Heian Period (794-1185)

Miniature model of Heian-kyō.

Epoch of the history of Japan, dating from the establishment of the new imperial capital at Heian-kyo (modern Kyoto) in 794, ending the Nara period, to the military triumph of Minamoto Yoritomo in 1185, which began the Kamakura period. The Heian period was predominantly peaceful, and was regarded in later epochs as the classical age of Japanese civilization, in which a sophisticated indigenous culture was established. Officially the emperor ruled unchallenged, but in practice powerful aristocratic families, especially the Fujiwara, and other interest groups exercised power, rather than the reigning emperors. Despite its peaceful appearance, the Heian period also fostered provincial military clans, the daimyo and their followers the samurai, which eventually brought its end in a bitter civil war.

Heian Politics

The Heian period is dated from a political act, when the reigning Emperor Kammu (reigned 781-806) set up his new capital, Heian-kyo (Capital of Peace and Tranquillity) on a virgin site in 794, laid out on a Chinese-style grid plan modelled after the Tang dynasty capital of Chang’an (modern Xi’an). Seeking to escape the powerful Buddhist clergy and other entrenched factions in the old capital of Nara, he had first chosen a site in 784, but moved again ten years later. The political history of the Heian period can be divided into four spans: early Heian, from 794 to 894; middle or Fujiwara Heian, from the breaking off of relations with China in 894 until 1068; the heyday of insei (cloistered rule) government by retired emperors starting in 1068 with the accession of Go-Sanjo, the first emperor for over a century not born of a Fujiwara mother; and three decades of growing daimyo dominance from the Hogen Disturbance of 1156 until 1185. Throughout, Japan was in theory governed according to the Chinese-style ritsu-ryo constitution, as developed by Emperor Tenji in the Taika Reform of 645. However, practice grew further and further from this transplanted structure, much of which had never taken root in Japan, until it finally broke down completely in 1185.

Erosion of Imperial Power

The first period, from the foundation of Heian-kyo in 794 to the ending of official embassies to China in 894, began dominated by the imperial house, but power increasingly fell into Fujiwara hands. The strong Emperor Kammu, who had ordered the original move to Heian-kyo, also reformed administration and curbed the influence of the Buddhist clergy in politics. He was the most active and powerful emperor Japan would have for many centuries, but he owed his enthronement to his Fujiwara father-in-law, and the Fujiwara family subsequently strove to increase their influence over the imperial line.

In 857 Fujiwara Yoshifusa (804-872), who had married into the imperial family and arranged for his sister to do likewise, became Great Minister of State, a powerful post long kept empty by the court. In 858 he had his young grandson enthroned as Emperor Seiwa, and himself became sessho (regent), the first in Japanese history from outside the imperial line. His nephew Fujiwara Mototsune (836-891) after serving as sessho, became, in 887, the first kampaku (chancellor), giving him full powers of regency even when the emperor was of age. Emperor Uda (867-931, reigned 887-897), who had no close blood ties to the Fujiwara, tried to regain power by keeping the post of kampaku vacant after Mototsune’s death in 891, using minor courtiers as counsellors. One of these was Sugawara Michizane, a provincial governor and scholar of Chinese Confucianism, who in 894 ended Japan’s embassies to China, because of the chaos accompanying the collapse of the Tang dynasty.

The Fujiwara triumphed definitively soon after Japan’s isolation. Uda abdicated in 897 in favour of Emperor Daigo (885-930, reigned 897-930), who also ruled without a kampaku. He tried to revitalize the ritsu-ryo code, made new compilations of governmental procedures, and was a great patron of art and literature; later generations regarded his reign as a golden age, but he could not control the Fujiwara. In 899 the imperial court managed to have Michizane appointed Minister of the Right (the second highest government office), but were forced to concede the appointment of Fujiwara Tokihira as Minister of the Left. Within two years, Tokihira had secured Michizane’s exile on false treason charges to Kyushu, where he died in 903, and Fujiwara domination of government was complete.

Michizane’s position as a Confucian scholar was significant, for he was a last hope for the Chinese-style emperor-centred state, with its corps of Confucian mandarins, instituted by the original Taika Reforms. Following his demise, native aristocratic traditions triumphed over the foreign reforms. The imperial family’s difficulty was that, although it began as an aristocratic house, it had become the state through the Chinese-inspired reforms and lost the capacity to function independently, so that when new sources of power developed outside the bureaucratic system it lost out to the powerful private families. Cadet branches of the imperial house cut off from the succession to avoid proliferation of princes, such as the Taira and Minamoto military clans, developed like other private families once cut free from the state apparatus.

