Heian Period (794-1185)

The Heian Period (平安時代 Heian jidai) spans almost 400 years from 794, when Emperor Kammu established Heiankyō (modern-day Kyōto ) as the imperial capital of Japan, to 1185, when Minamoto no Yoritomo's forces defeated those of the Taira family, setting the stage for the establishment of the Kamakura shogunate.

The period is named after the capital and means "peace and tranquillity". Some classifications begin the period in 781, the year of Kammu's accession to the throne, or in 784 when the capital was removed from Heijōkyō (present-day Nara) to Nagaokakyō; some end it in 1180, when Yoritomo took up arms and established his headquarters at Kamakura, or in 1183 when the Taira family fled Heiankyō before the advancing army of Minamoto no Yoshinaka. The classification is merely a political one, and not one based on social, economic or cultural structures. The period may be conceived as a transition from the faltering ritsuryō system of government to a feudal society in which the warrior class dominated. The Heian Period also not only saw the greatest flowering of the aristocratic culture centred on the imperial court and epitomised in the most excellent literary works and exquisitely refined cultural styles, but also full assimilation of Chinese cultural, political, and social elements, thus creating a genuinely Japanese national culture.


In 784, Emperor Kammu (桓武天皇 Kanmu-tennō, 737–806) moved the capital from Heijōkyō (平城京, now the city of Nara), seat of power for seven previous reigns, northwest to Nagaokakyō (長岡京) in Yamashiro Province (now part of Kyōto Prefecture). And yet within a decade this capital city too was abandoned for the final move to Heiankyō. A certain amount of uncertainty surrounds the two removals of the capital, but they were both intimately related to political rivalries at the imperial court. Doubtless one major consideration was an attempt to escape the political influence of the Buddhist clergy, which over the course of the Nara Period (710-794) had come to exercise undue influence upon the civil government. The recent ascendancy of Dōkyō (道鏡, 700-772) and his associates during the reign of Empress Shōtoku was the most blatant example of abuse of priestly power, but not the only one.

There were other political problems at Nara as well. It was Fujiwara no Momokawa (藤原百川, 732-779) who was responsible for the exile of Dōkyō after Shōtoku's death, and it was he also who enthroned the ageing Emperor Kōnin (光仁天皇 Kōnin-tennō, 709-782) as her successor. Finally, it was Momokawa who made possible the accession of Emperor Kammu by eliminating Crown Prince Osabe (761-775); the latter died mysteriously with his mother in prison. Not everyone in the court approved of the shift of the succession to Kammu, whose mother, of Korean descent, was of lower rank than Osabe's mother, the non-reigning empress Inoe (717-775). An essential change in the succession had already occurred when Kōnin, a descendant of Emperor Tenji (天智天皇 Tenji-tennō, 626-672), succeeded to the throne, marking a shift away from Emperor Temmu's line. The Temmu line remained dominant in the Yamato area around Nara, and the Tenji line was dominant in the northern area of Yamashiro. Thus it appears that a combination of factors, including a desire to escape Buddhist influence, a fear of the spirits of the deceased Inoe and Prince Osabe, as well as a desire to move into the area of Tenji-line strength, motivated Kammu to move from Nara. Another motive may have been to impress upon the population the power of the throne. The official selected to oversee construction was Momokawa's nephew Fujiwara no Tanetsugu (藤原種継, 737-785), who began the work in 784 with a large complement of conscripted labour By the fifth month the imperial palace was ready, and Kammu moved his court to Nagaokakyō, though the city itself was far from complete.

Although Tanetsugu enjoyed Kammu's favour, he had enemies in court. One was Kammu's younger brother Crown Prince Sawara (d 785), who expected to succeed him; but Tanetsugu favoured Kammu's eldest son, Prince Ate. Such struggles between brothers and sons of an emperor were still common despite a general disposition toward direct father-to-son succession provided for in the various codes issued since Temmu's time. At any rate, one evening while Tanetsugu was riding through the streets of Nagaoka, he was set upon and killed. Kammu rushed to the scene, investigations were carried out, and suspects, including Prince Sawara and members of the Ōtomo clan (大伴氏 Ōtomo-shi), were arrested. Sawara was exiled to the island of Awaji, where he died within a few weeks; he is generally believed to have been innocent. He was replaced as crown prince by Prince Ate, later Emperor Heizei (平城天皇 Heizei-tennō, 773-824). Thus did the courtiers close to Kammu effect a change in the succession, at the same time dealing a severe blow to their rivals the Ōtomo.

Despite this incident, the workers were urged on to complete the capital at Nagaoka; yet as the project was nearing completion, Kammu decided to move once again, this time just north to an area in the Kadono District (葛野郡 Kadono-gun) of Yamashiro. His chief motive seems to have been fear of the vengeful spirit of Prince Sawara, to which were attributed the deaths of Kammu's mother and his empress, as well as epidemics and other untoward events. Despite the strain on state finances and the obvious duplication of effort, the decision was made to construct Heiankyō.

