Emperor Murakami

According to “Topics in Japanese Cultural History”: “New institutions developed during the Heian period that added complexity to the bureaucratic structure of the central government. It was the rise of provincial warrior families that eventually brought the Heian period to an end. Actually, it was not the case that these warriors destroyed the emperor or his court. The court continued to exist, to some extent until the present day. What changed was that during the twelfth century, the locus of political power shifted from the capital aristocrats to generals who could command large groups of warriors. [Source: “Topics in Japanese Cultural History” by Gregory Smits, Penn State University figal-sensei.org ~]

“Although probably inspired in a general way by China’s centralized bureaucracy, the specific structure of Japan’s Heian government bore little direct correspondence to that of China other than that it was headed by an emperor. Even here, there is a difference, for Japanese emperors tended to wield less power than their Chinese counterparts. In theory, the Japanese emperor reigned supreme and was sovereign over all the land of the Japanese islands (except Hokkaido, which did not become an integral part of Japan until the nineteenth century). The emperor presided over a bureaucracy consisting of two major divisions. One was literally termed "the Division of Deities," but, based on its function, perhaps a better name might be "the Division of Divination and Supernatural Affairs." The other major branch of government was the Grand Council of State, which made major decisions and supervised the central government administration. ~

“The two divisions of government were approximately equal in prestige. The Division of Divination and Supernatural Affairs (jingikan) consisted of specialists in such things as interpreting portents (typically unusual or unexpected natural phenomena), divining (i.e., communicating with cosmic forces not ordinarily perceivable by our senses), and supervising or participating in state religious rites. Keep in mind that Heian-period Japanese took these kinds of matters very seriously, and that science, religion, and government were all closely interconnected. Suppose, for example, that an unexpected comet appeared in the night sky one day. Nearly all Heian-era elites would have considered such a thing to be an important message from the cosmic forces. Discerning the precise contents of that message was a job for experts in the Division of Divination and Supernatural Affairs. Or, suppose that the emperor was to participate in a major ritual of state (and he had a busy schedule of such work) in the near future. Experts in the Division of Divination and Supernatural Affairs might be asked to select an auspicious day for this activity. The emperor combined in his person both the role of chief priest and the role of chief executive. His ministers were usually more specialized. ~

“The Grand Council of State was headed by three ministers with the names Minister of the Right, Minister of the Left (right and left indicating their relative seating position vis-à-vis the emperor on formal occasions), and Grand Minister. They were not equal in power and prestige. The title of Grand Minister may sound the most impressive, and it was very prestigious, but this post was largely honorary and lacked real political power. The Right and Left ministers were usually powerful officials, but the Minister of the Left was slightly higher in prestige and supervised the more prestigious four of the eight bureaus of central government administration. The Minster of the Right supervised the other four. The names of these eight bureaus suggest their function. The bureau of Commoner Affairs did thinks like keeping land and census records and collecting taxes. The Imperial Household bureau looked after the support of the emperor and his many relatives (up to a certain hereditary distance from whoever was on the throne at the time). The offices in the middle Censorate, Capital Guards, and others, were less prestigious than the main eight bureaus, and were not under direct supervision of the Right or Left ministers. Capital Guards were usually recruited from provincial warriors. The Censorate supposedly functioned somewhat like the General Accounting Office in the present U.S. federal government, that is, to keep an eye on the rest of the bureaucracy, watching for fraud, inefficiency, etc. In fact, however, this office had no real power in Heian Japan. Dazaifu was a miniature government set up to administer the island of Kyushu, which was considered a remote frontier area in Heian times.” ~

