Chapter Five:

Heian Period Politics & Institutions

The Heian Period (794-1191) was a time when the Japanese islands faced no external military threats. Furthermore, while internal military strive increased in the last century of the period, most of Heian Japan was peaceful most of the time--in contrast with many of the subsequent periods. The long time of relative prosperity (at least for the aristocrats) and peace encouraged a rich flourishing of cultural forms in the capital of Heiankyō, which we will call Kyōto, the present-day name of the city. This chapter examines the political and economic institutions that created the framework for civil society. Subsequent chapters examine social life, Buddhism, and literature in Heian Japan.


Emperor Kanmu (r. 781-806, #image#) decided to move his capital in 784, and his court packed up and left the city of Nara. After ten years at temporary locations, Kanmu settled on the city of Heinakyō (literally something like "Capital of Peace and Tranquility"), later called Kyōto (literally "the Capital"), to house his court. Kyōto would remain Japan's civil capital until 1868. Why did he make this expensive and troublesome move? There was nothing wrong with the physical environment or facilities in the old capital. Most historians agree that Kanmu moved his capital to get away from the Buddhist establishment of Nara, which was becoming so powerful that it threatened the authority of the civil government. Kanmu, was strong-willed sovereign, wanted to rule free from the interference of Buddhist temples or anyone else. He succeeded in restoring his power and authority in the short run, but it would not be long before the powerful aristocratic families of the capital began to vie with the Heian emperors for power and influence. Also, new Buddhist organizations took root in the new capital and later wielded economic, political, and even military power.

New institutions developed during the Heian period that added complexity to the bureaucratic structure of the central government. It was the rise of provincial warrior families that eventually brought the Heian period to an end. Actually, it was not the case that these warriors destroyed the emperor or his court. The court continued to exist, to some extent until the present day. What changed was that during the twelfth century, the locus of political power shifted from the capital aristocrats to generals who could command large groups of warriors.

Let us now survey the *basic structure of government* that Kanmu brought with him to the new capital. Although probably inspired in a general way by China's centralized bureaucracy, the specific structure of Japan's Heian government bore little direct correspondence to that of China other than that it was headed by an emperor. Even here, there is a difference, for Japanese emperors tended to wield less power than their Chinese counterparts. In theory, the Japanese emperor reigned supreme and was sovereign over all the land of the Japanese islands (except Hokkaidō, which did not become an integral part of Japan until the nineteenth century). The emperor presided over a bureaucracy consisting of two major divisions. One was literally termed "the Division of Deities," but, based on its function, perhaps a better name might be "the Division of Divination and Supernatural Affairs." The other major branch of government was the Grand Council of State, which made major decisions and supervised the central government administration.

The two divisions of government were approximately equal in prestige. The Division of Divination and Supernatural Affairs (jingikan 神祇官) consisted of specialists in such things as interpreting portents (typically unusual or unexpected natural phenomena), divining (i.e., communicating with cosmic forces not ordinarily perceivable by our senses), and supervising or participating in state religious rites. Keep in mind that Heian-period Japanese took these kinds of matters very seriously, and that science, religion, and government were all closely interconnected. Suppose, for example, that an unexpected comet appeared in the night sky one day. Nearly all Heian-era elites would have considered such a thing to be an important message from the cosmic forces. Discerning the precise contents of that message was a job for experts in the Division of Divination and Supernatural Affairs. Or, suppose that the emperor was to participate in a major ritual of state (and he had a busy schedule of such work) in the near future. Experts in the Division of Divination and Supernatural Affairs might be asked to select an auspicious day for this activity. The emperor combined in his person both the role of chief priest and the role of chief executive. His ministers were usually more specialized.

