A depiction of the Heian period through art

Anthropology: The Heian Period of Japan and Its Rich Cultural Significance

The Heian period, spanning from 794 to 1185, is a period Japanese history praised for its influence on the arts. The catalyst for this period would occur when Emperor Kanmu declared Heian, now known as the city of Kyoto, as the new capital of Japan during this period. Likewise, Kyoto’s access to the sea via river would be very helpful during this period. The Japanese aristocracy has been said to have flourished immensely during this period. The Heian period is considered the ‘Golden Age’ of Japan.

People of the Imperial Court during the Heian period of Japan, spanning from the 8th to 12th century CE.
(Credit: Garage - Vice)
People of the Imperial Court during the Heian period of Japan, spanning from the 8th to 12th century CE.
(Credit: Garage – Vice)

Early Heian Period

The Heian period began under the ruling of emperor Kammu, who strived to push the  Ritsuryō system. The Ritsuryo system of centralized governance, with Kammu amending articles he deemed to not be relevant. This system was prevalent in East Asia at the time.

Emperor Kammu on his throne during his reign (Credit: Wikipedia)
Emperor Kammu on his throne during his reign (Credit: Wikipedia)

The concept of the Ritsuryo system is essentially one in which “the land and the people are placed under the rule of the emperor.” (Ritsuryo System) Under this system, land is equally distributed among the common people. The allocation of equal land is known as the Handenshujuho (Handensei) system. In return, the people under this ruling would provide labor, such as military service, and would have to pay taxes.

Below are some of the amendments Kammu made: 

  • The allocation of rice fields is now every 12 years (previously 6 years). 
  • Local officials monitored closely to prevent corruption.
  • Soldiers were the sons of local officials with marital prowess, in comparison to the previous rule where ‘peasants’ were conscripted.  

Emperor Kammu and Buddhism

Kammu, demonstrating immense support for Buddhism and its practices, would deploy monks Saichō and Kūkai to China to learn more information about Buddhism. 

Japanese monks, Kukai (left) and Saicho (right), are responsible for the blossoming of Japanese Buddhism (Credit:ReadWorks)
Japanese monks, Kukai (left) and Saicho (right), are responsible for the blossoming of Japanese Buddhism (Credit:ReadWorks)

Their return created two new branches Japanese Buddhism: Shingon, which was established by Kūkai, and Tendai, which Saichō established. 

Shingon Buddhism

Shingon Buddhism is derived from Vajrayana texts and Mahavairocana-sutra. The teachings of Shingon are to aid with reaching enlightenment. This is displayed through “the essence of Shingon Mantrayana practice [which] is to experience Reality by emulating the inner realization of the Dharmakaya through the meditative ritual use of mantra, mudra and visualization of mandala (the three mysteries). These practices are seen as gateways to understanding the nature of Reality. Importantly, all Shingon followers gradually develop a teacher-student relationship with a mentor, who learns the disposition of the student and teaches practices accordingly.” (Shingon Buddhism

Tendai Buddhism

Tendai Buddhism derives from both Chinese and Indian philosophy, as well as being a part of Mahayana Buddhist traditions. Below are some ideas held by Tendai Buddhists: 

  • Eka-yana: “One Vehicle”
    • Tendai Buddhists seek to understand the inherent unity within the diversity of Buddhist traditions. In order to study Tendai is to study Buddhism as a whole, while also finding an approach to study and practice that works best for you.
  • Ichinen sanzen: “Three thousand worlds in One Thought Moment”
    • Tendai Buddhists seek to understand the interconnectedness of all things
  • Tathāgata-garbha: “Buddha Nature”
    • Tendai Buddhist thought and practice has roots in the notion that all beings possess the infinite potential to discover the truth together.

Fujiwara Regency

The Fujiwara clan originated with Nakatomi no Kamatari (614 -669), given the surname Fujiwara before his death by Emperor Tenji for his contributions to the Taika Reform. Considered the most powerful family at the time, the Fujiwara family served as regents for the imperial system in Japan. 

Fujiwara no Kamatari is depicted as a Shinto Diety (Credit: Met Museum)
Fujiwara no Kamatari is depicted as a Shinto Diety (Credit: Met Museum)

The Fujiwara family maintained their authority by marrying their daughters to emperors. This would ultimately secure their lineage as ruling emperors, as any offspring that would come from these daughters would become a potential successor to the emperor. The Fujiwara clan would become the ruling power as a result. 

Below is a list of some of the most prominent members of the Fujiwara clan, along with their accomplishments:

  • Founder: Fujiwara no Kamatari 
    • He introduced political reforms such as Taika no Kaishin. Taika Reforms allowed for stronger power of the imperial court.
  • Fujiwara no Yoshifusa: clan leader in 858 CE
    • Established the trend of regents not being royal blood.
    • Would stay that way until 11th century CE. 
  • Fujiwara no Michinaga (996 – 1027): when Fujiwara regency peaked  
    • Earned respect from everyone around him.
    • Clans became financially abundant under his ruling, allowing them to build palaces and temples 
    • Phoenix Hall, built to commemorate him by his son, Regent Yorimichi Fujiwara. 