Websites on Nara- and Heian-Period Japan: Essay on Nara and Heian Periods aboutjapan.japansociety.org ; 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 ; Imperial Household Agency kunaicho.go.jp/eindex; List of Emperors of Japan friesian.com ; Mt. Hiei and Enryaku-ji Temple Websites: Enryaku-ji Temple official site hieizan.or.jp; Marathon monks Lehigh.edu ; Tale of Genji Sites: The Tale of Genji.org (Good Site) taleofgenji.org ; Nara and Heian Art Sites at the Metropolitan Museum in New York metmuseum.org ; British Museum britishmuseum.org ; Tokyo National Museum www.tnm.jp/en ; Early Japanese History Websites: Aileen Kawagoe, Heritage of Japan website, heritageofjapan.wordpress.com; Japanese Archeology www.t-net.ne.jp/~keally/index.htm ; Ancient Japan Links on Archeolink archaeolink.com ; Good Japanese History Websites: ; Wikipedia article on History of Japan Wikipedia ; Samurai Archives samurai-archives.com ; National Museum of Japanese History rekihaku.ac.jp ; English Translations of Important Historical Documents hi.u-tokyo.ac.jp/iriki

Heian-Era Provincial Government

Emperor Antoku

According to “Topics in Japanese Cultural History”: “Outside the capital, the Japanese islands were divided into just over sixty provinces. The term for these provinces is kuni, a term that remained in use with the same or similar meaning until the late nineteenth century. Today, the term means "country," a larger unit that a province. In premodern times around the world, however, local identities were much stronger relative to the larger identities that today we call states, countries, or nations. Whether it be the Heian period or the Edo period, the majority of people living in the Japanese islands did not consider themselves "Japanese." Instead, they usually identified with a village, a shoen (more on these later), a city, or, at most, a province (or "domain" in the case of the Edo period). Only a small number of Japanese, typically well educated elites and merchants or sailors engaged in overseas trade would have thought of themselves as "Japanese" in premodern times. One of the tasks facing the leaders of Japan in the 1860s and 70s was to make Japanese out of the whole population, that is, to instill a sense of identity with the larger entity of Japan. [Source: “Topics in Japanese Cultural History” by Gregory Smits, Penn State University figal-sensei.org ~]

“Returning the Heian period, the provinces were headed by governors appointed by the Heian court. These governors served a six-year term, but, by the middle of the Heian period, most governors opted to live in the Heian capital and send an assistant to the province over which they governed. Under the governor or his assistant were a variety of lesser officials, most of whom came from the ranks of the local aristocracy. By "local aristocracy" I mean locally powerful people, most of whom held formal but low rank in the Heian court (more on the gradations of rank in a later chapter). Because of their relatively low rank, they could not afford to live in the capital, so they settled into various parts of the countryside. While low-ranking aristocrats were a dime a dozen in the capital, they enjoyed great prestige in the countryside. Some were able to translate this prestige into wealth and power at the local level. A network of Buddhist branch temples supplemented and sometimes competed with the local government. Several of the major temples in the capital established branches in the provinces, and these branch temples often became locally wealthy and powerful. ~

“It may seem odd to regard Buddhist temples in the same manner as government, but remember that there was no sharp distinction between church and state in medieval Japan (or Europe, or almost anywhere else). Buddhism came into Japan as a form of powerful magic to enhance the power of the various uji and throughout most of the period we study, Buddhism in general was a major economic, political, and military force. Theoretically, of course, Buddhist monks were supposed to have abandoned the ordinary world in favor of spiritual pursuits, but in practice, many, perhaps most, Buddhist monks remained attached to worldly affairs. This sort of situation is common in large, institutionalized religions, and the Christian church in medieval Europe is another example.” ~

Imperial Family in the Heian Period

The Heian period was characterized by elegant court life. The Imperial Japanese court devoted its time and energy to pursuing romantic relationships, jockeying for positions of influence, and exploring their interest in painting, poetry and gardening. They had virtually no contact with ordinary people. The material wealth that supported them poured in from the Imperial landholding. Administrative duties were left to minor officials.

