Nara and Heian Japan (710 AD - 1185 AD)

Nara and Heian Japan (710 AD - 1185 AD)

Editor's Note: This article was originally written for Japan Society's previous site for educators, "Journey through Japan," in 2003. Some of this material has been adapted from the author’s previous work in Martin Collcutt, Marius Jansen and Isao Kumakura, The Cultural Atlas of Japan, Facts on File, New York, 1988. 

Between 710 and 1185 AD, the imperial court first constructed a new imperial capital at Heijo (near modern Nara), and then moved to Heian (modern Kyoto). Because these moves represented new stages in the development of the Japanese state, historians now divide these years into the Nara (710-794) and Heian (794-1185) periods.

1. Nara (710-794)

The new capital at Nara was modeled on the Chinese imperial capital of Chang-an. It had an imperial palace in the north, and residences, and temples and markets to the south. At its height it had perhaps 200,000 people living and working along broad streets laid out on a north-south axis. Here the emperor ruled in ways that drew heavily upon the Chinese imperial model of the emperor as the “son of heaven” (tenshi) or the “heavenly sovereign” (tenno) who had received the heavenly mandate to rule; unlike the Chinese sovereign, however, the Japanese emperor’s mandate was considered sacred and irrevocable, passed down through time in a single divinely sanctioned line. All contenders for power in Japan recognized that the mandate to rule had been entrusted for all time to the imperial house not because of the emperor’s wisdom or military might, but rather by its divine descent from the Sun Goddess (Amaterasu).

The administration of the country was modeled on that of Tang China (581-907), but unlike China, where a civil service examination theoretically promoted the most intellectually able to positions of power, the various ministries and departments still tended to be staffed by members of the traditionally influential clans (uji). These officials were given extensive rights to income from the state treasury and the public domain. Their positions quickly became hereditary. While a small “university” was established to teach Confucian ethics, birth and personal recommendation, rather than merit or performance in office, was what guaranteed appointment and promotion.

The countryside was also modeled on Chinese standards, but here too, the old clan (uji) aristocracy remained on their lands. Now they served as district officials of the central government under the supervision of court nobles sent out from the capital. Rice lands were divided into classic grid patterns that could easily be reallocated as the population changed, and cultivators who had formerly been controlled by clan (uji) chieftains or belonged to occupation groups were now ordinary commoners who paid their taxes to the state. They were organized into village units that were mutually responsible for each others behavior. Taxes were collected in rice, textiles and other local products, and villagers were asked to donate labor and serve in the military. The peasants often found these heavy burdens to bear.

Now that the government was no longer involved in Korea (as explained in the Early Japan essay, the Japanese had been badly defeated in 663), the main job of the military was the expansion of central government authority into the southern part of the island of Kyushu and the northern part of the main island of Honshu. The worst of the clan (uji) rivalry had been brought under control, but the nobility still struggled for influence within the government. Buddhist priests from the Nara temples also came to exert what some felt was a dangerous influence over impressionable sovereigns. In 758, a Buddhist monk named Dokyo (? – 772) was given a high position in the government by the Empress Shotoku (718-770, ruled 749-758 and 764-770). Apparently infatuated, she even housed him in the palace, and gave him the title of “King of the Buddhist Law” (ho-o), a title normally reserved for abdicated emperors entering the priesthood. When it looked as if Dokyo might wish to become emperor himself, he was banished and died in exile. Dokyo’s maneuverings were not successful, but the struggles between the traditional aristocrat government officials and the clergy eventually convinced the Emperor Kammu (737-806, ruled 781-806) and his advisors that it was time to build a new capital.

2. Heian (794-1185)

After a good deal of trouble (a previous site had to be abandoned), the new capital of Heian was established in what is now modern Kyoto. Like the Heiji (Nara) capital, the new Heian capital was modeled on the ancient Chinese capital of Chang’an (modern Xi’an/Sian), but did not have that Chinese city’s great walls. Set on a broad plain amply watered by beautiful rivers, the Heian capital was surrounded by various mountains, while the northeast corner – traditionally considered unlucky – was protected by Mt. Hiei. The new capital was bigger than Heijo, but only part of it was occupied. Like Heijo, the palace enclosure and seat of government was constructed in the north of the city. The imperial residence was a simple structure built of unpainted wood and roofed with cedar bark, but the official buildings were resplendent with Chinese style read pillars and green roof tiles. Streets were laid out on a grid pattern with some 1200 uniform residential blocks, the northeast part of which tended to house the aristocracy. A central avenue further divided the city into “left” and “right” sectors. State sponsored markets were sponsored in both sectors. In reaction to the events in Heijo, only the so-called eastern and western temples (Toji and Saiji) were allowed within the new capital.

