HEIAN PERIOD ARISTOCRATIC SOCIETY

HEIAN PERIOD SOCIETY


When people talk Heian society they are mainly talking about the aristocracy from period. The nobility numbered perhaps a few thousand in Kyoto — a city of 100,000 in a country of 5 million. According to “Topics in Japanese Cultural History”: “By almost any estimate, the Heian-period aristocracy comprised less than one percent of the entire population of Japan, and it was under ten percent of the population even within Kyoto. There remains a large quantity of literature from the Heian period, nearly all of which is by the aristocracy, for the aristocracy, and about the aristocracy. We know next to nothing about the lifestyles, beliefs and customs of the majority of the people in Japan at the time.” [Source: “Topics in Japanese Cultural History” by Gregory Smits, Penn State University figal-sensei.org *~*]

“The vast majority of Japan’s people worked in agriculture, and, as the Heian period progressed, many of them became workers on special agricultural estates known as shoen. These estates were complex legal entities that gradually became exempt from direct central government supervision and tax collection. Instead, powerful nobles in the capital held formal interests in these estates (much like owning stock in a corporation) and, in return for using their influence to maintain the special legal status of the estates, they received regular payments, often in produce, from these lands. Land holding and the distribution of the proceeds of the land was highly complex in Heian Japan and for several centuries thereafter.

Good Websites on Nara- and Heian-Period Japan: Essay on Nara and Heian Periods aboutjapan.japansociety.org ; Ancient Japan Links on Archeolink archaeolink.com ; Wikipedia article on the Nara Period Wikipedia ; Wikipedia article on the Heian Period Wikipedia ; Essay on the Japanese Missions to Tang China aboutjapan.japansociety.org ; Kusado Sengen, Excavated Medieval Town mars.dti.ne.jp ; Kojiki, Nihongi and Sacred Shinto Texts sacred-texts.com ; Good Photos of Yamato, Nara and Heian Sites at Japan-Photo Archive japan-photo.de ; List of Emperors of Japan friesian.com ;

Nara Nara Prefecture site pref.nara.jp ;Nara City site narashikanko.jp Nara Art at the Tokyo National Museum www.tnm.jp/en ; Temples and Shrines in Nara Park Kofukuji site kohfukuji.com ; Yamasa yamasa.org ; UNESCO World Heritage site: UNESCO website; Kasuga Taisha Shrine (in Nara Park) Wikipedia Wikipedia ; Japan Guide japan-guide.com ; UNESCO World Heritage site: UNESCO website Todaiji Temple Wikipedia Wikipedia UNESCO World Heritage site: UNESCO website Toshodaiji Japan Guide japan-guide.com UNESCO World Heritage site: UNESCO website Shosoin Treasury Repository and Nara Museum aris.ss.uci.edu

Mt. Hiei and Enryaku-ji Temple Websites: Enryaku-ji Temple official site hieizan.or.jp; Photos taleofgenji.org ; Marathon monks Lehigh.edu ; Tale of Genji Sites: The Tale of Genji.org (Good Site) taleofgenji.org ; Murasaki Shikibu Biography womeninworldhistory.com ; Tale of Genji Links meijigakuin.ac.jp ; Nara and Heian Art Sites at the Metropolitan Museum in New York metmuseum.org ; Heian Art at the British Museum britishmuseum.org

Good Early Japanese History Websites: Aileen Kawagoe, Heritage of Japan website, heritageofjapan.wordpress.com; Essay on Early Japan aboutjapan.japansociety.org ; Japanese Archeology www.t-net.ne.jp/~keally/index.htm ; Ancient Japan Links on Archeolink archaeolink.com ;Essay on Rice and History aboutjapan.japansociety.org

Good Japanese History Websites: ; Wikipedia article on History of Japan Wikipedia ; Samurai Archives samurai-archives.com ; National Museum of Japanese History rekihaku.ac.jp ; Japanese History Documentation Project openhistory.org/jhdp ; Cambridge University Bibliography of Japanese History to 1912 ames.cam.ac.uk ; Sengoku Daimyo sengokudaimyo.co ; English Translations of Important Historical Documents hi.u-tokyo.ac.jp/iriki ; WWW-VL: History: Japan (semi good but dated source ) vlib.iue.it/history/asia/Japan ; Forums Delphi Forums, Good Discussion Group on Japanese History forums.delphiforums.com/samuraihistory ; Tousando tousando.proboards.com

