The Heian period is the last division of classical Japanese history that runs from 794 to 1185. The Heian period is considered the peak of the Japanese imperial court and noted for its art and especially in poetry and literature. The name heian is a word that means "peace" in Japanese.
The Heian period is preceded by the Nara period and began in 794 after the movement of the capital of Japanese civilisation to Heiankyō (present-day Kyoto) by the 50th emperor Kammu. It is considered a high point in Japanese culture that later generations have always admired. Also, the time period is also noted for the rise of the samurai class, which would eventually take power and start the feudal period of Japan.
Nominally, sovereignty lay in the emperor but in fact power was wielded by the Fujiwara nobility. However, to protect their interests in the provinces, the Fujiwara and other noble families required guards, police and soldiers. The warrior class made steady gains throughout the Heian period. As early as 939, Taira no Masakado threatened the authority of the central government, leading an uprising in the eastern province of Hitachi, and almost simultaneously, Fujiwara no Sumitomo rebelled in the west. Still, military takeover was centuries away.
The entry of the warrior class into court influence was a result of the Hogen disturbance. At this time Taira Kiyomori revived the Fujiwara practices by placing his grandson on the throne to rule Japan by regency. Their clan would not be overthrown until after the Genpei War, which marked the start of the shogunates. The Kamakura period began in 1185 when Minamoto no Yoritomo seized power from the emperors and established a bakufu, the Kamakura Shogunate, in Kamakura.
Developments in Buddhism
Buddhism began to spread throughout Japan during the ensuing Heian period (794-1185), primarily through two major esoteric sects, Tendai (Heavenly Terrace) and Shingon (True Word). Tendai originated in China and is based on the Lotus Sutra, one of the most important sutras of Mahayana Buddhism. Shingon is an indigenous sect with close affiliations to original Indian, Tibetan, and Chinese Buddhist thought founded by Kukai (also called Kobo Daishi). Kukai greatly impressed the emperors who succeeded Emperor Kammu (782-806), and also generations of Japanese, not only with his holiness but also with his poetry, calligraphy, painting, and sculpture. Kammu himself was a notable patron of the otherworldly Tendai sect, which rose to great power over the ensuing centuries. A close relationship developed between the Tendai monastery complex on Mount Hiei and the imperial court in its new capital at the foot of the mountain. As a result, Tendai emphasized great reverence for the emperor and the nation.
The Heian period also saw the flowering of the Jōdō Shinshu, or True Pure Land, school, founded by Shinran.
Heian period literature
Although written Chinese remained the official language of the Heian period imperial court, the introduction and wide use of kana saw a boom in Japanese literature. Despite the establishment of several new literary genre such as the novel and narrative monogatari and essays, literacy was only common among the court and Buddhist clergy.
The lyrics of the modern Japanese national anthem, "Kimi Ga Yo," were written in the Heian period, as was The Tale of Genji by Murasaki Shikibu, one of the first novels in Japanese.
Murasaki Shikibu's contemporary and rival Sei Shonagon's revealing observations and musings as an attendant in the Empress' court were recorded collectively as The Pillow Book in the 990s. The famous Japanese poem known as the iroha was also written during the Heian period.
Heian period economics
While on one hand the Heian period was indeed an unusually long period of peace, it can also be argued that the period weakened Japan economically and led to poverty for all but a tiny few of its inhabitants. The aristocratic beneficiaries of Heian culture, the Yokibito meaning the Good People, numbered about five thousand in a land of perhaps five million. One reason the samurai were able to take power was that the ruling nobility proved incompetent at managing Japan and its provinces. By the year 1000 the government no longer knew how to issue currency and money was gradually disappearing . The lack of a solid medium of economic exchange is implicitly illustrated in novels of the time, for instance messengers are rewarded with useful objects, e.g. an old silk kimono, rather than paid a fee. The Fujiwara rulers also failed to maintain adequate police forces, which left robbers free to prey on travellers. This is again implicitly illustrated in novels by the terror that night travel inspired in the main characters.
The Rise of the military class
Under the early courts, when military conscription had been centrally controlled, military affairs had been taken out of the hands of the provincial aristocracy. But as the system broke down after 792, local power holders again became the primary source of military strength. Shoen holders had access to manpower and, as they obtained improved military technology (such as new training methods, more powerful bows, armor, horses, and superior swords) and faced worsening local conditions in the ninth century, military service became part of shoen life. Not only the shoen but also civil and religious institutions formed private guard units to protect themselves. Gradually, the provincial upper class was transformed into a new military elite based on the ideals of the bushi (warrior) or samurai (literally, one who serves; see The Bushido Code , ch. 8).
Bushi interests were diverse, cutting across old power structures to form new associations in the tenth century. Mutual interests, family connections, and kinship were consolidated in military groups that became part of family administration. In time, large regional military families formed around members of the court aristocracy who had become prominent provincial figures. These military families gained prestige from connections to the imperial court and court-granted military titles and access to manpower. The Fujiwara, Taira, and Minamoto were among the most prominent families supported by the new military class.
Decline in food production, growth of the population, and competition for resources among the great families all led to the gradual decline of Fujiwara power and gave rise to military disturbances in the mid-tenth and eleventh centuries. Members of the Fujiwara, Taira, and Minamoto families--all of whom had descended from the imperial family--attacked one another, claimed control over vast tracts of conquered land, set up rival regimes, and generally broke the peace of the Land of the Rising Sun.
The Fujiwara controlled the throne until the reign of Emperor Go-Sanjo (1068-73), the first emperor not born of a Fujiwara mother since the ninth century. Go-Sanjo, determined to restore imperial control through strong personal rule, implemented reforms to curb Fujiwara influence. He also established an office to compile and validate estate records with the aim of reasserting central control. Many shoen were not properly certified, and large landholders, like the Fujiwara, felt threatened with the loss of their lands. Go-Sanjo also established the Incho, or Office of the Cloistered Emperor, which was held by a succession of emperors who abdicated to devote themselves to behind-the-scenes governance, or insei (cloistered government).
The Incho filled the void left by the decline of Fujiwara power. Rather than being banished, the Fujiwara were mostly retained in their old positions of civil dictator and minister of the center while being bypassed in decision making. In time, many of the Fujiwara were replaced, mostly by members of the rising Minamoto family. While the Fujiwara fell into disputes among themselves and formed northern and southern factions, the insei system allowed the paternal line of the imperial family to gain influence over the throne. The period from 1086 to 1156 was the age of supremacy of the Incho and of the rise of the military class throughout the country. Military might rather than civil authority dominated the government.
A struggle for succession in the mid-twelfth century gave the Fujiwara an opportunity to regain their former power. Fujiwara Yorinaga sided with the retired emperor in a violent battle in 1158 against the heir apparent, who was supported by the Taira and Minamoto. In the end, the Fujiwara were destroyed, the old system of government supplanted, and the insei system left powerless as bushi took control of court affairs, marking a turning point in Japanese history. Within a year, the Taira and Minamoto clashed, and a twenty-year period of Taira ascendancy began. The Taira were seduced by court life and ignored problems in the provinces. Finally, Minamoto Yoritomo (1147-99) rose from his headquarters at Kamakura (in the Kanto region, southwest of modern Tokyo) to defeat the Taira, and with them the child emperor they controlled, in the Genpei War (1180-85).