Emperors Goshirakawa and Nijo

According to “Topics in Japanese Cultural History”: The Heian court, headed by an emperor, claimed sovereignty over most of the territory of the Japanese islands. It did not have the power to rule with equal firmness over all of this vast territory, however, so it relied heavily on local officials who in turn relied on the cooperation of local warlords and local Buddhist temples. The central government appointed governors to each of over fifty provinces, and these governors employed local notables to collect taxes and keep order. [Source: “Topics in Japanese Cultural History” by Gregory Smits, Penn State University figal-sensei.org ~]

“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... Political institutions in Heian times were highly complex.” ~

The wealthy Fujiwara and Soga clan indirectly ruled Japan for centuries through a succession of civil dictators by manipulating successful emperors and by monopolizing the supply of wives and by holding the most important court positions, of sessho (regent) and kanpaku (chief regent). Women possessed an extraordinary amount of political power. Many courtiers remained single and had lots of affairs. The Emperor employed a onmyoji, a bureaucrat who handled all supernatural matters connected with Imperial Court.

Political Power in Heian-Era Japan

Emperor Kazan

According to “Topics in Japanese Cultural History”: “In Heian Japan, four such entities held and exercised political-economic power: 1) the emperor and (close) imperial family; 2) the aristocracy (including distant imperial relatives); 3) institutional Buddhism; and 4) the provincial warriors. The relative balance of power within among and between these groups varied over time. Here we need only be concerned with the major trends. [Source: “Topics in Japanese Cultural History” by Gregory Smits, Penn State University figal-sensei.org ~]

“The emperor theoretically held absolute power over the government. In fact, most Heian emperors reigned but did not rule. In other words, the reigning emperor occupied the throne, enjoyed very high formal prestige, and was the ritual head of state, but it was others (e.g., the head of the Fujiwara family, the "retired" emperor) who exercised political power on a day-to-day basis. Reigning emperors were burdened, among other things, with a busy schedule of rituals. Strong-willed individual emperors did sometimes wield real power, but such individuals were exceptions. Often reigning emperors were children or teenagers, and a regent or guardian spoke for them. ~

“In the Nara period, about half the emperors were women, and many ruled vigorously. During the Heian period, however, the post was monopolized by men. In later periods, we occasionally find a woman on the throne, but only during times when the emperor’s power and prestige were very low. ~

“For the Heian period, here is the general trend in terms of the power of the emperorship: early years: sovereign were relatively powerful; middle years: power of the emperor is usurped by the Fujiwara family; later years: the imperial family reasserts its power via the unusual institution of the "retired" or "cloistered" emperor but has to contend with ever-increasing pressure from the warriors. Regardless of the degree of actual power held by a specific emperor, the imperial institution remained the source of political legitimacy and authority. There were no attempts by outsiders, therefore, to put themselves on the throne. Instead, the goal of political infighting was to control or manipulate the emperor, ideally, to speak for him. ~

“In practice, the Japanese emperor was not radically above or separate from the leading aristocratic families (only during the early twentieth century would the Japanese sovereign be so lofty). Recall that a confederation of powerful uji gradually consolidated their power over the Japanese islands in ancient times. The descendants of these uji formed the upper half of the aristocracy in Heian times. The lesser aristocratic ranks of the Heian nobility consisted of the descendants of lesser uji in ancient times. The most powerful family among the elite aristocrats was the Fujiwara (formerly called Nakatomi), who provided the main support for the coup against the Soga clan in 645. It seems that the Fujiwara were just as intent on maximizing their power as were the Soga of old, but the Fujiwara were much more patient and subtle in their methods. We will examine these methods later, but at this point just be aware that there was a powerful hereditary aristocracy with deeply entrenched privileges at its higher levels. ~