The Grand Council of State was headed by three ministers with the names Minister of the Right, Minister of the Left (right and left indicating their relative seating position vis--vis the emperor on formal occasions), and Grand Minister. They were not equal in power and prestige. The title of Grand Minister may sound the most impressive, and it was very prestigious, but this post was largely honorary and lacked real political power. The Right and Left ministers were usually powerful officials, but the Minister of the Left was slightly higher in prestige and supervised the more prestigious four of the eight bureaus of central government administration. The Minster of the Right supervised the other four. The names of these eight bureaus suggest their function. The bureau of Commoner Affairs did thinks like keeping land and census records and collecting taxes. The Imperial Household bureau looked after the support of the emperor and his many relatives (up to a certain hereditary distance from whoever was on the throne at the time). The offices in the middle Censorate, Capital Guards, and others, were less prestigious than the main eight bureaus, and were not under direct supervision of the Right or Left ministers. Capital Guards were usually recruited from provincial warriors. The Censorate supposedly functioned somewhat like the General Accounting Office in the present U.S. federal government, that is, to keep an eye on the rest of the bureaucracy, watching for fraud, inefficiency, etc. In fact, however, this office had no real power in Heian Japan. Dazaifu was a miniature government set up to administer the island of Kyūshū, which was considered a remote frontier area in Heian times.

Outside the capital, the Japanese islands were divided into just over sixty provinces. The term for these provinces is kuni, a term that remained in use with the same or similar meaning until the late nineteenth century. Today, the term means "country," a larger unit that a province. In premodern times around the world, however, local identities were much stronger relative to the larger identities that today we call states, countries, or nations. Whether it be the Heian period or the Edo period, the majority of people living in the Japanese islands did not consider themselves "Japanese." Instead, they usually identified with a village, a shōen (more on these later), a city, or, at most, a province (or "domain" in the case of the Edo period). Only a small number of Japanese, typically well educated elites and merchants or sailors engaged in overseas trade would have thought of themselves as "Japanese" in premodern times. One of the tasks facing the leaders of Japan in the 1860s and 70s was to make Japanese out of the whole population, that is, to instill a sense of identity with the larger entity of Japan. This process of "making Japanese" is a major theme in HIST 481, Modern Japan.

Returning the Heian period, the provinces were headed by governors appointed by the Heian court. These governors served a six-year term, but, by the middle of the Heian period, most governors opted to live in the Heian capital and send an assistant to the province over which they governed. Under the governor or his assistant were a variety of lesser officials, most of whom came from the ranks of the local aristocracy. By "local aristocracy" I mean locally powerful people, most of whom held formal but low rank in the Heian court (more on the gradations of rank in a later chapter). Because of their relatively low rank, they could not afford to live in the capital, so they settled into various parts of the countryside. While low-ranking aristocrats were a dime a dozen in the capital, they enjoyed great prestige in the countryside. Some were able to translate this prestige into wealth and power at the local level. A network of Buddhist branch temples supplemented and sometimes competed with the local government. Several of the major temples in the capital established branches in the provinces, and these branch temples often became locally wealthy and powerful.

It may seem odd to regard Buddhist temples in the same manner as government, but remember that there was no sharp distinction between church and state in medieval Japan (or Europe, or almost anywhere else). Buddhism came into Japan as a form of powerful magic to enhance the power of the various uji and throughout most of the period we study, Buddhism in general was a major economic, political, and military force. Theoretically, of course, Buddhist monks were supposed to have abandoned the ordinary world in favor of spiritual pursuits, but in practice, many, perhaps most, Buddhist monks remained attached to worldly affairs. This sort of situation is common in large, institutionalized religions, and the Christian church in medieval Europe is another example.

With this information and the overall structure of the government in mind, let us look at political power in a different way. Instead of trying to remember the various formal offices of government, it is probably more useful to think in terms social entities. In Heian Japan, *four such entities* held and exercised political-economic power: 1) the emperor and (close) imperial family; 2) the aristocracy (including distant imperial relatives); institutional Buddhism; and the provincial warriors. The relative balance of power within among and between these groups varied over time. Here we need only be concerned with the major trends.

As mentioned above, the emperor theoretically held absolute power over the government. In fact, most Heian emperors reigned but did not rule. In other words, the reigning emperor occupied the throne, enjoyed very high formal prestige, and was the ritual head of state, but it was others (e.g., the head of the Fujiwara family, the "retired" emperor) who exercised political power on a day-to-day basis. Reigning emperors were burdened, among other things, with a busy schedule of rituals. Strong-willed individual emperors did sometimes wield real power, but such individuals were exceptions. Often reigning emperors were children or teenagers, and a regent or guardian spoke for them.

In the Nara period, about half the emperors were women, and many ruled vigorously. During the Heian period, however, the post was monopolized by men. In later periods, we occasionally find a woman on the throne, but only during times when the emperor's power and prestige were very low.

