History of Japan


Economic, Social, and Administrative Developments

Before the Taiho Code was established, the capital was customarily moved after the death of an emperor because of the ancient belief that a place of death was polluted. Reforms and bureaucratization of government led to the establishment of a permanent imperial capital at Heijokyo, or Nara, in A.D. 710. The capital at Nara, which gave its name to the new period (710-94), was styled after the grand Chinese Tang Dynasty (618-907) capital at Chang'an and was the first truly urban center in Japan. It soon had a population of 200,000, representing nearly 4 percent of the country's population, and some 10,000 people worked in government jobs.

Economic and administrative activity increased during the Nara period. Roads linked Nara to provincial capitals, and taxes were collected more efficiently and routinely. Coins were minted, if not widely used. Outside the Nara area, however, there was little commercial activity, and in the provinces the old Shotoku land reform systems declined. By the mid-eighth century, shoen (landed estates), one of the most important economic institutions in medieval Japan, began to rise as a result of the search for a more manageable form of landholding. Local administration gradually became more self-sufficient, while the breakdown of the old land distribution system and the rise of taxes led to the loss or abandonment of land by many people who became the "wave people," or ronin. Some of these formerly "public people" were privately employed by large landholders, and "public lands" increasingly reverted to the shoen.

Factional fighting at the imperial court continued throughout the Nara period. Imperial family members, leading court families, such as the Fujiwara, and Buddhist priests all contended for influence. In the late Nara period, financial burdens on the state increased, and the court began dismissing nonessential officials. In 792 universal conscription was abandoned, and district heads were allowed to establish private militia forces for local police work. Decentralization of authority became the rule despite the reforms of the Nara period. Eventually, to return control to imperial hands, the capital was moved in 784 to Nagaoka and in 794 to Heiankyo (Capital of Peace and Tranquillity), or Heian, about twenty-six kilometers north of Nara. By the late eleventh century, the city was popularly called Kyoto (Capital City), the name it has had every since.

Cultural Developments and the Establishment of Buddhism

Some of Japan's literary monuments were written during the Nara period, including the Kojiki and Nihongi, the first national histories compiled in 712 and 720, respectively; the Man'yoshu (Collection of Ten Thousand Leaves), an anthology of poems; and the Kaifuso (Fond Recollections of Poetry), an anthology written in Chinese by Japanese emperors and princes. Another major cultural development of the era was the permanent establishment of Buddhism in Japan. Buddhism had been introduced in the sixth century but had a mixed reception until the Nara period, when it was heartily embraced by Emperor Shomu. Shomu and his Fujiwara consort were fervent Buddhists and actively promoted the spread of Buddhism, making it the "guardian of the state" and strengthening Japanese institutions through still further Chinese acculturation. During Shomu's reign, the Todaiji (Great East Temple) was built, and within it was placed the Buddha Dainichi (Great Sun Buddha), a sixteen-meter-high, gilt-bronze statue. This Buddha was identified with the Sun Goddess, and from this point on, a gradual syncretism of Buddhism and Shinto ensued. Shomu declared himself the "Servant of the Three Treasures" of Buddhism: the Buddha, the law or teachings of Buddhism, and the Buddhist community.

Although these efforts stopped short of making Buddhism the state religion, Nara Buddhism heightened the status of the imperial family. Buddhist influence at court increased under the two reigns of Shomu's daughter. As Empress Koken (r. 749-58) she brought many Buddhist priests into court. Koken abdicated in 758 on the advice of her cousin, Fujiwara Nakamaro. When the retired empress came to favor a Buddhist faith healer named Dokyo, Nakamaro rose up in arms in 764 but was quickly crushed. Koken charged the ruling emperor with colluding with Nakamaro and had him deposed. Koken reascended the throne as Empress Shotoku (r. 764-770). The empress commissioned the printing of 1 million prayer charms--the Hyakumanto dharani--many examples of which survive. The small scrolls, dating from 770, are among the earliest printed works in the world. Shotoku had the charms printed to placate the Buddhist clergy. She may even have wanted to make Dokyo emperor, but she died before she could act. Her actions shocked Nara society and led to the exclusion of women from imperial succession and the removal of Buddhist priests from positions of political authority.

Despite such machinations, 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 Fujiwara Regency

When Kammu moved the capital to Heian (Kyoto), which remained the imperial capital for the next 1,000 years, he did so not only to strengthen imperial authority but also to improve his seat of government geopolitically. Kyoto had good river access to the sea and could be reached by land routes from the eastern provinces. The early Heian period (794-967) continued Nara culture; the Heian capital was patterned on the Chinese capital at Chang'an, as was Nara, but on a larger scale. Despite the decline of the Taika-Taih reforms, imperial government was vigorous during the early Heian period. Indeed, Kammu's avoidance of drastic reform decreased the intensity of political struggles, and he became recognized as one of Japan's most forceful emperors.

