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Prince Shotoku Taishi had begun the practice of sending Japanese students to China in the early seventh century, a practice that continued long after his death.
The returned students understood that laws, especially administrative laws, were a crucial component of the strength of the Chinese empire, because they defined the forms and function of the bureaucracy, the collection of taxes, and performance of services and justified the secular and ritual role of the emperor. Emperor Tenchi (Tenji) (r. 661–672) had ordered the compilation of an administrative code, reputedly 22 volumes long, but it has not survived.
His brother and successor Temmu had ordered a reform of the laws promulgated under Tenchi, which supposedly was based on the Tang (T’ang) code of 651. Temmu’s code also no longer exists.
Then came the Taiho (meaning “great precious”) penal and administrative code of 702. Fragments of this code survive and more can be extrapolated from commentaries and the Yoro Code derived from it that followed in 718.
It consists of several important component parts. First, it provided for a system of household registration used for assessing taxes for land and labor services from the people.
A complex system of land allocation based on Tang China’s equal field system was put into effect. Second, it stipulated the collection of taxes, based on individuals and not households. Third, it defined the administration of local areas: Japan was divided into 60 provinces, each containing districts and villages.
They had been administered under local chieftains, which were switched to Crown appointees. Fourth, it covered the administration of the central government, which the code put under councils and ministries in the Chinese model. Fifth, it involved administration of military affairs.
Another entire section stipulated state control of Buddhist monks and nuns, their training, ordination, residence, activities, and responsibilities under canon and civil law. This too was taken from the Chinese model under the Tang (T’ang) dynasty.
The promulgation of the Taiho Code was shortly followed by the building of a permanent capital called Nara on a reduced scale of the great Tang capital Chang’an (Ch’ang-an). Until now there had been no permanent capital in Japan. Each reigning emperor or empress had used his/her residence as the administrative center of the state, which changed as each reign came to an end.
This impermanence was due to the simple structure of early Japanese government and the belief of ritual pollution associated with a place where the sovereign had died under indigenous Shinto belief. The change to permanent capitals was predicated on new ideals from China and the increasing complexity of Japan’s government.
The Taiho Code was an ambitious attempt by Japanese leaders to implement a complex legal system on the Chinese model where the state had much greater resources and history of administration.
It was well enforced during the first half of the eighth century. But it became less effective as changing social and economic conditions weakened the imperial court’s control over the land and people.