Fujiwara Japan

Tokihira’s successor Fujiwara Tadahira (880-949) recovered the office of kampaku in 930, and from 967 the family held it almost without interruption until near the end of the Heian period. Fujiwara family offices conducted government, while Fujiwara daughters married successive emperors, keeping the imperial family in tutelage to the Fujiwara. The Fujiwara and other great families awarded state titles to their private stewards, and lesser provincial retainers also received such titles, becoming vassals bound to their lords by feudal loyalties: these bonds of obligation became the provincial power bases of the great families. The Fujiwara were able to dominate Japan without violence by manipulating existing institutions, especially the imperial court, and excluding rival aristocrats from positions of power. So self-confident and secure was Fujiwara Michinaga, who brought Fujiwara to its peak after becoming clan head in 995, that until his death in 1028 he never bothered to become kampaku. His private administrative office (mandokoro) handled all important government business, while he married his daughters to four different emperors.

A critical development underlying the wealth of the Fujiwara family and the breakdown of the ritsu-ryo system was the development of shoen (private estates). These estates developed out of the supposedly equal distribution of lands under the ritsu-ryo system. Public lands originally assigned to support important officials tended to become hereditary possessions, as did the state offices themselves; and peasants likewise became hereditary owners of the plots awarded to them. From 743, newly reclaimed lands became the permanent property of the reclaimer (the word shoen originally meant the depot for a land reclamation project), and this new ownership principle undercut the original commitment to exclusive state landownership. Early shoen were mostly genuine reclaimed lands, but as time went by they were kept as private possessions. They also were progressively freed from ritsu-ryo obligations for taxes and compulsory labour services, exemptions justified by the expense and labour involved in opening up land. Temples were freed from the start from such obligations by the ritsu-ryo codes. Once established, the exemptions were easily extended as more land was opened up or purchased.

From the early 10th century, even more land was taken out of the state domain by the principle of commendation. This involved estate holders transferring the legal title to their lands to more powerful courtiers or temples, which then kept them in place as adminstrators while received a fixed portion of the land’s yield and using political influence to gain or extend tax exemption for it. (These were rights to use the land, which in theory itself remained state property.) The transactions were private, outside the scope of the original ritsu-ryo system. The new nominal owners of the land could pass their newly acquired titles even higher up the social scale, to cement a fealty relationship or to get even more political leverage on the estate’s behalf, leading to futher division of the income. At the local level, peasants were protected from the state’s tax and forced labour demands, while estate managers were protected from interference by local government officials. By the early 11th century, some estates were immune from entry by any government officials, even the imperial police.

The growth of the shoen system, however, reflected a collapse in provincial government. While the Fujiwara concentrated on the capital, new forces were at work in the provinces. Much of northern Japan had formerly been occupied by tribes called Ezo, perhaps relatives of the modern Ainu of Hokkaido, whose pacification had required extensive military expeditions. This military presence in the provinces was compounded by the local warrior bands (the earliest samurai) used by the nobility and their stewards to police their estates and settle local disputes, and by powerful military families (the earliest daimyo), often lesser branches of the imperial house or thwarted aristocrats seeking new opportunities outside the Fujiwara-dominated capital. Armed uprisings were thus a constant threat. Taira Masakado, a member of the Taira imperial cadet house, and Fujiwara Sumitomo, a pirate Fujiwara renegade, rebelled in east and west Japan respectively in the 930s; and the Earlier Nine Years’ War of 1051-1062 and the Later Three Years’ War (1083-1087) saw pacification campaigns against rebels in far northern Honshu develop into huge territorial conquests by the Minamoto family, descendants of Fujiwara Yoshifusa’s pawn, the Emperor Seiwa. These revolts never threatened the capital, but they discredited central authority and made the military clans more likely to settle major quarrels between themselves. Also, the military families, able to offer protection as well as influence, became preferable to the Fujiwara as guarantors for shoen, undermining the basis of Fujiwara wealth.

