replica of Heian period procession The Heian Period (794-1185) began with the Imperial family taking up residence in Heian (Kyoto) in 794. Towards the end of the Nara Period (710-794), when Japan was wracked by rebellions and upheaval, the capital was moved from Nara to Nagaoka in 784 by the Japanese Imperial family, and to Heiankyo (Capital of Peace and Tranquillity), or Heian, about twenty-six kilometers north of Nara in 794. Like Nara, Heian was laid out according to a grid pattern, following the Chinese model. By the late eleventh century, the city was popularly called Kyoto (Capital City), the name it has had every since.
According to “Topics in Japanese Cultural History”: The Heian Period (794-1191) was a time when the Japanese islands faced no external military threats. Furthermore, while internal military strive increased in the last century of the period, most of Heian Japan was peaceful most of the time--in contrast with many of the subsequent periods. The long time of relative prosperity (at least for the aristocrats) and peace encouraged a rich flourishing of cultural forms in the capital of Heiankyo. [Source: “Topics in Japanese Cultural History” by Gregory Smits, Penn State University figal-sensei.org ~]
The Heian period was one of the great periods of artistic development in Japan. Contacts with China were interrupted toward the end of the ninth century, and Japan’s civilization began to take on its own special characteristics and forms. This 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]
In Kyoto, the court enjoyed a relatively long period of peace and political strength lasting nearly 400 years, until 1185. Kyoto remained the seat of the Imperial family for nearly 1,000 years until 1868. Both Nara and Kyoto were modeled after the Changsha (present-day Xian), the capital of the Tang dynasty in China. With the defeat of the Ainu in the 9th century, Imperial Japan was extended to northern Honshu.
The Heian Period is sometimes divided into two period: the Fujiwara Period (858-1160), which began when Fujiwara-no-Kiyomori took power in 858, ushering in a period of stability; and the Taira Period (1160-1185), which began when Taira-no Kiyomori assumed control in 1160.
During the Heian Period Kyoto was the world’s fifth largest city with an estimated 175,000 people around the year 1000. Other large cities included 1) Cordoba, Spain (450,000); 2) Kaifeng, China (400,000); 3) Constantinople (300,000); 4) Angkor, Cambodia (200,000); 6) Cairo (135,000); 7) Baghdad (125,000); 8) Neyshabur, Persia (125,000); 9) Al Hasa, Arabia (110,000); 10) Anhilvada, India.
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 Period Imperial Rulers (794–1185)
Ninmyo (833–850). Montoku (850–858).
[Source: Yoshinori Munemura, Independent Scholar, Metropolitan Museum of Art metmuseum.org]
Establishment of Heian as the Seat of Power in Japan
F.W. Seal wrote in Samurai Archives: In the year 794 ad the Japanese Imperial Court departed Nagaoka and transferred its seat to Heian-Kyo, or Tsuki no Miyako - the City of the Moon. The city had been laid out and built specifically to provide a new capital. Its builders, borrowing freely from Chinese conventions, had created an earthen-walled city three miles by three and a half miles, with straight streets intersecting to form no fewer then 1,200 blocks. The palace grounds, or daidairi, measured one mile by three quarters of a mile, and specific quarters were created to cater to merchants, nobility, and artisans. Japan had never seen a community like Heian-Kyo before and it is perhaps at this point that Japan as a state came into its own. At the same time, the Imperial shift to the new capital was in fact gradual, and could not be said to have been fully complete until a century or more had passed. [Source: F.W. Seal, Samurai Archives samurai-archives.com |~|]
Toji Temple in Heian (Kyoto) “In the provinces, the movement towards imperial consolidation began to give way, out of a certain necessity, to the institution of shoen - estates which enjoyed a number of privileges, including varying degrees of tax exemption. Developed in the Nara Period and expanded in both scale and practice in the Heian Period, the granting of shoen allowed for the court to provide both individuals and institutions with a means of wealth in a country that lacked a real monetary system. In time, much of the imperial family’s own income would be drawn from its own shoen (allowing for an increasingly comfortable lifestyle). This practice laid the framework for what would in time become the Japanese version of feudalism. 'Public' lands were known as kokugaryo and were administered by governors, often men of some ranking within either the court or religious community.” |~|