For the Heian period, here is the general trend in terms of the power of the emperorship: early years: sovereign were relatively powerful; middle years: power of the emperor is usurped by the Fujiwara family; later years: the imperial family reasserts its power via the unusual institution of the "retired" or "cloistered" emperor but has to contend with ever-increasing pressure from the warriors. Regardless of the degree of actual power held by a specific emperor, the imperial institution remained the source of political legitimacy and authority. There were no attempts by outsiders, therefore, to put themselves on the throne. Instead, the goal of political infighting was to control or manipulate the emperor, ideally, to speak for him.

In practice, the Japanese emperor was not radically above or separate from the leading aristocratic families (only during the early twentieth century would the Japanese sovereign be so lofty). Recall that a confederation of powerful uji gradually consolidated their power over the Japanese islands in ancient times. The descendants of these uji formed the upper half of the aristocracy in Heian times. The lesser aristocratic ranks of the Heian nobility consisted of the descendants of lesser uji in ancient times. The most powerful family among the elite aristocrats was the Fujiwara (formerly called Nakatomi), who provided the main support for the coup against the Soga clan in 645. It seems that the Fujiwara were just as intent on maximizing their power as were the Soga of old, but the Fujiwara were much more patient and subtle in their methods. We will examine these methods later, but at this point just be aware that there was a powerful hereditary aristocracy with deeply entrenched privileges at its higher levels.

The lower levels of the aristocracy were not so well off, and not all of their descendants were able to retain their aristocratic status. Government officials were selected largely on the basis of hereditary rank and political faction affiliation. Competence in office was usually of lesser importance. Those of you who have studied Chinese history may recall the civil service examination system there. Although tried briefly and on a limited scale during the Nara and early Heian periods, such a system never took root in medieval Japan. In contrast with the Chinese ideal of rule by scholar-officials, we will see that in Heian Japan, the ideal that emerged was that of rule by officials with a highly refined sense of aesthetics, a model we might call the "aesthete-official."

These aesthete-officials were all men in Heian Japan. Aristocratic women participated vigorously in the cultural life of the capital, owned personal property and wealth, and enjoyed high prestige vis--vis the broader society. Formal political office, however, was the exclusive domain of men. There seems to have been no specific ideology barring women from office at this time, but it is likely the general Buddhist view of the different karmic levels of men and women and the strong male emphasis found generally in Buddhism exerted some influence in this area. Evidence from ancient, pre-Buddhist Japan points to the participation of women in a comparatively broad range of affairs of state. That women did not serve in office, however, does not mean that they had no influence on capital politics during the Heian period, as we shall see later.

There was a substantial crossover between the elite monks of the major Buddhist establishments and the court aristocracy. For one thing, members of aristocratic families often became monks, either early in life or after retiring from political office. The major posts in the Buddhist clergy were in part political appointments, usually requiring the support of leading government officials. In no way, however, should these facts imply that the Heian nobility took a cynical view of Buddhism. Remember, we live in a society today that generally regards close ties between church and state as improper. In Heian Japan, however, Buddhism was seen as absolutely essential for the well being of the state, and it was natural that religion and politics would mix. Consider, for example, the text of the following Buddhist prayer, uttered at a Buddhist ritual by Fujiwara Morosuke, a Minister of the Left with ambitions to place his sub-branch of the Fujiwara family into positions of great power:

Through the power of this [ritual] may the glory of my family be passed on. May the fullness of the glory of the emperor [Morosuke's son-in-law, Emperor Murakami], the empress [Morosuke's daughter, Yasuko], the crown prince [Morosuke's grandson, Prince Norihira], the princes and princesses, the three ranks of officials [including the minister of the left, Morosuke himself], and the nine ranks of courtiers unceasingly persist for generation after generation and fill the court.1

The names of specific individuals are not important here. Instead, notice that this is a prayer by the Minister of the Left for the political success of his immediate family members (which includes the emperor for reasons we examine later). We are a long way from the Buddha's original teachings.