Government by Retired Emperors

Michinaga’s heir Fujiwara Yorimichi (992-1074, sessho 1016-1068) kept up his father’s grand style, but as Fujiwara power ebbed in the provinces, he also lost control of the centre as the Fujiwara family ran out of daughters to marry to imperial heirs: in 1068 Emperor Go-Sanjo (1034-1073, reigned 1068-1072), the first emperor in over 100 years without a Fujiwara mother, succeeded to the throne. He set up a new office to scrutinize the legal titles of shoen and confiscate unauthorized holdings, but by refusing to cooperate the Fujiwara forced Go-Sanjo’s abdication. However, his son Emperor Shirakawa (1053-1129, reigned 1072-1086) took advantage of a new political tactic developed by Go-Sanjo, the insei (cloister government) system, whereby an emperor abdicated and took Buddhist monastic vows but retained political control by manipulating a series of child emperors, just as the Fujiwara had done.

Three great retired emperors, Shirakawa, Toba (1103-1156, reigned 1107-1123), and Go-Shirakawa (1127-1192, reigned 1155-1158), ruled from retirement for 43, 27, and 34 years respectively. They made no attempt to revitalize the ritsu-ryo system, alter Heian political institutions, or subjugate the Fujiwara; rather, they worked within existing arrangements to recover power and wealth for the imperial house, while Fujiwara responses were hindered by growing feuds between various branches of the family. Go-Sanjo’s restrictions of 1069 that disallowed immunities for many shoen were more an attempt to rein in the system than remove it, and the imperial family became ultimate guarantors for many estates across Japan. The retired emperors supported the provincial governors appointed to collect state tax revenues, but more to fill state coffers than to reassert state power. However, imperial support for provincial officials with the right to decide tax immunities took power away from courtier families such as the Fujiwara who were supported by shoen. Shirakawa set up a private administration modelled on Fujiwara practice, and he and his successors received numerous commended shoen (usually by proxy to avoid publicly undermining the ritsu-ryo system), so that by 1185 the imperial household was once again the largest landowner in Japan.

The Heian Collapse

The last phase of the Heian period began when court politics became entangled with rivalries between military families. The Taira clan at first exploited the new insei system by allying itself to the retired emperors, while the Minamoto stayed with their traditional patrons, the Fujiwara. However, in 1155 both imperial and Fujiwara families split into rival parties, with an ambitious retired emperor challenging the new emperor, Go-Shirakawa. In July 1156 the Hogen Disturbance occured, when warriors from both sides clashed in Kyoto. Go-Shirakawa’s succession was secured, but his abdication in 1158 gave him no additional power against the new might of the Taira family. In the Heiji Disturbance of 1159, the Taira under Taira Kiyomori beat off a Minamoto challenge and routed their rivals. This new violence was strange to the Heian capital, where even corporal punishment had been almost unknown.

The Taira burned rebellious temples, exiled courtiers, and generally acted far more ruthlessly than any rulers had for centuries. However, they also became absorbed in the affairs of the capital, and neglected their own provincial power base. Though from a low provincial military background, Taira Kiyomori gained admission to the councils of state, becoming chief minister in 1167 and filling offices with his relatives. Following Fujiwara precedent, he married his daughter to the reigning emperor, and in 1180 placed their infant son on the throne as the Emperor Antoku. He briefly attempted to move the court to his own domains, before forced to return it to the capital. Meanwhile, the Minamoto heir Minamoto Yoritomo, his brother Minamoto Yoshitsune, and other surviving Minamoto were organizing their revenge.

The resulting conflict, the Gempei War (1180-1185), reached its height after Kiyomori’s death in 1181, ending in the annihilation of the Taira in the sea battle of Dannoura (1185). Yorimoto’s triumph signalled the end of the Heian period, for he remained in his base at Kamakura instead of moving to Heian-kyo, introducing a new military system of government (the bakufu), which was formalized in 1192 when he was appointed Japan’s first ruling shogun.

Heian Economics and Society

Society and economics were closely intertwined in Heian Japan because the country was overwhelmingly agricultural, with most of its population tied closely to the land. Heian-kyo was the only large city, and poor communications and Fujiwara snobbery kept its influence in the provinces to a minimum. Most Japanese lived in the shoen estates which had become the basic units of local organization. These formed enclosed social and economic units, with tools and other materials for farming being manufactured locally, the estate’s few “exports” generally being specialized goods for its lord in the capital. The few coins in circulation stayed chiefly in or around Heian-kyo, and most of the country had a barter economy (clothes or fabrics were used everywhere as a form of currency). Protected from state taxes and labour duties, the shoen tenants were better off than peasants on public lands, and many public tenants fled to shoen or helped landlords establish them, shrinking the imperial state’s tax base. Early in the 10th century the government tried to arrest this decline by making land rather than people the basis of taxation and by awarding their provincial governors a share of taxes collection, turning them into tax farmers. Yet shoen continued to proliferate, until by 1185 they made up over half of Japan’s farmland.

