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Heian Period

Heian Period

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The Heian Period of Japanese history covers 794 to 1185 CE and saw a great flourishing in Japanese culture from literature to paintings. Government and its administration came to be dominated by the Fujiwara clan who eventually were challenged by the Minamoto and Taira clans. The period, named after the capital Heiankyo, closes with the Genpei War in which the Minamoto were victorious and their leader Yoritomo established the Kamakura Shogunate.

From Nara to Heiankyo

During the Nara Period (710-794 CE) the Japanese imperial court was beset by internal conflicts motivated by the aristocracy battling each other for favours and positions and an excessive influence on policy from Buddhist sects whose temples were dotted around the capital. Eventually, the situation resulted in Emperor Kammu (r. 781-806 CE) moving the capital from Nara to (briefly) Nagaokakyo and then to Heiankyo in 794 CE to start afresh and release the government from corruption and Buddhist influence. This marked the beginning of the Heian Period which would last into the 12th century CE.

The new capital, Heiankyo, meaning 'the capital of peace and tranquillity,' was laid out on a regular grid plan. The city had a wide central avenue which dissected the eastern and western quarters. Architecture followed Chinese models with most buildings for public administration having crimson columns supporting green tiled roofs. Private homes were much more modest and had thatch or bark roofs. The aristocracy had palaces with their own carefully landscaped gardens and a large pleasure park was built south of the royal palace (Daidairi). No Buddhist temples were permitted in the central part of the city and artisan quarters developed with workshops for artists, metal workers and potters.

Kyoto would remain the capital of Japan for a thousand years.

No Heian Period buildings survive today from the capital except the Shishin-den (Audience Hall) which was burnt down but faithfully reconstructed and the Daigoku-den (Hall of State) which suffered a similar fate and was rebuilt on a smaller scale at the Heian Shrine. From the 11th century CE the city's longtime informal name meaning simply 'the capital city' was officially adopted: Kyoto. It would remain the capital of Japan for a thousand years.

Heian Government

Kyoto was the centre of a government which consisted of the emperor, his high ministers, a council of state and eight ministries which, with the help of an extensive bureaucracy, ruled over some 7,000,000 people spread over 68 provinces, each ruled by a regional governor and further divided into eight or nine districts. In wider Japan, the lot of the peasantry was not quite so rosy as the aesthetics-preoccupied nobility at court. The vast majority of Japan's population worked the land, either for themselves or the estates of others, and they were burdened by banditry and excessive taxation. Rebellions such as occurred in Kanto under the leadership of Taira no Masakado between 935 and 940 CE were not uncommon.

The policy of distributing public lands which had been instigated in previous centuries came to an end by the 10th century CE, and the result was that the proportion of land held in private hands gradually increased. By the 12th century CE 50% of land was held in private estates (shoen) and many of these, given special dispensation through favours or due to religious reasons, were exempt from paying tax. This situation would cause a serious dent in the state's finances. Wealthy landowners were able to reclaim new land and develop it, thus increasing their wealth and opening an ever wider gap between the haves and have-nots. There were also practical political repercussions as the large estate owners became more remote from the land they owned, many of them actually residing at court in Heiankyo. This meant that estates were managed by subordinates who sought to increase their own power, and conversely, the nobility and the emperor became more separated from everyday life. Most commoners' contact with the central authority was limited to paying the local tax collector and brushes with the metropolitan police force which not only maintained public order but also tried and sentenced criminals.

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Many Fujiwara statesmen would act as regent for three or four emperors during their career.

Even at court the emperor, although still important and still considered divine, became sidelined by powerful bureaucrats who all came from one family: the Fujiwara clan. Figures such as Michinaga (966-1028 CE) not only dominated policy and government bodies such as the household treasury office (kurando-dokoro) but also managed to marry off their daughters to emperors. Further weakening the royal position was the fact that many emperors took the throne as children and so were governed by a regent (Sessho), usually a representative of the Fujiwara family. When the emperor reached adulthood, he was still advised by a new position, the Kampaku, which ensured the Fujiwara still pulled the political strings of court. To guarantee this situation was perpetuated, new emperors were nominated not by birth but by their sponsors and encouraged or forced to abdicate when in their thirties in favour of a younger successor. For example, Fujiwara Yoshifusa put his seven-year-old grandson on the throne in 858 CE and then became his regent. Many Fujiwara statesmen would act as regent for three or four emperors during their career.

The dominance of the Fujiwara was not total and did not go unchallenged. Emperor Shirakawa (r. 1073-1087 CE) attempted to assert his independence from the Fujiwara by abdicating in 1087 CE and allowing his son Horikawa to reign under his supervision. This strategy of 'retired' emperors, still in effect governing, became known as 'cloistered government' (insei) as the emperor usually remained behind closed doors in a monastery. It added another wheel to the already complex machine of government.

Back in the provinces, new power-brokers were emerging. Left to their own devices and fuelled by blood from the minor nobility produced by the process of dynastic shedding (when an emperor or aristocrat had too many children they were removed from the line of inheritance), two important groups evolved, the Minamoto (aka Genji) and Taira (aka Heike) clans. With their own private armies of samurai, they became important instruments in the hands of rival members of the Fujiwara clan's internal power struggle which broke out in the 1156 CE Hogen Disturbance and the 1160 CE Heiji Disturbance.

The Taira, led by Taira no Kiyomori, eventually swept away all rivals and dominated government for two decades. However, in the Genpei War (1180-1185), the Minamoto returned victorious, and at the war's finale, the Battle of Dannoura, the Taira leader, Tomamori, and the young emperor Antoku committed suicide. The Minamoto clan leader Yoritomo was shortly after given the title of shogun by the emperor and his rule would usher in the Kamakura Period (1185-1333 CE), also known as the Kamakura Shogunate, when Japanese government became dominated by the military.

Heian Religion

In terms of religion, Buddhism continued its dominance, helped by such noted scholar monks as Kukai (774-835 CE) and Saicho (767-822 CE), who founded the Shingon and Tendai Buddhist sects respectively. They brought from their visits to China new ideas, practices, and texts, notably the Lotus Sutra (Hokke-kyo) which contained the new message that there were many different but equally valid ways to enlightenment. There was also Amida (Amitabha), the Buddha of Pure Land Buddhism, who could help his followers on this difficult path.

Buddhism's spread was assisted by government patronage, although, the emperor was wary of undue power amongst the Buddhist clergy and so took to appointing abbots and confining monks to their monasteries. Buddhist sects had become powerful political entities and although monks were forbidden from carrying weapons and killing, they could pay novice monks and mercenaries to do their fighting for them to win power and influence in the mishmash of nobles, landed-estate managers, private and imperial armies, emperor and ex-emperors, pirates, and warring clans that plagued the Heian political landscape.

Confucian and Taoist principles also continued to be influential in the centralised administration, and the old Shinto and animist beliefs continued, as before, to hold sway over the general populace while Shinto temples such as the Ise Grande Shrine remained important places of pilgrimage. All of these faiths were practised side by side, very often by the same individuals, from the emperor to the humblest farmer.

Relations With China

Following a final embassy to the Tang court in 838 CE, there were no longer formal diplomatic relations with China as Japan became somewhat isolationist without any necessity to defend its borders or embark on territorial conquest. However, sporadic trade and cultural exchanges continued with China, as before. Goods imported from China included medicines, worked silk fabrics, ceramics, weapons, armour, and musical instruments, while Japan sent in return pearls, gold dust, amber, raw silk, and gilt lacquerware.

Monks, scholars, musicians, and artists were sent to see what they could learn from the more advanced culture of China and bring back new ideas on anything from painting to medicine. Students also went, many spending several years studying Chinese administrative practices and bringing back their knowledge to the court. Books came too, a catalogue dating to 891 CE lists more than 1,700 Chinese titles made available in Japan which cover history, poetry, court protocols, medicine, laws, and Confucian classics. Still, despite these exchanges, the lack of regular missions between the two states from the 10th century CE meant that the Heian Period overall saw a diminishing in the influence of Chinese culture, which meant that Japanese culture began to find its own unique path of development.

