Sudhana pilgramage

The Heian period is regarded as one of the great periods of artistic and cultural development in Japan. Beginning at the end of the ninth century, as the Tang dynasty collapsed and contacts with China were interrupted, Japan began to distance itself from it large mainland neighbor and develop a culture that was more uniquely Japanese and simplified and refined versions of Chinese art forms. Despite their usurpation of imperial authority, the Fujiwara presided over a period of cultural and artistic flowering at the imperial court and among the aristocracy.

The matriarchal family system the dominated Japanese social structures in ancient times was still in place in the Heian Period. There were female feudal lords, and economically-independent women artists and writers that left a distinct "feminine" imprint on the culture of that time. Religion to some extent was separated from politics. The conflict between Buddhism and Shinto was dealt with making Shinto gods manifestations of Buddha. And, two important Buddhist sects — Tendai and Shingon — were founded by Japanese monks returning from China.

Lorraine Witt wrote: “Heian Period Japan is known as the Golden Age of Japanese history because of the major import and further development of Chinese ideas in art, architecture, literature, and ritual that occurred at this time and led to a new and ultimately unique Japanese culture. The political structure, dominated by the Fujiwara family and the shoen estates, provided extended peace allowing for the growth of a leisure class of nobles. These nobles, known as kuge, had the time and the resources to establish this new Japanese culture, as they grew increasingly isolated from politics. Living in the court at Kyoto, the lives of these nobles were dominated by rituals, arts, and trends...A male member of the kuge might court women, write poetry, or paint on his own. It was expected that he would be well versed in Chinese writings and familiar with minute details of T’ang court life, which he would learn at either the imperial university, study in China itself, or a school of his own clan. [Source: Lorraine Witt, ]

There was great interest in graceful poetry and vernacular literature. Japanese writing had long depended on Chinese ideograms (kanji), but these were now supplemented by kana, two types of phonetic Japanese script: katakana, a mnemonic device using parts of Chinese ideograms; and hiragana, a cursive form of katakana writing and an art form in itself. Hiragana gave written expression to the spoken word and, with it, to the rise in Japan’s famous vernacular literature, much of it written by court women who had not been trained in Chinese as had their male counterparts. Three late tenth-century and early eleventh-century women presented their views of life and romance at the Heian court in Kagero nikki (The Gossamer Years) by "the mother of Michitsuna," Makura no soshi (The Pillow Book) by Sei Shonagon, and Genji monogatari (Tale of Genji)--the world’s first novel--by Murasaki Shikibu. Indigenous art also flourished under the Fujiwara after centuries of imitating Chinese forms. Vividly colored yamato-e (Japanese style) paintings of court life and stories about temples and shrines became common in the mid- and late Heian periods, setting patterns for Japanese art to this day. [Source: Library of Congress]

F.W. Seal wrote in Samurai Archives: “Contact with China gradually petered off while native arts began to experience a state of great refinement, especially in literature. The great women writers of the later 10th century dominate the Heian Period’s literary landscape, from the anonymous composer of the Kagero Nikki (the longest of the 'court diaries', ca. 975) to the famed 'Pillow Book' of Sei Shonagon and the monumental 'Tale of Genji' by Murasaki Shikubu. While reasonably well known outside Japan, the latter, composed around 1022, has yet to receive the recognition it deserves as possibly the world’s 1st true novel. In most cultural pursuits -and in the realm of architecture- Chinese extravagance began to give way to a more thoughtful and conservative approach. [Source: F.W. Seal, Samurai Archives ]

Websites on Nara- and Heian-Period Japan: Essay on Nara and Heian Periods ; Wikipedia article on the Nara Period Wikipedia ; Wikipedia article on the Heian Period Wikipedia ; Essay on the Japanese Missions to Tang China ; Kusado Sengen, Excavated Medieval Town ; Kojiki, Nihongi and Sacred Shinto Texts ; Imperial Household Agency; List of Emperors of Japan ; Mt. Hiei and Enryaku-ji Temple Websites: Enryaku-ji Temple official site; Marathon monks ; Tale of Genji Sites: The Tale of (Good Site) ; Nara and Heian Art Sites at the Metropolitan Museum in New York ; British Museum ; Tokyo National Museum ; Early Japanese History Websites: Aileen Kawagoe, Heritage of Japan website,; Japanese Archeology ; Ancient Japan Links on Archeolink ; Good Japanese History Websites: ; Wikipedia article on History of Japan Wikipedia ; Samurai Archives ; National Museum of Japanese History ; English Translations of Important Historical Documents

