Nagaokakyo: Why Was This Ancient Capital City So Short-lived?

The Yomiuri Shimbun
The site of To-in, where Emperor Kanmu lived in a temporary inner palace in Nagaokakyo, in Muko, Kyoto Prefecture

After the capital of Japan moved to Heiankyo, now called Kyoto, in 794, it remained there for more than 1,000 years, interrupted only by a six-month-long move to Fukuharakyo (present-day Chuo Ward and the northern part of Kobe’s Hyogo Ward).

But before moving to Heiankyo, the capital was Nagaokakyo, which has come to be known as the “short-term capital.”

Nagaokakyo was located in the southwestern part of the Kyoto Basin, in the present-day cities of Nagaokakyo and Muko, both in Kyoto Prefecture, and parts of Kyoto’s Minami and Nishikyo wards, covering an area of about 4.3 kilometers from east to west and 5.3 kilometers from north to south.

It was long believed that Nagaokakyo was abandoned before it was completed, but recent excavations have shown that the city actually had the same size and urban functions as Heiankyo.

The location was chosen because it was blessed with water transportation. The previous capital, Heijokyo, near present-day Nara City, was inland and transportation was mainly over land. This is written in the Imperial edict of Emperor Kanmu, who decided to move the capital to Nagaokakyo.

Three rivers still merge south of Nagaokakyo to form the Yodo River, which flows into Osaka Bay. Beyond Osaka Bay is the Seto Inland Sea.

Goods from all over Japan were transported by boat up the Yodo River and unloaded at Yamazakitsu, southwest of Nagaokakyo. Being well before railroads and automobiles, water transportation was the primary means of transport, as it was in China and Europe.

As to precisely why Nagaokakyo was abandoned only 10 years after the relocation, there is still debate among researchers. But one of the first reasons cited is a curse.

Fujiwara no Tanetsugu, who was responsible for the creation of the new capital, was assassinated by forces that probably wanted to prevent the transfer of the capital. Prince Sawara, a younger brother of Emperor Kanmu, was to be exiled to Awaji Island, as he was believed to have been involved in assassinating Tanetsugu. The prince died on his way to exile on the island. Some experts believe that his death was caused by his fasting in protest.

Afterward, Takano no Niigasa, the mother of Emperor Kanmu, and Fujiwara no Otomuro, the wife of Emperor Kanmu, died in succession. The newly appointed crown prince also fell ill. And there were epidemics and floods, which people believed were caused by a curse of Prince Sawara.

However, to escape the curse, the capital wasn’t moved back to its original location in Heijokyo. Instead, it was moved to Heiankyo.

In the northeast of Heiankyo, in present-day Sakyo Ward, Kyoto, stands Sudo Shrine, which is dedicated to Prince Sawara. In Japan, nobles who die with a grudge are often worshipped as gods.

Well, whether it was a curse or not, the floods that often occurred were very damaging to Nagaokakyo.

Nagaokakyo was in a low marshy area that became agricultural fields after the capital was moved to Heiankyo. When I was a child, those fields would sometimes flood after heavy rains, although that does not seem to happen anymore.

“The housing lots in Nagaokakyo were irregular in shape and size compared with those in Heiankyo,” said Ryukoku University Prof. Tamiki Kunishita, who specializes in archaeology. “This inadequacy in urban planning might have been one of the reasons for the abandonment of Nagaokakyo.”

This approach does not appear in the literature, but it may be that this type of solid archaeological point of view is the correct one.

The Yomiuri Shimbun
The site of Chodo-in in Nagaoka Palace, the political center of Nagaokakyo. Chodo-in was a facility like the current Diet building, and this is the remains of one of the eight buildings that used to comprise it.