The Heian Period in Japanese History

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Japan has a long history, but many traditional Japanese cultural practices can be traced back to a specific era. In this lesson, we'll explore the Heian period and see how this redefined Japan.

Heian Japan

Try to picture what you consider to be traditional Japanese culture. You may picture cool-looking temples, Japanese poetry and literature, and perhaps even the samurai. Well, for the most part, traditional Japanese culture can trace many of its roots back to a specific time in history. The Heian period was an almost 400-year period of relative peace and prosperity, when Japanese culture flourished. It began in 794 CE when the Japanese Emperor Kanmu moved the royal capital to a new site in the city of Heian-kyo, today known as Kyoto. Why the move? Emperor Kanmu may have been hoping to shake off the powerful Buddhist priests who had come to dominate politics. When he moved his capital, the Buddhists stayed in the old city with their temples. Whatever the reason, the payoff was an outpouring of cultural growth in the new city, and an unprecedented period of stability that lasted from 794-1185 CE as Japanese culture redefined itself.

Heian culture redefined Japan

Aristocrats of the Heian Period

In the new capital of Heian-kyo, the royal court was able to develop a strong and stable base of power. The result was a great growth in the political and cultural influence of the aristocrats, the land-owning nobility. The most successful of these were the Fujiwara clan. The leaders of this family managed to continuously marry their daughters into the imperial family, gaining them practically unlimited power. Especially when those daughters had sons who ascended the throne while still too young to rule, the Fujiwara family basically ran Japan. Overall, aristocrats were the real power of the Heian period, so its no surprise that this is when we first see the emergence of the land-owning warrior class later known as the samurai.

The Heian period was dominated by the Fujiwara clan

Aristocratic Culture

The Fujiwara family, as the most powerful clan in Japan, encouraged a highly-refined culture of courtly behavior. It was this emphasis on intellectual, rational focus that prompted the cultural growth of the Heian period. For centuries, Japan had largely based its elite culture on China, and adopted a great number of Chinese traditions. However, under the Fujiwara, Japanese intellectuals and artists became somewhat more confident in their own cultural productions and in fact in the power of Japan itself. This doesn't mean that everything Chinese was banned, many institutions from China such as Buddhism thrived, but they were redefined from a more Japanese perspective. For example, the Chinese painting style of Kara-e that had been introduced earlier into Japan, was refined and perfected. Before, it was only used to tell stories of China. A colorful new Japanese style of painting, Yamato-e, emerged to tell Japanese stories. These cultural assertions of Japanese independence had political ramifications as well, and the royal court formally severed its official relationship with China.

Of all the cultural traditions to emerge during the Heian period, perhaps none ending up being as significant as literature. The Japanese written language was re-codified into the kana script, making the language much easier to write. The result was an outpouring of literature, developing some of the most famous examples of Japanese poetry, including the lyrics of what would eventually become Japan's national anthem. Then, around 1000 CE, the Japanese noblewoman Murasaki Shikibu wrote the gripping story of a fictitious son of an emperor and concubine called The Tale of Genji. Modern scholars often identify this as the world's first modern novel, and to this day it is often cited as the greatest masterpiece of Japanese literature.

A scene from the Tale of Genji, painted in the Heian Yamato-e style

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