Heian Culture

The Heian period is noted for its cultural achievements, at least at the imperial court. These include the creation of a Japanese writing (kana) using Chinese characters, mostly phonetically, which permitted the production of the world's first novel, the Tale of Genji by Murasaki Shikibu (c. 1020 CE), and several noted diaries (nikki) written by court ladies, including The Pillow Book by Sei Shonagon which she completed c. 1002 CE. Other famous works of the period are the Izumi Shikibu Diary, Fujiwara no Michitsuna's Kagero nikki, and a Tale of Flowering Fortunes by Akazome Emon.

This flourishing of women's writing was largely due to the Fujiwara ensuring that their sponsored women at court were surrounded by an interesting and educated entourage in order to attract the affections of the emperor and safeguard their monopoly on state affairs. It also seems that men were not interested in frivolous diaries and commentaries on court life, leaving the field open to women writers who collectively created a new genre of literature which examined the transitory nature of life, encapsulated in the phrase mono no aware (the sadness or pathos of things). Those men who did write history did so anonymously or even pretended to be women such as Ki no Tsurayuki in his travel memoir Tosa nikki.

Men did write poetry, though, and the first anthology of royally commissioned Japanese poems, the Kokinshu ('Collection of the Past and Present') appeared in 905 CE. It was a collection of poems by men and women and was compiled by Ki no Tsurayuki, who famously stated, "The seeds of Japanese poetry lie in the human heart" (Ebrey, 199).

Besides literature, the period also saw the production of especially fine clothing at the royal court, using silk and Chinese brocades. Visual arts were represented by screen paintings, intricate hand scrolls of pictures and text (e-maki), and fine calligraphy. An aristocrat's reputation was built not only on his position at court or in the administration but also his appreciation of these things and his ability to compose his own poetry, play music, dance, master board games like go, and perform feats of archery.

Painters and sculptors continued to use Buddhism as their inspiration to produce wooden sculptures (painted or left natural), paintings of scholars, gilded bronze bells, rock-cut sculptures of Buddha, ornate bronze mirrors, and lacquered cases for sutras which all helped spread the new sects' imagery around Japan. Such was the demand for art that for the first time a class of professional artists arose, the work previously having been created by scholar monks. Painting also became a fashionable pastime for the aristocracy.

Gradually, a more wholly-Japanese approach expanded the range of subject matter in art. A Japanese style, Yamato-e, developed in painting particularly, which distinguished it from Chinese works. It is characterised by more angular lines, the use of brighter colours, and greater decorative details. Lifelike portraits of court personalities such as those by Fujiwara Takanobu, illustrations inspired by Japanese literature, and landscapes became popular, paving the way for the great works to come in the medieval period.

This content was made possible with generous support from the Great Britain Sasakawa Foundation.

What caused the long lasting of peace in during the Heian Period?

I see the Heian Period of Japan described as being an era of long lasting peace. For example, the Met Museum says:

In Kyoto, the court enjoyed a relatively long period of peace and political strength lasting nearly 400 years, until 1185

I've looked all over the internet and can't find the reasoning to this. What legally and culturally led to the prolonged era of peace in Heian Japan?

Heian period

The Heian Period
The Heian period denotes a period of Japanese history spanning roughly 390 years, from 794 when Emperor Kanmu moved the capital to Heian Kyo (ancient Kyoto) to the establishment of the Kamakura Bakufu (Japanese feudal government headed by a shogun) in 1185. The period is named so due to the fact that Heian-Kyo in Kyoto City was the only political center before the establishment of the Kamakura Bakufu.

In the early Heian period, the Ritsuryo system (a system of centralized government based on the ritsuryo code) of centralized governance structure from the former period (the Nara period) was basically continued with partial amendments. However, as the the Ritsuryo system lost touch with reality, the government changed its policy from an individual-based ruling system, which was the base of the the Ritsuryo system to a land-based ruling system in order to secure tax revenue from the end of the 9th century to the beginning of the 10th century. This change was conducted to establish the new ruling system by delegating some power to local influential people under the control of the head of the provincial governors (the head of Kokushi, Zuryo), who were dispatched there: the system was called the dynasty state system. Although the dynasty system is usually placed as having existed during the end of ancient times, it is also possible to place it during the early years of the middle age having a decentralized system and it is generally accepted as a transient period from the ancient period to the middle age (the expression &aposChuko&apos (literally, middle old) is used in the historical study of Japanese literature).

Under this system, influential farmers, (Tato: farm managers who lease public fields from provincial lords and produce agricultural products and Myoshu: owners of rice fields) to whom the management of land and control of people was transmitted from the government, became powerful. In order to govern the farmers, the government transmitted military and police power to military aristocracy and military art-specialized lower-ranking government officials, who developed into warriors (Bushi). The transmission of governmental power and authority reduced the burden of the government, which enabled political stabilization of the central government, and facilitated the transfer of government posts according to heredity: among the aristocracy, the highest became Sekkan-ke (the families which produced regents), the middle-class carried out administrative affairs based on the specialized skills related with their family businesses in the central government and carried out administration as Zuryo in the local regions (Nobles in the Heian period). At that time, regency performed by Sekkan-ke developed. Shoen (manor in medieval Japan), where particular influential families exclusively obtained the power to levy taxes, increased gradually in accordance with each milestone of the time. Shoen shared the power with Kokugaryo (territories governed by provincial government office), where zuryo were responsible for levying taxes.

In the latter half of the 11th century, the Cloister Government started, whereby Daijo Tenno (retired Emperor) became the Chiten no kimi (the retired emperor in power) and influenced political affairs. It is usually interpreted that the initiation of the cloister government signaled the start of the Medieval Age. During the period of the Cloister Government, many shoen (manors in medieval Japan) were collected together and Kokugaryo formed into a tax unit, which led to the new system dubbed shoen koryo sei (the System of Public Lands and Private Estates). Around the middle of the 12th century, conflicts among the aristocracy were solved by force, which increased the status of warriors who were recruited solely for this purpose. As the first Samurai government, the Taira clan administration came to the forefront, but soon collapsed due to simultaneous nation-wide civil wars, brought upon their attempt to single handledly shoulder the social contradictions of the times by themselves. With the collapse of the Taira clan administration, the Kamakura bakufu (Japanese feudal government headed by a shogun) came to power after sorting out the civil wars aside from the Imperial Court, and the central govenment gained the right to rule the Eastern provinces, leading to the end of the Heian period.

Political history
The early Heian period
In 770, at the end of the Nara period, Emperor Shotoku passed away and Emperor Konin, a descendent of Emperor Tenchi, ascended the throne although he was already around 60 years old. Although the imperial line had succeeded from Emperor Tenmu, there had been a string of power struggles and Shirakabe no okimi (Prince Shirakabe), a descendent of Emperor Tenchi became Emperor Konin following the order of succession. After Emperor Konin passed away, Emperor Kanmu ascended the throne while the Tenmu-descendent imperial family was still influential. Emperor Kanmu possessed enough authority to allow him to relocate the capital twice, although he had not experienced such privileged circumstances until Emperor Konin&aposs ascension. At a time when only a Tenmu-descendent prince could ascend the throne, Emperor Kanmu was born as the first prince of Tenchi-descendent Emperor Konin (Prince Shirakabe at that time) but Rittaishi (investiture of the Crown Prince) was not conducted, although it was normally done at the time of birth if the person&aposs order of succession was high. Subsequently he lived in near poverty. Since then, no Tenmu-descendent emperor has ascended the throne, due to the influence of Emperor Kanmu, who was in power during this period. It can be said that the Nara period was a time of Tenmu-descendent emperors and the Heian was a time of Tenchi-descendent emperors who succeeded the line of Emperor Kanmu.