Art-Loving Aristocratic Class of Heian Period Japan

Raden makie box

According to historian George Sansom: "The most striking feature of the aristocratic society of the Heian capital was its aesthetic quality. It is true that it was a society composed of a small number of especially favoured people, but it is none the less remarkable that, even in its emptiest follies, it was moved by considerations of refinement and governed by a rule of taste." [Source: George Sansom, A History of Japan to 1334 (Tokyo: Charles E. Tuttle Company, 1963, 1974), p. 178]

According to “Topics in Japanese Cultural History”: “In Heian Japan, subtle rules of aesthetic refinement were the major regulators of aristocratic behavior. Negotiating these rules with skill was the primary challenge for an aristocrat desirous of the coveted goal of a good reputation. All aspects of behavior were opportunities for the display of taste or the lack thereof. Walking, talking, eating, playing music--and, of course, all aristocrats played music--and more were all opportunities for artistic display. Most important of all was a person’s handwriting. Careers were made and lost over the quality of one’s writing. Love affairs began and ended similarly. As Morris points out regarding the importance of handwriting, "A fine hand was probably the most important single mark of a 'good' person, and it came close to being regarded as a moral virtue." [Source: “Topics in Japanese Cultural History” by Gregory Smits, Penn State University ~]

Heian aristocratic culture offers an alternative view of sexuality, an alternative view of social control (the rules of taste as opposed to rule of civil or moral law), alternative views of gender roles (perfume-mixing men, a world of literature dominated by women), alternative views of standards of beauty, and so forth.” ~

Development of Heian Culture

The development of a unique Japanese style was a process of assimilation and adaptation by which things introduced from outside gradually assumed an essentially Japanese style. The most typical instance of this process was the development during the Heian period of a Japanese script. The complexity of Chinese writing led writers and priests to work out two sets of syllabic systems based upon Chinese forms. [Source: Web-Japan, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Japan]

Some Japanese scholars continued to study in China and bring back T’ang ideas as a way to “civilize Japan” until the end of the 9th century when the T’ang started to fall. The court used this as an opportunity to incorporate what they had learned from China and expand it into a uniquely Japanese culture. [Source: Lorraine Witt, ]

According to the Metropolitan Museum of Art: After absorbing so much from the continent over several centuries, the Japanese began to experience a growing sense of self-confidence and appreciation of their own land and heritage. Although trade expeditions and Buddhist pilgrims continued to travel between Japan and the continent, the court decided to terminate official relations with China. Among the important cultural developments of this time of internal cultural concentration were the kana script, which facilitated the writing of Japanese; the cultivation of waka poetry and other distinctive literary forms, for instance, narrative tales (monogatari) and diaries (nikki); and a characteristically Japanese painting style, yamato-e. Yamato-e was used to depict native scenes or illustrate native literature, in contrast to kara-e, or Chinese-style, painting, which was used for scenery and tales of China. Since few examples of yamato-e painted before the mid-twelfth century survive, it is difficult to determine the early stylistic differences between yamato-e and kara-e. Documents indicate, however, that Kyoto residents were deeply moved by the subtle seasonal changes that colored the hills and mountains surrounding them and regulated the patterns of daily life. [Source: Metropolitan Museum of Art \^/]

Rituals, Buddhism and Lingering Chinese-Influence in Heian-Era Japan

Lorraine Witt wrote: “Court life during the Heian Period consisted of a never-ending series of obligatory festivals, rituals, and practices. Two-thirds the year was devoted to either Shinto or Buddhist religious ceremonies (Dilts 84). For men, most of the remaining time was spent at court entertaining the Emperor and Emperess, playing games such as kemari football, joining in bugaku dances, and participating in poetry contests or horse races (Hempel 170). Rituals involving superstition also added to the demands on their time: obsessive hygiene, intense rituals to negate the repercussions of a bad dream and forget further nightmares, and procedures for dealing with the uncleanliness associated with death or menstruation are examples of this. [Source: Lorraine Witt, ++ ]