The clan brought peace and tranquillity in Japan. The Fujiwara clan also brought enrichment to the arts and culture scene in Japan during this time. A high focus on aesthetics has been developed as a result. 

Literature during the Heian Period

A Heian-era poem, consisting of Japanese scripture (Credit:Facts and Details)
A Heian-era poem (Credit: Facts and Details)

During this period, a new phonetic syllabary  writing system called kana was developed. This would allow for the growth of Japanese literature, as kana would encourage the production of literature. With this came the emergence of literary forms, such as waka, monogatari, and nikki bungaku. (Heian Period (794–1185) | Essay)

Waka: Japanese Poetry

Waka (Yamato uta) is a form of Japanese poetry developed during the Heian period, consisting of many different styles. These forms include: tanka (short poem), chōka (long poem), bussokusekika, sedoka, and katauta. (Waka (poetry)) Only tanka would remain as the Heian period progressed, which would simply be what waka was considered. 

Waka does not contain rhymes or lines. Tanka follows the pattern 5-7-5 (kami-no-ku) / 7-7 (shimo-no-ku).

Kinuginu is a type of waka that was  particularly significant among lovers during the Heian period, with men giving waka to their female lovers during the morning. 

The people of Japan were very fond of waka to the extent that there were also parties for waka called Utakai and Utaawase:

Utakai was a party in which all participants wrote a waka and recited it. Utakai is derived from Shikai, or Kanshi parties and was held on an occasion when people gathered, such as a seasonal party for the New Year, or a celebration for a newborn baby, a birthday, or a newly-built house. Utaawase was a contest between two teams. Themes were determined and a poet chosen from each team wrote a waka for a given theme. The host appointed a judge for each theme and gave points to the winning team. The team which received the largest number of points was the winner.

(Waka (poetry)

Waka was something the Japanese people held in high regard during the Heian Period.

The concept of Utakai Hajime, poem parties held in the Imperial court (Credit: Wikipedia)
Utakai Hajime (Credit: Wikipedia)

Monogatari: Tales of Japan

Monogatari is a type of narrative tale similar to that of an epic novel. There are seven known genres of monogatari:

  • Setsuwa-monogatari: anecdotal tales
  • Tsukuri-monogatari: aristocratic court romances
  • Denki-monogatari: stories dealing with fantastical events
  • Rekishi-monogatari: historical tales
  • Uta-monogatari: stories drawn from poetry 
  • Gunki-monogatari: military chronicles and stories about war
  • Giko-monogatari: Pseudo-classical imitations of earlier tales 

Monogatari contains real accounts of events that occurred during the Heian period, as well as fictional events:

It was quite difficult to draw the line between fiction and nonfiction. For example, “Ise Monogatari” (The Tale of Ise) is a work that is called ‘monogatari’ because it was originally called that way and readers have enjoyed the work even though the main character was considered for a while to be a real person ARIWARA no Narihira.

A depiction of the tales told in Ise Monogatri (Credit: World Digital Library)
A depiction of the tales told in Ise Monogatri (Credit: World Digital Library)

Nikki Bungaku

Nikki bungaku are poetic diaries that detail topics from private thoughts to literature. They are often seen as an ‘expression of self’, has a focus on the personal feelings of the author. These poetic diaries have three distinctive characteristics: “the frequent use of poems, breaking away from daily entry as a formal device, and a stylistic heightening.” (The Traditions and Forms of the Japanese Poetic Diary)

Tosa Nikki faithfully copied by Fujiwara no Teika(1162-1241) (Museum of the Imperial Collections)
Tosa Nikki faithfully copied by Fujiwara no Teika(1162-1241) (Museum of the Imperial Collections)

The Blossoming of Art during the Heian Period

The Fujiwara clan expected sophistication in all forms of culture, including art. A new style of Japanese painting was developed called yamato-e, striving to depict the landscapes of Kyoto.

Yamato-e depicts images of landscapes and Japanese folklore, deemed concepts of importance during the Heian period. This art form is painted on shoji, which is a large paper sliding door, as well as room partitions. (Japanese-Wiki-Corpus)

Yamoto-e called Children Playing in the Snow under Plum Trees in Bloom (Secchū baisō gunji yūgi zu) - (Credit: Met Museum)
Children Playing in the Snow under Plum Trees in Bloom (Secchū baisō gunji yūgi zu) – (Credit: Met Museum)

The art of Yamato-e can also be seen in picture scrolls, also known as Emakimono. One of the well-known tales portrayed in Emakimono is The Tale of Genji

The Tale of Genji

The Tale of Genji (Genji monogatari), is a piece of literature written by lady-in-waiting Murasaki Shikibu. It is said that her work depicts the Heian period at its peak. The Tale of Genji is considered an incredible work of fiction, while also incorporating the inner workings of everyday Heian life. 