Heian-Period Groups

According to “Topics in Japanese Cultural History”: “Four major groups wielded political power during the Heian period. One was the emperor and the imperial family.Political theory to the contrary notwithstanding, the Japanese emperor rarely ruled as a strong monarch--in contrast to China’s emperors, who often did. The emperor, while highly prestigious and often politically influential, faced a number of structural forces that tended to put him in a ceremonial and religious role. During the middle of the Heian period, the emperor was dominated by the powerful Fujiwara family, who employed the politics of marriage and court intrigue to usurp the political power of the emperors. Eventually the imperial family devised ways to out-maneuver the Fujiwara, but doing so literally required constructing a second, shadow court presided over by a retired emperor. Like land holding, political institutions in Heian times were highly complex.*~* [Source: “Topics in Japanese Cultural History” by Gregory Smits, Penn State University figal-sensei.org *~*]


Fujiwara no Nakafumi

“Mention of the Fujiwara family brings up the next group of power holders: the aristocracy or nobility. These aristocrats filtered out into many different ranks. Perhaps the most important factor in deciding this rank was the overall status of one’s extended family (often called a "clan" in this context). The Fujiwara family, for example, enjoyed the highest prestige except for that of the imperial family itself, which is why it was able to marry into the imperial family and thereby manipulate it. The Heian nobility, in short, was based on hereditary privilege. Although there were some weak social institutions that helped sort out aristocrats based on knowledge or ability (a civil service examination system, for example, but much weaker than the civil service system in China), heredity was the overwhelming factor in one’s general status. Ability and knowledge might enable someone to advance slightly, but there was little room for social mobility in Heian Japan. The aristocracy as a whole was a powerful force, and it was rare that an emperor was able to rule in ways that the major aristocratic families opposed. *~*

“The next powerful group was organized religion, in this case the Tendai and Shingon sects of Buddhism. In terms of personnel, there was a significant overlap between the leading Buddhist clergy and both the nobility and the imperial family. It was common, for example, for imperial princes to become the heads of the major Buddhist monasteries. Furthermore, emperors and nobles alike often retired from worldly affairs to become Buddhist monks. In many cases, however, they continued to exert political influence even after joining the clergy. Buddhist temples maintained armies of warrior monks and held interests in the special estates mentioned previously. They were, in short, wealthy and powerful, and they often wielded political influence as a result. *~*

“The final group of major power holders during the Heian period were provincial warriors, or, more precisely, the heads of provincial warrior groups. There is a stereotype about Japan that it is a place where warriors have long enjoyed great prestige. This notion, however, is in part a product of modern, Orientalist-mode thinking after Japan defeated Russia in war that ended in 1905. It is from this time that Europeans and Americans became fascinated with samurai warriors, martial arts, and so forth.” For the most part, “warriors enjoyed no prestige among the aristocrats of Heian Japan. Indeed, for one aristocrat to suggest that another was proficient in martial arts was a common rhetorical device for casting an insult. Of course, the warriors did have a certain advantage--deadly force--but it was not until the end of the Heian period that they began to challenge the authority of the central government. *~*

Source: Most of the information for this section can be found in Ivan Morris' excellent study of Heian aristocratic life, “The World of the Shining Prince: Court Life in Ancient Japan” (Baltimore: Penguin Books, 1964).

Peace, Tranquility and Snobbishness in Heian-Period Japan


Emperor Kazan

Michael Hoffman wrote in the Japan Times, “Once upon a time... peace lay so thick upon the land that war was inconceivable. The capital was a city named “Peace and Tranquility” — Hei-An (modern-day Kyoto). There was a ministry of war, but the war minister was no fighter; nor was anyone else who mattered. A war minister has a major role in the classic 11th-century novel “The Tale of Genji” — his name is Kaoru (fragrance). He is described as being as beautiful as a woman and in a state of unabashed terror on journeys along deserted paths to a remote village. Imagine him on the field of battle! But there was no field of battle to imagine him on. [Source: Michael Hoffman, Japan Times, April 16, 2016 ***]

“The Heian Period (794-1185) was not totally demilitarized. In contemporary literature soldiers are objects of pity and derision. “The more elegantly he tried to arrange things,” we read of one in “Genji,” “the more blatantly was his vulgar, boorish, countrified nature exposed. … He knew nothing of music and the other pleasant sides of life, but he was an excellent shot with the bow.” It’s a skill that demeans rather than dignifies. The Heian aristocrat was not bred for war. He was — none more so than the fictional Genji, the “shining prince” — soft, refined, indolent, elegant, artistic, exquisitely sensitive; a poet, a calligrapher, a perfume-blender, a musician. He knew the beauty of things and he knew the sadness of things — knew, in short, that beauty, however beautiful, fades; that life, however fleetingly satisfying, is doomed. Why fight? What was there to fight for, in a world that was a mere “dream of a dream”? ***

