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Saturday, 10 December 2016

World History: Taika Reforms and Heian Japan

An example of Heian Art
In studying history it is advisable not to focus solely on the elites and politics but to also focus on culture and the general masses to better understand the past. However, when looking at the Taika Reforms and the Heian period we hit a paradox: we focus much on culture and the arts but it is all centered around the elite. The literature, art, and system of governance created during the Heian period would drastically influence the rest of Japanese history, and the style of government set up at the end of the period in 1185 would exist in one form or another until 1868. Before we look at the Heian period we have to look at the Taika Reforms to see their influence on Japanese history.

Taika Reforms (and Japan pre-reform)
In the sixth century the first motions to a unified Japanese state started to emerge. From the Nihon shoki written in 720 we learn that after 550 Japan began a period of centralization. In 587 the Soga clan managed to impose Buddhism onto Japan. Key to this was Prince Shotoku whose history has been so romanticized that we find it hard now to determine what was fact about his life and what is just legend. Shotoku proclaimed principles to centralize the Japanese state under imperial rule borrowing from Chinese Confucianism. Buddhism was seen as a way to aid this. Indirectly the implementation of Buddhism helped define what Japan's native religion, Shintoism, was and in later years Buddhism and Shintoism would blend increasingly together so much so that Shinto and Buddhist shrines are often the same shrine. Unfortunately for Shotoku he died before his Confucian and Buddhist principles could be implemented, and the member of the Soga clan, Umako, who had been helping him died a few years after. In something straight out of Game of Thrones the Soga clan under Umako had been ruling and influencing the throne from behind the scenes. After the death of Umako his son and grandson decided to emulate Cersei Lannister and try to influence the throne openly. This proved to be their downfall in 645 when imperial prince Naka no Oe and head of the Nakatomi clan, Kamatari, had the Soga ousted in a coup. 

Following the coup the conspirators began a series of reforms called Taika or 'Great Change'. Despite being called a 'Great Change' the reforms did not turn Japan into a centralized state, and the reforms themselves had been started by the Soga. Starting with an edict on New Year's Day 646 over the next fifty years Japan would slowly be transformed. A major aspect of the Taika reforms was to make Japan more like China. China was seen as the ideal form of government for the fledgling Japanese state. Among this the Chinese alphabet was adopted, the book about the formation of the gods (kami) and the Japanese islands called Kojiki was written, Buddhism was used to create legitimacy, and it was decreed that the emperor was the true ruler rather than the clans. Also a new system of land ownership based off of Tang China's system was implemented called shoen, or manors. The various land reforms curtailed the large amounts of independence which local leaders had exercised, as well as creating an administrative service to implement the will of the central state. Buddhism was increasingly promoted with immigrant monks given gifts; Buddhist ceremonies were implemented at court; there were restrictions on hunting, fishing, and eating meat; and many Buddhist temples were built. In 685 provinces were informed that:
in every house a Buddhist shrine should be provided, and an image of Buddha with Buddhist scriptures placed there. Worship was to be paid and offerings of food made at these shrines.
Another key reform was the creation of an imperial palace. Beforehand the emperor would have several palaces in each region for himself, family, 'summer' residences, and various regional palaces for when the imperial court traveled. It was customary for a new emperor or empress coming to power to move to a new palace and make that their capital. China and the Korean kingdoms in contrast had one imperial capital. The Taika reforms started implement having one capital as it would help formalize political centralization, and it was expensive maintaining several palaces, especially as they were made of wood so had to be repaired more often than stone ones. However, it would take several emperors before having one capital was implemented. From here we can now start discussing the Heian period.