Emperor Kanmu was strongly aware of the start of the new dynasty and promoted various reformations. His reformations were intended to reorganize the Ritsuryo system and as a part of these reformations, he forcibly relocated the capital from Heijo kyo (ancient Nara) to Nagaoka kyo and then from Nagaoka kyo to Heian kyo (in 794). It is thought that the transfer of the national capital to Kyoto was conducted in order to erase outdated thinking and concepts, and enhance the authority of the emperor. In contrast to the Nara period, the Heian style was strongly influenced by the Tang dynasty.

Emperor Kanmu (from 781 to 806) and several later generations conducted Tenno shinsei (direct rule by emperors). Imperial Princes were the heads of Daijokan (Grand Council of State) who carried out policy. Positive efforts were made to reestablish the Ritsuryo system, putting in place Ryoge no kan (class outside of the Ritsuryo system) instead of the Ritsutyo government posts, which lost importance. In addition, in order to display the empror&aposs prestige, Emperor Kanmu concentrated on conquering Ezo in Tohoku region. SAKANOUE no Tamuramaro succeeded in conquering Ezo as seii taishogun (literally, "great general who subdues the barbarians").

Emperor Kanmu, having learnt a lesson from the fact that the stream of Tenmu-descendent emperors was extinguished after the death of Emperor Shotoku, had many princes of his own. After the death of Emperor Kanmu, the princes ascended the throne in order the renovations by Emperor Heizei, the next emperor after Kanmu, were no less positive renovations than Kanmu. Although Emperor Heizei tried to keep the ruling power after abdicating the throne to his brother, Emperor Saga did not welcome it, which led to a serious conflict between the two, and finally a military confrontation, in which Emperor Saga won (Kusuko Incident in 810). After this incident, until the Heiji War in the middle of 12th century, the non-violent political age continued, during which central political conflicts did not lead to military confrontations or the execution of the death penalty.

At the beginning of the reign of Emperor Saga, FUJIWARA no Sonohito, the head council of state, lead a policy to rescue farmers (relief of the poor) and control power (influential aristocracy, temples and shrines). This policy was based on Confucianism, a key idea of the Ritsuryo system, but FUJIWARA no Fuyutsugu, who took over Sonohito, changed the policy drastically, making it policy to facilitate the development of reclaimed land. The Ritsuryo system was based on an individual-based tax system, while the Fuyutsugu count was a land-based tax system. At the same time, his policy benefited those with influence. It is thought that Chokushiden (proprietorships and imperial land) started in the 820&aposs on a large scale and Kueiden (lands directly managed by the government to secure revenues) was implemented inside Dazai-fu (local government office in Kyushu region) around the same time according to Fuyutsugu&aposs policy. Fuyutsugu flourished as kurodo no to (head chamberlain) of Emperor Saga, and thus gained power. During the reign of Emperor Saga, Konin kyakushiki code (amendments to penal and administrative law compiled in 820), which was the integration of various laws, was compiled and put into practice.

FUJIWARA no Yoshifusa, the son of Fuyutsugu, followed his father&aposs policy and encouraged the development of reclaimed land. In those days, peasants on whom tax was imposed frequently ran away and wandered about, which lowered tax yields. Both Fuyutsugu and Yoshifusa tried to deal with the situation by taxing the land. Yoshifusa promoted the concentration of political power, when the Otemon Incident happened (866). the incident is often interpreted as the Fujiwara clan&aposs exclusion of other clans. this era is called Jogan no chi (glorious Jogan rule) due to the political situation having become stable and the success of the development support policy and Jogan Kyakushiki Code (Regulations and Procedures of the Jogan Era).

FUJIWARA no Mototsune, an adopted child of Yoshifusa, also followed Yoshifusa&aposs policy line, and carried out counting based on the land-based tax system. The Mototsune administration is characterized by the establishment of Kanden (imperial estates). The profit from Kanden in Kinai (the five capital provinces surrounding the ancient capitals of Nara and Kyoto) was used for administrative costs but until that time, the expenditure had depended on the tax collected from the countryside, Cho (tributes) and Yo (labor).

Emperor Uda, who ascended the throne in 887, began to develop emperor-centric policies when Mototsune passed away a few years later. Although policy which was advantageous for influential families had been conducted from Fuyutsugo to Mototsune, Emperor Uda promoted the control of such families and protected the peasants. Under Emperor Uda, FUJIWARA no Tokihira and SUGAWARA no Michizane were the heads of Daijokan, who cooperated with the emperor. the Uda administration is called Kanpyo no chi (Glorious Kanpyo rule). Soon after Emperor Uda abdicated the throne to Emperor Daigo, leading to the conflict between Tokihira and Michizane becoming serious, resulting in Michizane&aposs downfall (the Shotai Incident in 901).

When Tokihira took charge, he followed Uda&aposs policy and controlled influential families and protected peasants. The post-Uda policy was aimed at returning to the Ritsuryo system. The law to encourage the allotment of farmland, which was issued in 902, was a prominent example of the return to the Ritsuryo system and the law was the last policy to carry out the allotment of farmland. In addition, in this era, Engi no kyakushiki (regulations and laws of the Engi era), which were aimed at a return to the Ritsuryo system, were made. These measures and policies were considered ideal in later times, and the then-policy was called Engi no chi (glorious Engi rule).

The mid- Heian period
After Tokihira&aposs death, his younger brother, FUJIWARA no Tadahira, became the chief of Daijokan. Tadahira was not in favor of a return to the Ritsuryo system, and promoted the land-based tax system. Around the time of Tadahira&aposs administration, Myoden (rice field lots under the control of nominal holders) or Fumyo (tillers of public rice fields) were started under either system, powerful farmers (the rich class) undertook management of rice fields and tax payments. This time is considered to have been the turning point from the Ritsuryo system to a new state system, the system of the dynasty state.

Tadahira&aposs administration period is usually considered the time during which the regency was established. Although the Northern House of the Fujiwara clan had conducted policy as a regent or chief adviser to the Emperor since the time of FUJIWARA no Yoshifusa, their regency is considered to have still been in the developmental stage and was distinguished from the early regency. After Tadahira, Sekkan (regents and advisers) was established as a central post in the government and also the framework in which only descendents of Tadahira were able to become Sekkan was established. However, even in this system, Sekkan didn&apost decide everything, yet almost all policies were discussed and determined by Giseikan (Legislatures) at Jin no sadame (ancient cabinet council).

From the 9th century onwards especially in the Kanto region, millionaires who brought taxes to Kyoto were assaulted and robbed. After robbery became more common in 9th century, the Imperial Court sent military aristocrats to Togoku (eastern part of Japan) as kokushi (provincial governors) to discourage such acts. The Court also made the policy to leave the discretion of military force up to the kokuga (provincial government offices) instead of the previous army group (of ancient Japan). This idea was brought to fruition in Kanpyo and Engi eras, from the end of the 9th century to the beginning of the 10th century. Those who distinguished themselves at this time were the ancestors of warriors. The warriors became influential in rural areas as rich farmers who undertook the management of Myoden, or as mediators to solve conflicts between millionaires and zuryo or between millionaires. However, conflicts among warriors and disaffectedness toward zuryo turned into a rebellion, the Johei-Tengyo War, during Tadahira&aposs administration around 940. Warriors who took the side of the Court and fought against those in the same social class in order to suppress the war, were recognized as performing a deed of valor and thus were also considered as being a proper warrior line. Kokuga admitted &aposthe warrior line&apos as being a part of the Kokuga force system, which was established at that time. Those military people authorized by kokuga became warriors.

After Tadahira&aposs death, Emperor Murakami conducted direct Imperial rule in the middle of the 10th century. This rule was called Tenryaku no chi (glorious Tenryaku rule), and along with Engi no chi, was regarded as being sacred.

