Kammu (737-806) was the fiftieth emperor of Japan. A wise and effective ruler, he reigned for 25 years and laid the foundation for the prosperity of the Heian period. The Heian Shrine is dedicated to his spirit.
Kammu was born Yamabe, a son of Emperor Konin. Because his mother was a naturalized Japanese, it appeared unlikely that Yamabe would ascend the throne. He was, however, designated the heir apparent at the age of 35 and was enthroned at the age of 44. The reign of this rare, efficient ruler was marked inter alia by the move of the capital from Nara to Kyoto, the subjugation of the Ezo (Ainu) in northern Japan, and introduction of reforms in administration.
Move of the Capital
In 784 Emperor Kammu decided to leave Heijo, or Nara, largely to escape what had become the oppressive influence of the great Buddhist monasteries and temples that ringed Nara. The favors bestowed upon the great monasteries by many emperors preceding Kammu and the leading noble houses served to so increase the economic and political power of the Buddhist establishments that the authority of the imperial house appeared to be endangered. It is also probable that Kammu concluded from the history of previous decades that reforms he had in mind could not be carried out unless there was a complete change of atmosphere. Kammu was a Confucian by training and as such was opposed to encroachment of political power by the Buddhist clergy.
The court was first moved to a place called Nagaoka, but work was begun on the new capital in Kyoto early in 793. The Emperor moved into his new palaces in 794, but work on other buildings continued for some years more. This was the city styled Heian-kyo, the "Capital of Peace and Tranquility." It was built on the same lines as the Chinese capital at Ch'ang-an under the Sui dynasty.
The seven great monasteries of Nara were left behind. Emperor Kammu also issued an edict which was intended to cut down the building of new Buddhist edifices, to limit entries into the monastic order, and to prevent the sale or donation of land to religious institutions.
Kammu ruled firmly, relying upon his own judgment. It is generally agreed that the power and prestige of the throne were at their highest during his reign. In order to expand the effective rule by the imperial house into regions inhabited by the aboriginal settlers, the Ezo, or the Ainu, a number of military expeditions were launched during the reign of Kammu.
In 791, for instance, a new commander was appointed and given the title of Seito Taishi, or "Envoy for the Pacification of the East." In a series of military campaigns, the expeditionary forces were able to expand the pacified areas considerably. So important was this task of subjugation in the eyes of the court that the new title of Sei-i Tai-Shogun, or "Barbarian-quelling Generalissimo," was created, and this was sought by the highest military officers of the land for the next thousand years.
During these military campaigns, Kammu ordered the intensification of the manufacture of armors and arms not only by artisans of the capital but also by those of the local areas. This tended to encourage the development of handicraft in many parts of Japan. He also paid keen attention to local administration. The chokushiden, or rice fields opened with imperial sanction, were also initiated during Kammu's reign. These tax-free rice fields, when opened from wastelands, belonged to the imperial court—enriching the imperial treasury. Emperor Kammu died in the spring of 806 at the age of 69.
Further Reading on Kammu
A fine background to the move of the capital and some political developments under Kammu at the very beginning of the Heian period are in Sir George Sansom, A History of Japan, vol. 1 (1958). An intelligent discussion of Buddhist imprints on the transitional era between the Nara and Heian periods is in Ryusaku Tsunoda and others, eds., Sources of Japanese Tradition (1958). For general background on early Japan, including the reign of Kammu, see Edwin O. Reischauer and John K. Fairbank, A History of East Asian Civilization, vol. 1 (1960).