Heian Politics
1696 map of Kyoto
In 794 the fiftieth emperor of Japan, Kanmu, moved the capital to Heian-kyo, (in modern day Kyoto), and here the capital would remain until 1185 earning the period the name Heian. During Kanmu's reign and that of some of his successors the imperial court saw increased authority to the emperor with the household treasury office, (kurando-dokoro), being created in 810. From 794 the emperor also expanded his territorial rule as well by sending Otomo Otomaro and Sakanoue Tamuramaro north to conquer the Ainu on the largest island of Honshu. As a result the last remaining free Ainu lived only on Hokkaido until the nineteenth century. Otomo returned and was awarded the title barbarian-quelling-great-general (sei-i-tai-shogun). However, the strength of the emperor politically would soon be reduced and the Taika reforms of having no clans ruling the emperor would soon be undone. In a very Game of Thrones manner the Fujiwara clan managed to maneuver their way into controlling who sat on the throne. Fujiwara Yoshifusa managed to place his son-in-law Montoku on the throne, and eventually was made regent for his grandson, Seiwa, following Montoku's death in 858. The Fujiwara's had future emperors marry into their family allowing them to become regents. This system of rule lasted until 1068 when an emperor of non-Fujiwara birth came to the throne, Go-Sanjo. Go-Sanjo confiscated all shoens awarded after 1045, and had a system called insei (cloistered government) where abdicated emperors would help rule. This was done to curb Fujiwara power. Slowly a new clan named the Minamoto would start to replace the Fujiwara as the most powerful family in Japan but we shall speak of that later.

Heian Art and Literature
Some Heian Art
Cultural historians who focus on Japanese history love the Heian period because of how rich the high culture was at this time. It is often regarded as a golden age of art and literature. Although it should be mentioned that only the elite could engage in this culture. Court culture best describes only those in the Heian court could engage in the culture. Historian H.Paul Varley even calls this period 'the court at its zenith'. The elite were expected to be interested and sensitive in the culture produced at this time with a quote from The Tale of Genji perfectly exemplifying this by showing what a man needs to do to be seen as a man 'with his gentle nature, his sensitivity and his wide range of artistic skills who represented the ideal of  the age and set the tone for the social and cultural life of the good people'. Melancholy and gloom were expected from the aristocracy as well as ideas of impermanence. This fit in perfectly with the rise in Buddhism as in Buddhist teachings life is suffering which one has to escape from. By pondering on the impermanence of life this fit well with these teachings. Although, a YouTube comment summed this melancholy and sensitivity up rather humorously 'So the Heian aristocrats were basically emos'. The best examples of Heian art happen to exist in Buddhist temples so already we see a connection to Buddhism which the Heian aristocrats felt. Again we see inspiration from China with them using curved lines, soft colors, and images of a religious style. However, linking this to a growth of a sense of Japanese identity in the later Heian period a distinctly Japanese style of painting called Yamato-e developed using angular lines and more decoration than the previous art style.
Depiction of Murasake Shikibu
Some of the most well known pieces of Japanese literature come from the Heian court, and all the major ones are written by women. The earliest are nikki or court diaries. One of the early ones include Tosa Nikki written by Ki no Tsurayuki around 935 where many entries are simply poems, haikus, or some brief comments. The better known one is The Gossamer Years written between 954 and 974, and unlike the Tosa Nikki there are large gaps between entries. It has been more like an autobiography than a diary of an unnamed woman calling herself 'mother of Michitsuna'. All we know is that she was married to Fujiwara no Kaneie who eventually became regent. The diary shows a sad tale of the author's husband initially loving her to the point of them having a child, (Michitsuna), and her late resentment and sadness over her husband's shifting attention to other women made worse by the sequestered existence at court. The final of the nikki reads: I thought of how quickly the years had gone by, each with the same unsatisfied longing. The old, inexhaustible sadness came back, and I went through the rites of my ancestors, but absent-mindedly. The Heian period also produced two of the most famous examples of Japanese literature: The Tale of Genji and The Pillow Book. The Pillow Book by Sei Shonagon is similar to a nikki but instead reflected on what she saw, heard, and did at court. What made the book famous was Sei's wittiness and distinct personality reflected in her writing. Written around the same time is The Tale of Genji by Murasake Shikibu which is possibly one of the oldest novels in not only Japan but the world. The novel is about Prince Genji going through life in Heian court dealing with his romances with women, and also his place in existence going from a lighthearted adventurer to a seeker looking for the truth. It deals with the impermanence of life, and relationships between the sexes as friends, lovers, sons, fathers, and protectors.

