Heian Period (平安時代)

Heian Cultural Life

The dominant view of the political and economic developments away from the ritsuryō system is negative, but in the cultural sphere the evaluations are all positive: the experience is seen as one in which the Japanese created a genuinely native culture for the first time. The absorption of continental Buddhist ideas, the perfection of a native written language that made possible a genuinely Japanese method of literary expression and the emergence of a secular artistic tradition that freed Japanese artists and artisans from the rigid traditions learned from the Chinese. It is for these cultural achievements that the Heian Period is best known by most Japanese.


Although one of the reasons for abandoning the capital at Nara was the undue secular influence of the Buddhist establishment, Emperor Kammu and his successors were not hostile to Buddhism. Buddhism flourished in Heian times, and in combination with native Shintō beliefs, it dominated the religious and philosophical lives of the nobility in particular. It was, however, a different kind of Buddhism from its Nara-period predecessor.

Shortly after the move of the capital, two monks returned from China, where, accompanying an official mission, they had gone to seek the truth of the Buddhist message, Saichō (最澄, 767-822) who had founded the Enryakuji (延暦寺) on Mount Hiei (比叡山 Hieizan), returned to establish there the Tendai sect. He dedicated himself to creating a monastic order that would serve the country more positively than the older sects in Nara. Situated as it was in the critically dangerous northeast direction (from which it was believed evil spirits invaded), Enryaku-ji came to be regarded as the protector of the capital.

Kūkai (空海, 774–835), better known by his posthumous title Kōbō-Daishi (弘法大師), returned to found his temple far from the centre of politics, on Mount Kōya (高野山 Kōya-san) in Kii Province (modern-day Wakayama Prefecture). Kūkai introduced the tantric form of Buddhism to Japan in the form of the Shingon sect. As it emphasised rituals, incantations, and magical formulas and stressed visual representation of the Buddhist cosmology in a cosmic diagram called a mandala, Shingon Buddhism proved immensely popular with the Japanese court, both as a religion providing personal comfort and as a spur to more significant developments in art. Furthermore, Kūkai’s personality and abilities were not unimportant in the spread of esoteric Shingon, which soon eclipsed Tendai as the most important religion in Heian times.

The headquarters of both these new sects were located outside the capital, reflecting Kammu’s desire that the new capital is free from the negative influence of priests. Only two temples, the Tōji (東寺) and Saiji (西寺), to the east and west respectively of the main north-south avenue of the city and far to the south of the imperial enclosure, were included in the original city plan, and other temples grew up in the suburbs of the town. By the end of the period the aristocracy had constructed a large number of private temples in Heiankyō, and monks from the suburban temples were as common a sight in the Heian capital as they had been in Nara. Usually armed, they were, in fact, more threatening.

These warrior-monks (僧兵 sōhei) had been recruited by significant temples to protect the bitter doctrinal and political disputes within one temple or between two, and in conflicts over land rights in their provincial estates. They were also effective in opposing the government. To press their demands, they would march into the capital with the sacred palanquin bearing the symbol of the Shintō protective deity associated with their temple. The monks were most ferocious in their disputes with one another, however. The prime example of such infighting was the continuing struggle between the headquarters of the Tendai sect at Enryakuji, atop Mount Hiei, and its branch Onjoji (園城寺 or 三井寺 Miidera) temple, at the foot of the mountain near Lake Biwa. There two institutions alternately burned down each other’s buildings in ferocious fighting from the late tenth through the fifteenth century.

Even though these monks sometimes intimidated the court, still, the separation of religion and politics was maintained to the extent that nothing like the influence of a Dōkyō (道鏡, 700-772) was permitted in Heian times. The court nobles remained devout, however, and frequent pilgrimages to the significant Buddhist and Shinto establishments were a common part of the lives of the court from the emperor on down.

Buddhism did not spread widely among the masses in Heian times, but there was at least the beginning of popularisation of the faith through the development of a belief in the saving grace of Amida, the Buddha of Boundless Light, into whose Western Paradise weary souls could be reborn. Amida had supposedly made an original vow that all who called on his name would be welcome in his Western Paradise, or Pure Land. This doctrine of the Pure Land had been introduced by Ennin (圓仁 or 円仁, 793/4-864) and others who had returned from study and travel in China in the ninth century, and it was popularised to some extent by Kuya (空也, 903-972), who preached it in the streets. The most important Pure Land figure of the Heian Period was Genshin (源信, 942-1017), whose Ōjōyōshū (往生要集 “Essentials of Birth in the Pure Land”) depicted the horrors of hell and the delights of the Pure Land graphically.

Amidism, or Pure Land Buddhism, did not become a separate sect until the succeeding Kamakura Period, but it achieved great popularity from mid-Heian times on. The key to the popularity of Pure Land tenets at this time was the Mahayana Buddhist idea of mappō (末法). This concept held that the Buddhist law would develop after the death of the Buddha through three stages: prosperity (正法 shōbō) for 500 years, decline (像法 zōhō) for 1,000 years, and finally disappearance in the latter day (mappō). Once mappō began, it would not be sufficient to achieve enlightenment through one’s powers, as preached by most Buddhist sects. The only hope was to throw oneself on the saving grace of Amida.