From the middle to the end of the 10th century, the government official contract system developed in the national political arena as well as in regional politics: specific family lines were given contracts to have authority and duties associated with certain government posts. Aristocrats and government officials who undertook such authority and duty developed human resources: they pampered their children as well as gifted disciples. The appearance of warriors is considered a type of government office contract system: families of military arts undertook military and police force.

The Imperial Court&aposs finances depended on income from the country. In regional politics, the Court delegated much administrative authority to Kokushi and in return, they bore the responsibility to pay taxes above a certain level to the government. At that time, administrative authority was delegated to the heads of kokushi who were dispatched to provinces, and they were called Zuryo. It is thought that Zuryo saved a large amount of money by collecting taxes from millionaires, due to their authority and developed arbitrary regional politics, leading to Kokushi kasei joso (appeals or armed struggles against Kokushi) which often happened from the end of the 10th century to the middle of the 11th century. On the other hand, they had some restrictions through an auditing system such as Kageyushi (Board of Discharge Examiners) and Zuryo kokatei (Evaluation of Zuryo). At any rate, zuryo had to develop millionaires through the Myoden contract system and collect set taxes from them. Millionaires made enormous fortunes through the Myoden contract system and tried to increase their interest beyond the zuryo&aposs control by directly connecting to central official circles.

At that time shoen began expanding. With the change in the tax collecting system in the 10th century, influential classes (influential aristocracy, temples and shrines) took over private land (shieiden: lands directly governed by such powers) in many places. In this way, shoen was gradually formed. The influential obtained licenses from Daijokan, Minbusho (Ministry of Popular Affairs) or Kokuga to prevent Kokuga from confiscating their shoen, (the former was called Kanshofu sho: a shoen enjoying immunity from taxation by virtue of having official documents from both the Council of State and the Ministry of Popular Affairs, and the latter was called Kokumen sho: a shoen allowed exemption from so or other tribute in bempo or binho system). In the latter half of the 10th century, Emperor Hanayama issued several policies including Private estate Regulation Acts in order to control the influential. That new system conducted by Emperor Hanayama aimed to create large-scale reformations. However, Emperor Hanayama was forced to abdicate the throne due to Sekkan-ke who opposed such reform. However, the later regency did not adopt a policy which favored influential families. The policies conducted by FUJIWARA no Michinaga, who himself lived most extravagantly while in power, contained aspects of controlling the influential. The largest problems for the regency were how to deal with the contradiction between the Fumyo&aposs tax managing system and the Zuryo administration, and how to restrict shoen owned by the influential.

In the early to middle of the 11th century, the regency&aposs approaches of the various problems began to pay off. During this period, some policies, which affected the social structure, were developed: the Koden kanmotsu rippo, which fixed the domestic tax rate, was introduced bechimyo (large territories including mountains and forests) was authorized alongside small-sized Myoden Ikkoku heikinyaku (taxes and labor uniformly imposed on every private estate in one province) in order to get financial resources for large-scale projects. The dynasty state, which started in the early 10th century, changed into a more-medieval form. The dynasty state before the mid-11th century is noted as the early dynasty state and the period after the mid-11th century as the later dynasty state.

In the first stage of the 11th century, the Joshin (a people lived in eastern China and northern Korea) attacked Northern Kyushu (Toi invasion in 1019).

The later Heian period
Japan is considered to have moved into the Medieval Ages in the latter half of the 11th century. By this time, Gunji (local magistrates), Goji (local government officials under the Ritsuryo system), Fumyo (tillers of public rice fields) developed new rice fields, owned these fields, and ensured their power by donating such fields to the influential. These fields were called donated-type shoen. In contrast, the lands in the Kokugaryo were reorganized into districts such as Gun (county), Go (district), Ho, Jo. Specific owners did not hold land ownership for these shoen and public lands. Rather, the Imperial Court, the influential who had the authority to collect taxes, warriors who lived there as local lords, as well as myoshu had multilayered interests in these lands. Land ownership was known as &aposShiki&apos (literally means profession) and since Shiki was comprised of a multilayered system, this system was called the Shiki system. The system established from the late stage of the 11th century to the 12th century based on the Shiki system is called Shoen Koryo Sei. The political and economic history in the latter half of the Heian period is strongly associated with the establishment of this system.

Up to the middle of the 11th century, the regency functioned to some extent. After that time, defect in the regency that neither Sekkan-ke nor emperors could take the political initiative for social changes was exposed, leading to a lack of function. Emperor Gosanjo, who had no maternal relatives from the Fujiwara clan, directly ruled the country. He coped with the challenges associated with social changes in those days such as promoting effective regulation of shoen by establishing the Kiroku shoen kenkeijo (office for the investigation of estate documents) (Enkyu Manor Regulation Acts). Emperor Shirakawa, a son of Emeror Gosanjo, positively coped with political challenges. After the abdication, the retired Emperor Shirakawa developed his own policies from the viewpoint of the head of the Emperor&aposs family. This is the beginning of the cloister government, and a retired emperor who organized policy is called &aposchiten no kimi. &aposThe retired Emperor Shirakawa, in order to design and carry out his policy, made middle-class aristocracy Inshi (official of the In no cho, or Retired Emperor&aposs Office), and placed Hokumen no Bushi (the Imprerial Palace Guards) as his own military force. He also made Ise-Heishi (Taira clan) Inshi, the head of warriors instead of Kawachi-genji (Minamoto clan).

Emperor Toba, the successor of Shirakawa, dominated more strongly than Shirakawa. He put his efforts into trade between Japan and the Sung Dynasty in China, placing Ise-Heishi in charge. He also put shoen in many places under his control with the development of shoen koryo sei.

In the 12th century, Chigyo kokusei (proprietary province system) was widely performed: in this system, influential aristocrats owned the authority to collect taxes from certain provinces. Chigyo kokusei developed together with shoen koryosei, which means only the influential could derive economic profits.

After the death of the retired Emperor Toba in the middle of the 12th century, a political fight for the seat of chiten no kimi occurred, which involved the Emperor&aposs family and Sekkan-ke, and was resolved after a military confrontation (the Hogen War). Some years later, a military confrontation brought another political fight (the Heiji War) to an end and through these two wars, the warriors&apospolitical status rose. These wars astounded people of the time because they had not had a political fight which involved a military force for 300 years and several decades since the War of retired Emperor Heizei, in the early Heian period. TAIRA no Kiyomori, who distinguished himself during these two wars, developed his career and supported Goshirakawa&aposs cloister government. However, conflicts between Goshirakawa and Kiyomori became serious. Kiyomori put an end to the cloister government and established his own government. This is called the Taira clan government. Although the Taira clan government was established under an aristocratic society, it had some similarities to the first military government, such as the setting up of jito (manager and lord of manor) and provincial officers in many places. Aristocracy, temples and shrines rebelled against the Taira clan government.

With such complaints in the background, Prince Mochihito, a son of the retired Emperor Goshirakawa, rose in arms to subjugate the Taira clan in 1180. Although it was soon crushed, many warriors and powerful regionals who had been discontent with the Taira government rose in arms one after another. Civil war continued for five years between the Taira and regional clans. The war finally ended in the victory of the first military government, Kamakura bakufu, which placed its headquarters in the Kanto region (the Jisho-Juei War). During the war, the Kamakura bakufu obtained the right to rule Togoku as well as military and police authorities, becoming a local government independent of the Imperial Court. This new period of history is considered to have started with the establishment of Kamakura bakufu and this point is regarded as the end of the Heian period.

Socio-economic history
The foundation of the Ritsuryo system, which officially started in the 8th century, was an individual-controlling system: rulers determined the number of people, according to family register and the yearly tax registers, and taxed those people. However, it became apparent that many people who wanted to escape taxation began falsifying the register, escaping and wandering about during the latter stage of the Nara period (the latter stage of the 8th century).