Heian institutions

The political, social, and economic institutions of the Heian period were all shaped by what was called the ritsuryō system, based upon the penal (ritsu) and administrative (ryō) codes of the Chinese Tang (T'ang) dynasty (618-907). The process of borrowing the systematised Chinese institutional superstructure had been going on since the time of Prince Shōtoku, who in the first two decades of the seventh century attempted to reshape the powerful kin groups (氏 uji) — known as the Yamato Court — into a highly articulated imperium like that of the early T'ang. Unsuccessful though Shōtoku's efforts were at the time, they were important as the earliest attempt to reform the emerging Japanese state along Chinese lines. These reforms were carried out mainly by members of the ruling house and their close associates among the court nobility, who sought to assert their hegemony over the rest of society by relying upon august Chinese symbols of power and authority.

The period from 645 until the founding of the imperial capital at Heijokyō in 710 was marked by an intense struggle between the forces for centralisation on the Chinese model and those for decentralisation represented by the independent power of the locally prominent uji chieftains. By the early Nara Period, primarily through the efforts of Emperor Temmu, the process was completed. There was an impressive imperial capital to demonstrate the transcendent magnificence of the emperor, and a detailed administrative and penal code.

Although this system worked only imperfectly during the next century, it remained the fountainhead of political and economic ideas in Japan, and even following the move to Heiankyō, the emperor and nobility continued to cling to the ideal forms envisioned in the early codes. During the Heian Period there were numerous changes away from the ritsuryō provisions economically, socially, and most of all politically, but the ideals of the system never vanished. The basic concept of the peasantry and a land system that was "public" in the sense that it belonged to the emperor, in particular, prevailed as opposed to a system in which land and people were controlled by "private" interest. This had been the case under the earlier uji society and increasingly became that way with the development of private landed estates (荘園 or 庄園 shōen) over the course of the Heian Period.

What was developing in place of the ritsuryō system was a feudal pattern, dominated by a provincial warrior class that rose gradually to prominence during the Heian Period and to dominance in the succeeding Kamakura Period (1185-1333). Most Japanese historians view the shift to a feudal society quite negatively, attributing the breakdown of the ritsuryō system
to the warrior class.

Heian politics and government

There are several ways to divide the political history of the Heian Period, the simplest being perhaps to consider the period in an early and a later phase, divided near the mid-l0th century. In the first phase, various attempts were made to reinvigorate the ritsuryō system borrowed from China, regarding both an emperor-dominated political system and an economic base of nationally controlled rice fields. In the second, the contradictions of the cumbersome continental system caused continuous breakdowns. First the Fujiwara regents, then the retired emperors, and finally the rising warrior class were successively able to exercise control over the emperor and the political process, and economically the private landed estate (shōen) became the principal form of landholding, undermining the state-centred land system.

A more precise division of the period requires a four-phase scheme. The first phase, roughly the hundred years from the moving of the capital to the end of the ninth century, was initially characterised by the attempts of the mighty Emperor Kammu to strengthen the ritsuryō system through a change in the military organisation, the subjugation of the aboriginal Ezo people, and reform of provincial government. To some extent, this attempt to renew the ritsuryō system, with the focus still on the Chinese pattern, was carried on by Emperor Saga (嵯峨天皇 Saga-tennō, 785-842) and the other early Heian rulers. The legal codifications and the establishment of new offices outside the ritsuryō framework to improve governmental efficiencies, such as the kebiishi (検非違使, imperial police) and the kurōdo-dokoro (蔵人庁, Bureau of Archivists, or Secretariat), restored a degree of stability to the political system.

The creation of extrastatutory offices and other changes during this century however provided access to power for nonimperial families among the nobility. Of special significance during this period was the rise of the Fujiwara clan (藤原氏 Fujiwara-shi), which had already been one of the leading courtier families in Nara times, to a position comparable to that of the imperial house itself. A series of incidents, planned or exploited by astute members of this house — the Jowa Incident of 842, the Otemmon Conspiracy of 866, and the Ako incident of 887 — had already helped the Fujiwara to eliminate many rival families at court and draw close to the sovereign as regents (摂政 sesshō or 関白 kampaku) and to build the base that would later enable them to establish a permanent regency ruling in the name of the monarchy.

In the second phase, from the late ninth century until 967, the imperial house managed to preserve both its power and authority in the face of the rising Fujiwara. During this phase, the Emperors Uda (宇多天皇), Daigo (醍醐天皇), and Murakami (村上天皇) reigned without the interference of Fujiwara regents. Uda promoted the career of Sugawara no Michizane as a counterweight to Fujiwara influence, and Daigo too attempted to avoid Fujiwara domination, but the court was faced with a severe decline in revenues due to its inability to carry out the complex land allotment system in the provinces. Daigo attempted to regulate the growth of private estates, and a revision of the system of controlling the provinces left matters of local government in the hands of provincial governors (kokushi), requiring only that they meet the tax quotas set for their provinces. This also marked an abandonment of tax based on people to one based upon the land itself (年貢 nengu).

