Heian Period - Early Medieval Japan
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Kyoto - Medieval Japan

wooden statue of seated man in robes
Godai Kokuzo Bodhisattva (Jingo-ji Temple, Kyoto),
ca. 800-900 AD

February 2017 - After Empress Koken died in 770 AD, there was a major change in how Japan's government worked. The powerful families got more power, as they did in China about the same time. Women were shut out of power. The next emperor, Konin, was an old man (62 years old) chosen for his lack of ambition, so the great families could rule through him. Soon powerful women like Konin's wife Ikami were framed and then killed by the Fujiwara family. Konin was emperor for eleven years, and then stepped down, yielding power to his son, Emperor Kanmu, in 781. Meanwhile, the powerful families reduced the size and power of the Japanese imperial government. Instead of large numbers of peasants fighting in the army or working to build temples as work-taxes, the new army was based on a much smaller number of richer men in the cavalry, fighting from horseback. Even when there was a famine, and people were lying starving in the streets, the great families did nothing to help them. The families may have tried to break the power of the Buddhist monks, who supported the emperors, by moving the capital from Nara to Kyoto, while leaving the Buddhist monks behind in Nara (or they may have moved to where their family was stronger, or in order to conquer more of the island). As in China at the same time, people objected. Somebody mysteriously killed the Fujiwara man behind the move.

Under Kanmu, one of the leaders of the rich families led an invasion of the Emeshi land north of Japan. The new cavalry worked well for this invasion, and he conquered the Emeshi, making Japan bigger. Kanmu ordered Japanese universities to teach the importance of expanding Japan to conquer more land, but people objected to this too.

women in their house
Excited women (Shigisan Engi Emaki, ca. 1100 AD)

By 800 AD the T'ang emperors in China were getting stronger again, but in Japan the rich families kept power instead. Usually the emperors' mothers were from the Fujiwara family, and their brothers held power as regents for young emperors like the Frankish mayors of the palace a little earlier or the Seljuk sultans a little later - and because from here on most emperors inherited power from their fathers, rather than older brothers, a lot of them were children. In 810, the emperor's wife Kusuko tried to get power, but the families defeated and poisoned her. The families - the Fujiwara, the Taira, the Minamoto - got more and more power, and became richer and richer. These rich families were able to pay for beautiful paintings and poetry. But most people got poorer. In 863, there was a serious tuberculosis epidemic. By 900 AD, most of the work of the Taika Reform was undone, and many farmers fell into being sharecroppers, or into debt slavery. The emperors didn't have enough power to collect taxes, or raise an army, anymore. They couldn't mint coins, or pay for police forces, either.

gray stone buddha in lotus position
Furuzono Buddha (ca. 1300 AD)

In the 900s AD, the Song Dynasty became more involved and more interested in Central Asian politics than in Japan, and Japan took an independent path. As the families tried to work out what that path would look like, there were civil wars all over Japan. With all the fighting, military generals, or daimyos, replaced ministers as the main power in Japan. Japan was unstable at this time partly because of the Medieval Warm Period, a global climate change that brought drought to Japan. During the 1000s, the Fujiwara family lost power, while the Minamoto family got more power. In 1156, the Fujiwara were finally destroyed - and immediately a bitter civil war broke out between the Minamoto and the Taira families.

For the next twenty years, Taira Kiyomori, the leader of the Taira family, controlled Japan. Kiyomori rebuilt trade with Song China, and through China with the Silk Road. Japan bought silk and copper coins from China with Japanese gold, and steel swords. But when Kiyomori died in 1181, it only took two years for the Minamoto to push the Taira out of Kyoto and out of power. In 1185, Minamoto Yoritomo became the first official shogun of Japan.

Learn by doing: write a haiku poem
Go on to the Kamakura period
More about Japan

Bibliography and further reading about medieval Japan:

The Kamakura period
More about Japan
Ancient China
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Karen Carr is Associate Professor Emerita, Department of History, Portland State University. She holds a doctorate in Classical Art and Archaeology from the University of Michigan. Follow her on Instagram or Twitter, or buy her book, Vandals to Visigoths.
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