This tendency was exacerbated further during the Heian period. FUJIWARA no Sonohito, Udaijin (Mnister of the Right) in the early part of the Heian period, made positive efforts to rescue the poor, which showed that there was a problematic increase in the number of poor people. In the earlier part of the Heian period, people were divided into a few millionaires and a majority of poor people (common peasants). The millionaires became related with Ingu oshinke (imperial families and nobles) through the reclaimed land development, and began to put common peasants under their influence. Since the poor were under the influence of the millionaires, the former could falsify the register, escape and wander about more easily than before, which lead to the downfall of the individual-based tax system.

Around the early part of the Heian period, the Imperial Court gave up the individual-based tax system, and moved into the land-based tax system. Millionaires who were descents from aristocracy who had settled in the country or local magistrates grew into Tato fumyo (cultivator/tax manager): they undertook cultivation of Myoden and tax collection from kokuga and expanded their economic power. The gap between millionaires and common peasants gew larger and larger the latter gradually came under the former&aposs influence.

Culture and religious history
The central culture of the early Heian period was strongly affected by the Tang dynasty. It is considered that Emperor Kanmu strongly admired China he followed Tang emperors and performed Koten saishi (a sacred ceremony that acknowleges an Emperor as son of heaven). During his reign, Chinese Buddhism (Tendai sect and Esoteric Buddhism), was introduced to Japan by Saicho and Kukai, respectively, for the first time. This was to decide the direction of Japanese Buddhism (Heian Buddhism). Japanese traditional religion was influenced by Buddhism, Honji-suijaku setsu (theory of original reality and manifested traces) was introduced, leading to the Syncretism of Shinto and Buddhism. From Emperor Saga to Emperor Seiwa, the Tang-way culture was in full bloom poetry books of Chinese classics, including Ryounshu (Cloud-borne collection), were compiled and Tang-way calligraphy was popular. The culture which was strongly influenced by the Tang dynasty is called Konin-Jogan Culture.

Although the beginnings of Kokufu Bunka (Japan&aposs original national culture) were seen in the Nara period, it was hidden under the shadow of Tang-way culture. When the influence of the Tang dynasty weakened, factors which were uniquely Japanese became apparent. This is the Kokufu Bunka in the mid-Heian period. It is characterized by the following: the prosperity of waka, diaries, chronicles, which occurred because description of ancient and medieval Japanese became easier following the invention of hiragana (Japanese syllabary characters) and katakana (one of the Japanese syllabaries) the appearance of Kan-i-sokutai (official uniform in aristocratic culture), and the appearance of Shinden-zukuri style (architecture representative [characteristic] of a nobleman&aposs residence in the Heian period). In the mid-Heian period, Mappo-shiso (the "end of the world" belief) was prevalent, and Pure Land Buddhism, the Jodo (Pure Land) sect was widely accepted. It was during this time that Buddhism was widely accepted among ordinary people and Kuya as well as Ryonin of Yuzu nenbutsu (reciting the name of Amida Buddha) was active among them.

At the end of the Heian period, literature was born that looked back over the past, such as historical tales and war chronicles. Tendai Buddhism and Mountain Buddhism spread all over Japan and the regions where this was prominent included Kunisaki peninsula in the Bungo Province (including Main Hall in Fuki-ji Temple) and Hokuriku Region (including Heisen-ji Temple). Nageire-do (thrown-in temple) of Sanbutsu-ji Temple was also famous for Buddhism activity. Songs and ballads called imayo were popular among ordinary people and "Ryojin hisho" (folk song collection) was compiled under the order of retired Emperor Goshirakawa. Choju-Jinbutsu-giga (scrolls of frolicking animals and humans) was drawn during this period which is said to have been drawn by Kakuya (Toba Sojo (high-ranking Buddhist priest)) and shows vivid and humorous pictures of people.

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This is an outstanding reference for anyone interested in Heian Japan. I don't recommend it as an introduction to the era, for that I would rely on a more narrative history like George Sansom's "A History of Japan to 1334" or Ivan Morris' "The World of the Shining Prince," but as an add-on to something like that, this book is excellent. It is made up of a series of articles by noted experts, each article covering some aspect of Heian period life. They do a good job of covering almost every aspect of the period. I am working on a novel set in Japan in the late Heian, and I found the articles on rural life and the shoen particularly interesting.

There is also material here that I have never seen anywhere else. My novel takes place during the Hogen rebellion, a brief conflict between two factions of the Imperial family vying for control of the throne. The principals in the conflict were the Junior Retired Emperor Sutoku and his brother, Emperor Go-Shirakawa. The roots of the conflict lay in the choices of their father, the Senior Retired Emperor Toba. As the Senior Retired Emperor, he wielded enormous influence on the government. In fact, he forced his son, Sutoku, to retire as emperor so as to put another son, Konoe, on the throne. Sutoku resented this. When Konoe died, it was assumed that Sutoku's oldest son would become Emperor, but Toba put Go-Shirakawa on instead. This increased Sutoku's discontent.

When Toba died, Sutoku gathered soldiers in an effort to overthrow Go-Shirakawa. He was ultimately unsuccessful, but the event marks the beginning of the ascendancy of the warrior class in Japanese governmental affairs.

Now, all of this is very inside baseball, and even though I have studied it fairly extensively, I always had a hard time trying to determine the motivations here. It was never very clear as to why Toba seemed so intent on ensuring that Sutoku never gained power. While I was looking through the section on the Hogen Rebellion in The Cambridge History of Japan, I came across a casual mention of the fact that, in the Imperial Court, it was widely believed that Toba was mocked about the parentage of his son, Sutoku. When Toba was a child, the chief power in the government was his grandfather, Retired Emperor Shirakawa. Shirakawa placed Toba on the throne when Toba was 4 years old. At age 14, Shirakawa arranged for Toba to marry a girl of 16 who Shirakawa had adopted as his daughter. She soon gave birth to a son. It was widely believed that the father of that child was not Toba, but his grandfather, Shirakawa. When the child was 4 years old, Sutoku forced Toba off the throne and had the boy enthroned as Emperor Sutoku. Shirakawa was very close to the young emperor, and favored him over his grandson, Toba. This explains Toba's enmity towards Sutoku and his efforts to cut him off from any chance at power.

I have been studying Japanese history for years, and I have read a lot about the Heian period. The Cambridge History of Japan is the only place I have seen this information even alluded to. Since I am using the Hogen Rebellion as the backdrop for a novel, you can imagine how delighted I was to come across a story like this. Never in a thousand years would I have thought of a situation this tawdry and scandalous. It adds immensely to the backstory of the novel. But, if it weren't for the Cambridge History of Japan, I never would have discovered it.

Night Attack on the Sanjô Palace

Burning Palace (detail), Night Attack on the Sanjô Palace, Illustrated Scrolls of the Events of the Heiji Era (Heiji monogatari emaki) Japanese, Kamakura period, second half of the 13th century, 45.9 x 774.5 x 7.6 cm (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston). A good example of a “men’s painting” or “masculine painting.”

It is hard to imagine an image of war that matches the visceral and psychological power of the Night Attack on the Sanjô Palace. This thirteenth century portrayal of a notorious incident from a century earlier appears on a hand scroll , a common East Asian painting format in Japan called an emaki. It also is a prime example of the action‐packed otoko‐e, “men’s paintings,” created in the Kamakura period .