Although this particular prayer was uttered by a government official, the larger ritual in which it took place was conducted by a monk--and not just any old monk. The Minister of the Left had selected a rising star of the Buddhist establishment as the head ritualist, and, of course, this selection by the minister furthered the monk's career even further. This monk was not originally from a powerful family. Instead, his career within the Buddhist establishment rose mainly because of his superb skill as a debater of theological issues. Neil McMullen points out that "in the tenth century there appears to have been a correlation made between knowledge and power. That is, a monk who demonstrated great intelligence was considered to be a prime candidate for patronage because such a monk was believed to be capable of performing especially efficacious rituals."2 One point to be made here is that the Buddhist clergy offered some possibility of social mobility. Because monks perceived as having special powers of the mind or spirit were especially desirable to be employed by powerful officials, a monk who managed to demonstrate such power might advance to high rank despite humble origins. Such advancement was not easy, but it was possible during most of the Heian period.

Toward the end of the Heian period, however, even monastic advancement had become entirely a matter of family connections and status. In other words, the same group of aristocrats staffed both the Buddhist and government hierarchies. They did not necessarily get along well with each other. Infighting within a family and competition between aristocratic families was the rule in Heian Japan because the number of eligible aristocrats greatly exceeded the number of prestigious posts in the bureaucracy or in the Buddhist hierarchy. Especially because the same pool of aristocrats supplied both monks and ministers, conflict between the government and some of the powerful monasteries increased during the last century of the Heian period. Large monasteries maintained armies of #warrior monks# (sōhei), who were usually more warrior than monk. These monastic warriors would sometimes march through the streets of the capital and demand concessions from the government (more land, for example). Usually, the imperial guards dared not resist the warrior monks because the monks carried with them Buddhist relics and other ritual objects believed to possess supernatural power.

The final group of major power holders during the Heian period were provincial warriors, or, more precisely, the heads of provincial warrior groups. There is a stereotype about Japan that it is a place where warriors have long enjoyed great prestige. This notion, however, is in part a product of modern, Orientalist-mode thinking after Japan defeated Russia in war that ended in 1905. It is from this time that Europeans and Americans became fascinated with samurai warriors, martial arts, and so forth. We will examine this matter further in later chapters, but for now, be aware that warriors enjoyed no prestige among the aristocrats of Heian Japan. Indeed, for one aristocrat to suggest that another was proficient in martial arts was a common rhetorical device for casting an insult.

Aristocrats generally viewed warriors with contempt, and the major military posts in the hierarchy of the central government soon became filled by medium-ranking courtiers who knew nothing about military affairs. While some of the capital guards functioned like police, their main purpose was to put on a good display during parades and rituals. The central government, in other words, ordinarily possessed no significant military power of its own. This is not to say that it was unable to command military force, but that it did so by calling upon local warrior leaders and paying them to do whatever fighting was necessary. Such payment took the form of both wealth, and, occasionally, very low court rank in the aristocracy. The typical scenario would be that a local warrior leader would become overly ambitious and rise up in revolt against the Heian state. The central government would then call upon other warrior leaders to attack the rebellious one, and then pay them for their services. In medieval Japan, during the Heian period and later, warriors almost always fought with the expectation of a rich payoff should they win.

I do not mean to suggest here that the Heian state faced serious military opposition throughout most of its existence. Indeed, it was because of a remarkable degree of internal peace and the lack of any external threat that the militarily weak Heian government survived so long. But toward the end of the Heian period, the frequency and severity of warfare began to increase. The central government's practice of playing one warrior band off against another began to cause problems as the number of warrior bands decreased and the power of those that remained increased. Eventually, there were only two vast groups of warriors, the Minamoto clan and the Taira clan. Eventually, the Minamoto decisively defeated the Taira. Now what was the court supposed to do? The barbaric warriors were in a position to demand major concessions from the emperor and his aristocrats.

The Importance of Shōen

The term shōen means "agricultural estate." At their simplest, you might think of shōen as large farms or plantations. During the Heian period, the number of shōen increased and their character began to change. Before examining the details of this development, we need to know what the land tenure system was like before shōen became a major economic force. Remember that in an agricultural society such as medieval Japan, land is the source of nearly all wealth. Therefore, land tenure and division of the products of the land was the fundamental political-economic issue.