Lorraine Witt wrote: “For about a century, emperors such as Kammu held onto and centralized power in Kyoto. After a series of weak emperors, the Fujiwara family began to execute actual control of the state, acting as regents for the emperor. Around the same time, new feudalist-like states, shoen, began appearing, allowing the rich aristocrats to leave their estates in the hands of estate managers and move to Kyoto. The aristocrats would get shiki, a sum of the estate’s profit sent to them as they lived a life of luxury in Kyoto. The stability provided by the Fujiwara’s enabled the emperor and the aristocrats to form a new leisure class of courtiers with no real political responsibilities. [Source: Lorraine Witt, ]
Kammu and the Establishment of Heian
When Kammu, the 50th emperor of Japan, moved the capital to Heian (Kyoto) he did so not only to strengthen imperial authority but also to improve his seat of government geopolitically. Kyoto had good river access to the sea and could be reached by land routes from the eastern provinces. The early Heian period (794-967) continued Nara culture; the Heian capital was patterned on the Chinese capital at Chang'an, as was Nara, but on a larger scale. Despite the decline of the Taika-Taih reforms, imperial government was vigorous during the early Heian period. Indeed, Kammu’s avoidance of drastic reform decreased the intensity of political struggles, and he became recognized as one of Japan’s most forceful emperors. [Source: Library of Congress *]
According to “Topics in Japanese Cultural History”: “ Most historians agree that Kanmu moved his capital to get away from the Buddhist establishment of Nara, which was becoming so powerful that it threatened the authority of the civil government. Kanmu, was strong-willed sovereign, wanted to rule free from the interference of Buddhist temples or anyone else. He succeeded in restoring his power and authority in the short run, but it would not be long before the powerful aristocratic families of the capital began to vie with the Heian emperors for power and influence. Also, new Buddhist organizations took root in the new capital and later wielded economic, political, and even military power. [Source: “Topics in Japanese Cultural History” by Gregory Smits, Penn State University figal-sensei.org ~]
Although Kammu had abandoned universal conscription in 792, he still waged major military offensives to subjugate the Emishi, possible descendants of the displaced Jomon, living in northern and eastern Japan. After making temporary gains in 794, in 797 Kammu appointed a new commander under the title seii taishogun (barbarian-subduing generalissimo; often referred to as shogun). By 801 the shogun had defeated the Emishi and had extended the imperial domains to the eastern end of Honshu. Imperial control over the provinces was tenuous at best, however. In the ninth and tenth centuries, much authority was lost to the great families, who disregarded the Chinese-style land and tax systems imposed by the government in Kyoto. Stability came to Heian Japan, but, even though succession was ensured for the imperial family through heredity, power again concentrated in the hands of one noble family, the Fujiwara. *
According to Columbia University’s Asia for Educators: “In the ancient Japan, the central government’s military forces were generally made up of conscripted peasants, drilled into service as part of their labor obligation to the state. By the eighth century, however, rising disorder in the countryside brought the effectiveness of traditional, conscripted military units into question. The Emperor Kammu (737-806; r. 782-806), who was responsible for moving the capital of Japan from Nara to Nagaoka-kyō in 784, and then to Heian-kyō (present-day Kyoto) a decade later, decreed a series of military reforms, notably the “kondei “system of 792. “Kondei “has been translated by some scholars as “stalwart youth” and by others as “ablebodied young men.” [Source: Asia for Educators Columbia University, Primary Sources with DBQs, afe.easia.columbia.edu ]
The Official Order of the Council of State of the Kondei System reads: “On the matter relating to the recruitment of the “kondei “(physically able). Thirty people from the province of Yamato. Thirty people from the province of Kawachi. Twenty people from the province if Izumi1. … Previously [on the seventh day of this month], the Minister of the Right [Fujiwara Tsugunawa] declared that in obedience to the imperial command [all military divisions consisting of] conscript soldiers stationed in the provinces should be abolished with the exception of those in the important border areas. The munitions depots, outposts, and governmental offices which were previously defended by them should be defended by the “kondei “to be sent to those positions. We now order that you select those physically able from among the sons of the district chiefs (“kōri no tsukasa”), and place them to serve on these posts on a rotating basis. Eleventh year of Enryaku (792), sixth month, 14th day. [Source: “Japan: A Documentary History: The Dawn of History to the Late Tokugawa Period”, edited by David J. Lu (Armonk, New York: M. E. Sharpe, 1997), 103; Asia for Educators Columbia University, Primary Sources with DBQs, afe.easia.columbia.edu ]