Like Heijo, the Heian capital was the political, social and cultural center of the country. In addition to the court nobles, its inhabitants included the families of petty officials, artisans, store keepers, military guards and a few monks. The total population of the capital in the 9th century was perhaps 100,000, of whom 10,000 or so were nobles and lesser officials. The commoner population gradually swelled to meet the needs of the aristocracy, opening their own stalls, stores, studios and workshops that competed with the official government markets, and building their own shacks and homes along the banks of the Kamo River as the city straggled eastward. At least until the Fujiwara family came to power later on in the Heian period, in sum, the imperial court’s decision to move to a new capital seemed wise. Here life was bustling and enjoyable.

3. The Fujiwara

The Fujiwara family had been influential from the beginning of imperial rule. The house was founded by Nakatomi no Kamatari, the head of the Nakatomi clan of Shinto ritualists, who (as discussed in the Early Japan essay) had helped Prince Naka no Oe in the 645 coup that produced the Taika Reforms. Kamatari was given the name Fujiwara (“Wisteria Field”) by Emperor Tenjin in 669, in memory, it was said, of the spot where the plot to overthrow the rival Soga clan (uji) was hatched. Kamatari’s son Fujiwara no Fuhito (659-720) was active in the compilation of the Taiho code of 702 that attempted to set up the government’s legal and administrative system. He not only became a high official, but was the father-in-law of two emperors and grandfather of another. The Fujiwara suffered a temporary setback when four of Fuhito’s sons died in an epidemic of 737, but the family quickly recovered to lead the resistance to Dokyo, the priestly pretender to the throne. The so-called northern branch of the family, headed by Fuhito’s son Fusaaki (681-737) soon played a key role in the politics of the Heian period.

The Fujiwara were adept at marrying their daughters to emperors, and thus linking themselves closely to the imperial line through the births of heirs. Isolating and excluding rivals, they were not above plotting incidents which they blamed on others. They added to their private wealth and power by accumulating holdings in private estates that they got exempt from imperial control, and then used this wealth to reward lesser families. Most of all they monopolized two key offices that had not been provided for by the ritsuryo system: the sessho or Regent for a minor emperor, and the kampaku or Regent for an adult one. Fujiwara control over the sessho regency started when Fujiwara no Yoshifusa (804-872) placed his nine year old grandson on the throne; this was the first time that someone not of imperial blood became a Regent. Fujiwara no Mototsune (836-891) then became the first Fujiwara to serve as a kampaku. This practice allowed the Fujiwara to continue to influence policy throughout the lifetime of a reigning emperor without actually usurping the sacred imperial line.

Naturally some emperors tried to rule without regents, and sought to appoint talented courtiers from other families to counter Fujiwara influence. A prime example of this was the courts decision to a high government post to the statesman, poet, scholar and calligrapher Sugawara no Michizane (843-903). Although admired for his talents, Michizane was quickly out-maneuvered by the Fujiwara and forced into exile in Kyushu. The ox carrying his cart allegedly protected him from an ambush, but he soon died of grief and sickness. Because his revengeful ghost was said to have brought fire, storm and plague to the capital, Sugawara was promoted posthumously, made a patron of letters, and worshiped at a special shrine at Kitano in Kyoto. All this hardly affected the Fujiwara family’s power, however, as Fujiwara no Michizane (966-1028) was soon to prove. Thanks to his skill at arranging political marriages, Michizane wound up being the father of four empresses, the uncle of two emperors and the grandfather of three more. Though he never formally assumed the post, Michizane was known as a Regent (kampaku) because of the tight control he had over the court. Having set up his sons as regents and ministers of state, he became a Buddhist monk in 1019. At least for the moment, the Fujiwara’s clever politics and vast land holdings left them clearly in command.

4. Private Estates

The ability of the Fujiwara to dominate the bureaucratic system of Heian Japan was in large part due to their ability also to get private rights to the land. The idea that all land should belong to the state and be periodically redistributed to peasants by need – that is, the allocation system adopted from China in the Nara period -- was difficult to set up and bitterly resented by the deeply imbedded clan (uji) interests; it probably did work for a while, but by the late 8th century, private land holdings were beginning to appear. Some of these were lands held by the imperial family or granted to high officials, Shinto shrines and Buddhist monasteries. Other, reclaimed lands often were allowed to stay in private hands to encourage additional private investment. In 724, land reclaimed from dry lands could be owned for one generation, while reclaimed marshland could be owned for three; by 743, privately reclaimed land could be permanently owned, and by 844, land ceased being re-allotted altogether.

