Being in the eastern terminus of the Silk Roads Japan has been well-known over centuries thanks to its traditions and arts, which have affirmed its position as the land at “the end of the world” where all the echoes of Eurasia met. Japan developed its relations with other regions of the Silk Roads through its ancient capital – from 710 to 794 AD – Nara in southern Honshu.
Nara was connected to the maritime Silk Roads via the coastal city of Osaka at its west. This key location placed Nara as a hub at the heart of various cultural exchanges, where Japanese, Chinese and Korean influences interacted; as well as an important religious centre for Buddhists and Shintoists. Nara’s cultural diversity is symbolized in its architecture, ancient monuments, as well as in findings such as a collection of valuable pieces dating from the 8th century AD discovered in the Shōsōin Treasure Repository of the Emperor Shōmu (701-756 AD) that belongs to the Tōdai-ji Buddhist temple; and objects found in the Fukinoki tomb.
The Shōsōin in Nara has a unique collection of artefacts from different regions of the Silk Roads, which reached Japan via the trade routes. The historical findings include Buddhist devotional objects, jewellery, masks, furniture, musical instruments, paintings, sculpture, embroidery, batik, stencil work, tie-dyed cloths, metalwork, glassware, pottery, maps, cloisonné objects or samples of calligraphy among others. Many of these objects display an influence from the Chinese culture with typical decorations inspired from the Chinese Tang Dynasty (618-907 AD). These pieces were produced locally, however their styles clearly demonstrate the close connection between the society of Nara in the mid-8th century and the Chinese Tang culture. Moreover, the interactions of the merchants and travellers in Nara led to exchanges of diverse skills and techniques such as the cloisonné decorations, like the ones found in the Shōsōin Repository. These specific decorations were practised across Asia over the course of the Middle Ages, and testify to an active process of cultural exchanges.
Furthermore, the Fukinoki tomb in Nara dating from the 6th century A.D, which has a corridor-chamber and a sarcophagus, demonstrates, through the items found inside, the cultural and artistic influences of the Silk Roads. For instance, the patterns of dragons and phoenixes on the gold decorations plaques are extremely similar to decorations of Scythian origin; and, a gilt bronze crown found in the Fukinoki tomb looks like a crown discovered in Tillya Tepe, Bactria (North of modern Afghanistan).
Despite its distance from other regions of the world, Japan acquired various influences from the Silk Roads through the vibrant city of Nara. The valuable objects discovered in Nara display the cultural and intellectual exchanges, as well as the cultural diversity and vibrancy of this city at the far east of the Silk Roads. Today, Nara remains an important symbol of Japan’s integration in a wide network of international cultural exchanges.