Rise to power
Fujiwara no Nakamaro was a Japanese aristocrat (kuge) and the second son of Fujiwara no Muchimaro, founder of the nanke (southern) branch of the Fujiwara clan. He lived during the Nara period, when the Fujiwara were struggling with the Tachibana clan for influence at the court. Under Emperor Shōmu, who ruled from 724 through 749, the Tachibana were ahead and the influential position of "Minister of the Left" (sadaijin) was held by Tachibana no Moroe. Fujiwara no Nakamaro made his first contact with the military in 740 as "Great General of the Forward Cavalry" for the escort of Emperor Shōmu's tour to the eastern provinces during the Fujiwara no Hirotsugu rebellion.
In 743, he was appointed as consultant. Shortly thereafter, when the capital was moved from Kuni near the Tachibana power base to the Shigaraki Palace, near Fujiwara holdings, Nakamaro, backed by his aunt Empress Kōmyō joined the Council of State (Daijō-kan). As head of the Office of Empress Consort (shibi chudai), he was in charge of Kōmyō's principal affairs and his political influence increased as laws issued by the office carried the same weight as imperial edicts. At the same time the power of Tachibana no Moroe, who had been backed by retired Empress Genshō until her death in 748, was in decline. Through this favoritism Nakamaro rose quickly in court rank from 4th senior lower (744) through 4th senior upper (746), 3rd junior (748), 3rd senior (749) and 2nd junior rank in 750.
Shōmu abdicated in 749 in favour of his daughter, Princess Takano-hime, then Empress Kōken. While being an independent and strong-willed woman who identified herself with the Chinese autocratic Empress Wu, during her first reign until 758 she would still be under the shadows of her father, retired Emperor Shōmu and Kōmyō. She would favour the Fujiwara and particularly Nakamaro giving him lots of revenue and power by bestowing on him titles. When Moroe publicly criticized Kōken at a drinking party in 755, Nakamaro and his followers forced him to retire. Nakamaro's rapid rise through favoritism was seen with envy, even among the Fujiwara clan members and particularly by his brother Toyonari.
Following Moroe's death in 757, his son, Tachibana no Naramaro plotted to remove Fujiwara no Nakamaro and to overthrow Empress Kōken (
Tachibana no Naramaro Conspiracy). But Nakamaro learned about it and had the main conspirators executed and his own brother Toyonari send to exile in Dazaifu. In the same year, Nakamaro was appointed to "Minister of Right" (Udaijin) and "Minister of Office of Empress Consort" (shibi naishō) which oversaw military affairs of the country. Other positions he held during this time included "Vice Minister" (jundaijin) and "Senior Commander of the Middle Bodyguards".
In 758, Kōken abdicated formally in favour of Emperor Junnin, a Nakamaro puppet, married to Nakamaro's daughter. The title of the Minister of Right, held by Nakamaro at the time, was changed to taihō (Grand Guardian) and his name changed to Emi no Oshikatsu. Nakamaro, at the peak of his power, went north to subdue the Ezo people and made plans to conquer the Korean kingdom of Silla. On the 11th day of the 1st month, 760, Nakamaro was promoted from taihō to taishi and received the 1st junior rank; and in 762 the 1st senior rank.
Conflict with Kōken
Nakamaro's authority started to decline when his main supporter, Kōmyō, died in 760 and Kōken started to play a more active role in politics. She would allow reigning Emperor Junnin, who was supported by Nakamaro, to do only ceremonial and minor tasks, while she would handle all important governing issues including gratifications and punishments. This is expressed in an edict issued by Kōken in the 6th month of 762 stating: "henceforth the emperor will conduct minor affairs of state, but important matters of state, including the dispensation of awards and punishments, will be handled by me. Famines, epidemics and expenses for the planned invasion of Silla and a new palace at Hora added to the burden on the government. Furthermore Kōken had developed an intimate relationship [nb 1] with the Buddhist monk, Dōkyō, who had healed her of some illness in the 4th month of 762. In the following year, the appointment of Dōkyō to the third rank in the ecclesiastical hierarchy (Shōsozu) meant the displacement of Jikun, a priest close to Nakamaro.
Worried about governmental power moving to Dōkyō and seeing fellow clansman drifting towards the group around Kōken, Nakamaro set out for his revolt. On a more general note, this conflict can be seen as a disagreement between two groups over the role of the Emperor, with the one around Kōken favouring direct authority as in China at the time, while on the other side Nakamaro and his followers supported the practice of pre-Tenmu times where the Emperor as high priest of kami affairs was the spiritual leader of the country while actual political power lay in the hand of the leader of an imperial ("in-law") clan.