Night Attack on the Sanjô Palace fully unrolled (right side above, left side below), Illustrated Scrolls of the Events of the Heiji Era (Heiji monogatari emaki) Japanese, Kamakura period, second half of the 13th century, 45.9 x 774.5 x 7.6 cm (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)

Designed to be unrolled in sections for close‐up viewing, it shows the basic features of this pictorial form: a bird’s eye view of action moves right‐to‐left (between a written introduction and conclusion). In vibrant outline and washes of color, the story (one event in an insurrection—more on this below) unfolds sequentially, so the main characters appear multiple times. The attention to detail is so exact that historians consider it a uniquely valuable reference for this period: from the royal mansion’s walled gateways, unpainted wooden buildings linked by corridors, bark roofs, large shutters and bamboo blinds that open to verandas, to the scores of foot soldiers, cavalry, courtiers, priests, imperial police, and even the occasional lady—each individualized by gesture and facial expression from horror to morbid humor, robes, armor, and weaponry easily identifiable according to rank, design, and type.

Night Attack on the Sanjô Palace without framing text, Illustrated Scrolls of the Events of the Heiji Era (Heiji monogatari emaki) Japanese, Kamakura period, second half of the 13th century, 45.9 x 774.5 x 7.6 cm (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)

Unfurled this work stands apart. Its now‐forgotten artist used the expressive potential of the long, narrow emaki format with such interpretive brilliance that he perhaps considered that on occasion it might be fully open. He organized a jumble of minutiae into a cohesive narrative arc.

Opening text and ox cart (detail), Night Attack on the Sanjô Palace, Illustrated Scrolls of the Events of the Heiji Era (Heiji monogatari emaki) Japanese, Kamakura period, second half of the 13th century, 45.9 x 774.5 x 7.6 cm (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)

Beginning from a point of ominous calm, a single ox carriage transports the eye to a tangle of shoving and colliding carts and warriors. With escalating violence, the energy pulses, swells, and then rushes to a crescendo of graphic hand‐to‐hand mayhem—decapitations, stabbings and hacking, the battle’s apex marked at the center by the palace rooflines slashing through the havoc like a bolt of lightening followed by an explosion of billowing flame and women fleeing for their lives amid the din.

Palace (detail), Night Attack on the Sanjô Palace, Illustrated Scrolls of the Events of the Heiji Era (Heiji monogatari emaki) Japanese, Kamakura period, second half of the 13th century, 45.9 x 774.5 x 7.6 cm (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)

The chaos ebbs as victors and dazed survivors stream through the rear gate, and ends in grisly, surreal calm with the dressed and tagged heads of vanquished nobles on pikes, a disorderly cluster of foot soldiers and cavalry surrounding the ox carriage, their general trotting before them in victorious satisfaction over the smoking wreckage and bloody atrocity left behind.

Warriors enter palace below a zig-zag roofline (detail), Night Attack on the Sanjô Palace, Illustrated Scrolls of the Events of the Heiji Era (Heiji monogatari emaki) Japanese, Kamakura period, second half of the 13th century, 45.9 x 774.5 x 7.6 cm (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)

The Night Attack at Sanjô Palace arrests even the casual viewer with its sheer comprehensibility. Although the artist would likely not have imagined an audience beyond the world he knew, his vision has enthralled viewers across centuries and cultures, making this painting not only among the very finest picture scrolls ever conceived, but also among the most gripping depictions of warfare—creating an irresistible urge to examine the work closely. But in depicting an event that really happened, it comes fully to life only when we know something of what it so vividly portrays.

One of numerous violent confrontations within the palace (detail), Attack Night Attack on the Sanjô Palace, Illustrated Scrolls of the Events of the Heiji Era (Heiji monogatari emaki) Japanese, Kamakura period, second half of the 13th century, 45.9 x 774.5 x 7.6 cm (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)

This begins in a brief introduction to a complicated yet fascinating chapter in Japanese history. Incredibly, the appalling incident at Sanjô Palace depicted on the scroll was but one chapter in the vicious Heiji Insurrection of 1159‐60. This short war, with two other famous conflicts before and after, punctuated a brutal epoch that came to a close in 1192 with the establishment of the Kamakura shogunate . The stories of these flashpoints of blood thirst, collectively called gunki monogatari, or “war tales,” have inspired a huge body of art over the centuries. The Night Attack on the Sanjô Palace, once part of a larger set that pictorialized the entire Heiji incident, survives with two other scrolls, one of them only in remnants.

First half of the handscroll, Night Attack on the Sanjô Palace, Illustrated Scrolls of the Events of the Heiji Era (Heiji monogatari emaki) Japanese, Kamakura period, second half of the 13th century, 45.9 x 774.5 x 7.6 cm (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)

Stories of romanticized martial derring‐do, gunki monogatari are history recounted by the victors. They celebrate Japan’s change from a realm controlled by a royal court to one ruled by samurai. But the events originated in the unusual, even unique, nature of Japan’s imperial world. Centered in the city of Kyôto, in some ways it resembled many ancient kingdoms. It was prey to shifting loyalties, betrayals, and factional divisions among ambitious families who would stop at nothing in the quest for power. As elsewhere, emperors had several consorts, and noble daughters served as tools in political marriages to elevate the power of their families, and above all their clan head.

Second half of the handscroll, Night Attack on the Sanjô Palace (detail, left half), Illustrated Scrolls of the Events of the Heiji Era (Heiji monogatari emaki) Japanese, Kamakura period, second half of the 13th century, 45.9 x 774.5 x 7.6 cm (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)

Unusually, a few patriarchs managed over time to displace imperial authority, relegating emperors to stultifying ceremonial functions. And possibly uniquely, Japanese emperors found a way to reclaim some of that lost power: by abdicating in favor of a successor. Freed from onerous rituals, a “retired” emperor could assert himself. Which prince from which wife of which current or previous emperor would succeed to the throne stood highest among the disputes. By the twelfth century, nobles as well as current and retired emperors had all turned to samurai clans to resolve their bitter rivalries.

Fire (detail), Night Attack on the Sanjô Palace, Illustrated Scrolls of the Events of the Heiji Era (Heiji monogatari emaki) Japanese, Kamakura period, second half of the 13th century, 45.9 x 774.5 x 7.6 cm (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)

The cast of characters in the Night Attack at the Sanjô Palace came from this treacherous world. Sanjô Palace was the home of former Emperor Go‐Shirakawa, known for a career as the wiliest and longest‐lived of retired royals. He had recently abdicated in favor of his son Emperor Nijô. The two emperors backed vying sides of the Fujiwara clan, a conspiratorial family unsurpassed in subjugating and sometimes choosing a succession of emperors. One member of this clan, Fujiwara no Nobuyori,[1] plotted against everyone. The Taira and the Minamoto clans served powerful interests in all of these disputes, while also pursuing their own ambitions as bitter rivals of the other.

Who were the Minamoto and the Taira samurai clans? .

Dead archer (detail), Night Attack on the Sanjô Palace, Illustrated Scrolls of the Events of the Heiji Era (Heiji monogatari emaki) Japanese, Kamakura period, second half of the 13th century, 45.9 x 774.5 x 7.6 cm (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)

Simply put the Night Attack was part of Fujiwara no Nobuyori’s bid to seize power by abducting both the emperor and the retired emperor. Backed by Minamoto no Yoshitomo, head of that clan, Nobuyori saw an opportunity when the head of the Taira clan, who supported Emperor Nijō, left Kyōto on a pilgrimage. The emaki depicts the seizing of the retired emperor Go‐Shirakawa. Three key elements appear multiple times, orienting the eye and organizing the sweep of events: guided by a groom inside, the elegant ox carriage that will carry off Go‐Shirakawa opens the action.

Tumult at the palace gate, note the two women (top left) distinguished by flowing hair and aided by an attendent, fleeing the battle as fast as their voluminous robes will allow (detail), Night Attack on the Sanjô Palace, Illustrated Scrolls of the Events of the Heiji Era (Heiji monogatari emaki) Japanese, Kamakura period, second half of the 13th century, 45.9 x 774.5 x 7.6 cm (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)

We see it knocked about with others in the crush of fighting at the palace wall, on the veranda where Nobuyori in colorful armor orders Go‐Shirakawa into it, and finally in the surge of departing victors where two soldiers lolling on top lending an air of indignity and insult to the monarch. Nobuyori, now in court robes and on horseback, appears in front, glancing back at the carriage. A mounted Minamoto Yoshitomo, distinguished by red armor and a distinctive horned helmet, appears twice—behind the carriage as it crashes onto the veranda, and brandishing a bow and arrow, cantering behind it in the departing crowd.