Thus, court nobles and ladies chanted the nembutsu (念仏) to attain rebirth in Amida’s Pure Land. Fujiwara no Michinaga (966-1028), for example, wrote that during a five-day period he repeated the nembutsu – Namu Amida Butsu (“I put my faith in Amida Buddha”) – 700,000 times. With the same fervour, Michinaga, like many other courtiers, built an Amida Hall in one of his residences for the worship of this Buddha. Perhaps the most significant such private Amida temple was that at Uji, the Phoenix Hall (鳳凰堂 Hōō-dō) of the Byōdōin (平等院), built by Michinaga’s son Yorimichi (990-1074).

Although Buddhism thus flourished during the Heian Period, it would be wrong to suggest that there was a strict sectarian division among devotees. Apart from the religious community itself, religious belief for most Japanese was highly eclectic. Court nobles seemingly made little distinction between different sects of Buddhism, native Shintō ritualistic beliefs, and imported “Confucian” lore centring on such pseudoscientific concepts as yin and yang and the “five elements” (陰陽道 onmyōdō). Thus, for example, Michinaga visited Tendai and Shingon establishments as well as important Shintō shrines, called upon exorcists, chanted the nembutsu, and also had great faith in Miroku Bosatsu (弥勒菩薩), the Buddha of the future, all without any apparent conscious distinction.


The height of the Heian creative spirit was evinced in literature. As in other spheres, a dividing point in Heian literary development is the year 838, which marks the last of the Japanese missions to the Tang court. After that the Japanese, while retaining certain Chinese philosophical tendencies and continuing to value Chinese books, pictures, etc., turned increasingly to a more truly native means of expression.

What made possible the tremendous surge of creativity in both poetry and prose was the development of the kana syllabary. In its final form of some 50 phonetic symbols, it made writing much easier. Although it was thus theoretically possible to write a Japanese sentence using no Chinese characters (kanji) at all, the Japanese had by this time borrowed such an immense body of Chinese words, including virtually all the important terms from the Confucian and Buddhist philosophies, that in practice both Chinese characters and kana were used. Moreover, despite the availability of kana, Heian court nobles remained devoted to the Chinese written language, if only as a symbol of status, and kept diaries in classical Chinese (漢文 kanbun, “Chinese writing”) using kana only in the composition of Japanese poetry. This left the use of kana to women, and by and large, it was women who produced the most magnificent works of Heian literature.

As direct interest in China faded, courtiers turned increasingly to the cultivation of the 31-syllable waka (和歌) poem. Poetry composition was more a part of the world of the Heian court nobles than of that of any other society in history. There were poetry competitions, some held at imperial command, lovers exchanged poems, and on occasion even officials communicated with poems. Inability to compose a waka or to recognise a poetic allusion could condemn one to social disgrace. None matched the earlier Man’yōshū (万葉集, “Collection of Ten Thousand Leaves”) in size or scope, but some anthologies of Japanese poetry were compiled in Heian times, the Kokin Wakashū (古今和歌集, short Kokinshū 古今集, ca 905) being perhaps the greatest.

The development of the kana syllabary also proved to be a stimulus to the creation of native prose literature, of which there were essentially two types in Heian times, the Monogatari (物語, tale) and the Nikki (日記, diary). The former was a narrative tale, reaching unparalleled heights in Murasaki Shikibu’s Genji Monogatari (源氏物語, Tale of Genji), and the latter was more a record of private and intimate impressions of daily events, but they shared at least one common feature, the tendency to intersperse poems throughout the narrative. One type of Monogatari, the uta monogatari (歌物語, poem tale), was little more than a large number of verses linked by brief introductory remarks. The favourite of this genre, Ise Monogatari (伊勢物語, Tales of Ise), is regarded as one of the classics of Japanese literature.

The Tosa Nikki (土佐日記, Tosa Diary) by Ki no Tsurayuki (紀貫之, 872-945) is considered to be the first of its type and deals with his trip to the province of Tosa (modern-day Kochi Prefecture) in Shikoku. Later the genre was wholly taken over by women, two of the most representative examples being the diary of the “Mother of Fujiwara no Michitsuna” (蜻蛉日記 Kagerō Nikki, “The Mayfly Diary” or “The Gossamer Years”, the title of the first English translation by Edward Seidensticker) and that of Genji’s author, Murasaki Shikibu. Unlike the Tosa Nikki, which focuses on a specific journey, Kagerō Nikki covers an extended period, chronicling the author’s despair over the growing coldness of her husband, Fujiwara no Kaneie (藤原 兼家, 929-990).

Slightly different from the Nikki is the Makura no Sōshi (枕草子, Pillow Book) of Sei Shōnagon (清少納言, 966–1017). It is a collection of reminiscences, anecdotes, and very outspoken opinions about the court. The tone is light and witty, expressing what the Heian courtiers referred to as okashi (お菓子, “sweet, delicious”), and pioneered the popular genre of short essays known as zuihitsu ((随筆, personal essays and ideas).

