Ancient Japan

Heian Japan

The Heian Period: 795-1192 AD    The Heian period (794-1192) was one of those amazing periods in Japanese history, equaled only by the later Tokugawa period in pre-modern Japan, in which an unprecedented peace and security passed over the land under the powerful rule of the Heian dynasty. Japanese culture during the Heian flourished as it never had before; such a cultural efflorescence would only occur again during the long Tokugawa peace. For this reason, Heian Japan along with Nara Japan (710-794) is called "Classical" Japan.

   The Nara period was marked by struggles over the throne and which of the clans would control that throne. In order to quiet these disturbances, the capital was moved in 795 to modern-day Kyoto, which at that time was give the name "Heian-kyo," or city of peace and tranquility. The struggles for the throne ceased, but Japan still did not completely unite under a central government. What happened instead was that power accumulated under a single family, the Fujiwara, who managed to skillfully manipulate and hold onto their power in the face of changes and rivalry for over three centuries. With such stability, the Heian imperial court at thrived.

   The Japanese at the Heian court began to develop a culture independent of the Chinese culture that had formed the cultural life of imperial Japan up until that point. First, they began to develop their own system of writing, since Chinese writing was adopted to an entirely different language and world view. Second, they developed a court culture with values and concepts uniquely Japanese rather than derived from imperial China, values such as miyabi, "courtliness," makoto , or "simplicity," and aware, or "sensitivity, sorrow." This culture was forged largely among the women's communities at court and reached their pinnacle in the book considered to be the greatest classic of Japanese literature, the Genji monogatari (Tales of the Genji) by Lady Murasaki Shikibu.

Heian Government    Heian government solidified the reforms of the late Yamoto and Nara periods. At the top of the official hierarchy was the Tenno, or "Divine Emperor." The Emperor was both Confucian and Shinto; he ruled by virtue of the Mandate of Heaven and by legitimate descent from the Shinto Sun Goddess, Amaterasu. Because of this, the imperial line of descent has remained unbroken in Japanese history from the late Yamato period.

   The government hierarchy beneath the Emperor was built along Chinese lines. The Japanese borrowed the T'ang Council of the State, which held most of the power in Japan. The most powerful clans vied for the position as Council of State, for from that seat they could control the emperor and the entire government itself. Like T'ang government, there were several ministries (eight instead of six). There was, however, a profound difference between T'ang China and Heian Japan. China was a country of some sixty-five million people; Japan was a loose confederacy of some five million people. The Chinese lived relatively prosperously, and T'ang China had by and large become an urban and an industrial culture. Japan, on the other hand, was still very backward when one left the capital city of Heian-kyo. Uji bonds were still felt, and outlying areas still exercised a degree of autonomy. The result for court government was very simple: most of court government concerned the court alone. There were six thousand employees of the imperial government; four thousand administered the imperial house. So the Heian court was not overly involved in the day to day governing of outlying provinces, which numbered sixty-six.


In both the Nara period and the Heian period, regional chiefs were replaced by court-appointed governors of the provinces. This was a demotion for the traditional aristocracy; it did not mean, however, that Heian government exercised a great deal of control over these regional governors who ran their provinces more or less autonomously.

   The Heian period, though, was one of remarkable stability. There was little dissension or disagreement in the government itself or between the government and provincial governors. The only problems were conflicts between uji either vying for territory or for influence at the court.

Samurai    In the earliest periods in Japan, warfare was largely confined to battles between separate uji , or clans. The clans would go into battle under a war-chief; there was no separate class of soldiers. At the emergence of the Yamato state, new techniques of larger scale warfare seem to have been adopted including new technologies such as swords and armor. The Nara government, faced with a country of sixty-six provinces of competing clans, tried to change the Japanese military system by conscripting soldiers. By the end of the Nara period, in 792, the idea was given up as a failure.