Palace gate (detail), Night Attack on the Sanjô Palace (detail, left center), Illustrated Scrolls of the Events of the Heiji Era (Heiji monogatari emaki) Japanese, Kamakura period, second half of the 13th century, 45.9 x 774.5 x 7.6 cm (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)

The remainder of the Heiji Rebellion story appeared on other emaki in the set, now mostly lost: the kidnapping of Emperor Nijô, the slaughter of another noble household, Nobuyori forcing Nijô to appoint him chancellor, Taira Kiyomori’s return to decimate the schemers, and finally Kiyomori’s mistake—banishing rather than executing several of Minamoto sons. Minamoto no Yoritomo and his brother Yoshitsune would return years later to destroy the Taira clan in the Gempei War and found the first of four military governments of the Shōgunate that ruled Japan from 1192 until 1867. Emperors and nobles remained in Kyoto, but were politically powerless. Feudal culture came to a violent end in 1868 at the hands of other samurai clans. They brought the young emperor Meiji into a new role as the monarch (really a figurehead) of a modern nation. Over the Meiji era’s early tumultuous decades many spectacular works of art left Japan to join important collections in the West. The Night Attack at Sanjô Palace, once owned by a powerful samurai family, came into the possession of an influential American who brought it home to Boston. It has been a highlight of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston since 1889.

Closing sequence (detail), Night Attack on the Sanjô Palace, Illustrated Scrolls of the Events of the Heiji Era (Heiji monogatari emaki) Japanese, Kamakura period, second half of the 13th century, 45.9 x 774.5 x 7.6 cm (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)

[1] Japanese surnames come first and given names come second. Fujiwara and Taira are surnames. The Chinese characters used have different pronunciations that can appear at different times. “Minamoto” can be “Genji” “Taira” can be “Heike.”


Yamato means Japanese, so Yamato-e is Japanese paintings. The paintings from Asuka Period to Nara Period, the paintings in Japan had only followed Chinese(Karae, 唐絵) . But the Heian painters began to create their own works of art.

They invented the way to join papers in a horizontal direction, scroll paintings. I t made the arts possible to tell long stories, like The tale of Genji or the comic. Choju-giga(鳥獣戯画) .

Choju-giga (Vol.16)

It is the oldest comic in Japan that most likely the monk Kakuyu(覚猷) drew and Kozanji temple have kept. However there are four scrolls on the whole of Choju-giga, only the first half, the characters of personifications, were painted in Heian Period and rest in later age.

Heian Period - History

Student Reading: "The Court at Kyôto: Japan's Golden Age"

The following reading is designed to provide students with a brief introduction to Japan's classical period. Although the reading can stand on its own, we recommend that teachers use it as the historical introduction to one of three literary selections (waka, The Pillow Book, or The Tale of Genji) that can best convey to students the flavor of classical Japan.

Toward the end of the eighth century, the Emperor and his court chose a new site for the capital in central Japan and built a city surrounded by beautiful mountains. The new city was called Heian-kyô, "the capital of tranquility." (It has become the modern city of Kyôto.) During the Heian period (794-1185), named after this city, the country really was at peace, and the aristocrats of the Imperial Court spent much of their time creating a classical culture that still lives today. The Japanese had imported many things from China in the few preceding centuries — Buddhism, Confucianism, poetry (and the language, Chinese, in which poems were recorded), art techniques, methods of organizing government, even the plan for the city of Heian-kyô itself. But as the Heian period progressed, the Japanese took less and less from China, concentrating instead on integrating what they had learned so that it fit their country, their values, and their attitudes. Just as the symmetrical grid arrangement of the streets of the new city gave way to an asymmetrical form, Chinese imports were altered and grew in particularly Japanese ways. The culture that flourished in the tenth and eleventh centuries was dominated by aesthetic concerns and produced art and literature that continues to influence Japanese society and the way Japanese perceive the world.

The aristocrats who lived in Kyôto considered poetry, music, and indeed all the arts to be the most important human accomplishments. They included aesthetic skills we rarely think of now, such as mixing incense to make the most beautiful fragrances. Lovers courted each other with poetry, often written in the form of waka or tanka, and affairs succeeded or failed according to the sensitivity of the poems and the beauty of the writer's handwriting (calligraphy). Men often gained favor at court more for their abilities in the arts than for their bureaucratic skills. The tales, romances, and diaries of women became the classics of the literature, and the favored poetic form of this age lasted for the next thousand years.

The Pillow Book by the court lady Sei Shônagon seems to take us right into the court, as she records her opinions about the small world around her and her experiences with the events of her day. The greatest work of fiction, The Tale of Genji, by the lady-in-waiting Murasaki Shikibu, gives a clear and moving image of the ideals and sentiments of the age. It tells of the life of "the shining Genji," his loves and his troubles, and of the melancholy and sense of decline in the generation after his death.

By the eleventh and twelfth centuries, the courtiers' neglect of the more practical matters of government began to tell. The military rulers of the provinces became more and more powerful, until in 1185 power passed out of the hands of the Imperial Court and into the hands of the warriors, the samurai. But even the samurai of later ages owed a debt to the Heian aristocrats, inheriting and developing their Buddhism, their poetry, and their appreciation of beauty.

Selections from The Tale of Genji by Murasaki Shikibu and The Pillow Book of Sei Shônagon combine to give a balanced picture of life among the aristocracy in Japan at the height of the Heian period. Sei Shônagon's sharp and witty descriptions of court life offer an astringent account of the manners of the age, while Murasaki's fiction expands on its ideals and attitudes with striking psychological insight. They are an important corrective to the warrior-dominated image we often have of premodern Japan, reflecting instead an earlier age when gentler arts were the most highly valued. The very fact that these two works, acknowledged as the greatest prose writing of a very rich period, were written by women is an important indication of the varieties of social organization in Japanese history. It was not until the later feudal period that women's status declined to the position of docile subservience familiar to us from samurai movies and modern stereotypes. At the height of the classical era, women had considerable freedom socially, economically, and artistically, and their creative accomplishments, especially in literature, set the standards for the age.

The Japanese have drawn upon the sensibilities of the characters and the author of The Tale of Genji for nearly a millennium in defining and extolling the national character. Later literature, from medieval Noh drama to modern novels, has reworked and reexamined themes and events until the novel has become as much a part of Japanese thinking as Shakespeare's plays are in our own tradition. More than a few modern writers — from the poet Yosano Akiko to novelists Tanizaki Junichirô and Enchi Fumiko — have spent years in the labor of love of translating the lengthy novel from its difficult classical language into modern Japanese.

On the other hand, Sei Shônagon's prose style is still studied as a model of classical literary style. High school students memorize passages for their college entrance exams, and with the words absorb her views and aesthetic pronouncements. The miscellany, or collection of random thoughts, observations, and emotions, has since her day become a widely used genre in Japanese literature.

As is clear from these prose selections, the short poem (or waka, called tanka in modern times) was an important medium of both communication and expression in Heian times and thereafter into the twentieth century. While it is no longer in the mainstream of high literature, it remains a popular amateur form and is held in high esteem by the Japanese as a unique cultural achievement.


Emperors usually had the power, in this case noble families had all teh power to protect their interest.

Heian Period

The Last division of classical Japanese history that runs from 794 - 1185. The Heian period is considered the peak of the Japanese imperial court and noted that its art in poetry and literature.

