Heian Period Japan History

Heian Period 794-1192 平安時代

Heian Jingu, Kyoto, Japan.
Main Shrine Building, Heian Jingu, Okazaki, Kyoto

During the Heian period:

The Heian period was marked by the capital moving from Nara to Heian-kyo ('Capital of Peace and Tranquility'), now known as Kyoto, the most likely reason for the move being the Court's desire to escape the influence of the great Buddhist institutions.

The collapse of the T'ang dynasty in China in 907 meant that from the 10th century contact with China became unofficial and less frequent, paving the way for a more native style of civilization. Part of the result was the laying of the foundations of what are now typical Japanese manners, general social behavior, and taste. The historian George Sansom summarizes the mood of Heian period with the phrase 'the rule of taste', and says "The prevalent mood...was one of sentimentality, or at best of sensibility, and not of anxious speculation about good and evil and the nature of being." (G. Sansom, A History of Japan to 1334, Tokyo: Tuttle, 1963, p.179)

The flowering of literary culture in the period is well represented by the still well-known works of Sei Shonagon (The Pillow Book) and Murasaki Shikibu (The Tale of Genji).

Modern History of Japan.

The Heian period can be divided into four phases:

  1. the efforts of the emperors to consolidate power, at the same time inadvertently providing the opportunity for the Fujiwara clan to consolidate its own as well.
  2. the independent rule of the Emperors, but with less and less success as local landholders collaborated with central nobles and religious institutions to create more and more shoen private estates.
  3. the period so dominated by the Fujiwara regency that the Emperors were even born of Fujiwara mothers.
  4. rule by the non-Fujiwara cloistered Emperors' during which time the Taiho Code's ritsuryo system virtually disappeared.

The first Heian Emperor Kammu was probably the most powerful of any Emperor before or since, but after his death in 806 the Fujiwara increased in political power by providing the imperial house with Fujiwara concubines and imperial consorts, thus forging marriage bonds that gave Fujiwara nobles access to the highest Court administrative positions. In 858 the Fujiwara clan got a real foothold on power when Fujiwara Yoshifusa was made Regent for his grandson, the emperor Seiwa. The office of Kampaku was thus created, making the Regency permanent, even when the emperor was an adult. The Kampaku was a virtual dictator and issued commands as if he were the emperor. Initially, due to dissension within the Fujiwara, the Emperors still managed to maintain some autonomy, but this autonomy ended with the death of the Emperor Daigo in 930.

12th century handscroll of the Tale of Genji.
12th century handscroll of the Tale of Genji.
Fujiwara Michinaga, court politician in the Heian Period.
Fujiwara Michinaga, court politician in the Heian Period

What was officially due the Kyoto government under the ritsuryo system - tax, interest in kind paid by farmers for official loans of seed rice, labor tax, etc. - came, more often than not, to be hijacked in the provinces for the benefit of shoen private estates. Government officials below the rank of governor were locally appointed and therefore unlikely to act against the interests of their immediate superiors, the great estate-owning nobles. Meanwhile, the ritsuryo system began to suffer its first acute crisis as peasant cultivators of public land, oppressed by taxes, deserted their holdings for other livelihoods - often on the untaxable shoen private estates. This had an increasingly adverse impact on the government's income and power.

At the same time, the quest for new arable land in the north and east at the expense of the aboriginal Ainu tribes depended on military force that was now no longer able to be directly conscripted from the peasantry. It was from about 900AD that a separate military class of provincial landowners appeared. They were usually either Minamoto or Taira and more often than not nominal holders of government office in the localities. Raising armies was now their responsibility and, armed as they were, they stubbornly resisted imperial attempts to control and tax their estates. Banding together - with the loyalty of the cultivators they protected - they asserted their independence not only from the government (in reality the Fujiwara) but often from the absentee lords of the shoen as well who lived a world apart in the capital. The resulting lack of central authority made for less and less stability in the countryside, making even more small cultivators seek protection under their local lord's wing.

This situation demonstrates how the principle of heredity in Japan - i.e. rule by virtue of family name rather than talent - was at loggerheads with the Chinese principle of earned merit that the ritsuryo system required if it were to work properly. (Not that it worked very well even in China!) On the one hand, ritsuryo was designed to burden, and thereby weaken, the countryside by forcing it to provide the imperial institution with the wealth and military might it needed to rule. On the other, in its pure form, it offered the chance of emancipation through advancement due to talent. But since the imperial government was controlled by the Fujiwara, no amount of efficiency and talent in anyone not born to the Fujiwara clan could earn him any advantage from the system. Faced with growing recalcitrance from those denied political power and who thus set out to build their military and economic power, Kyoto itself was forced to recognize how out of synch the technicalities and prescriptions of ritsuryo system were with social realities and overrode the system more and more with ad hoc regulations.

In 1068 the Emperor Go-Sanjo ascended the throne and began the years of the 'cloistered Emperors' whereby the Fujiwara's absolute hold on power was broken. An Emperor would abdicate in favor of his young son, but would continue ruling from behind the scenes - thus bypassing Fujiwara influence, traditionally exercised via the maternal side of the family. The imperial house, having grasped back real power, entered the political fray much like any other clan competing for land. But the Fujiwara being immensely rich in land maintained at least the form of their authority by clinging to their traditional Court offices. In 1156, a dispute within the Fujiwara over who should succeed as emperor led to internecine strife: what is known as the Hogen Insurrection. The victorious faction managed to defend its candidate only by turning for help to the major warrior clan of the Taira, which defeated the faction that, likewise, had turned for help to the Minamoto clan. Inviting direct and decisive warrior participation in politics was the last straw for the aspirations of direct rule of the country by an independent court. With Fujiwara power now seriously in decline, the Taira and Minamoto grew stronger and stronger in the 10th and 11th centuries, as did their mutual rivalry.

It should be understood however, that of far greater historical significance than the Taira-Minamoto rivalry was the ever growing transfer of wealth and power from the center to the countryside as more and more small cultivators, fearful of the turbulence of the times, committed their once public - and therefore taxable - lands to the local warrior's shoen for protection. (This turbulence in the countryside was matched by the turbulence of unruly armed monks in the capital who regularly terrorized the Court.)

Having backed the winner in the Hogen Insurrection and reinforced its supremacy by putting down the Heiji Rising four years later, the Taira clan was ascendant for most of the 12th century and the warrior-courtier Taira no Kiyomori dominated the court between 1160 and 1185. But Taira rule became extremely unpopular and the revived Minamoto clan under Minamoto Yoritomo eventually re-engaged with the Taira, finally triumphing in the Gempei War at Dannoura in March 1185.

In December 1185 Minamoto Yoritomo pressured the cloistered Emperor Go-Shirakawa to grant him the right to levy a tax on all estates public and private, and to police public estates through the appointment of constables (shugo), private estates through stewards (jito), in all provinces, answerable to him alone and not to the Court. While these rights were not necessarily exercised to their fullest extent, they spelt the formal end of imperial prerogative in military matters, land tenure and taxation of agriculture, and was thus in practice the final nail in the coffin of the defunct ritsuryo system. By 1190 he had secured military control of nearly all of Japan and, on Go-Shirakawa's death in 1192, considerable political control of the Court.

NOTE - the dates of the Heian Period are also often given as 794-1185 in other sources.

Heian Jingu, Kyoto, Japan.
Ote-mon the main two story entrance gate to Heian Jingu, Kyoto, painted vermilion and with blue Chinese-style roof tiles

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