Fujiwara Ascendancy

Fujiwara no Tsunemune

According to “Topics in Japanese Cultural History”:“The major political development of the early Heian period was Fujiwara family control of the emperor and concentration of political power in its own hands. This era of Fujiwara control began gradually, starting in 858. Over the course of the next century, the Fujiwara tightened its grip on power, although there were several relative ups and downs in their fortunes during this period. The Fujiwara grip on power began to loosen in 1068, and by 1087 the imperial family successfully reasserted itself through the institution of the Cloistered Emperor (explained below). [Source: “Topics in Japanese Cultural History” by Gregory Smits, Penn State University figal-sensei.org ~]

“Because the Fujiwara were the highest ranking of all the aristocrats, there had been extensive intermarriage between their family and the imperial family since the early Nara period. Gradually, through the politics of marriage, the Fujiwara eventually came to control the throne. In a sense, the Fujiwara rise to power took a long time to come to fruition. The main reason was constant infighting within the Fujiwara clan, which was divided into a northern and southern branch as well as several sub-branches. Even during the time of Fujiwara control, there was often significant rivalry within the Fujiwara family. ~

“The basic procedure was to marry as many Fujiwara daughters as possible to emperors and imperial princes. When the emperor and one of his Fujiwara wives or consorts produced a male child, the pro-Fujiwara factions at court pushed to have this child designated as the next emperor. If successful, the next step in the game of marriage politics was to assign the child, now the crown prince, a Fujiwara guardian, typically the boy’s grandfather on his mother’s side. The child would grow up among Fujiwara, who would have a chance to influence his views.

“Since the Nara period, it had been common for emperors to resign the throne and go into retirement. Often emperors were eager to do so because the duties of their office included a heavy burden of ritual obligations, which took time and energy and limited the reigning emperor’s freedom. In the case above, with a child as crown prince and a Fujiwara guardian, should the reigning emperor retire, the Fujiwara guardian would become the de facto emperor by exercising authority on the child emperor’s behalf. Indeed, there developed an official title for the guardian of a child emperor: sessho. With a boy emperor on the throne and a Fujiwara guardian exercising real control, leading Fujiwara family members began to take over ever more of the top government posts such as Minister of the Right and Minister of the Left. Once in these posts, and backed by a Fujiwara-controlled throne, these officials were able to build up the economic power of the Fujiwara family by using their influence to acquire interests in choice shoen.

How the Fujiwaras Kept Their Grip on Power

Fujiwara no Muneko

According to “Topics in Japanese Cultural History”: “Growing Fujiwara power placed the family in an even better position to play the politics of marriage. After 858, the emperors' primary wives were normally the daughters of high-ranking Fujiwara family members. The sons of these daughters quickly became crown princes. In the meantime, a Fujiwara guardian continued to control the reigning emperor even after he became an adult. A "guardian" for an adult emperor is usually called a "regent" in English, which corresponds to the Japanese title kanpaku. With Fujiwara regents controlling government administration, emperors became virtual puppets of the Fujiwara family. As a final step in the procedure, the Fujiwara regents usually pressured the emperors in their "care" to retire early, usually in the early thirties, to make way for a new boy emperor and his Fujiwara grandfather/guardian. This process continued one generation after the next until 1068.

Neil McMullen wrote: “Through the ninth century the imperial house, which had maintained its supremacy over the other noble families during the two preceding centuries, found its dominance increasingly challenged by the major families. The emperor gradually became a figure with the right to reign, but not necessarily to rule, as ruling power was ceded to the Fujiwara family, which had managed by and large to resolve the internal conflicts that had fractured it into a number of competing factions. The northern branch (hokke) of the family became dominant, and the heads of that branch came to hold, in succession, the crucially important offices of sessho (regent during the reign of a child emperor) and ka[n]paku (regent during the reign of an adult emperor). . . .The Fujiwara family was able to consolidate its control of those offices by making itself the primary supplier of imperial consorts and princesses, thus guaranteeing that the children of the emperors would be members of the Fujiwara family.”