Heian Period Begins

The Heian period began in 794 after movement of the capital of Japanese civilization to Heiankyō (presently Kyoto) by the 50th emperor Kammu

High point in Japanese Culture

Rise of the samurai class, samurai class eventually takes power and starts the feudal period in Japan.

Rise of the Military class

The Shoen's had improved military technology with brand new training methods, more powerful swords, horses, bows and amazing amor. They had begun to be faced with local conditions in the ninth century, military service became part of Shoen life.

Fujiwara no Sumitomo aids Taira clans revolts

Japanese Heian court noble and warrior, aided the Taira clan in a series of revolts

Taira no Masakado threatens central government

Masakado threatened the authority of the central government leading to an uprising in the eastern providence of Hitachi and Fujiwara no Sumitomo rebelled in the west.

Minamoto Yoritomo

He was the founder of Bakufu, the system where Feudal lords ruled for 700 years. He undermined the central government’s local administrative power.

Clan overthrow refusal

Clan would not be overthrown until after Genpel War, start of shogunates.

Hōgen disturbance

Conflict in the Hōgen era between the Taira & Minamoto clan that marked the end of the Fujiwara family dominance of the monarchy and the start of a prolonged period of feudal warfare.


A title given by the emperor to the country's top military commander.

Taira Kiyomori revived Fujiwara practices

Taira Kiyomori revived Fujiwara practices by placing his grandson on the throne to rule Japan by power.

Bakufu and the Hojo Regency

It marks the transition to the Japanese "medieval" era, the period in which the emperor, the court, and the traditional central government were left intact but were largely relegated to ceremonial functions. Civil, military, and judicial matters were controlled by the Bushi class.

Kamakura Period

Is a period in Japanese history that marks the governance by the Kamakura shogunate, officially established in 1192 in Kamakura by the first shogun, Minamoto no Yoritomo

Kamakura Period

The Kamakura Period began in 1185 when Minamoto no Yoritomo seized power from the emperors, and established a bakufu, the kamakura, shogunate, in Kamakura.


The Bakufu was the military government of Japan between 1192 and 1868.

Governance of the Kamakura Shogunate

Which was established by the first Kamakura shogun Minamoto no Yoritomo.

Yuan Dynasty

Kyōto raised the diplomatic counter of Japan's divine origin, rejected the Mongol demands, dismissed the Korean messengers, and started defensive preparations

Mongol Invasion

More than 600 ships carried a combined Mongol, Chinese, and Korean force of 23,000 troops armed with catapults, combustible missiles, and bows and arrows. In fighting, these soldiers grouped in close cavalry formations against samurai, who were accustomed to one-on-one combat.

Mongol Invasion

After further unsuccessful entreaties, the first Mongol invasion took place.

Second Mongol invasion

A second invasion was launched. Seven weeks of fighting took place in northwestern Kyushu before another typhoon struck, again destroying the Mongol fleet.

End of Mongol Invasion

The Mongol war had been a drain on the economy, and new taxes had to be levied to maintain defensive preparations for the future. The invasions also caused disaffection among those who expected recompense for their help in defeating the Mongols. There were no lands or other rewards to be given, however, and such disaffection, combined with overextension and the increasing defense costs, led to a decline of the Kamakura bakufu.

Kyoto Today

Kyoto is one of the few Japanese cities that thankfully avoided bombing during WWII but modernization now threatens to replace historical architecture with newer construction. Still though, ancient traditions seem to hold on and blend harmoniously with modernity.

Photo by Chris Yiu via Flickr

Large international brand hotels tower over the city beside traditional Japanese inns known as ryokans. The city is well maintained, has up to date facilities, and offers a wonderful transportation system. It is a city where one can enjoy many authentic Japanese cultural experiences with all the modern conveniences.

The Heian Period: Japan’s Classic

Japan’s “classical” period, when what we now know as Japanese culture first flowered, came later than classical periods in the West, China and India. But once it began in the late eighth century C.E., the four centuries of the Heian period saw the archipelago transformed.

The Heian period – named for the original name for Kyoto, Heian-kyo, where Japan moved its capital from nearby Nara in 794 C.E. – was the period during which Japan first distinguished itself from the imported Chinese culture that had inspired the early Japanese. By the end of those 400 years, Japan would devolve into its feudal era, under the military rule of the shogun, for several more centuries. Japan would struggle for centuries to find a lasting governmental form. But the essentials of what we know as Japanese culture that were established during the Heian would prove to be enduring.

This transformation affected nearly every aspect of life, but was particularly pronounced in evolving forms of language, writing and literature in the structure, manners and fashions of the Imperial court and especially in Japan’s understanding of Buddhism, which it would develop separate from the form that had been imported from China.

China’s Tang Dynasty of the time was in crisis, and Japan’s small government was being shaken by the troubles of its big brother to the west. China had given Japan much of its culture, but Japan was ready to strike out on its own, and to do that, it officially disengaged from China and began what would be one of its periods of distance from the rest of the world.

This was to become a recurring theme in Japanese history, as the country vacillated between absorbing foreign influences and then withdrawing into itself. Japan had long had a distinctive culture, as artifacts of its early Yayoi and Jomon cultures show hints of what was to come, particularly in its arts. But it was in language and writing that Japan would first establish its cultural independence.

While the new capital at Heian-kyo was laid out on the Chinese grid model, and the Japanese language continued to use Chinese characters in its writing – as it continues to do to this day – the aristocracy that controlled early Japan developed a new script, called kana, which facilitated the writing of a distinctive Japanese literature. As the Japanese would do a thousand years in the future, when they incorporated Western letters (romaji) into their language as well, the introduction of kana was a deliberate and successful attempt to create a Japanese literature separate from China’s.

In the Imperial court – the establishment of which is the stuff of legend rather than history, but has continued with varying degrees of actual political power until the end of World War II – was where all of this happened. Only the aristocracy, which some historians number as few as 5,000 people in an archipelago with as many as five million, had the time and education to pursue writing and other arts, as well as to manage the endless machinations required to acquire and maintain their position.

Several practitioners of the newly-important literary arts were aristocratic women, members of the Imperial court who would write two of the most important books in Japanese, and world, literature: The Pillow Book of Sei Shōnagon, in 1002 C.E., and the book that is still widely regarded as the world’s first novel, The Tale of Genji by Murasaki Shikibu, in the early 11th century.

Buddhism, which had been imported from China and was taught using Chinese texts, developed a more uniquely Japanese quality during the Heian, producing the first two of what would come to be many Japanese sects in Tendai and Shingon, both of which aimed at uniting the growing religion with the developing state. The religious buildings in Kyoto, even today, are less Chinese-influenced, as shown by the contrast with those in Nara.

But many significant changes during the Heian period were of a political nature, and that is reflected in the period’s name itself: Heian means “peace,” and these four hundred years were, in fact, largely peaceful. That name indicates that this period of peace was distinctive Japanese history would soon become very violent.

Part of the reason they were peaceful was that one family, the Fujiwara clan, was able to gain almost control over the government. The means by which they did this was complex, but it boiled down to the strategic use of marriage, through which the clan was able to place its women in marriages with successive emperors, who were then beholden to the Fujiwara clan.

That said, despite the relative peace of the period – and there were frequent, if small conflicts between the Fujiwara clan and two other major families of the time, the Taira and Minamoto – the Heian period ended with much of the island nation in poverty.

The result was political upheaval and Japan’s descent, by the end of the 12th century, into chaos and a new era, when the victor of the five year Genpei War gave himself a new title: Shogun. The shogunate he founded would last for the next several hundred years, the period now known to historians as the Medieval period.

This ensuing period would take Japan even deeper into itself, and away from the rest of the world. Japan’s isolation would not completely end until Commodore Matthew Perry’s American gunships sailed into Tokyo Bay in 1853.

Watch the video: Хейан Годан (May 2022).


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