a developed form by the early to middle 7th century.

Hōryū-ji, temple founded in the 7th century.

Ellen’s work is adding a whole new vantage on this period of massive social change through exploring both craftspeople’s central role in the building of the new cities and the complexes of temples constructed across the newly centralised imperium and the variety of skills involved. Some of these workers were highly skilled and indeed feted master craftspeople who commanded high salaries and were the construction rockstars of their time. Hida province in particular was renowned for producing such craftspeople, who went on in later popular culture to become mythological figures with magical powers. Due to the particular skills that Hida possessed, the province was exempt from certain labour taxes if skilled workers were supplied as requested by the imperial bureaucracy. There were also a range of crafts workers within a variety of roles managed from the offices provided for in the administrative codes. As such, the Imperial Household Ministry contained a carpentry bureau, along with metalworker’s and clayworker’s offices. The same was true of the Tōdaiji Construction Office which had onsite administrative divisions in addition for painting and the casting of the Buddha statue, along with off-site divisions for logging in Mie and Shiga Prefectures. These divisions administered the pay and logistics for a hierarchy of craftspeople along with paid labourers and corvée workers.

As well as the records of government and of the large temples, further insight can be gleaned from archaeologically excavated mokkan, wooden tablets used to record a range of information and providing a kind of micro history beyond the traditional historical sources. These can show events and details not previously known and many thousands have come to light in recent decades with the growth in archaeological excavation undertaken prior to major developments. Some of what is recorded is surprising and perhaps even counterintuitive, for instance that non-skilled labourers were paid the same amount in rice as the Division Head, a senior civil servant. Through the variety of these sources the lives of craftsmen can be understood, sometimes at different moments in their careers. For instance, one carpenter was first recorded as working at Tōdaiji as a teenager and later turns up in the records as a shipbuilder connected with the construction of ships being built for official overseas diplomatic missions. Such microhistories afford for understanding beyond the confines of royalty, government and law-codes. Wooden tablets provide a socially broader view. Ellen concluded by noting the large construction projects the long 8th century were interwoven and that the information from non-traditional sources provide key insights into the situation and the broad social relations within the new bureaucracies and better illuminate the relationship between the centre and the periphery. Ellen also noted that there continue to be gaps in our understanding, including the role of slaves in these construction projects and the role of craftswomen.

Dr Andy Hutcheson
Research Fellow, Centre for Archaeology & Heritage, Sainsbury Institute