The Heian period (794 - 1185)

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    To escape the Buddhist Monastery influence on the court the capital was moved to Nagaoka in 784.  Then, before it was actually completed, it was moved to Heian in 794, the present location of the city of Kyoto.  In the beginning of the ninth century Emperor Kanmu restricted the places where Buddhist temples were built keeping them away from the center of the city and palace until his death in 806.  However after his death things changed and Buddhist temples were built throughout the city (Leonard 31).

    Inside the city, according to Totman, the Heian city population was around one hundred thousand, with only about five thousand of those being aristocrats.  The rest were from various classes of people from the untitled but influential subordinates and clerics to the slaves.  The aristocratic courtiers had to have attendants who took care of their needs and craftsmen who created the elaborate decorations of the court, monasteries, or shrines.  There were also merchants and artisans who occupied the markets of the city to trade their goods like animal skins, vegetables, ceramics, medicine, and iron utensils (Totman 57).  Also, many of the nobles were large landowners or administrators of Shoen.

    Outside the city the country was still a barbaric place to live in the Nara and Heian periods.  Most people of that time lived in the provinces and were primarily agricultural producers who produced rice for themselves and their superiors.  There were also the provincial officials, administrators, and clerics living in the provinces.  Local provincial monasteries, and shrines existed as well.  There were various other people from the constable forces to the peasants.  The peasants lived in close-knit village communities.  They paid taxes through produce or labor and may have traded goods locally as well.  Also, there were still Ainu and Ezo areas in the northeast, but they were eventually defeated or retreated to the north (Totman 58).

    The post of regent to the emperor was established in the Heian period.  It is the most powerful of any of the other offices in the government.  He actually has control over the imperial government giving little or no power to the emperor himself.  The emperor ruled in name only.  The early emperors were usually children and therefore, it was very easy for the regent to exercise control over the government.

    The Fujiwara family also increased its influence on the Imperial family and Japan with the establishment of the post of Regent to the Emperor.  They made this post hereditary sealing the families control over both the Imperial family and Japan until the eleventh century (Leonard 31-32).  During the beginning of the 9th century the city was being built, and the majority of Japan's people consisted of the peasant class.  The people above that level who were slightly more cultivated were the provincial officials, priests, and landowners (Leonard 32).  The highest class of people were the aristocrats who lived in the city itself.  They were directly associated with the Imperial family in some way.  Many of the historical accounts of this era come form this group of highly educated class of people.

    The Heian period is considered the classical period in Japanese history because during that period, the development of the Japanese culture flourished.  Japan had an explosion of artistic and literary expression during that time (Leonard 31).  It was during the period from 794 to 1185 that this explosion took place.  During that period the aristocracy ruled the country from a lavish city called Heian-kyo.  There the aristocracy practiced writing literature, poetry, music, and art.  They wore elaborately decorated clothing (Leonard 35).  The aristocracy developed a court culture of values and rituals.  The Japanese writing system "kana" was developed during this period.   Many of the classical writings of poems and stories were developed during this time like, "The Tales of Genji," "Kagero Nikki"—a court lady's diary and others.  This was a period of peace and tranquility in which the aristocratic Japanese, of that time, were able to create a unique culture.

    In the early classical period art always had a religious theme, but much latter art was used to represent the daily life of the aristocrats.  The art that represented court life was known as Yamato-e a form of Japanese painting (Totman 42).  This form of painting was colorful and was used to illustrate landscapes and the life of notable courtesans (Totman 42).

    The architecture of the time was also borrowed from the Chinese.  The elaborate buildings of the time required great architectural knowledge and skills.  As with all other forms of art it began as a direct copy, but by the end of the Heian period it had been given a Japanese flavor.  The first cities were laid out in the symmetrical model of the Chinese, but latter strayed from symmetrical layout and construction (Totman 42).

    Additionally, woodworking, bronze casting, writing poetry, sculpting, and music were all perfected during Japan's classical period. Music was used in the court and was known as gagaku.  It was an orchestra form of music using wind instruments, kotos—Japanese string instruments, and percussion instruments (Totman 51).  It was performed in concert form and also was accompanied by dancers (Totman 51).  This form of court music is still in use today (Totman 51).

Dai Nichi, Heian Era 1176, at Enjyo-ji in Nara
Photo Courtesy     Emperor Kwammu sent Saicho (Dengyo Daishi) and Kukai (Kobo Daishi) to China to find a more spiritual form of Buddhism (Bunce 9).  Saicho brought back the Tendai sect and Kukai brought the Shingon sect of Buddhism.  Both sects promised that they would be beneficial to the state and allow state control of their monasteries and their activities (Totman 34).  Kukai's Shingon sect had elaborate ceremonies that the Tendai sect eventually adopted.  This form of religion esoteric Buddhism appealed to the aristocrats of the court.  The religions used secrete formulae, magnificent symbolism, and emotional participation in its rituals.  Only the court elite could afford to practice such a religion with its expensive and time consuming practices (Totman 37).   This is known as Aristocratic Buddhism, and it created a separation of those who are worthy of and could attain the grace Buddha and those who are not worthy (Totman 37).

    The Tendai-Shingon was the religion of the aristocrats, but the rest of the country followed other sects of Buddhism and Shinto beliefs.  Still in the villages the people mainly followed the Shinto religion because they had little contact with the court elite.

    In the late Heian period a combining of the Shinto and Buddhist religions in the form of Ryobu-Shinto took place.  It was a way to spread Buddhism among the non-aristocratic people of Japan.  Ryobu-Shinto is a combination of the Shingon Buddhism and Shinto religions.  It eventually became more like, Buddhism absorbing the Shinto religion because many of the Shinto rituals and native deities took on a Buddhist appearance (Bunce 11).

    The period from 650 to 1100 has been described as the "classical age of Japan."  It was so named because great and lasting strides in education, literature, government, and religion were made during that period.  However, this was true for only a small handful of people lucky enough to be born of noble blood.  The majority of Japan was still a barbaric and backward place in which to live.  Probably the most notable developments of the period were the establishment of a central government and a writing system.  The classical period eventually came to an end, as the aristocrats focused on court life and lost sight of the country outside of the walls of their "heaven on earth" they had created.  This eventually led to the power shifting from the central government to the outlying provinces and gave rise to the warrior class.

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This page was created by Brad Shows:
Updated 5/12/2003