   Instead, the Heian government established a military system based on local militias composed of mounted horsemen. These professional soldiers were spread throughout the country and owed their loyalty to the emperor. They were "servants," or samurai. An important change occurred, however, in the middle of the Heian period. Originally the samurai were servants of the Emperor; they gradually became private armies attached to local aristocracy. From the middle Heian period onwards, for almost a thousand years, the Japanese military would consist of professional soldiers in numberless private armies owing their loyalty to local aristocracy and warlords. The early samurai were not the noble or acculturated soldiers of Japanese bushido , or "way of the warrior." Bushido was an invention of the Tokugawa period (1601-1868) when the samurai had nothing to do because of the Tokugawa enforced peace. The samurai of early and medieval Japan were drawn from the lower classes. They made their living primarily as farmers; their only function as samurai was to kill the samurai of opposing armies. They were generally illiterate and held in contempt by the aristocracy.

Buddhism    Buddhism developed profoundly during the Heian period as well. Situated near the capital on Mt. Hiei, the monks of the Hiei monastery developed new forms of esoteric Buddhism. The great genius of Japanese Buddhism of the time, however, was Kukai (774-835), who established in Japan a form of Buddhism called the True Words (in Japanese: Shingon) at his monastery at Mount Koya. The three mysteries of Buddhism are body, speech, and mind; each and every human being possesses each of these three faculties. Each of these faculties contain all the secrets of the universe, so that one can attain Buddhahood through any one of these three. Mysteries of the body apply to various ways of positioning the body in meditation; mysteries of the mind apply to ways of perceiving truth; mysteries of speech are the true words. In Shingon, these mysteries are passed on in the form of speech (true words) from teacher to student; none of these true words are written down or available to anyone outside this line of transmission (hence the term Esoteric Buddhism). Despite this extraordinarily rigid esotericism, the Shingon Buddhism of Mt. Hiei became a vital force in Japanese culture. Kukai believed that the True Words transcended speech, so he encouraged the cultivation of artistic skills: painting, music, and gesture. Anything that had beauty revealed the truth of the Buddha; as a result, the art of the Hiei monks made the religion profoundly popular at the Heian court and deeply influenced the development of Japanese culture that was being forged at that court. It is not unfair to say that Japanese poetic and visual art begin with the Buddhist monks of Mount Hiei and Mount Koya.

The Fujiwara and Civil War    In the late Heian period, private families began to accrue vast amounts of property (shoen ) and began to support large standing armies, mainly because the Heian government began to rely more on these private armies than on their own weak forces. The result was an exponential growth in the power of the two greatest warrior clans, the Taira (or the Heike) and the Minamoto (or the Genji). The Genji controlled most of eastern Japan; the Heike had power in both eastern and western Japan.

   As the powers of these two increased, the clan of the Fujiwara began to control the Emperor closely—a shrewd move since the Taika reform theoretically gave all final power to the emperor. From 856 until 1086, the Fujiwara were, for all practical purposes, the government of Japan. In 1155, however, the succession to the throne fell vacant, and the naming of Go-Shirakawa as Emperor set off a small revolution, called the Hogen Disturbance, which was quelled by the clans of the Taira and the Minamoto. This was a turning point in Japanese history, for the power to determine the affairs of the state had clearly passed to the warrior clans and their massive private armies.

   After the accession of Go-Shirakawa and later his successor Nijo, a lesser lord of the Taira, a dissolute, ambitious and shrewd man named Kiyimori, began to slowly accrue massive power for himself in the Emperor's court. Seeing this, it became apparent that the power of the Taira had to be diminished in some way, so the retired Emperor Go-Shirakawa attempted to lay a military trap for Kiyimori with the aid of a minor Genji lord, Yukitsuna. The plot failed and opened an irreparable breach between the Heike and the retired Emperor and the Genji. In 1179, the head of the Taira, Shigemori, died; his forceful and ruthless leadership had propelled the Taira into the forefront. He was replaced by his brother Munemori, a coward and poor strategist. Go-Shirakawa, seeing he now had an advantage, began to dismiss Taira in the capital, and Kiyimori fired several court officials and marched on the capital, forcing the new Emperor Takakura off the throne by installing his own one-year old grandson, Antoku, as the Emperor. Takakura enlisted the aid of the Genji and the great civil war began, ushering in the feudal age of Japan.

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