“Heian nobles were embarrassed by power. They despised crudity, and power is crude. They wanted to rule and they wanted the perks of office — insisted on them, indeed. But naked power was not their chosen means to their chosen end. They had other tricks up their wide and flowing sleeves. Later, more egalitarian ages found Heian snobbishness insufferable. They found its erotic laxity repellent. They were not amused, for example, by Genji’s cuckolding of his own father, a reigning emperor; the resulting child, assumed to be imperial offspring, ascends in due course to the throne, the awful secret known only to Genji.” ***

Heian Period Aristocracy and Hereditary Privilege


According to “Topics in Japanese Cultural History”: Japanese aristocratic society developed to its fullest extent during the long Heian period. Aristocratic culture of the Heian period is particularly fascinating because many of its values, practices and customs differed sharply from those of today’s world — in Japan or elsewhere. [Source: “Topics in Japanese Cultural History” by Gregory Smits, Penn State University figal-sensei.org *~*]

“Aristocrats filtered out into many different ranks. Perhaps the most important factor in deciding this rank was the overall status of one’s extended family (often called a "clan" in this context). The Fujiwara family, for example, enjoyed the highest prestige except for that of the imperial family itself, which is why it was able to marry into the imperial family and thereby manipulate it. *~*

“The Heian nobility, in short, was based on hereditary privilege. Although there were some weak social institutions that helped sort out aristocrats based on knowledge or ability (a civil service examination system, for example, but much weaker than the civil service system in China), heredity was the overwhelming factor in one’s general status. Ability and knowledge might enable someone to advance slightly, but there was little room for social mobility in Heian Japan. The aristocracy as a whole was a powerful force, and it was rare that an emperor was able to rule in ways that the major aristocratic families opposed.” *~*

“By almost any estimate, the Heian-period aristocracy comprised less than one percent of the entire population of Japan, and it was under ten percent of the population even within Koyto. There remains a large quantity of literature from the Heian period, nearly all of which is by the aristocracy, for the aristocracy, and about the aristocracy.

Ranking and Privilege Among the Heian-Era Aristocracy


According to “Topics in Japanese Cultural History”: Heian aristocratic society was obsessed, among other things, with rank and formal status. The basic definition of an aristocrat was one who held court rank. There were ten basic court ranks. Each was subdivided into junior and senior grades. Ranks four through ten were further subdivided into upper and lower. There were, in other words, approximately thirty gradations in formal rank. One aristocrat might be "junior sixth rank, upper;" another might be "senior fourth rank, lower." The major division was at the fifth rank. The emperor himself appointed those of the fifth rank and above, while a government agency issued the appointments of those of the sixth through tenth ranks. [Source: “Topics in Japanese Cultural History” by Gregory Smits, Penn State University figal-sensei.org *~*]

“Those of the top three ranks enjoyed particularly high status and benefits. These "appointments" become mere formalities by the middle of the Heian period. What determined a person’s rank was not his or her actual abilities or merit, but the rank parents or other relatives had held (plus political infighting in some cases). Rank, in other words, was mainly hereditary. Furthermore, a person’s rank determined the sort of government positions, in the case of males, to which he would be appointed. For males and females, rank was the major determinant of wealth and social opportunities. There was a limited civil service examination system during the Heian period, and, early in the period, passing its difficult exams could lead to a career as a minor official. By the middle of the Heian period, however, the exam system no longer functioned as even a narrow path to government office. *~*

Ivan Morris wrote in “The World of the Shining Prince: Court Life in Ancient Japan”: “Members of the High Court Nobility [top three ranks] were recruited from among junior branches of the imperial family and from the great families who had held clan titles (kabane) in the pre-reform [Taika Reform, 645] days. The Fourth and Fifth Ranks drew their original membership mainly from the lesser clans in the Yamato region and from certain distinguished foreign families that had immigrated to Japan during the previous two centuries; the remaining ranks included the heads of the minor clans, particularly those in the provinces.” So the members of the highest three ranks were the descendants of the ruling Yamato confederation of clans prior to the Nara period. [Source: “The World of the Shining Prince: Court Life in Ancient Japan” by Ivan Morris, (Baltimore: Penguin Books, 1964) ^^^]

“The holders of any of the aristocratic ranks enjoyed special legal and economic privileges. The level of privileges increased sharply for those of the fifth rank and above, and still more so for those of the third rank and above. There was a link between one’s rank and nearly every detail of daily life. The type of clothing one would wear under various circumstances, the type of carriage one might use, the size and location of one’s residence, and even the height of one’s gatepost were all a function of rank. Would all aristocrats carry the same type of fan? Of course not! Those of the first three ranks carried fans with twenty-five folds. The fourth and fifth ranks carried fans of twenty-three folds. Those of the sixth rank and below were allowed a mere twelve folds in their fans. Rank also, of course, influenced the details of human interaction.” *~*

