The Heian Era
794-1185
 
Political Developments
The Heian period began with a vigorous assertion of imperial power under Emperor Kammu, but that was not to last. The long-term trend favored an aristocracy that ruled at times with the emperor but more frequently in his stead, presiding over a refined culture that left a permanent mark on Japanese life and perceptions of the world. [BHJC, 49]

Fujiwara Dominance
The Fujiwara house, as already noted, was founded by Nakatomi no Kamatari (614-669), who was rewarded for his leading role in the coup of 645 by receiving the name Fujiwara, literally “wisteria plain.”...Intermarriage with the imperial family was the key to Fujiwara power. In 858 Fujiwara no Yoshifusa (804-872), head of the Council of State since 857, placed his eight-year old grandson on the throne and assumed the title of regent for a minor (sessho). This was the first time anyone outside the imperial family had filled this position. Yoshifusa was succeeded by his nephew Mototsune (836-891), who was the first to continue as regent even after the emperor was no longer a minor, assuming for that purpose the new title of kanpaku, designating a regent for an adult emperor....
The ambitions of the house did not go uncontested...[but] from 967 on the tradition of Fujiwara regents continued without interruption. A high point in Fujiwara power was reached under Michinaga (966-1027) who demonstrated great skill in intrigue and political infighting necessary to succeed at court. He was especially skilled at marriage politics, for he managed to marry four daughters to emperors, two of whom where also his grandsons. Emperors who were the sons of Fujiwara mothers and married to Fujiwara consorts were unlikely to resent the influence of the great family, let alone to resist it. [BHJC, 50]
 
Historical Tales
Rekishi Monogatari
The monogatari (the word means “to talk about or narrate things”) provided a flexible format by means of which the Japanese, employing a mixture of Chinese characters and kana [Japanese syllabic script] as an orthography for their language, could write prose with a freedom impossible when using Chinese....As prose fiction, the monogatari attained its highest development in the early-eleventh-century novel The Tale of Genji (Genji monogatari). But the Japanese did not restrict their use of the monogatari to fiction: they adapted it also to history, and in the process, they blurred the line usually thought to distinguish history from literature....
 
 
The thinking that brought history and literature together in the format of the monogatari is well expressed by Lady Murasaki herself in a passage in Genji. The hero of the novel’s first half, Genji the Shining One, visits Tamakazura,...[who] we are told, is the most avid reader of tales among all the ladies living at Genji’s residence in Kyoto. Genji teases her by saying that women like her seem to enjoy being deceived by stories they know perfectly well are not true. But then becoming serious, he says:
 
“Amid all the fabrication [in monogatari] I must admit that I do find real emotions and plausible chains of events....[The monogatari] have set down and preserved happenings from the age of the gods to our own. The Chronicles of Japan and the rest are a mere fragment of the whole truth. It is your [monogatari] that fill in the details.” [SJT, 241-2]
  • What does this suggest about early Japanese conceptions of history?
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Glorification of the Fujiwara, and Michinaga in particular, is the main theme...of The Great Mirror (Okagami)...[in which] we encounter for the first time use of the word “mirror” in the title of a work dealing with Japanese history. In China, history was regarded metaphorically as a mirror or reflector of past events. Implicit was the belief that looking into a mirror (i.e. reading history) would enable one to learn the lessons of the past, especially those concerning proper, ethical rule. No such didactic meaning, however, was intended for the word as it was used in the title The Great Mirror....The Great Mirror was not composed with the thought of recording or “reflecting” in any comprehensive way—as we might expect of a mirror—the course of times gone by....Rather, The Great Mirror’s author carefully selected and arranged his materials to record and celebrate the history of the Fujiwara family’s rise and its enjoyment of greatest prosperity under Michinaga. [SJT, 244-5]
 