The shoen sustained the aristocracy, who were Heian Japan’s dominant class, politically, socially, and culturally. They were descended from the uji, the clan groups of mixed social levels which had made up pre-Heian Japan (the imperial family or Yamato clan was originally one uji among others), but Heian society’s growing wealth and complexity broke the close ties between uji chiefs and vassals. Heian Japan developed a keen sense of social distinction, and high aristocrats disdained virtually all below them, even the provincial governors and warlords who also had distinguished ancestors. Heian-kyo was the unchallenged centre of society, and the high aristocracy (which chiefly meant the Fujiwara family) rarely ventured outside it, developing a very closed and refined culture of their own. Highborn women in particular were expected to seclude themselves inside the great city manors: but they enjoyed equal property rights with men and many other freedoms, not least sexual. Japanese tradition dictated that after marriage a wife often remained at her parents’ house for some years, with the husband visiting; while polygamy for the upper classes who could afford it meant that several noble wives often occupied different wings of a single husband’s mansion. Gentlemen cultivated arts of seduction, involving tasteful messages and nocturnal visits to ladies’ apartments, and courtly romance was one of the age’s great pastimes.

The rest of society, viewed as scarcely human by some aristocrats, lived in a graduated hierarchy based on the agricultural system. The lowest level, the peasants, were perhaps better off than in later periods of Japanese history, though agriculture was primitive: shoen tenants were lightly taxed, and there were no major wars to disrupt their lives. The local landowners were paired with agents of the aristocrats they had pledged their estates to, so that a double tier of landholding grew up. The provincial military families, offshoots of the imperial and aristocratic families, were also local landlords, while their armed retainers (the future samurai) who provided police and other similar services for the abstentee aristocratic landowners were petty fiefholders or even part-time farmers themselves.

Heian Culture

Heian Japan is particularly famous today for its culture, which left a tradition of extreme aesthetic sensitivity and aristocratic cultivation that inspired many subsequent developments in Japanese art, Japanese music, and Japanese literature. The Heian aristocracy, especially the Fujiwara, devoted its wealth and leisure to artistic pursuits, and the period is known for the “rule of taste”: the extreme importance of discernment and sensibility in aristocratic social relations. Aristocratic culture dominated the Heian tradition, and the lower classes were restricted to providing their betters with fine craftworks or quaint ballads, not least because they had no education. Nonetheless, Heian high culture employed much popular material, though refining it through sophisticated aesthetic standards, and its heritage enriched the entire nation.

Heian literature broke with previous trends following the invention of kana, the syllabic script able to record faithfully the sounds of the Japanese language. This invention was credited to the great Buddhist monk Kukai, and was certainly in use by the early 9th century, supplanting the previous cumbersome system of using Chinese characters phonetically to render Japanese. It favoured women writers, for men were expected to use Chinese for government business, while women were expected to know and write only Japanese. It also meant that Heian literature concentrated on private life, rather than the public realm dominated by the Chinese language.

The native 31-syllable tanka form of poetry was an early beneficiary of the invention of kana. Despite the decline of imperial power, the imperial family remained an important cultural focus, and in 905 the Kokinshu (Anthology of Ancient and Modern Poems), first of the great imperial poetry anthologies, was compiled on the order of Emperor Daigo. The new aesthetics governing its compilation favoured aristocratic good taste and elegant wit at the expense of the rugged sincerity of earlier poets. Its compiler, Ki Tsurayuki, established a canon of taste, and Japan’s first poetics in his preface. Ariwara Narihira, the half-legendary poet and courtier at the centre of the poem-tale Ise monogatari (The Tale of Ise, c. 980), and the poetess Ono no Komachi were just two of the greatest representatives of this new aristocratic poetry, which set the standard for subsequent ages. Mono no aware (the pathos of things), a keen response to the world’s fleeting beauty, developed as a key element of Heian and subsequent literature.