“Though the court was dictated by much pomp and circumstance and was effectively useless politically, they made very important contributions to the uniquely Japanese culture that was to appear during this time. One of the most important contributions was the determination of a 47 character phonetic alphabet based on the Chinese symbols that sounded most like their own language. Though scholars and courtiers displayed their education by flaunting Chinese writing, this Japanese writing was used by the women in such books as the Pillow Book and the Tale of Genji as well as other poems and diaries of the time. Another cultural development, a new style of painting, Yamato-e, basically illustrated narratives featuring Japanese people in Japanese settings, developed at this time. Also at this time, sculptures of Buddha became more “Japanese looking,” with a rounder face and more slanted eyes. ++

“Though Buddhism did not play a direct role in politics as it had at the end of the Nara Period, Buddhism was still a very major part of the daily lives of the kuge. Different sects of Buddhism contributed to the superstition and mysticism of this time period. For example, in the Tendai doctrine believed that simply reciting the name namu Amida Butsu throughout the day Amida, the Lord of the “Western Paradise” would ensure the believer admittance into the Western Paradise (Hempel 72). Other sects promised fulfillment of every human desire by performing specific rituals (Dilts 69). The kuge would make huge contributions to the Buddhist temples for the mysterious services they provided. Thus, Buddhism also occupied the kuge’s time with even more superstitious rituals than the mandatory Buddhist ceremonies. “ ++

Pure Land Mandala

Women and Culture in the Heian Period

Lorraine Witt wrote: “Though a valued member of society, the life of kuge 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.” ++



Lorraine Witt wrote: “Perhaps the most important new value added at this time was miyabi, which means something like beauty and the ability to appreciate beauty. “More than anything else, miyabi refers to sedate pleasures that an upper class person takes in small things, such as flowers or falling leaves. It becomes apparent that miyabi , as a cultural value, is in its origins a way of distinguishing the upper class from the lower class”. [Source: Lorraine Witt, ++ ]

“Miyabi also refers to personal refinement—good taste and good manners. These manners also set apart the upper class and included things such as proper procedures for gift giving or being a host at an elaborate feast where presentation was much more important than the quality of food. The kuge at this time were obsessed with following the proper procedures and making a good impression on others, creating a very superficial society. As mentioned earlier, in Heian society rank was everything. At the center of everything and adored by all the court were the emperor and the royal family, while those in lower ranks were looked at with a certain disdain. Much time and many gifts were given to try to impress and gain the favor of the emperor or others in higher rank. As a result, there was a certain "psyche of the importance of appearance over

The miyabi value established in the Heian court effects the mannerisms of the present Japanese. Gift giving, greetings, and table manners are highly formalized, and there remains an incredible emphasis on presentation in all these scenarios. The sense of “appearance over reality” and reserved politeness originating in the Heian court still contributes to the Japanese psyche of today.” ++

Heian-Era Cult of Beauty

According to “Topics in Japanese Cultural History”: Heian aristocrats made a cult out of beauty. Of course, what a Heian aristocrat might consider beautiful, someone in different cultural circumstances might consider ugly. In terms of personal appearance, for example, Heian aristocrats regarded white teeth as ugly, particularly for women. "They look just like peeled caterpillars" wrote one critic of a woman who refused to blacken her teeth. To blacken their teeth Heian women applied a sticky black dye to their teeth so that their mouths resembled a dark, toothless oval when open. This particular custom of blackening the teeth (o-haguro) persisted until the 1870s among certain elite groups of Japanese women. [Source: “Topics in Japanese Cultural History” by Gregory Smits, Penn State University ~]

“There were many other aspects of a beautiful personal appearance. Both men and women prized a rounded, plump figure. The face in particular would ideally have been round and puffy. Small eyes were ideal for both sexes, as was powdery white skin. Aristocrats with dark complexions, both men and women, frequently had to apply makeup to appear more pale. Even most capital military officers, many of whom were civilian aristocrats with no military training at all, would not have dared appear in public on formal occasions without makeup. ~

“The majority of Japanese at the time must have appeared quite the opposite of the aristocrats. Peasants and laborers engaged in demanding physical work out of doors. Food was often scarce. These conditions tended to produce lean physiques and dark skin. It seems that in nearly all human societies, beauty and wealth go hand-in-hand. In the Heian period, the plump, pale courtier was obviously someone of privilege, wealth, and leisure. Such a person had the time and resources to attend to her or his appearance. ~