Sheltered, Corrupt and Intrigue-Filled Life of the Heian-Era Aristocracy


Fujiwara no Muneko

According to “Topics in Japanese Cultural History”: “Owing to the accident of historical circumstances, the world of the Heian aristocrats was remarkably sheltered from many of the harsh realities of life. There was no threat of invasion from abroad. Internally, there was an occasional rebellion, but the court had little difficulty convincing rival warrior bands to do any fighting that might be required. The periodic battles that resulted took place away from the capital, with little or no direct impact on Kyoto’s inhabitants until the last century of the Heian period. Local governors or their agents extracted taxes and kept law and order. [Source: “Topics in Japanese Cultural History” by Gregory Smits, Penn State University figal-sensei.org *~*]

“There was a price for this law and order, since many of these governors took every opportunity, legal or otherwise, to enrich themselves. Because it was the source of their wealth, provincial officials tended to be loyal to the imperial system from which they derived their authority. For these and other reasons, the aristocrats in the capital rarely had grave matters of state with which to concern themselves. *~*

“The lack of urgent state business did not mean the aristocrats were idle. Though competition for the top government posts was intense, many male aristocrats held political office of some kind. Theoretically, politics was a male domain during the Heian period (in contrast with the Nara period), and men held all formal ministerial offices. Private residences and public buildings, however, featured large open rooms. Thin screens of fabric divided these open spaces, and women were frequently nearby in one capacity or another, particularly in the imperial place where the emperor’s wives and female relatives had groups of ladies-in-waiting as attendants. *~*

“No spatial arrangement could have been more ideal for political intrigue, particularly because, as we shall see, aristocratic men and women often had multiple sex partners. Conversations were easy to overhear, and word traveled fast in the small, gossip-loving world of the capital. Under these circumstances, women often involved themselves in politics behind the scenes, the marriage politics of the Fujiwara clan being but one example of many.” *~*

Women in Heian Aristocrat Society

While Prince Genji may be the main character in the famous novel “Tale of Genji”, by Murasaki Shikibu, the real focus of the book, many think, is the thoughts and emotions of the women who love him. Respected author and Buddhist nun Jakucho Setouchi told the Daily Yomiuri, “Shikibu wrote about the pain and joy the women felt in their relationship with Genji and how they overcame their grief. Because she wrote about women’s emotions and their desires, the tale is still enjoyed 1,000 years later."


Fujiwara no Sukeko

According to “Topics in Japanese Cultural History”: Women of aristocratic status spent most of their time as adults sitting in their residences....These residences generally had a few very large open rooms. Portable screens made of fabric and curtains were the major means of dividing these rooms. With servants and attendants to do all the work, including taking care of children, there were relatively few pressing matters requiring attention. “Boredom was a problem for many aristocratic women as they sat behind screens with their attendants. Although women could and sometimes did leave their residences on recreational outings, slow, plodding, uncomfortable ox-drawn carriages and the many social rules about appearance in public often made such outings tedious. Men, by contrast, could always busy themselves with the duties of their political offices. This boredom was a major reason so many aristocratic women turned their attention to the literary arts, a topic we take up in the next section. Excursions to various places, especially to Buddhist temples, were another diversion.” [Source: “Topics in Japanese Cultural History” by Gregory Smits, Penn State University figal-sensei.org *~*]

Lorraine Witt wrote: “Though a valued member of society, the life of kuge [aristocratic] women during the Heian was much more confined than the life of kuge men. A Woman spent the majority of her life watching rather than participating. She would stay hidden behind a silk screen and under many layers of silk clothing, her face covered with thick makeup (artificial eyebrows and blackened teeth were the trend of the time) and behind a fan. Except for occasional excursions and the necessary ceremonies, she was not supposed to see anyone besides her female attendants, husband, and father. However, promiscuity was an accepted part of the culture of these women and love affairs were expected. [Source: Lorraine Witt, ++ ]

“The affairs, the promiscuity, and the exchanging of poetry between lovers provided much excitement in the life of the kuge. Personal relationships were dramatized in a most extravagant way; both men and women spent incredible amounts of time strategizing how to win a lover and evaluating the significance of his or her lover’s actions. For men isolated from politics and business these affairs offered excitement. “With every detail of everyday life as carefully prescribed as it was in the late Heian, no courtier presumed to be spontaneous or original; court ladies offered his only chance of adventure” (Dilts 91). In a society extremely preoccupied with rank, marriages (or becoming a concubine for the lower classes) offered women a way to move up in society and to make important social ties for their family. For this reason courtiers actually preferred having daughters rather than sons. ++