Kana also allowed Japan to produce perhaps the world’s first true novel. Murasaki Shikibu created the greatest work of Japanese literature in her The Tale of Genji, a fictionalized version of Fujiwara court life which became a touchstone for Japanese culture, as much for its elegaic depiction of the lost Heian peace as for its literary excellence. She was a courtier, and her creation of the dazzling courtly lover Prince Genji probably owed much to her close observation of Fujiwara Michinaga. Many other novels were written at the time, but few matched her level. Her witty contemporary Sei Shonagon was the greatest diarist in a tradition that became another important strand of Japanese literature, as the anonymous female authors of the Kagero nikki (translated as The Gossamer Years) and the Sarashina nikki (translated as As I Crossed a Bridge of Dreams) recorded their trials and sorrows.

Later Heian literature changed focus, mirroring historical changes in society. The Konjaku monogatari (Tales of Now and Then), compiled in the early 12th century, was a vast compilation of stories, many of popular origin, signifying a broadening in the social range of literature. Go-Shirakawa collected an anthology of folk songs in the imayo ballad form in 1179, while the brilliant monk-poet Saigyo came from the lowly samurai class. He and his contemporaries Fujiwara Teika and Kamo no Chomei exploited the best of the aristocratic tradition while increasing its profundity and emotive force, carrying on its traditions into the more brutal Kamakura period.

Heian art benefited first from the new Shingon and Tendai sects of Buddhism. Shingon in particular employed mandalas (cosmological diagrams), extensive statue groups, and rich implements in its ceremonies, while both sects required temple buildings such as the splendid Muro-ji (early 9th century) near Nara. As the Fujiwara aristocracy came to power, their tastes were reflected in the growing tradition of Yamato-e painting, showing decorative and colourful landscapes in contrast to more sober Chinese-style ink paintings. Decorative calligraphy in the new kana scripts also became artistically important, while Fujiwara opulence was reflected in rich fabric designs and finely crafted objets d’art.
As Fujiwara power waned, a less optimistic and more elegaic art developed. Fujiwara Yorimichi’s Ho-o-do (Phoenix Hall, completed 1053) of the Byodoin, a temple in Uji near Kyoto, represents an earthly paradise, but it is also partly a place of retreat from the world. The horizontal narrative handscroll or emaki, which developed after 1100, significantly took illustrated versions of The Tale of Genji as a chief subject, portraying an already waning world of courtly refinement.

Heian music was also intimately bound up with aristocratic court life. Heian aristocrats, like Murasaki Shikibu’s characters, were usually skilled performers on the koto, sho, biwa, shakuhachi, or other instrument, while larger court ensembles provided the splendid court music gagaku. This form, closely based on the court music of Tang dynasty China, has been maintained by guilds associated with the imperial court, making it the oldest preserved musical tradition in the world.

Heian Religion

The Heian period saw the arrival of some of the most important Buddhist sects in Japan, and Buddhism’s growth from a minority creed introduced by state initiative into a genuine popular faith. Kukai, the famous Buddhist sage, brought the Shingon sect of esoteric Buddhism to Japan from China in 806, soon followed by the monk Saicho who brought the Tendai sect, an important Chinese development of Mahayana Buddhism. Their great monastic centres on Mount Koya and Mount Hiei near Heian-kyo became immensely rich and powerful, and Tendai in particular established the permanent dominance of Mahayana Buddhism in Japan. The aristocracy favoured both sects as much for their rich art and ceremonial as for their religious profundity, and used monastic endowments and tax exemptions for secular purposes. Heian Buddhism developed fairly close ties with the native Shinto religion, through elaborate doctrines that presented the various Japanese kami (gods) as aspects of various Mahayana Buddhas, and through institutions such as the wandering mountain monks, who combined Buddhism and Shinto with folk traditions of shamanism and mountain worship. These helped spread the new religion among the common people. The imperial family was obliged by its ritual duties to worship at the Ise Shrine and other great shrines of Shinto, but also extensively patronized Buddhism. Most Heian Japanese, particularly in the aristocracy, held eclectic mixtures of Buddhist, Shinto, and superstitious beliefs.

As the Heian period went on, the Buddhist sects acquired more and more secular wealth and power. Through their lay followers, the monasteries had considerable military forces, which they grew to use to settle property and doctrinal disputes. The Tendai centre of Enryakuji in particular became notorious for its unruly monks, who would descend on the capital to force the government to heed the sect’s wishes. Meanwhile, new varieties of Buddhism were growing out of Tendai’s highly comprehensive and diverse doctrines, including Pure Land Buddhism. Pure Land, with its simple devotional chants and cult of universal salvation promised by the Buddha Amida, spread through all levels of society, propagated by evangelists like the saint Honen, and subsequently blossomed into independent popular cults.