“There were still other standards of personal beauty in Heian times. For women, nature unfortunately put eyebrows in the wrong place. To correct this problem, women plucked out their eyebrows and painted them back on, usually quite thick, an inch or so above their original location, thereby beautifying the face. Also, extremely long hair--longer than one’s own body--was de rigueur for an attractive Heian woman. Washing such hair was an all-day affair requiring the assistance of numerous attendants. Again, notice the connection with wealth and leisure. ~

“Standards of male beauty were, in many ways, quite similar to those for female beauty. Although men did not shave their eyebrows, idealized depictions of handsome men show the eyebrows high on the forehead. Men would ideally have a thin mustache and/or a thin tuft of beard at the chin. Large quantities of facial hair, however, detracted substantially from one’s attractiveness. Looking at art of the Heian period, or even art of later periods depicting scenes of Heian courtly life, it is sometimes difficult to tell men from women from the face alone. The merging of male and female features is particularly apparent in depictions of children and people in their teenage years. ~

Heian Period Clothes

Heian women's clothes
Heian period garments worn by nobles often had multiple layers and took many months to make. Courtiers wore junihitoe, which literally means 12 layers of silken robes but often included as many as 20, weighing several kilograms. The robes often changes according to the season and latest fashions.

In the Heian Period nobles dressed in kariginu robes made of silk and ebosho brimless headgear. Wearing the kariginu straightened the posture and forced one to walk slowly, When doing something one had to use one hand to pull back the dangling sleeves. In the spring nobles wore a white, diaphanous robe over a red inner robe, or visa versa. The two styles (white over red and red over white) appeared pink, but differed slightly expressing the different shades of the color in early and late spring.

According to “Topics in Japanese Cultural History”: Heian aristocrats regarded the nude body as disgustingly ugly. People of taste always adorned themselves with multiple layers of clothing. This clothing was inseparable from the body itself. It provided all manner of possibilities both to enhance the taste and beauty of one’s appearance and to detract from it. First, clothing had to conform to a person’s rank. Other key considerations included social situations (inside one’s house, visiting a temple, participating in a court ceremony, etc.), prevailing weather, and the current season. Women commonly wore five or six layers of robes, the most crucial part of was the sleeves. Each sleeve would be of a slightly different length and color, resulting in multicolored bands of fabric at the ends of the arms. The arrangement of these colors was terribly important for conveying a sense of refinement and good taste. Just one color being a little too pale or a little to bright could easily become a point of criticism. Appearing in colors that blatantly clashed or were inappropriate for the season could ruin a person’s reputation. [Source: “Topics in Japanese Cultural History” by Gregory Smits, Penn State University ~]

Calligraphy in the Heian Period

There are three main styles of Japanese calligraphy: 1) kaisho (“block style”), the most common style; 2) gyosho (“running hand style”), a semi-cursive style; and 3) sosho (“grass hand”), a flowing, graceful cursive style. Most Japanese calligraphers have traditionally been trained in both Chinese and Japanese scripts. The style and script employed by a calligrapher has been influenced by both the content of the text and aesthetic considerations.

According to Boundless Art History, “In the Heian period, a style of calligraphy unique to Japan emerged. Writing had been popularized and the kana syllabary was devised to deal with elements of pronunciation that could not be written with the borrowed Chinese characters. Japanese calligraphers still fitted the basic characters, called kanji, into the squares laid out centuries before. Soukou Shujitsu is regarded to be the first text that shows a style unique to Japanese calligraphy. This Tanka poem was written in A.D. 749, and shows some differences from Chinese calligraphy. [Source: “Painting and Calligraphy in the Heian Period.”Boundless Art History, May 26, 2016, ]

The authentically Japanese wayo style, or wayo-shodo, is considered to be founded by Ono no Michikaze (A.D. 894-966), one of the so-called sanseki ("Three Brush Traces"), along with Fujiwara no Sukemasa and Fujiwara no Yukinari. This development resonated with the court: Kukai said to Emperor Saga, "China is a large country and Japan is relatively small, so I suggest writing in a different way." The "Cry for noble Saicho" (“ koku Saicho shounin”), a poem written by Emperor Saga on the occasion of Saicho’s death, was one of the examples of such a transformation. Ono no Michikaze served as an archetype for the Shoren-in school, which later became the Oie style of calligraphy. The Oie style was later used for official documents in the Edo period and was the prevailing style taught in the terakoya schools of that time.