“When she was not engaging in a love affair, a woman kuge might be found making clothing. Not only would a Heian woman and her attendants need to provide clothing for herself and her family, but she would also need to provide clothing to be given as gifts in ceremonies such as the New Year Celebration. Keeping up with the incredible trends in clothing at this time meant the women spent considerable time making clothing. ++

“However, there was still much time for the women to be educated. They were educated and expected to know how to write artful 31 syllable waka poems in a “women’s calligraphy” style (Hempel 170), but this was not the only writing they did. In her Pillow Book, Sei Shonagon used a less formal, more conversational type of writing unique to women. The Pillow Book, a diary/thought book is one of the best resources into the lives of kuge women. In it she talks about her disdain for the lower classes, adoration of the empresses and emperor, events she has “spied” between people, things she finds entertaining (backgammon, babies, lovers), things she finds boring or without merit (rain, abstinence), to name a few. Another book written by a woman, Murasaki Shikibu-nikki, (approximately the year 1000), The Tale of Genji, was the world’s first psychological novel, starring the love life of Prince Gengi. Much subsequent art and many poems would be based on this novel, which became the most celebrated novel of Japan.” ++

Heian-Era Bureaucracy and Red Tape

According to “Topics in Japanese Cultural History”: “The world of formal offices and government administration was a forest of red tape and paper-shuffling. Government activity was largely a matter of external ceremony and form, with little regard for administrative efficiency...When viewed out of context, this sort of activity may seem a waste of time by today’s standards. In the contexts of the values of Heian aristocratic society, however, proper dress was a major issue... Form was as important, or more so, than content--if we can even make a distinction between the two. Of course, the lack of urgent problems described above was also a major reason Heian government worked the way it did. Furthermore, both in the capital and in the provinces, a host of relatively low-ranking official worked hard to keep the day-to-day machinery of government running.” [Source: “Topics in Japanese Cultural History” by Gregory Smits, Penn State University figal-sensei.org *~*]

Ivan Morris wrote in “The World of the Shining Prince: Court Life in Ancient Japan”: “The procedure for issuing Imperial Decrees provides an example of Heian bureaucracy rampant. When the Grand Council of State have decided on a proposal, they submit it to the emperor, whose secretaries rewrite it as a State document, drafted of course in Chinese. After the emperor has read it, he automatically approves and signified this by writing the day of the month in his own hand (the year and the month having already been filled in by the secretaries). The draft is then sent to the Ministry of Central Affairs. The minister makes a Report of Acknowledgment to the emperor. He then examines the document and (approval being automatic) inscribes the Chinese character for 'Proclaim' under his official title. The next stop is the office of the Senior Assistant Minister, who, after the usual delays, writes the character for 'Received'. [Source: “The World of the Shining Prince: Court Life in Ancient Japan” by Ivan Morris, (Baltimore: Penguin Books, 1964) ^^^]

“The same procedure is followed by the Junior Assistant Minister, except that he writes the character 'Perform.' Now the draft goes to the Scribes' Office, where it is copied. The document is then sent back to the Grand Council of State, where the Major Counsellor makes a Report of Acknowledgment. Next the emperor sees the document; this time he writes the character 'Approved' and returns it to the Great Council. Here the document is thoroughly scrutinized and, if no stylistic mistakes are found, it is sent back to the Scribes' Office for multi-copying. Each copy is signed jointly by the Prime Minister and all other officials who are concerned with the matter in hand, and then sent to the palace for the ceremony of affixing the Great Imperial Seal (Seiin no Gi). Now finally the decree can be promulgated. Since, as often as not, it is concerned with some such question as the type of head-dress hat an official of the Third Rank may wear at court, we can judge the prodigious waste of time and effort involved in government procedure.” ^^^

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Samurai Archives samurai-archives.com; Topics in Japanese Cultural History” by Gregory Smits, Penn State University figal-sensei.org *~*; Asia for Educators Columbia University, Primary Sources with DBQs, afe.easia.columbia.edu ; Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Japan; Library of Congress; Japan National Tourist Organization (JNTO); New York Times; Washington Post; Los Angeles Times; Daily Yomiuri; Japan News; Times of London; National Geographic; The New Yorker; Time; Newsweek, Reuters; Associated Press; Lonely Planet Guides; Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications. Many sources are cited at the end of the facts for which they are used.

Last updated September 2016

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