Japan before it was Japan
This year Nara celebrates the 1,300th year of its founding as the capital of Yamato (or early Japan). At the time it was called Heijokyo, and it was located a little to the west of where the modern city of Nara stands.
When people think of ancient Japan, they are likely to think of Kyoto. This is where true "Japanese culture" is said to have been born. But what existed before Kyoto, and should Nara be discounted as integral to the Japanese identity? Kyoto does not answer all of the questions we have about Japan. For example, where did the Japanese obsession with the ephemeral, and their penchant for imitation appear? What was the great Fujiwara family up to before they began to dominate the court in Kyoto? Could it be that in fact "Japanese culture" was firmly established even before Kyoto was created?
There is some truth to the notion that prior to Kyoto, the Japanese government and culture were dominated by ideas from China--including the bureaucratic system, the legal code, painting, writing, and art. The assimilation of Chinese characters, the incorporation of Chinese laws, and the influence of Chinese imperial ceremonies would all attest to this notion. However, is it possible that these systems--similar to western ideas that poured into Japan during the Meiji Period--only had an external effect, and that in fact the Japanese had formed their identity much earlier? There must be an intrinsic characteristic of Japanese culture that is "open" to incorporating elements of other culture and adapting them to create her own. I think one could say with confidence that Japan was Japan long before Kyoto was founded.
To look deeper into this question, it may help to study the history of Nara. In the year 710, the capital was moved from Fujiwara-kyo, which was located to the south, to present-day Nara. Fujiwara-kyo had been the capital for only 16 years. The capital had been moved before that, from Asuka. (It was believed that the spirit of dead emperors left bad karma, so every time an emperor died, the capital was moved. This kind of practice was not common in China.)
Nara was mainly established as an experiment in politics. Japan had been sending diplomatic missions to the Tang Dynasty for some time now, and perhaps they were beginning to see the potential of taking Japan from a somewhat disjointed group of clans into a centralized state on par with China and Korea's kingdoms.
Fujiwara no Fuhito, one of the earliest members of the Fujiwara clan, who at the time held the powerful position of Udaijin (Minister of the Right) was one of the most eager to found a new capital based on the Chinese model. He was very excited to welcome back a diplomat sent to Silla who returned in 709. No doubt he was eager to hear of the latest technologies and ideas from the continent. Partly because of his influence, it was decided that Nara would be built, and so it was that the capital was planned using the Chinese model and established in 710.
I had an opportunity to visit the recreation of the ancient capital, which was undertaken to celebrate the 1,300th anniversary. What they did was recreate the buildings that made up the palace within Heijokyo. This included the southern gate, and also the imperial hall at the north of the city.
This recreation (and also the virtual reality city tour they showed at the museum) really took you back in time and gave you a sense of the space and structure of the city. In all appearances, it looked exactly like a Chinese city. It is somewhat shocking to realize this because from an external point of view, there is nothing "Japanese" about it. But it was the outright intention of the Japanese to imitate Chinese city planning. And perhaps what is so "Japanese" about it is that it is a very close replica of the real thing.
After this period of Chinese imitation, the influence of the Tang Dynasty waned, and Japan withdrew into itself. What followed was a period of insulation where Japan refined its own culture and proceeded to extend its government across the entire span of the islands. The Emperor grew in influence, and so did the bureaucratic power of the Fujiwara family. It was one of the greatest times in Japanese history, especially in the arts and culture.
My view of why Nara was built is that Japan was sensing a growing ambition of what it could become. It was still a nascent power, and it saw itself on the verge of becoming a fully-developed nation. However, it still lagged behind the other more developed nations in its vicinity--especially China. Was Japan interested in international power? No. It could never rival the great armies of China. Instead, it is more likely that the ruling powers wanted to extend influence over Japan itself. It wanted legitimacy, and with Nara that is what it got.
In effect, Nara was a successful experiment. It proved that Japan could build a capital that functioned as well as those of the continent, and could as well inspire great awe in its citizens. It was a symbol of power and potential, and it was the beginning of Japan as we know it today.
Official Heijokyo 1300 anniversary homepage (in English)