Hell scroll

Emaki and Painting the Heian Period

The earliest examples of painting in Japan were folding screen paintings from the Nara Period (A.D. 710-794); and landscapes painted on the screens and partitions of wooden structures during the Heian Period (794-1185). The Heian Period (794-1185) saw the emergence of a unique Japanese style of painting called yamato-e that features indigenous subjects and was frequently used on screens and scroll paintings.

Emaki (painted hands scroll) emerged as a popular art form in the Heian Period. Rolled and unrolled from one end to the other, these scrolls depicted movement and actions through a succession of scenes like a film strip. Indigenous to Japan, this style of painting broke from away from the tradition of Chinese-style landscape painting and developed in response to a demand for pictorial representations of literary works.

According to Boundless Art History, “In the last century of the Heian period, the horizontal, illustrated narrative handscroll, known as emaki ("picture scroll"), came to the fore. Dating from about 1130, the Genji Monogatari Emaki, a famous illustrated Tale of Genji, represents the earliest surviving yamato-e handscroll, and one of the high points of Japanese painting . Written about the year 1000 by Murasaki Shikibu, a lady-in-waiting to the Empress Akiko, the novel deals with the life and loves of Genji and the world of the Heian court after his death. The 12th-century artists of the emaki version devised a system of pictorial conventions that convey visually the emotional content of each scene. In the second half of the century, a different, livelier style of continuous narrative illustration became popular. The Ban Dainagon Ekotoba (late 12th century), a scroll that deals with an intrigue at court, emphasizes figures in active motion depicted in rapidly executed brush strokes and thin but vibrant colors. [Source: “Painting and Calligraphy in the Heian Period.” Boundless Art History, May 26, 2016, ]

Emaki also serve as some of the earliest and greatest examples of the otoko-e ("men’s pictures") and onna-e ("women’s pictures") styles of painting. There are many fine differences in the two styles, appealing to the aesthetic preferences of the genders. But perhaps most easily noticeable are the differences in subject matter. Onna-e, epitomized by the Tale of Genji handscroll, typically deals with court life, particularly the court ladies, and with romantic themes. Otoko-e, on the other hand, often recorded historical events, particularly battles. The Siege of the Sanjo Palace (1160), depicted in the "Night Attack on the Sanjo Palace" section of the Heiji Monogatari handscroll, is a famous example of this style.


Heian Period Music

Gagaku is a form of 1,200-year-old Japanese court music that is associated with the Heian Period. Most of the music was monophonic and was played by an ensemble with 20 or so wind, string and percussion instruments. Gagaku means "elegant music." It has it origins in 2000-year-old music from China and Korea. It flourished between the 8th and 12th centuries. In ancient times, nobles were expected to be accomplished gagaku performers and studied singing, dancing and instrument playing.

Gagaku is divided into kangen (instrumental), bugaku (music and dance), kayo (songs and chanted poetry) and into festival and recital music. Though it resembles a Western-style orchestra, in that it has string, wind and rhythm sections, gagaku music emphasizes the wind section. Every note in gagaku is significant. A single tone can present a color, season or even something like an internal organ. Spring notes are more cheerful and warm while autumn notes are more sorrowful.

In the old days an orchestra was divided into two sections. The section on the "right" dressed in green, blue and yellow and played Korean music. The section of the "left" dressed in red and played Chinese, Indian and Japanese music. Gagaku is made up of three bodies of musical pieces: togaku, said to be in the style of the Chinese Tang Dynasty (618-907); komagaku, said to have been transmitted from the Korean peninsula; and music of native composition associated with rituals of the Shinto religion. Also included in gagaku are a small number of regional Japanese folk songs, called saibara, which have been set in an elegant court style. An extensive collection of musical styles was transmitted to Japan from the Asian continent during the Nara period (710-794). In the Heian period (794-1185), these were ordered into two divisions, togaku and komagaku, and performed at court by nobles and by professional musicians belonging to hereditary guilds. [Source: Web-Japan, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Japan]

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons; Women's Clothes: MIT education.

Text Sources: Samurai Archives; Topics in Japanese Cultural History” by Gregory Smits, Penn State University ~; Asia for Educators Columbia University, Primary Sources with DBQs, ; 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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