The Asuka and Nara periods form one of the most dynamic and interesting eras of Japanese history, even if it is far more obscure than medieval Japan. Unlike the cloistered and largely ceremonial office of later eras, the Asuka- and Nara-period imperial court was the center of turbulent and violent royal politics.
The Nara period, for example, is when Japanese began to develop a written language, impelled by the imperial court's project of rapid modernization to counteract continental threats (following the rise of the Tang dynasty in China in 618 and especially following the Tang conquest of Paekche in 660). This effort culminated in the Taika Reform of 645 to 646, which implemented systems of land tenure, provincial government, and taxation along Chinese models. Waves of immigrants from Paekche also probably contributed to Japanese efforts to make their literary culture “civilized” in Chinese eyes (Keene, 86).
During this era, Japan had a significant tradition of female rulers, and gender politics that were rather different from the later Confucian-influenced patriarchal aristocratic norms of samurai-era Japan.
One of the most interesting stories from this period is the case of the sixth and last female emperor of early Japan, known as Empress Kōken when she reigned from 749 to 758 and Empress Shōtoku when she reigned from 765 until her death in 770. Kōken survived a conspiracy to depose her in 757, then abdicated in 758 in favor of Emperor Junnin. In 761, she encountered the Buddhist monk Dōkyō, who gained her affection. Following a conflict in which she deposed Junnin's prime minister, Fujiawara no Nakamaro, she re-assumed the throne in 765. Following the suppression of his rebellion, she sponsored the Hyakumantō Darani, an enormous production of woodblock-printed Buddhist texts and the first known use of the printing technique in Japan.
Over the next five years of her reign, Dōkyō, rumored to be the Empress's lover, became the leading figure in the court bureaucracy and became controversially involved in the imperial succession. In 769, an oracle from the shrine of the kami Hachiman in Kyūshū reportedly prophesied peace would come if Dōkyō were proclaimed emperor. An official sent to confirm this prophecy returned with an oracle instead reaffirming succession via the imperial lineage and advocating sweeping away "wicked persons". The Empress died the next year, and Dōkyō was banished from court, dying three years later while serving a humble post at a temple in Shimotsuke. Although early Japan had had a number of female emperors, Shōtoku would be the last female emperor for nearly a thousand years, until the ascension of the child Empress Meishō in 1629. Only 14 years after her death, Emperor Kammu moved the imperial palace away from Nara (a move which has been attributed at least partially to a desire to lessen the influence of the Buddhist institutions at the Nara capital) and initiated the Heian era with the move of the palace to Kyōto in 794.
Bender, Ross. "The Hachiman Cult and the Dokyo Incident." Monumenta Nipponica. 34.2 (1979): 125-153. Print.
Keene, Donald. Seeds in the Heart: Japanese Literature from Earliest Times to the Late Sixteenth Century. New York: Henry Holt & Co., 1993.
Seeley, Christopher. A History of Writing in Japan. Leiden, The Netherlands: E.J. Brill, 1991.