Japan Glossary

Heian Japan

The Heian Period: 795-1192 AD   The Heian period (794-1192) was one of those amazing periods in Japanese history, equaled only by the later Tokugawa period in pre-modern Japan, in which an unprecedented peace and security passed over the land under the powerful rule of the Heian dynasty. Japanese culture during the Heian flourished as it never had before; such a cultural efflorescence would only occur again during the long Tokugawa peace. For this reason, Heian Japan along with Nara Japan (710-794) is called "Classical" Japan.


Japan Atlas
Nara and Heian Japan
   The Nara period was marked by struggles over the throne and which of the clans would control that throne. In order to quiet these disturbances, the capital was moved in 795 to modern-day Kyoto, which at that time was give the name "Heian-kyo," or city of peace and tranquility. The struggles for the throne ceased, but Japan still did not completely unite under a central government. What happened instead was that power accumulated under a single family, the Fujiwara, who managed to skillfully manipulate and hold onto their power in the face of changes and rivalry for over three centuries. With such stability, the Heian imperial court at thrived.


Japan Glossary
Aware
Miyabi
   The Japanese at the Heian court began to develop a culture independent of the Chinese culture that had formed the cultural life of imperial Japan up until that point. First, they began to develop their own system of writing, since Chinese writing was adopted to an entirely different language and world view. Second, they developed a court culture with values and concepts uniquely Japanese rather than derived from imperial China, values such as miyabi, "courtliness," makoto , or "simplicity," and aware, or "sensitivity, sorrow." This culture was forged largely among the women's communities at court and reached their pinnacle in the book considered to be the greatest classic of Japanese literature, the Genji monogatari (Tales of the Genji) by Lady Murasaki Shikibu.


Heian Government   At the top of the Heian government was the Tenno, or "Divine Emperor." The Emperor was both Confucian and Shinto; he ruled by virtue of the Mandate of Heaven and by legitimate descent from the Shinto Sun Goddess, Amaterasu. Because of this, the imperial line of descent has remained unbroken in Japanese history from the late Yamato period.


Japan Glossary
Tenno
Uji
   The government hierarchy beneath the Emperor was built along Chinese lines. The Japanese borrowed the T'ang Council of the State, which held most of the power in Japan. The most powerful clans vied for the position as Council of State, for from that seat they could control the emperor and the entire government itself. Like T'ang government, there were several ministries (eight instead of six). There was, however, a profound difference between T'ang China and Heian Japan. China was a country of some sixty-five million people; Japan was a loose confederacy of some five million people. The Chinese lived relatively prosperously, and T'ang China had by and large become an urban and an industrial culture. Japan, on the other hand, was still very backward when one left the capital city of Heian-kyo. Uji bonds were still felt, and outlying areas still exercised a degree of autonomy. The result for court government was very simple: most of court government concerned the court alone. There were six thousand employees of the imperial government; four thousand administered the imperial house. So the Heian court was not overly involved in the day to day governing of outlying provinces, which numbered sixty-six.

Richard Hooker

World Cultures

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1996, Richard Hooker
Updated 7-5-97