Pause now to read *this description.*

During the Nara period, land tenure was based on individual farming households. All land of use in agriculture was, at least in theory, measured, graded, and recorded. Then, the central government would conduct periodic censuses and land would be distributed equitably to all households based on a number of factors such as household size--again, in theory. Consider for a moment the vast difficulty of implementing and administering such a system. Even in China, the world's oldest and most complex centralized bureaucracy at the time, such idealistic land distribution systems rarely worked as planned, and never for long. Remarkably, the Nara state did manage to conduct several censuses and land surveys. But by early in the Heian period, the burden of periodic census taking and land redistribution had become too great, and the status quo continued. The same farming households cultivated the same land for generations. Inequalities gradually developed, and, in any case, taxes were high. The typical household farming land its family had been allotted paid three kinds of taxes: a tax in the form of grain, a tax in the form of textiles, and a tax in the form of labor service to the state. In practice, the grain tax could be converted into more of the other two and the labor tax could be converted into more textiles. Cloth, especially silk, came to serve almost like currency in this system.

The term shōen had been around since the Nara period and perhaps earlier. It usually meant a multi-household farming operation, often on land that had recently been put into agricultural production. During the Heian period, shōen were also multi-household agricultural operations, but with the following additional characteristics:

As you can see, in extreme cases, the shōen were almost like small city-states, sovereign unto themselves. Not all shōen were completely alienated from taxes and government control, but most enjoyed a substantial degree of special treatment in these two areas. This process of land alienation was not illegal, provided that the people involved followed correct bureaucratic procedures. Who benefited from shōen, and who lost out? Why did such a land system get started? Let us take a closer look.

Shōen developed gradually throughout the early years of the Heian period. This complex process typically involved peasants giving over their lands to local entities with political clout, most commonly Buddhist temples or the estates of regional warlords. These local entities then used their connections with higher-ranking aristocrats in the capital to secure the special legal status described above for the lands thus given over. The local and capital officials involved in the process all took a cut of the produce of the land, which was payment for their effort in legally alienating it. Peasants cooperated with this process because, despite their obligation to pay rent on the land, the new arrangement offered them better rates than what they had been paying directly to the state in taxes. Most shōen had on-site managers who oversaw the cultivation and rent payment process. "Rent" typically took the form of produce or labor service.

A complex network of duties and obligations developed in connection with shōen. At the bottom or base of the system, peasants in the estates were entitled to keep a certain portion of the harvest and had other minimal rights in return for their labor. A significant percentage of the crop went to local manger(s) of the shōen. They, in turn, sent a portion of the produce to higher-ranking aristocrats in the capital. In return, the high-ranking aristocrats used their political clout to ensure the continuation of special legal status for the estates with which they were connected. Additional middle layers of persons with interests in an estate were possible. (Study *this graphic* with care.)

Written documents spelled out in detail an individual or group's duties and benefits (shiki, roughly "rights") vis--vis a parcel of land and its proceeds. At the higher levels, these documents were bought and sold, much like shares of stock in corporations today. As more land became incorporated into shōen, tax revenues to the government fell, but private payments from the shōen to aristocrats increased. Therefore, as time went on, aristocrats received more of their income from interests (shiki) in private estates and less from government salaries. The big loser in this process was the emperor (or, at least the reigning emperor--as we shall see later). Why? Because the emperor theoretically possessed all the land in Japan. Therefore, it would have made no sense for him to acquire interests (shiki) in shōen. The economic power of the aristocracy thus expanded at the expense of the emperor.

Notice my terminology. I have not used the word "own" in connection with the land of a shōen. In this system, there was no conception of ownership of the land in the modern sense of the term. Instead, shōen were the nexus of a web of mutual obligations and rights. As you might expect, this structure resulted in frequent disputes about who owed what to whom and when. Indeed, medieval Japan may have been among the world's most litigious societies. The main domestic work of the Kamakura military government, for example, was hearing lawsuits about shōen.

Shōen were the most important institutional development in medieval Japan. By the end of the Heian period, most of the good farmland had become incorporated into shōen. In a very real sense, this development was a de facto return to the ancient system of uji and be and away from the model of a centralized bureaucracy. Shōen lasted until approximately the early sixteenth century. They did not suddenly disappear, but were gradually replaced by other forms of land tenure. Recall that early in this book, following LaFluer, I defined "medieval" Japan in cultural terms. Were we to define it in economic or institutional terms, we could say that medieval Japan was the period when shōen constituted the most important form of land tenure. We will revisit the topic of shōen during the Kamakura and Muromachi periods.

Do you read Japanese? If so, here is a useful web site about shōen and much more called *"Kizoku kara bushi e"* (From aristocrats to warriors). The link here will take you to the page on shōen. For the majority of you who not read Japanese, please scroll down the page and glance at the graphic images and photographs to get a a rough sense of the complexity of Heina-period landholding possibilities.