Fujiwara Family: the Main Power of the Heian Period
According to the Metropolitan Museum of Art: One of the most influential groups of the Heian era was the aristocratic Fujiwara family. The Fujiwaras succeeded in dominating the royal family by marrying female clan members to emperors and then ruling on behalf of the offspring of these unions when they assumed the throne. Not only did the powerful aristocratic Fujiwaras control the politics of this era, but they also dominated the cultural milieu. Fujiwara courtiers encouraged an aura of courtly sophistication and sensitivity in all of their activities, including the visual and literary arts, and even religious practice. This refined sensibility and interest in the arts is clearly expressed in the literary classic The Tale of Genji, written by a member of the Fujiwara clan. [Source: Metropolitan Museum of Artmetmuseum.org \^/]
According to “Topics in Japanese Cultural History”: “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.” The Fujiwara family “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... 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.” [Source: “Topics in Japanese Cultural History” by Gregory Smits, Penn State University figal-sensei.org]
F.W. Seal wrote in Samurai Archives: “The Fujiwara clan continued to grow in strength until it had assumed a virtual monopoly on Heian politics. The manner in which this was accomplished was not through military force (or even the thinly-veiled threat of it) but rather a systematic implantation of marriage ties with the Imperial house. For a good two centuries, few emperors would have a mother of non-Fujiwara blood, even as this entailed the emperor commonly taking first cousins as consorts. The most successful of the Fujiwara, Michinaga (966-1027), had no fewer then four of his daughters married to emperors (with another marrying a prince who evidently suffered a breakdown before he could become emperor). The Fujiwara never made a bid for the throne itself, instead being content to act as regents and power brokers. Threats (real and potential) were identified and eliminated (often by means of exile) through the imperial apparatus and rarely through force of arms. By the time of Michinaga’s death, a Fujiwara or close ally of the Fujiwara filled virtually every important civilian post within the government. At the same time, the Heian Period saw the growth of the practice of Insei, otherwise known as rule by 'cloistered' or retired emperors. Perhaps originally conceived as a way of keeping Fujiwara power in check, the strategy of retiring early and endeavoring to rule from 'behind the scenes' actually played into Fujiwara hands. At one point during the career of Fujiwara Kaneie (929-990) were no fewer then three retired emperors holding court, a situation that divided imperial authority and allowed Kaneie and his successor Michinaga to consolidate the Fujiwara hold on Kyoto. [Source: F.W. Seal, Samurai Archives samurai-archives.com |~|]
This hold would finally be broken with the reigns of the emperors Go-Sanjo and Shirakawa. Go-Sanjo assumed the throne in 1068 at the age of 30, and it happened that his mother was not of Fujiwara blood. A heated dispute developed between the emperor and the steadily alienated Fujiwara over the issue of shôen (an area in which Go-Sanjo zealoulsy worked for reform). Faced with the danger that the Fujiwata would simply leave their court duties altoghether in protest, Go-Sanjo elected to continue his fight from behind the scenes. He retired in favor of his son Shirakawa in 1072 and was much freer to shape events now that he was unburdened of the many trappings of his former position. Unlike the former retired emperors who had spent their time living off the court’s finances, Go-Sanjo stayed busy ruling through his son. While he was destined to die the following year, Go-Sanjo had established a precedent that Shirakawa would in time follow - this insei system essentially out-puppeteered the Fujiwara and assured that never again would that family hold the power it once had even as its vital role in running the goverment was left intact.” |~|
Fujiwara Regency in the Heian Period