Soon private lands created by reclamation or imperial gift were surpassed in numbers by other types of estates. To secure protection and tax immunities, for example, small landholders often commended their lands to an absentee noble or temple and simply paid an annual rent. If the new proprietor worried about protecting his land, he might in turn commend some of the rights to a percentage of the income of the land to a high ranking member of the Fujiwara family or to an imperial consort who had some influence in court. Although lands commended to less powerful patrons might still pay taxes to the central government, the tendency over time was to build private estates (known as shoen), the land rights to which were divided into multiple shares that were known as shiki. Unlike European manors, these shoen were often scattered bits of land whose ownership was divided by various numbers and kinds of shiki. Initially they supported the cultured lives of the nobles and temples by supplying rice and silk, lumber and building materials, swords and horses, lacquer and wax, ink and brushes, fish and fowl, laborers and warriors. Later they would support bands of fierce, rural warriors.

5. The Rise of the Warrior

By the 10th century, the once glamorous city of Heijo was descending into lawlessness. Unruly monks from the monasteries in Nara or on Mt. Hiei frequently poured into the city to demand greater privileges. Footloose warriors and thugs roamed the streets, robberies were committed in broad daylight, and even the walled residences of the aristocracy were sometimes pillaged or burned. There were frequent fires in the Emperor’s palace and the official buildings, and the Great Audience Hall, the symbol of imperial prestige, was not rebuilt after its third major fire in 1156.

Meanwhile the provinces were also slowly slipping into anarchy and rebellion. The Fujiwara, although adept at court politics and intrigue, had little taste for the rigors of military campaigns or the cut and thrust of battle. Many nobles did not wish to leave the capital for a dangerous post in some remote province, and so sold their appointment to a deputy, many of whom used this to build up their own fortunes. While they were officially required to return to the capital after four years to report on their stewardship, many deputies simply got themselves reappointed and stayed in the provinces. To entrench themselves and further their interests, they frequently made alliances with local warrior families. By 792, the conscription system, never very effective, was abolished, and emperors, nobles, Buddhist temples and powerful provincial families, some of whom had long had private armed forces, all began to increase their own militias.

Warriors who had, or could claim, noble ancestry became the nuclei around which several of the largest regional warrior leagues clustered. Particularly in the rough frontier region of northern Honshu, chieftains claiming noble lineage refined the techniques of mounted warfare and elaborated the “way of the bow and horse,” the warrior tradition that eventually developed under Confucian influence into bushido or the way of the warrior. These warriors lived in the countryside. They provided military service, ceremonial guard duty and economic support to their lords, in return for which they got both confirmation of their land holding and the spoils of war. When they were not fighting, they were expected to practice their fighting skills, lead frugal, arduous outdoor lives, and prize valor, loyalty and family honor --but many simply looked out for themselves. In this period, the turncoat was probably as common as the selfless vassal.

By the mid-10th century, indeed, it was becoming clear that warrior leagues, such as those led by the Fujiwara, the Taira and the Minamoto) represented a real threat to the court. The Taira (also known as the Heike) claimed descent from the Emperor Kammu; the Minamoto (also known as the Genji) claimed Emperor Seiwa as their founding ancestor. By 935, the Taira had taken over control of the Kanto (modern Tokyo) plain, and by 939, they were in open revolt against the central government. At the same time, Fujiwara no Sumitomo (who died in 941) had been sent to put down piracy in the Inland Sea, only to turn rebel himself. Faced with rebellion on two fronts, the court called on Minamoto warriors to help, after which the Minamoto established such close ties with the Fujiwara that they became known as the “claws and teeth” of that famous family. By the 11th and 12th centuries, a branch of the Taira family was also building up its power. Despite attempts by various retired emperors to reassert control over their sons in the insei or cloistered government system, the weakness of the imperial court was now all too clearly shown.

After a secession dispute between a cloistered emperor and a reigning one broke out in 1156, Taira no Kiyomori (1118-1181) took advantage of the confused factional fighting to kill off much of the Minamoto leadership and establish a commanding position in court. Characteristically, the emperors, the cloistered emperors and the Fujiwara were not swept away, but rather were allowed to play a ceremonial role while waiting for their chance to return to power. Kiyomori and his fellow Taira leaders took court ranks, provincial titles and land holdings for themselves. Like the Fujiwara before them, they used marriage to cement their ties with the throne, and were apparently rewarded when Taira no Kiyomori’s grandson in 1180 became the Emperor Antoku (1178-1185, ruled 1180-1185). The Taira’s triumph was short lived, however, as by 1185, Minamoto no Yoritomo (1147-1199), had rebuilt his family’s fortunes, slaughtered the Taira and set up his own base in Kamakura, near modern Tokyo. The battles between the Taira and Minamoto (discussed in a separate essay on Nara-Heian culture) have been celebrated in Japanese literature both as examples of courage, tragedy and triumph, and as the epic start of a new era in Japanese history.