“It was via skillful use of the politics of marriage described here, not through military force or direct intimidation that the Fujiwara came to dominate the imperial court. Readers sometimes wonder why the Fujiwara did not simply eliminate the emperors and put themselves on the throne. Actually, a move like this would have made no sense in terms of maximizing Fujiwara power. First, the position of emperor was as much a religious office as it was a secular one. By Heian times, anyone other than a member of the imperial family would have been unacceptable in the religious and ceremonial roles the emperor had to perform. Furthermore, these religious and ceremonial duties consumed a great deal of time and energy but were of little benefit for acquiring political and economic power. By manipulating the throne and using its general authority from behind the scenes, the Fujiwara were free to concentrate on matters of practical importance, acquiring interests in shoen, for example, while retaining all the benefits imperial prestige authority might bring.

Ivan Morris explains: “[N]ever once did the Fujiwaras succumb to the temptation of trying to supplant the reigning dynasty and put a male member of their family on the throne. Nor did they ever get into the position of having to use force against a hostile emperor or crown prince. In this they profited from the mistake of their predecessors, the Soga family, who came to grief precisely because they aspired (or gave the impression that they aspired) to imperial honour. Astute politicians as they were, the Fujiwaras realized that they could accomplish far more by exploiting the prestige of the imperial family than by becoming emperors themselves.” Here is an important generalization that applies even in today’s Japan: power is often employed most effectively from behind the scenes. [Source: “The World of the Shining Prince: Court Life in Ancient Japan” by Ivan Morris (Baltimore: Penguin Books, 1964)]

Power of Feudal Lords in the Heian Period

While the Imperial Family was preoccupied with its life of leisure, members of the privileged classes — the Buddhist clergy, bureaucrats and noblemen — acquired power and land in the royal family’s name, causing peasant farmers to lose their land and become servants of the landlords. The landowners were able to acquire large amounts of wealth by oppressive taxing of the peasants and by taking tax revenues for themselves while telling the Emperor that tax revenues were down. Eventually they raised enough wealth to pay the salaries of early samurai warriors that would help them eventually challenge the political power of the Imperial throne.

The Heian Period was a time of decentralization. Whereas the first phase of shoen development in the early Heian period had seen the opening of new lands and the granting of the use of lands to aristocrats and religious institutions, the second phase saw the growth of patrimonial "house governments," as in the old clan system. (In fact, the form of the old clan system had remained largely intact within the great old centralized government.) New institutions were now needed in the face of social, economic, and political changes. The Taiho Code lapsed, its institutions relegated to ceremonial functions. Family administrations now became public institutions. As the most powerful family, the Fujiwara governed Japan and determined the general affairs of state, such as succession to the throne. Family and state affairs were thoroughly intermixed, a pattern followed among other families, monasteries, and even the imperial family. Land management became the primary occupation of the aristocracy, not so much because direct control by the imperial family or central government had declined but more from strong family solidarity and a lack of a sense of Japan as a single nation. [Library of Congress]

Kidnapping of Emperor Shirakawa

According to “Topics in Japanese Cultural History”: “In general, it is fair to say that the central government was inefficient and (potentially, at least) very weak. One reason it remained in power so long is that there were no external military threats to Japan from the outside. Internally, the central government relied on a balance of power strategy to maintain control of the provinces. If one warrior group threatened to cause problems (as some did from time to time), the court appointed another to neutralize it. The reward for provincial warriors groups who did the courts bidding successfully was usually the bestowal of a very minor aristocratic rank on its leaders. For a while, such payoffs were sufficient. Eventually, however, the warriors began to want more, which brought the Heian period to a close.” [Source: “Topics in Japanese Cultural History” by Gregory Smits, Penn State University figal-sensei.org ]

Over time control of the Imperial family over the martial clans in the provinces became increasingly tenuous. Eventually powers slipped from the imperial family into the hands of two rival military families, the Minamotos and the Tairas. The two clans fought constantly until 1185, when the Minamotos defeated the Tairas in the epic Battle of Dannoura in the Inland Sea.