The Period of Fujiwara Ascendancy

The major political development of the early Heian period was Fujiwara family control of the emperor and concentration of political power in its own hands.3 This era of Fujiwara control began gradually, starting in 858. Over the course of the next century, the Fujiwara tightened its grip on power, although there were several relative ups and downs in their fortunes during this period. The Fujiwara grip on power began to loosen in 1068, and by 1087 the imperial family successfully reasserted itself through the institution of the Cloistered Emperor (explained below).

Because the Fujiwara were the highest ranking of all the aristocrats, there had been extensive intermarriage between their family and the imperial family since the early Nara period. Gradually, through the politics of marriage, the Fujiwara eventually came to control the throne. In a sense, the Fujiwara rise to power took a long time to come to fruition. The main reason was constant infighting within the Fujiwara clan, which was divided into a northern and southern branch as well as several sub-branches. Even during the time of Fujiwara control, there was often significant rivalry within the Fujiwara family.

The basic procedure was to marry as many Fujiwara daughters as possible to emperors and imperial princes. When the emperor and one of his Fujiwara wives or consorts produced a male child, the pro-Fujiwara factions at court pushed to have this child designated as the next emperor. If successful, the next step in the game of marriage politics was to assign the child, now the crown prince, a Fujiwara guardian, typically the boy's grandfather on his mother's side. The child would grow up among Fujiwara, who would have a chance to influence his views.

Since the Nara period, it had been common for emperors to resign the throne and go into retirement. Often emperors were eager to do so because the duties of their office included a heavy burden of ritual obligations, which took time and energy and limited the reigning emperor's freedom. In the case above, with a child as crown prince and a Fujiwara guardian, should the reigning emperor retire, the Fujiwara guardian would become the de facto emperor by exercising authority on the child emperor's behalf. Indeed, there developed an official title for the guardian of a child emperor: sesshō. With a boy emperor on the throne and a Fujiwara guardian exercising real control, leading Fujiwara family members began to take over ever more of the top government posts such as Minister of the Right and Minister of the Left. Once in these posts, and backed by a Fujiwara-controlled throne, these officials were able to build up the economic power of the Fujiwara family by using their influence to acquire interests in choice shōen.

Growing Fujiwara power placed the family in an even better position to play the politics of marriage. After 858, the emperors' primary wives were normally the daughters of high-ranking Fujiwara family members. The sons of these daughters quickly became crown princes. In the meantime, a Fujiwara guardian continued to control the reigning emperor even after he became an adult. A "guardian" for an adult emperor is usually called a "regent" in English, which corresponds to the Japanese title kanpaku. With Fujiwara regents controlling government administration, emperors became virtual puppets of the Fujiwara family. As a final step in the procedure, the Fujiwara regents usually pressured the emperors in their "care" to retire early, usually in the early thirties, to make way for a new boy emperor and his Fujiwara grandfather/guardian. This process continued one generation after the next until 1068.

Here is how McMullen concisely describes the process:

Through the ninth century the imperial house, which had maintained its supremacy over the other noble families during the two preceding centuries, found its dominance increasingly challenged by the major families. The emperor gradually became a figure with the right to reign, but not necessarily to rule, as ruling power was ceded to the Fujiwara family, which had managed by and large to resolve the internal conflicts that had fractured it into a number of competing factions. The northern branch (hokke) of the family became dominant, and the heads of that branch came to hold, in succession, the crucially important offices of sesshō (regent during the reign of a child emperor) and ka[n]paku (regent during the reign of an adult emperor). . . . The Fujiwara family was able to consolidate its control of those offices by making itself the primary supplier of imperial consorts and princesses, thus guaranteeing that the children of the emperors would be members of the Fujiwara family.4

It was via skillful use of the *politics of marriage* described here, not through military force or direct intimidation that the Fujiwara came to dominate the imperial court.

