The Nakatomi clan (中臣氏 Nakatomi-uji) was one of the most powerful families in Japan during the Asuka period (538AD-710), the Nara period (710-794) and much of the Heian period (794-1185).
To the heads of the clan the emperor gave the hereditary title of Muraji (連), reserved for the most important master of ceremonies of the imperial nobility.
The Nakatomi were given the task of presiding over the sacred Shinto rituals of the court and were assisted by the leaders of the Inbe clan, with whom they dealt with the ceremonies of purification (Harai 祓).
According to legends accompanying the birth of the Japanese nation, The Nakatomi were the descendants of Ame no Koyane no Mikoto, one of the Shinto deities (神 Kami) who helped the mythological ancestor of the imperial dynasty, the sun goddess Amaterasu (Amaterasu-ō-mi-kami 天照大御神 literally "Great goddess who shines in the heavens").
Their office was second only to that of the ruler in the spiritual realm.
With the advent of the Asuka period, marking the introduction of Buddhism to the imperial court, the then clan chief, Nakatomi no Kanamura Ōmuraji (Great Muraji), was one of the most strenuous opponents of the new religion.
By 536 Soga no Iname, the head of the Soga clan, a devout Buddhist family of Korean origin, had been appointed "great minister" (大臣 Ōomi) of Yamato, and had favored the arrival of Buddhist monks.
The conservative Nakatomi and Mononobe clans, whose leader Mononobe no Okoshi Ōmuraji was the head of the army, convinced Emperor Kinmei that the serious epidemic that was raging was the work of the Shinto deities, the Kami, who intended to punish the country for the opening to the new foreign religion.
The emperor went along with the wishes of Mononobe no Okoshi and Nakatomi no Kanamura, and expelled the monks, but Soga no Iname kept the position and a certain influence on the sovereign.
The tension between rival clans grew and, during the reign of Bidatsu, successor of Kinmei, the situation of the previous reign was repeated: at the intercession of the new Ōomi Soga no Umako, son of Iname, the monks of Baekje were invited again, but after a new epidemic, they were expelled at the behest of Nakatomi and Mononobe.
The next emperor Yomei was a fervent Buddhist related to the Soga, having married two of Iname's daughters, but he reigned only two years, from 585 to 587, and upon his death the situation precipitated.
While the new leader of the Nakatomi, Nakatomi no Katzumi, and that of the Mononobe, Mononobe no Moriya, pandered to Prince Anahobe's ascension to the throne, Soga no Umako supported the candidacy of Prince Hatsusebe, Anahobe's brother.
In the same year, 587, the opposition reached its climax and was resolved by the Battle of Shigisan, which took place along the Ekagawa River in Kawachi Province, today's southeastern part of Osaka Prefecture.
The battle saw the triumph of the Soga army and the destruction of the Mononobe clan. Moriya was killed along with Prince Anahobe and the head of the Nakatomi clan.
The throne was given by Umako to Hatsubebe, who would go down in history as Emperor Sushun..
The bloody event led to the destruction of the Mononobe clan and the triumph of the Soga and Buddhism, which immediately became the official religion of the court, but the Nakatomi were able to maintain much of their power.
It began a bright period in Japanese history characterized by momentous events that profoundly transformed the face of the country.
The Soga controlled the imperial court until 645, when a plot hatched by the future emperor Tenji and Nakatomi no Kamatari, the head of the Nakatomi clan, put an end to their power.
In the following years, the Soga reforms were modified with the Taika Reform Edicts, compiled according to the wishes of Emperor Tenji and Nakatomi no Kamatari, who became the ruler's most influential advisor.
In 668 he received the fief of Fujiwara, and his branch of the Nakatomi clan took the name Fujiwara clan, which would have control of the imperial court until the end of the twelfth century.
Its leaders replaced the Ōomi at the head of the government with the new title of Ason and, as had been the case with the Soga clan, their daughters were the emperors' consorts.
Initially the name Fujiwara was taken by the whole clan, but in 698, during the reign of Emperor Monmu, it was decreed that it was reserved for the heirs of Kamatari. The rest of the Nakatomi clan kept the name and continued to have the traditional role of master of ceremonies of Shinto rites at court.
In 701 was promulgated the Taihō Code, which established the department of Shinto deities (神祇官 Jingi-kan), the highest authority in the religious field, at the top of which were placed the heads of the Nakatomi clan. The institution would be suppressed towards the end of the Heian period.
The Inbe clan was slowly overshadowed by the hegemony on the Jingi-kan of the Nakatomi, backed by their Fujiwara relatives. In 807, the leader of the Inbe submitted a manuscript regarding their exclusion to the Heizei emperor, the Kogo Shūi.
The manuscript did not get as much as the Inbe expected, but it contained information regarding the history of previous centuries never made public, and became one of the classic texts of the country's historiography.