Heian-Era Officials Civil Service

According to “Topics in Japanese Cultural History”: “The lower levels of the aristocracy were not so well off, and not all of their descendants were able to retain their aristocratic status. Government officials were selected largely on the basis of hereditary rank and political faction affiliation. Competence in office was usually of lesser importance. Those of you who have studied Chinese history may recall the civil service examination system there. Although tried briefly and on a limited scale during the Nara and early Heian periods, such a system never took root in medieval Japan. In contrast with the Chinese ideal of rule by scholar-officials, we will see that in Heian Japan, the ideal that emerged was that of rule by officials with a highly refined sense of aesthetics, a model we might call the "aesthete-official." [Source: “Topics in Japanese Cultural History” by Gregory Smits, Penn State University figal-sensei.org ~]

These aesthete-officials were all men in Heian Japan. Aristocratic women participated vigorously in the cultural life of the capital, owned personal property and wealth, and enjoyed high prestige vis-à-vis the broader society. Formal political office, however, was the exclusive domain of men. There seems to have been no specific ideology barring women from office at this time, but it is likely the general Buddhist view of the different karmic levels of men and women and the strong male emphasis found generally in Buddhism exerted some influence in this area. Evidence from ancient, pre-Buddhist Japan points to the participation of women in a comparatively broad range of affairs of state. That women did not serve in office, however, does not mean that they had no influence on capital politics during the Heian period. ~


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.” ^^^

Buddhism, Politics and Government in Heian-Era Japan

Emperor Seiwa

According to “Topics in Japanese Cultural History”: “There was a substantial crossover between the elite monks of the major Buddhist establishments and the court aristocracy. For one thing, members of aristocratic families often became monks, either early in life or after retiring from political office. The major posts in the Buddhist clergy were in part political appointments, usually requiring the support of leading government officials. In no way, however, should these facts imply that the Heian nobility took a cynical view of Buddhism. Remember, we live in a society today that generally regards close ties between church and state as improper. In Heian Japan, however, Buddhism was seen as absolutely essential for the well being of the state, and it was natural that religion and politics would mix. [Source: “Topics in Japanese Cultural History” by Gregory Smits, Penn State University figal-sensei.org ~]

Consider, for example, the text of the following Buddhist prayer, uttered at a Buddhist ritual by Fujiwara Morosuke, a Minister of the Left with ambitions to place his sub-branch of the Fujiwara family into positions of great power: “Through the power of this [ritual] may the glory of my family be passed on. May the fullness of the glory of the emperor [Morosuke’s son-in-law, Emperor Murakami], the empress [Morosuke’s daughter, Yasuko], the crown prince [Morosuke’s grandson, Prince Norihira], the princes and princesses, the three ranks of officials [including the minister of the left, Morosuke himself], and the nine ranks of courtiers unceasingly persist for generation after generation and fill the court.1

The names of specific individuals are not important here. Instead, notice that this is a prayer by the Minister of the Left for the political success of his immediate family members (which includes the emperor for reasons we examine later). We are a long way from the Buddha’s original teachings.” ~

“Although this particular prayer was uttered by a government official, the larger ritual in which it took place was conducted by a monk--and not just any old monk. The Minister of the Left had selected a rising star of the Buddhist establishment as the head ritualist, and, of course, this selection by the minister furthered the monk’s career even further. This monk was not originally from a powerful family. Instead, his career within the Buddhist establishment rose mainly because of his superb skill as a debater of theological issues.Neil McMullen points out that "in the tenth century there appears to have been a correlation made between knowledge and power. That is, a monk who demonstrated great intelligence was considered to be a prime candidate for patronage because such a monk was believed to be capable of performing especially efficacious rituals." One point to be made here is that the Buddhist clergy offered some possibility of social mobility. Because monks perceived as having special powers of the mind or spirit were especially desirable to be employed by powerful officials, a monk who managed to demonstrate such power might advance to high rank despite humble origins. Such advancement was not easy, but it was possible during most of the Heian period. ~