Women in Heian Court
Thanks to the nikkis, The Tale of Genji, and The Pillow Book we can grasp women's place in court society. Historians are lucky in the fact that women, and not men, are writing as we can from there grasp better what role women had in Heian society. Often people write about the world immediately around them so as almost all societies in history have been patriarchal women are often ignored from historical sources, or are subjected to a virgin-whore dichotomy. We know that women did have various rights. Many women ruled shoens and could be given a shoen on the same basis as a man. Husbands were also barred from hitting their wives, at least at court, which is quite significant in women's rights considering that at the time in Europe this was not the case. However, this was not an egalitarian society in terms of gender relations. Heian Japan was clearly patriarchal. Women were expected to be beautiful at all times which included having hair so long that it almost touched the ground, painting their faces white, dying their teeth black, painted their mouth red, and had to wear formal dress called a junihitoe which was a several layered robe which limited movement. Women at court were educated but only in 'feminine' subjects like calligraphy, poetry, and music where subjects like history and law were forbidden. Even how women could write was determined. Men were instructed to write in Chinese while women had to write in Japanese. At the start of Tosa Nikki the author opens with 'It is said that diaries are kept by men, but I shall see if a woman cannot keep one'. This speaks volumes about women's place in Heian society. Of course this is only the elite women. We have little sources describing Japan outside of the court to see what life was like for an average woman.

As you can imagine Heian society was rigidly hierarchical. Again we have few sources discussing the world outside of Heian but we can make estimates about society based on later and earlier sources. Japanese society was partially based on a Confucian idea that society was structured in a hierarchical system. At the top would be the royals, below them the shoen and landowners, then the farmers, below them the artisans, at the bottom would be merchants, (at the bottom as they weren't seen as making anything just acting as parasites on the rest of society), and below the bottom were the 'eta' or 'burakumin'. These were seen as 'unclean' and consisted of homeless, vagrants, prostitutes, and people who did not 'fit in' with society. This system was seen around the world in one form or another: the Chinese Confucian system, the Estates in Europe, caste in India, the social structure of the Mayan city states etc. The court itself was also extremely hierarchical. The court was split into thirty grades where the top four were reserved for the royal family, and the top three, (the kugyo), had special privileges like governmental posts, land which produced more rice, the ability to send your children to university, and light sentences for crimes. These top four positions were reserved for barely a tenth of one percent of the population so the mega elite. To get into a higher position in society you had to be born into it. At court your position meant everything: what you could do, who you could speak to, and even what type of fan you could use. You now may perhaps be wondering why there are hardly any sources from outside the Heian court? The simple answer is they stopped caring; this is what we shall talk about next.

End of the Heian
Minamoto no Yoshinaka
After 850 with the conquest of the Ainue, the end of Ainu resistance, and the reduction of contact with China there were no issues facing Japan. The Fujiwara clan at this time were efficient rulers and the shoen were loyal so there were no political issues. People accepted society, and the shoen ensured that there were no issues. No issues in a 'Medieval' society means you have little to do so the Heian court started painting, writing, and pondering existence. No problems emerged until the next century. By the mid 900s population growth, food shortages, and competition for resources between the great families  undermined the authority of the Fujiwara clan. By the eleventh century the Fujiwara, Taira, and Minamoto clans had started to fight over land, and Emperor Go-Sanjo's replacing of the Fujiwara regency meant the Minamoto clan could easily replace them as the dominant family in Japan. In 1156 there was a clash between the Fujiwara and, the Taira and Minamoto resulting in the Fujiwara's power being destroyed. Although in 1159 the Taira managed to almost destroy the Minamoto like the Fujiwara they got complacent and the Minamoto started to gain more power. In 1183 the Minamoto attacked Kyoto. The Empress Dowager tried to drown herself and the seven year old emperor but only succeeded in drowning her son. Head of the Minamoto, Yoritomo, created a new emperor but he created a new system of government. Called the bakufu the emperor would technically be ruler but Minamoto no Yoshinaka would be the real leader, called shogun. The shogun would appoint lords called daimyo to rule, and they in turn would have samurai fight and collect taxes for them. A new system of government, called a shogunate, had been established in Japan and this system would exist in some form until 1868.

Heian Japan shows us a new way in studying history. By studying literature, art, and poetry we manage to better understand a society centered on the court, where Game of Thrones style political maneuvering was a reality, and how people fit into this society. Often people refer to this time of history as 'the Dark Ages' based on the apparent lack of culture going on in Europe. Although this idea is in of itself untrue by looking at Heian Japan even if there was a 'Dark Age' it is exactly the opposite case in Japan. Thank you for reading and next World History we will be back in Europe looking at Vikings.

The sources I have used are as follows:
-A History of Japan by R.H.P. Mason and J.G. Caiger
-Japanese Culture by H. Paul Varley
-A History of Japan by Conrad Totman

For a list of other World History posts please see here

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