The Tale of Genji, depicted through artwork (Credit: Britannica)
The Tale of Genji (Credit: Britannica)

With approximately 800 waka written in the tale, the work depicts the story of the son of an Emperor, Hikaru Genji. The story goes into detail about Genji and his many amorous affairs, and the consequences of his actions as a result.

Clothing of the Imperial Court

The Heian period brought expansion to all areas of culture, including clothing. The highest-ranked women of the Imperial Court would wear jūnihitoe. Commonly known as the ‘twelve-layered robe’, jūnihitoe actually varies in the number of robes layered. Jūnihitoe was layered for aesthetic purposes, as “the gradation of colours on the collar and at the hem would be vivid and beautiful” (What is junihitoe? | Things to do in KYOTO

A woman wearing jūnihitoe (Credit: http://nannaia.blogspot.com)
A woman wearing jūnihitoe (Credit: http://nannaia.blogspot.com)

Each layer of jūnihitoe holds a different colour. Colour combinations differ depending on the season, as well as events. Colour held importance during the Heian period because “A woman’s outfit and color selection could thus indicate all kinds of information besides rank, such as her age, marital status, location, ceremonial occasion, courtly favor, etc.” (History of Kimono: Classical Japan (Nara and Heian Periods))

Ordered layers of jūnihitoe 

  • Kosode: inner-most layer, made of silk 
  • Nagabakama: long pleated skirt 
  • Hitoe: upper garment
  • Itsutsuginu: a number of layered robes
  • Uchinginu: support for outer robes
  • Uwagi: patterned robe shorter than uchinginu 
  • Karaginu: waist-length jacket
  • Mo: a skirt, essentially a train for the robe

Jūnihitoe can become very heavy, sometimes weighing up to about 40 pounds.

High-ranked men and sokutai

High-ranked men within the Imperial Court wore sokutai, similar to jūnihitoe. The composition of sokutai varies, but a typical layering consists of:

  • Kosode: inner-most layer
  • Hitoe: upper garment 
  • Akome: multiple layers worn above hitoe 
  • Ue-no-bakama: worn above akome 
  • Shitagasane: has a tail 
  • Hampi: sleeveless vest 
  • Final outer robe 

Colours are also of importance to sokutai. The colours of sokutai vary by the rank and the type of official they are. 

Hirohito wearing a sokutai at his enthronement ceremony, 1926. (Credit: Britannica)
Hirohito wearing a sokutai at his enthronement ceremony, 1926. (Credit: Britannica)

The tradition of sokutai and jūnihitoe is still present today, but is reserved for special occasions in the Imperial court. Commoners were only able to wear kiosodes, which would prove beneficial to them as it allowed for easy manoeuvres when completing daily tasks of labour.

The Decline of the Heian Period

Unfortunately, all good things must come to an end, as seen with the dissipation of the Heian aristocracy. The cause of this downfall would largely be due to the fleeting power of the Fujiwara clan.

Fujiwara no Michinaga — drawing Kikuchi Yōsai (Credit: Wikipedia)
Fujiwara no Michinaga — drawing Kikuchi Yōsai (Credit: Wikipedia)

The death of Fujiwara no Michinaga is the first occurrence that would prove that the Fujiwara clan was losing the force they so desperately tried to maintain in the Imperial system. He would be succeeded by Go-Sanjo in 1068, who did not have blood ties with the Fujiwara clan. With the succession of the throne belonging to Go-Sanjo also came the new rule of Insei.


Also known as a cloistered government, Insei is a system where an emperor would abdicate but still maintain some power. This abdication would force former emperors to reside in monasteries. The ruling of the retired empire, not the current one, is what was followed. This tool would prove successful in preventing further control of the Fujiwara clan.

Consequently, the sheer force the Fujiwara clan had would be lost completely during the Hejii Disturbance, where they attempted to fight back for their power, which was given to the Taira clan. Though the Taira clan now possessed all the power, they would continue to maintain the aesthetics and institutions produced during the Fujiwara regency. (Fujiwara Family)

Cultural Significance of the Heian Period

Though the Heian period eventually faced its demise, it was able to establish many aspects of Japanese culture and history while in its prime. The Heian period is one that allowed for the brewing of Japanese culture, in which it would attempt to individualize itself from Chinese culture and practices by developing its own. With a focus on refining the aesthetics and fine arts of Japan, many new forms of art and fashion were produced as a result. The development of Japanese Buddhism is still a practice in the country today.

The Heian period was an era of peace and tranquillity in Japan, with little conflict amongst the inhabitants, and will continue to be known as the ‘golden age’ of Japan as a result.

Illustrated Legends of the Kitano Tenjin Shrine (Kitano Tenjin engi emaki) - (Credit: Met Museum)
Illustrated Legends of the Kitano Tenjin Shrine (Kitano Tenjin engi emaki) – (Credit: Met Museum)

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