“Toward the end of the Heian period, however, even monastic advancement had become entirely a matter of family connections and status. In other words, the same group of aristocrats staffed both the Buddhist and government hierarchies. They did not necessarily get along well with each other. Infighting within a family and competition between aristocratic families was the rule in Heian Japan because the number of eligible aristocrats greatly exceeded the number of prestigious posts in the bureaucracy or in the Buddhist hierarchy. Especially because the same pool of aristocrats supplied both monks and ministers, conflict between the government and some of the powerful monasteries increased during the last century of the Heian period. Large monasteries maintained armies of warrior monks (sohei), who were usually more warrior than monk. These monastic warriors would sometimes march through the streets of the capital and demand concessions from the government (more land, for example). Usually, the imperial guards dared not resist the warrior monks because the monks carried with them Buddhist relics and other ritual objects believed to possess supernatural power. ~

Military Class in Heian-Era Japan

According to “Topics in Japanese Cultural History”: “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. We will examine this matter further in later chapters, but for now, be aware that 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. [Source: “Topics in Japanese Cultural History” by Gregory Smits, Penn State University figal-sensei.org ~]

“Aristocrats generally viewed warriors with contempt, and the major military posts in the hierarchy of the central government soon became filled by medium-ranking courtiers who knew nothing about military affairs. While some of the capital guards functioned like police, their main purpose was to put on a good display during parades and rituals. The central government, in other words, ordinarily possessed no significant military power of its own. This is not to say that it was unable to command military force, but that it did so by calling upon local warrior leaders and paying them to do whatever fighting was necessary. Such payment took the form of both wealth, and, occasionally, very low court rank in the aristocracy. The typical scenario would be that a local warrior leader would become overly ambitious and rise up in revolt against the Heian state. The central government would then call upon other warrior leaders to attack the rebellious one, and then pay them for their services. In medieval Japan, during the Heian period and later, warriors almost always fought with the expectation of a rich payoff should they win. ~

“I do not mean to suggest here that the Heian state faced serious military opposition throughout most of its existence. Indeed, it was because of a remarkable degree of internal peace and the lack of any external threat that the militarily weak Heian government survived so long. But toward the end of the Heian period, the frequency and severity of warfare began to increase. The central government’s practice of playing one warrior band off against another began to cause problems as the number of warrior bands decreased and the power of those that remained increased. Eventually, there were only two vast groups of warriors, the Minamoto clan and the Taira clan. Eventually, the Minamoto decisively defeated the Taira. Now what was the court supposed to do? The barbaric warriors were in a position to demand major concessions from the emperor and his aristocrats.” ~

Shoen (Agricultural State)

According to “Topics in Japanese Cultural History”: “The term shoen means "agricultural estate." At their simplest, you might think of shoen as large farms or plantations. During the Heian period, the number of shoen increased and their character began to change. Before examining the details of this development, we need to know what the land tenure system was like before shoen became a major economic force. Remember that in an agricultural society such as medieval Japan, land is the source of nearly all wealth. Therefore, land tenure and division of the products of the land was the fundamental political-economic issue. [Source: “Topics in Japanese Cultural History” by Gregory Smits, Penn State University figal-sensei.org ~]

“During the Nara period, land tenure was based on individual farming households. All land of use in agriculture was, at least in theory, measured, graded, and recorded. Then, the central government would conduct periodic censuses and land would be distributed equitably to all households based on a number of factors such as household size--again, in theory. Consider for a moment the vast difficulty of implementing and administering such a system. Even in China, the world’s oldest and most complex centralized bureaucracy at the time, such idealistic land distribution systems rarely worked as planned, and never for long. Remarkably, the Nara state did manage to conduct several censuses and land surveys. But by early in the Heian period, the burden of periodic census taking and land redistribution had become too great, and the status quo continued. The same farming households cultivated the same land for generations. Inequalities gradually developed, and, in any case, taxes were high. The typical household farming land its family had been allotted paid three kinds of taxes: a tax in the form of grain, a tax in the form of textiles, and a tax in the form of labor service to the state. In practice, the grain tax could be converted into more of the other two and the labor tax could be converted into more textiles. Cloth, especially silk, came to serve almost like currency in this system. ~