Following Kammu’s death in 806 and a succession struggle among his sons, two new offices were established in an effort to adjust the Taika-Taiho administrative structure. Through the new Emperor’s Private Office, the emperor could issue administrative edicts more directly and with more self-assurance than before. The new Metropolitan Police Board replaced the largely ceremonial imperial guard units. While these two offices strengthened the emperor’s position temporarily, soon they and other Chinese-style structures were bypassed in the developing state. Chinese influence effectively ended with the last imperial-sanctioned mission to China in 838. Tang China was in a state of decline, and Chinese Buddhists were severely persecuted, undermining Japanese respect for Chinese institutions. Japan began to turn inward. *
As the Soga had taken control of the throne in the sixth century, the Fujiwara by the ninth century had intermarried with the imperial family, and one of their members was the first head of the Emperor’s Private Office. Another Fujiwara became regent for his grandson, then a minor emperor, and yet another was appointed kanpaku (regent for an adult emperor). Toward the end of the ninth century, several emperors tried, but failed, to check the Fujiwara. For a time, however, during the reign of Emperor Daigo (897-930), the Fujiwara regency was suspended as he ruled directly. *
Nevertheless, the Fujiwara were not demoted by Daigo but actually became stronger during his reign. Central control of Japan had continued to decline, and the Fujiwara, along with other great families and religious foundations, acquired ever larger shoen and greater wealth during the early tenth century. By the early Heian period, the shoen had obtained legal status, and the large religious establishments sought clear titles in perpetuity, waiver of taxes, and immunity from government inspection of the shoen they held. Those people who worked the land found it advantageous to transfer title to shoen holders in return for a share of the harvest. People and lands were increasingly beyond central control and taxation, a de facto return to conditions before the Taika Reform. *
Within decades of Daigo’s death, the Fujiwara had absolute control over the court. By the year 1000, Fujiwara Michinaga was able to enthrone and dethrone emperors at will. Little authority was left for traditional officialdom, and government affairs were handled through the Fujiwara family’s private administration. The Fujiwara had become what historian George B. Sansom has called "hereditary dictators." *
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
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)]
End of the Heian Period
By the second half of the twelfth century, domination by the Fujiwaras had waned and political power had shifted from the nobility in Kyoto to military landowners in the provinces. A struggle for succession in the mid-twelfth century gave the Fujiwara an opportunity to regain their former power. Fujiwara Yorinaga sided with the retired emperor in a violent battle in 1158 against the heir apparent, who was supported by the Taira and Minamoto. In the end, the Fujiwara were destroyed, the old system of government supplanted, and the insei system left powerless as bushi took control of court affairs, marking a turning point in Japanese history. Within a year, the Taira and Minamoto clashed, and a twenty-year period of Taira ascendancy began. The Taira were seduced by court life and ignored problems in the provinces. Finally, Minamoto Yoritomo (1147-99) rose from his headquarters at Kamakura (in the Kanto region, southwest of modern Tokyo) to defeat the Taira, and with them the child emperor they controlled, in the Genpei War (1180-85). [Source: Library of Congress]
Thomas Hoover wrote in “Zen Culture”: “The real downfall of the ancient regime began in the year 1156, when a dispute arose between the reigning emperor and a retired sovereign simultaneously with a disagreement among the aristocracy regarding patronage. Both sides turned to the warriors for support—a formula that proved to be extremely unwise. The result was a feud between the Taira and Minamoto, culminating in a civil war (the Gempei War) that lasted five years, produced bloodshed on a scale previously unknown in Japan.” The Minamotos finally prevailed, annihilating the rival Taira clan in the epic Battle of Dannoura on the Inland Sea in 1185. [Source : “Zen Culture” by Thomas Hoover, Random House, 1977]
“A chieftain named Minamoto Yoritomo emerged as head of a unified state and leader of a government whose power to command was beyond question. Since Yoritomo’s position had no precedent, he invented for himself the title of shogun. He also moved the government from Kyoto to his military headquarters at Kamakura and proceeded to lay the groundwork for what would be almost seven hundred years of unbroken warrior rule.”
Gempai Wars, Minamoto Yoritomo, See Kamakura Period
Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons, Heian procession, JNTO
Text Sources: 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