Classical Japan

The Heian period (794–1185) is a critical period of Japanese history. Although the cultural heritage imparted by China and the early Korean states remains a part of Japan, distinct and sophisticated Japanese cultural forms emerged during this period.

The new capital city was situated in a nation with an estimated population of 5 million people. Heian, by the millennium, had a population of around 100,000, making it larger than any European city of the time but significantly smaller than the Chinese capital of Chang’an or classical Rome. Through most of the period, the powerful Fujiwara family successfully exercised ‘‘marriage politics.’’ Rather than make the mistake of actually trying to assume the imperial title, the family would marry their daughters to child emperors, and a Fujiwara male aristocrat would be the de facto head of government. As Buddhism continued to be important among the upper classes, emperors would abdicate relatively young—the average age was 31—ostensibly to focus on religious practices. During the Heian period, the imperial family and a few hundred high-ranking aristocrats played a major part in creating aspects of Japanese culture that are still present in contemporary Japan.

Heian aristocrats operated within a complex social system with 10 rankings. Those members of the top ranks had enormous economic, social, and political advantages over everyone else. One’s social rank determined everything from the permissible size of a gatepost at a private home to the number of folds in a fan an individual might be allowed. This preoccupation with rank and status was in contrast with China, where important government positions that brought high status were increasingly awarded to men who exhibited ‘‘virtue’’ through passing Confucianbased examinations. Aristocratic marriages were arranged, and what today would be considered illicit love affairs were commonly conducted, usually under cover of night. While they lived lives largely confined indoors except for festivals and religious holidays, aristocratic women in some ways had more status in Heian Japan than in several of the subsequent historical periods. High-ranking women were important because of marriage politics and could inherit property.

Because of imperial records and surviving memoirs, written mostly by women, there is considerable existing knowledge about aristocratic lifestyles. However, all that is known about the daily lives of ordinary people are revealed through the documents and writings of the educated upper classes. Also, there were no large urban centers outside of Heian, so knowledge of daily life in the archipelago is scarce. A complicated manorial system existed, with individuals holding rights on fiefs in the provinces and accumulating private military forces for estate protection. Aristocrat absentee landlords resided in the capital, and the worst possible social misfortune that could happen to an aristocrat was to be sent to the provinces. While the political system perpetuated Fujiwara power, it further weakened the throne and central government authority and finances. Still, this unusual governance system brought domestic peace, and the separation of the island nation from the mainland was a barrier to foreign invasion. These factors allowed many of the capital’s aristocrats to concentrate on varieties of leisure and aesthetic pursuits.

In 894 the Japanese government ceased sending missions to China, and over the next two centuries Japan had little official contact with the continent. The defeat of Paekche more than a century earlier lessened Japanese interactions with Korea. Although core imported Chinese belief systems such as Confucianism remained influential, the literature and nonfiction that formed the curriculum of the state university were culled from the earlier Tang dynasty, and little or nothing new came to Japan from the contemporary Chinese Song court. Heian aristocrats began to pay less attention to China and increasingly focus their aesthetic and literary interests on their daily lives.

Heian-era aristocrats considered one’s visual appearance and whether it was pleasing to others as a mark of one’s sensitivity. Women were expected to pluck their eyebrows and blacken their teeth because both were considered marks of beauty. The following description of the dress of a Heian nobleman attending a court ceremony illustrates the importance placed on appearance: ‘‘Michitaka wore a summer tunic with a violet mantle, laced violet trousers, underwear of deep red, and a stiff unlined brilliantly white overgarment. All gentlemen carried fans with them whose ribs were lacquered in various colors with paper of brilliant red’’ (Sansom 1964, 192–193). This original aristocratic emphasis on form as equal with function remains a widespread cultural proclivity in contemporary Japan.

However, deeper spiritual and religious values particular to Heian aristocrats lay beneath the emphasis on visual appearances. While Buddhism had not become a religion of the common people during this period of Japanese history, it profoundly influenced the aristocracy. The impermanence of all things, a fundamental tenet of Buddhism, found expression in Japan in the concept of mono no aware, or a recognition of the pathos of life. The cherry blossom became a particular symbol of beauty because its bloom exists only for a short time.Mono no aware also found expression in an appreciation of the beauty of a young girl in the early stages of adolescence because in a short time her appearance would substantially change. Long-time Shinto reverence of nature and simplicity found expression in the spare style of Japanese architecture compared to more ornate Chinese homes.

Although Japanese aristocratic males continued to write in classical Chinese, dramatic earlier changes in Japanese writing were beginning to exert profound cultural effects. For centuries the Japanese had no written language, and educated people wrote in Chinese. Because spoken Chinese and Japanese sounds are completely different, it is extremely difficult to write down spoken Japanese in Chinese. In the 9th and 10th centuries, the Japanese took certain Chinese characters, greatly abbreviated them, and created a phonetic system and written syllabary, called kana, which, combined with Chinese characters, provided the basis for a unique written language. By the latter part of the 10th century, members of the nobility were using kana to write books and poems. Women in particular used kana because written Japanese was still considered to be less appropriate for educated men than written Chinese.

Heian aristocrats focused most of their attention on the pursuit of pleasurable activities that included unwritten courtship rituals for both sexes and various recreational activities that focused on aesthetic pursuits. Males played a ball game, kemuri, that was similar to hacky sack in that the object was to keep the ball in the air as long as possible. However, judges evaluated one’s skill on how graceful the player appeared while engaging in the sport. Heian aristocrats also played musical instruments such as the lute and the zither, and both the sound of the music and the appearance of the player were important.

Poetry and letter writing abilities could make or break an aristocrat’s reputation. Poems were used for a variety of functions including even that of one government official using the medium to criticize another official for not reporting to his post. The ideas alone that were represented in a poem or letter were not enough. Calligraphy or writing ability was also important in determining reputation since the visual quality of one’s writing was considered a mirror to the soul. Letter writing was an art form that combined a number of aesthetic elements including the excellence of the poem or prose, the appearance of written characters, the quality of the paper, and even its perfumed scent or the blossom or sprig that was enclosed with the letter.

As described earlier, Japanese women aristocrats freely employed the new Japanese script in writing, and much of what we know about the Heian era is because of the surviving works of such authors as Sei Shonagon and Murasaki Shikibu. Murasaki wrote the Tale of Genji during the first two decades of the millennium. The book, now considered to be a masterpiece of world literature and the world’s first psychological novel, reveals much of the life and values of Heian aristocrats.

The hero, Prince Genji (‘‘shining prince’’), epitomizes what Heian nobility considered to be superb personal qualities. He is handsome, a thoughtful lover, a graceful athlete, and a musician, and he also possesses impeccable taste. Genji’s love affairs constitute much of the story. However, poetry permeates the work, and the vivid human interactions have made the book timeless. Also, women don’t just constitute a backdrop for Genji but have their own unique voices. In contemporary Japan, The Tale of Genji both occupies a similar high position in Japan as Shakespeare’s works enjoy in the West and is a perpetual subject in such popular media as animation and cartoons.

Cultural achievements notwithstanding, the inattention of Heian elites to the practical business of governing a nation resulted in an increasingly dysfunctional government. Crime and other forms of disorder increased in the capital and elsewhere. Provincial families with their private warrior-retainers became increasingly powerful. As the central government asked for more and more taxes, many peasants in the provinces began to band together behind these rural lords. While the Fujiwara regents and other aristocrats in the capital concerned themselves with the arts, powerful landowners were gaining experience managing large estates, amassing wealth, and becoming quite proficient at fighting on horseback. Political change was imminent.