Far beyond anything else in the period, it is the Tale of Genji that remains the classic work of Japanese literature. By comparison with other Heian works, it is massive, composed of some 54 chapters dealing with the life of the court and focusing on the hero Hikaru Genji (光源氏), the “shining prince.” Its language is as elegant as its protagonist. A tour de force of psychological narrative, it is considered by many to be the world’s first novel. If the Pillow Book represents the Heian aesthetic value of okashi – something that brought amusement and delight – then Genji is the epitome of another Heian ideal, the sense of mono no aware (物の哀れ), the “pathos of things” or “the sadness inherent in the things of this world.”

Heian Art

The Heian Period of art is divided into an early and a late phase, turning on the cessation of official relations with China in 838. The first hundred years or so is known by either of two era names, Kōnin (弘仁, 810-824), or Jōgan (貞観, 859-877), and the last three centuries are called the Fujiwara age. Like the Tempyō (729-749) era of Nara times, Jōgan was an era in which the influence of Chinese culture and esoteric Buddhism remained strong. The primary art forms were Buddhist sculpture and mandalas.

In Nara times statues had been cast in bronze or modelled in dry lacquer or clay, but beginning in the Jōgan era, the Japanese relied mainly on wood. The normal technique was to carve the entire statue from one block of wood, left unpainted except for the lips so as not to interfere with the natural aroma of the wood (usually sandalwood). This meant that Jōgan statues were usually smaller than those of the Tempyō. The fact that the court no longer patronized the Buddhist establishment to the degree it had in Nara meant that there was no more need for massive statues like the Great Buddha of Tōdaiji, whose function seems to have been as much nationalistic as religious. The smaller scale also meant that it was no longer necessary to employ the large group of government artisan workers for such projects, and in fact, from the Jōgan era, the tendency toward individual artisans became strong. The two most famous examples of Jōgan sculpture are the Yakushi Nyorai (薬師如来, the Healing Buddha of Buddha of Medicine) at the Jingoji (神護寺) in Kyōto and the Shaka Nyorai (釈迦如来, the historical Buddha) at Murōji, south of Nara.

Few examples of early Heian painting survive. Most numerous are the mandalas, which were used as meditative aids and are usually found in the form of hanging scrolls or wall paintings. Fine examples are found in the Kyōto temples Jingoji and Tōji. The only other Jōgan paintings are the fierce representations of Fudō-myōō (不動明王). Although a manifestation of the cosmic Buddha, fudō were depicted as grotesque, muscular guardians who subdued the enemies of the faith with the rope and sword they normally carried. One of the most representative of these is the yellow fudō of Onjoji Temple.

As in the various works of literature, great changes are readily observable in the art of the long period under Fujiwara domination. In particular notable was the growing popularity of Amida. Images of Amida became popular, the most noteworthy being that sculpted by the Buddhist artisan Jōchō (定朝, d. 1057, also known as Jōchō Busshi) in the Phoenix Hall of the Byōdōin (平等院) in Kyōto. The representation of Amida coming to lead the believer to the Western Paradise was also a popular theme. There is an excellent example of this raigō (来迎) theme done as a wall painting at the Byōdōin. There were also sculptural representatives of this theme, as the idea of the saving grace of Amida’s original vow came to be widely accepted by the court nobility.

Perhaps the most marked departure of Fujiwara-period painting from the earlier periods is the development of secular art, known as Tang-inspired Yamato-e (大和絵, “Japanese-style pictures”) to distinguish it from what was considered “Chinese pictures” (唐絵 kara-e). Very little nonreligious art existed in earlier periods. There were a few copies of Chinese-style landscapes, and portraits in the Chinese fashion of great ecclesiastical figures like the Chinese priest Ganjin. In the Fujiwara Period, however, there was a surge of secular painting, both landscape and scenes of daily court life, painted on folding screens (屏風 byōbu, lit. wind wall) and on paper doors (襖 fusuma). They are only known by description as none of the paintings has survived.

Perhaps the finest examples of Fujiwara painting in existence today are the makimono (絵巻物, lit. picture scroll), or narrative scrolls, which were en vogue in the eleventh and twelfth centuries. Some deal with famous historical events, such as the Ban Dainagon Ekotoba (伴大納言絵詞 The Tale of Great Minister Ban), recounting the fate of the wronged courtier Sugawara no Michizane, or the scroll of the Hōgen Rebellion. Some are more religious, depicting Buddhist legends, as in the Shigisan Engi Emaki (信貴山縁起絵巻 Legend of Mount Shigi), and some even describe the gory details of Buddhist hells. Perhaps the most celebrated is the twelfth-century Genji Monogatari Emaki, displaying the world of Murasaki’s novel.

Freed from the constraints of religion, painting developed in many directions, and the Yamato-e style influenced the development of a singularly Japanese form of decorative art. New Chinese artistic traditions continued to be introduced (ink painting, etc.), but by going back to the Yamato-e style, the Japanese continued to produce new forms of quite a distinct character.

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  • Nussbaum, Louis-Frédéric, Japan Encyclopedia, Harvard University Press 2005