Michinaga’s Greatness
[Michinaga] is the grandfather of the Emperor and the Crown Prince, and the father of three Empresses, of the Regent Minister of the Left, of the Palace Minister, and of many Counselors; and he has governed the realm for approximately thirty-one years....The Chinese and Japanese poems Michinaga has composed on various occasions are so ingenious that I am sure not even Bo Zhuyi, Hitomaro, Mitsune, or Tsurayuki could have thought of them....Above all, what can I say about the bearing and appearance of Michinaga, the Emperor’s grandfather, as he rode in the Imperial train?...The crowds of country folk along the way must have been spellbound. Even sophisticated city dwellers, dazzled by a resplendence like that of the Wheel-Turning Sacred Monarchs, found themselves, in perfectly natural confusion, raising their hands to their foreheads as though gazing on a buddha....[Michinaga] is in a class by [himself]. He is a man who enjoys special protection from the gods of heaven and earth. Winds may rage and rains may fall day after day, but the skies will clear and the ground will dry out two or three days before he plans anything. Some people call him a reincarnation of Shotoku Taishi [i.e. Prince Shotoku]; others say he is Kobo Daishi [i.e. Kukai, founder of Shingon Buddhism], reborn to make Buddhism flourish. Even to the censorious eye of old age, he seems not an ordinary mortal but an awesome manifestation of a god or buddha. [SJT, 248-9]
  • According to The Great Mirror, what makes Michinaga “great”? Was his greatness based on his virtue and/or accomplishments in office...or was it attributed to something else?
If a minister like Michinaga was not regarded as great because of his morality or virtue, then where was his greatness? As the...readings show, The Great Mirror’s author suggests a variety of reasons for Michinaga’s having become a great ruler, the first of which is good fortune....Second to good fortune as an explanation for Michinaga’s success and greatness is resourcefulness, that is, doing what is necessary in any situation to come out ahead....Still other reasons given for Michinaga’s success and greatness are his physiognomy, his mastery of poetry and other polite arts, and his ability to appear resplendent in great public celebrations and rituals. Last but not least, Michinaga of all the Fujiwara regents was able to ensure his success as a ruler by producing many able sons and daughters and skillfully placing them in high positions at court (in the case of sons) and marrying them to emperors and other prominent persons (in the case of daughters). [SJT, 244-6]
 
  

Byodo-in (former residence of Fujiwara Michinaga)
 
Meritocracy vs. Aristocracy
Although the Japanese had borrowed a great deal from China, they borrowed selectively....Thus, for example, although the ostensible aim of the Japanese court in the seventh and eighth centuries had been to shape its government into a Chinese-style bureaucratic state with ministerial preferment based on merit, this kind of state did not take firm root in Japan. With few exceptions, merit was never accepted as the primary criterion for appointments and promotions at court: the courtier aristocracy remained a privileged elite whose statuses (in the form of ranks and offices) were defined almost entirely by birth. With the rise of the Fujiwara, many of the bureaucratic offices at court lost their power, and the actual functions of government were transferred to the private family councils of the Fujiwara. [SJT, 241]
 
The estates or shoen were private landholdings essentially outside of government control. Even after Japan officially adopted the Chinese “equal field” system, certain lands were exempt: (1) those held by the imperial family and certain aristocratic families, (2) those granted to great temples and shrines, and (3) newly developed fields, which after 743 could be retained in perpetuity. Furthermore, there was a natural tendency for all land assignments to become hereditary. This was true of lands assigned to accompany certain ranks and offices and of lands assigned to cultivators. [BHJC, 51]
 
  • Gradual increase of tax-exemptions for aristocrats and temples.
  • Small landholders frequently placed their fields under the protection of those with tax-exempt shoen, paying low rents in exchange for the right to cultivate the land.
  • Shoen came to be administered by a complex system, including the actual cultivators, “resident managers,” members of influential families who lived on the land, estate officials, “central proprietors,” and at the very top the “patrons” who lived in the capital off of the income generated by the shoen.
  • Who benefited from this system?
  • What were the negative consequences?

The steady growth of large holdings outside government jurisdiction continued despite sporadic government efforts to halt the process by decree, for those profiting from the estates actually controlled the government. As a result, by the twelfth century more than half of Japan’s rice land was incorporated into estates, and the government was faced with a decrease in revenue and a decline in power....
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...As less and less land was administered under the “equal field” system, raising conscript armies became less and less practical. In 792, two years before the move to Kyoto, the conscription system was abolished. The central government no longer had the means to raise armies—and military power and responsibilities passed to provincial government officials and great families....Some warrior leaders were originally provincial officials to whom the government had delegated military responsibilities. Others, rising within the estate system, were entrusted with defense responsibilities on the estates....It was fighting men of this type who kept order in the provinces, performing police and military functions and fighting for various patrons as they jockeyed for power. [BHJC, 52-4]