Despite the promulgation of an excellent legal formulary, the Engishiki (延喜式), great accomplishments in historical compilation, and the flourishing of aristocratic cultural activities, this phase saw a further erosion of ritsuryō institutions as local landholders, ever more frustrated by the breakdown of the land system, sought private control over their lands by joining with important central nobles and religious institutions in establishing shōen. Control of both land and people by the court continued to weaken. In 967, Fujiwara no Saneyori (藤原実頼, 900–970) became regent after a hiatus of almost twenty years in which the post had been vacant. Under Uda and Daigo there had been no regent from 891 to 930, but Fujiwara no Tadahira (藤原忠平, 880-949) had been appointed to the post with the accession of Emperor Suzaku (朱雀天皇, Suzaku-tennō, 922-952), holding it until his death in 949. Under Murakami (r 946-967) there had been no regent from 949 to the end of his reign. Now Saneyori reestablished the tradition, never to be broken after that. With the exile of the leading Minamoto family courtier Takaakira in 969, the Fujiwara were able to dominate the court altogether.

The third phase, from 967 to 1068, is the period of the Fujiwara regency government (摂関政治 sekkan seiji) when one lineage of the northern branch of the Fujiwara family established permanent political domination. The emperors were all born of Fujiwara mothers and were utterly dominated by their uncles, fathers-in-law, or grandfathers, in whose households they were normally raised. This was the time of the greatest political figure of the Heian period, Fujiwara no Michinaga (藤原道長, 966-1028), father of four women married to emperors and grandfather of three emperors. Michinaga's son Fujiwara no Yorimichi (藤原頼通, 992–1074), a high-ranking court noble for three-quarters of a century and founder of the Byōdōin (平等院, Phoenix Hall) in Kyōto, continued the Fujiwara fame until the accession of Emperor Go-Sanjō (後三条天皇 Go-Sanjō-tennō, 1034-1073) in 1068 when the Fujiwara regency lost its clout over the imperial line.

This third phase is the one most studied and glorified in Japan, to the extent that the highly refined aristocratic life of this phase is regarded as typical of the whole Heian period. Michinaga has been considered by some as the model for the hero of the Tale of Genji (源氏物語 Genji Monogatari), which so brilliantly depicted the aura of court life. The dominance of the Fujiwara was such that many consider the Heian period synonymous with Fujiwara, and in the art, the Fujiwara Period (藤原時代 Fujiwara jidai) is a division covering the last three-hundred years of the period.

The succession of Go-Sanjō, the first sovereign in hundred years whose mother was not of the Fujiwara regents' line, initiated the fourth phase, extending until the establishment of the Kamakura Shogunate in 1192. This phase is usually referred to as the Period of Insei (院政), or rule by a "cloistered emperor." Whether or not Go-Sanjō conceived of a "system" of retired emperors controlling politics is still debated, but the period was dominated by three successive powerful former emperors – Shirakawa (白河天皇 Shirakawa-tennō, 1053-1129), Toba (鳥羽天皇 Toba-tennō, 1103-1156), and Go-Shirakawa (後白河天皇 Go-Shirakawa-tennō, 1127-1192) – who replaced the reigning emperors of the earlier period and the regents of the mid-Heian period as the supreme figures in the political process.

The fourth phase is viewed as a time of imperial revival, during which the ruling house was organising itself politically and economically in the manner of the Fujiwara family to compete more effectively for the rewards of power. Shōen expansion continued unabated, and the imperial house, under the active headship of retired emperors, became the focus of commendation, replacing the Fujiwara as the greatest landholder in Japan. No longer simply the repository of sovereignty, as it had been under the Fujiwara, the imperial family developed a strong household system including a large number of clients, both aristocratic and military, as well as the largest bloc of estate holdings in the country, by successfully regaining control over the imperial position that the Fujiwara had effectively captured in the earlier phase.

During this phase, however, the ritsuryō system all but disappeared, as powerful local individuals, merging into large military cliques (武士団 bushidan), continued onslaughts on state control of land; the huge Buddhist institutions of the capital region assembled large armies and fought among themselves for both economic and ecclesiastical prizes, terrorizing the court when their demands were not met. Because in 1052 the world had entered the dreaded "Latter Day of the Law" (末法 mappō), the final phase of human decline according to a Buddhist doctrine popular in Japan to last for 10,000 years, the courtiers felt somewhat helpless in the face of such a threat.

The military class became crucial to the maintenance of civil government in the capital, as clearly demonstrated by the outbreak of the Hōgen Rebellion (保元の乱 Hōgen no ran) in 1156 and the Heiji Rebellion (平治の乱 Heiji no ran) in 1160 in the capital. From that time on, the military leaders were an indispensable part of court politics, epitomised in the rapid rise of one warrior-courtier in particular, Taira no Kiyomori (平清盛, 1118-1181).

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