“The term shoen had been around since the Nara period and perhaps earlier. It usually meant a multi-household farming operation, often on land that had recently been put into agricultural production. During the Heian period, shoen were also multi-household agricultural operations, but with the following additional characteristics: Shoen were parcels of land with clearly-defined boundaries that were registered with the central government and recognized by it as having some degree of special treatment compared with regular "public" land. ~

“Shoen typically enjoyed favored tax treatment and many were exempt from taxes all together. In addition to special tax status, the "sovereignty" of the land making up a shoen was sometimes altered such that local government officials or their agents were not permitted to enter it or to regulate its internal affairs. As you can see, in extreme cases, the shoen were almost like small city-states, sovereign unto themselves. Not all shoen were completely alienated from taxes and government control, but most enjoyed a substantial degree of special treatment in these two areas. This process of land alienation was not illegal, provided that the people involved followed correct bureaucratic procedures. ~

How the Shoen System Worked

According to “Topics in Japanese Cultural History”: “Shoen developed gradually throughout the early years of the Heian period. This complex process typically involved peasants giving over their lands to local entities with political clout, most commonly Buddhist temples or the estates of regional warlords. These local entities then used their connections with higher-ranking aristocrats in the capital to secure the special legal status described above for the lands thus given over. The local and capital officials involved in the process all took a cut of the produce of the land, which was payment for their effort in legally alienating it. Peasants cooperated with this process because, despite their obligation to pay rent on the land, the new arrangement offered them better rates than what they had been paying directly to the state in taxes. Most shoen had on-site managers who oversaw the cultivation and rent payment process. "Rent" typically took the form of produce or labor service. ~

“A complex network of duties and obligations developed in connection with shoen. At the bottom or base of the system, peasants in the estates were entitled to keep a certain portion of the harvest and had other minimal rights in return for their labor. A significant percentage of the crop went to local manger(s) of the shoen. They, in turn, sent a portion of the produce to higher-ranking aristocrats in the capital. In return, the high-ranking aristocrats used their political clout to ensure the continuation of special legal status for the estates with which they were connected. Additional middle layers of persons with interests in an estate were possible. Written documents spelled out in detail an individual or group’s duties and benefits (shiki, roughly "rights") vis-à-vis a parcel of land and its proceeds. At the higher levels, these documents were bought and sold, much like shares of stock in corporations today. As more land became incorporated into shoen, tax revenues to the government fell, but private payments from the shoen to aristocrats increased. Therefore, as time went on, aristocrats received more of their income from interests (shiki) in private estates and less from government salaries. The big loser in this process was the emperor (or, at least the reigning emperor--as we shall see later). Why? Because the emperor theoretically possessed all the land in Japan. Therefore, it would have made no sense for him to acquire interests (shiki) in shoen. The economic power of the aristocracy thus expanded at the expense of the emperor. ~

“In this system, there was no conception of ownership of the land in the modern sense of the term. Instead, shoen were the nexus of a web of mutual obligations and rights. As you might expect, this structure resulted in frequent disputes about who owed what to whom and when. Indeed, medieval Japan may have been among the world’s most litigious societies. The main domestic work of the Kamakura military government, for example, was hearing lawsuits about shoen. ~

“Shoen were the most important institutional development in medieval Japan. By the end of the Heian period, most of the good farmland had become incorporated into shoen. In a very real sense, this development was a de facto return to the ancient system of uji and be and away from the model of a centralized bureaucracy. Shoen lasted until approximately the early sixteenth century. They did not suddenly disappear, but were gradually replaced by other forms of land tenure.” ~

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; 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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