Readers sometimes wonder why the Fujiwara did not simply eliminate the emperors and put themselves on the throne. Actually, a move like this would have made no sense in terms of maximizing Fujiwara power. First, the position of emperor was as much a religious office as it was a secular one. By Heian times, anyone other than a member of the imperial family would have been unacceptable in the religious and ceremonial roles the emperor had to perform. Furthermore, these religious and ceremonial duties consumed a great deal of time and energy but were of little benefit for acquiring political and economic power. By manipulating the throne and using its general authority from behind the scenes, the Fujiwara were free to concentrate on matters of practical importance, acquiring interests in shōen, for example, while retaining all the benefits imperial prestige authority might bring. Ivan Morris explains:

[N]ever once did the Fujiwaras succumb to the temptation of trying to supplant the reigning dynasty and put a male member of their family on the throne. Nor did they ever get into the position of having to use force against a hostile emperor or crown prince. In this they profited from the mistake of their predecessors, the Soga family, who came to grief precisely because they aspired (or gave the impression that they aspired) to imperial honour. Astute politicians as they were, the Fujiwaras realized that they could accomplish far more by exploiting the prestige of the imperial family than by becoming emperors themselves.5

Here is an important generalization that applies even in today's Japan: power is often employed most effectively from behind the scenes.

Rule by Cloistered Emperors

In 1068, the first emperor in several generations without a Fujiwara grandfather took the throne. Having no Fujiwara regent gave this emperor more leeway than his predecessors, and tried to reduce the power of the Fujiwara family by various means. For example, he subjected some of the Fujiwara shōen holdings to close scrutiny regarding their legality and documentation. These efforts, however, could not undo generations of Fujiwara control, for Fujiwara family members still held most of the important government offices. Though this emperor was unable directly to unseat the Fujiwara family from its position of dominance, he devised with this son, the crown prince, a plan that ultimately would succeed.

This son became Emperor Shirakawa. Shirakawa followed the same path as emperors before him, retiring while young and in the prime of his life. When emperors retired, they normally shaved their heads, took Buddhist holy orders, and went to live in Buddhist temples. Shirakawa did likewise. Instead of spending his days in quiet retirement, however, Shirakawa moved quickly to set up his own, alternative court, which he presided over in the capacity of Cloistered Emperor (in) from 1087 until his death in 1129. Since the time of Nara period, emperors sometimes retired, usually to a Buddhist temple, and then attempted to exercise power behind the scenes. Shirakawa's move formalized the process, establishing an actual court of officials and advisors around the retired emperor in his temple.

The Fujiwara, of course, were not happy with this development, but Shirakawa had a number of advantages. First, the Fujiwara were busy fighting among themselves at the time. Second, because the Buddhist temples around the capital were safe from military attack, Shirakawa had a base of operations that was physically secure. Third, strong resentment against the Fujiwara had built up within the rest of the aristocracy, so Shirakawa found many aristocrats eager and willing to support his new court. Fourth, Shirakawa had the advantage of surprise on his side. Fifth, Shirakawa was in his prime and no longer had ritual duties to take up his time and energy. Therefore, he could focus all his attention on political matters. Finally, Shirakawa had great prestige by virtue of being the reigning emperor's father.

By establishing an alternative court, Shirakawa was able to *outflank the Fujiwara.* Fujiwara nobles still served as guardians and regents for reigning emperors, but the Cloistered Emperor and his court superseded the reigning emperor and his court. Emperors could now look forward to assuming much greater power after retirement than while on the throne.

Because there was nothing wrong with the cloistered emperor acquiring interests in shōen, retired emperors were now free to build up the sagging economic base of the imperial house in the same way the Fujiwara had enriched themselves. Although the reigning emperor and the cloistered emperor did not always get along and sometimes competed with each other for power, the cloistered emperor was nearly always able to prevail. After roughly 1100, it was the cloistered emperors who were the most powerful figures in the capital. From then until 1221 was the age of rule by cloistered emperors.

Keeping in mind the nature of Heian-period institutions and politics, let us now take a closer look at the social life of the aristocrats.


1. Quoted in Neil McMullin, "The Lotus Sutra and Politics in the Mid-Heian Period," George J. Tanabe and Willa Jane Tanabe, eds., The Lotus Sutra in Japanese Culture (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1989), p. 127.

2. Ibid., p. 135.

3. Strictly speaking, it was the "northern" branch of the Fujiwara family that became powerful, not the several other branches of this large family.

4. McMullen, "Politics," p. 120.

5. Ivan Morris, The World of the Shining Prince: Court Life in Ancient Japan (Baltimore: Penguin Books, 1964), p. 66.