Although Kammu had abandoned universal conscription in 792, he still waged major military offensives to subjugate the Emishi, possible descendants of the displaced Jomon, living in northern and eastern Japan. After making temporary gains in 794, in 797 Kammu appointed a new commander under the title seii taishogun (barbarian-subduing generalissimo; often referred to as shogun). By 801 the shogun had defeated the Emishi and had extended the imperial domains to the eastern end of Honshu. Imperial control over the provinces was tenuous at best, however. In the ninth and tenth centuries, much authority was lost to the great families, who disregarded the Chinese-style land and tax systems imposed by the government in Kyoto. Stability came to Heian Japan, but, even though succession was ensured for the imperial family through heredity, power again concentrated in the hands of one noble family, the Fujiwara.

Following Kammu's death in 806 and a succession struggle among his sons, two new offices were established in an effort to adjust the Taika-Taiho administrative structure. Through the new Emperor's Private Office, the emperor could issue administrative edicts more directly and with more self-assurance than before. The new Metropolitan Police Board replaced the largely ceremonial imperial guard units. While these two offices strengthened the emperor's position temporarily, soon they and other Chinese-style structures were bypassed in the developing state. Chinese influence effectively ended with the last imperial-sanctioned mission to China in 838. Tang China was in a state of decline, and Chinese Buddhists were severely persecuted, undermining Japanese respect for Chinese institutions. Japan began to turn inward.

As the Soga had taken control of the throne in the sixth century, the Fujiwara by the ninth century had intermarried with the imperial family, and one of their members was the first head of the Emperor's Private Office. Another Fujiwara became regent for his grandson, then a minor emperor, and yet another was appointed kanpaku (regent for an adult emperor). Toward the end of the ninth century, several emperors tried, but failed, to check the Fujiwara. For a time, however, during the reign of Emperor Daigo (897-930), the Fujiwara regency was suspended as he ruled directly.

Nevertheless, the Fujiwara were not demoted by Daigo but actually became stronger during his reign. Central control of Japan had continued to decline, and the Fujiwara, along with other great families and religious foundations, acquired ever larger shoen and greater wealth during the early tenth century. By the early Heian period, the shoen had obtained legal status, and the large religious establishments sought clear titles in perpetuity, waiver of taxes, and immunity from government inspection of the shoen they held. Those people who worked the land found it advantageous to transfer title to shoen holders in return for a share of the harvest. People and lands were increasingly beyond central control and taxation, a de facto return to conditions before the Taika Reform.

Within decades of Daigo's death, the Fujiwara had absolute control over the court. By the year 1000, Fujiwara Michinaga was able to enthrone and dethrone emperors at will. Little authority was left for traditional officialdom, and government affairs were handled through the Fujiwara family's private administration. The Fujiwara had become what historian George B. Sansom has called "hereditary dictators."

Despite their usurpation of imperial authority, the Fujiwara presided over a period of cultural and artistic flowering at the imperial court and among the aristocracy. There was great interest in graceful poetry and vernacular literature. Japanese writing had long depended on Chinese ideograms (kanji), but these were now supplemented by kana, two types of phonetic Japanese script: katakana, a mnemonic device using parts of Chinese ideograms; and hiragana, a cursive form of katakana writing and an art form in itself. Hiragana gave written expression to the spoken word and, with it, to the rise in Japan's famous vernacular literature, much of it written by court women who had not been trained in Chinese as had their male counterparts. Three late tenth-century and early eleventh-century women presented their views of life and romance at the Heian court in Kagero nikki (The Gossamer Years) by "the mother of Michitsuna," Makura no soshi (The Pillow Book) by Sei Shonagon, and Genji monogatari (Tale of Genji)--the world's first novel--by Murasaki Shikibu. Indigenous art also flourished under the Fujiwara after centuries of imitating Chinese forms. Vividly colored yamato-e (Japanese style) paintings of court life and stories about temples and shrines became common in the mid- and late Heian periods, setting patterns for Japanese art to this day.

As culture flourished, so did decentralization. Whereas the first phase of shoen development in the early Heian period had seen the opening of new lands and the granting of the use of lands to aristocrats and religious institutions, the second phase saw the growth of patrimonial "house governments," as in the old clan system. (In fact, the form of the old clan system had remained largely intact within the great old centralized government.) New institutions were now needed in the face of social, economic, and political changes. The Taiho Code lapsed, its institutions relegated to ceremonial functions. Family administrations now became public institutions. As the most powerful family, the Fujiwara governed Japan and determined the general affairs of state, such as succession to the throne. Family and state affairs were thoroughly intermixed, a pattern followed among other families, monasteries, and even the imperial family. Land management became the primary occupation of the aristocracy, not so much because direct control by the imperial family or central government had declined but more from strong family solidarity and a lack of a sense of Japan as a single nation.

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.

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).

Japan History Contents

SOURCE: Area Handbook of the US Library of Congress