Life In Heian Japan

The Heian period of the Japanese history was the epoch of the huge cultural development presupposed by the Chinese influences. The Japanese culture absorbed and reinterpreted in the Japanese way the main elements of the Chinese civilization such as literature (prose and poetry), art, religion and philosophy (Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism), the ways of social behavior and other important details taken from China. In some respect, it is possible to understand the Heian period as the transitional epoch when the Japanese national culture passed through the synthesis with the Chinese civilizational contributions. In this way, the main characteristic of the Heian epoch is the intention of the Japanese elites to apply the Chinese social and cultural inventions to the Japanese reality. The obvious problem, however, is that the Chinese political, economic and social conditions are different from those in Japan. The contradiction led to the decline of the Japanese Emperors’ power followed by the Kamakura period. Murasaki Shikibu, one of the Heian period’s writers, provided a brilliant description of the epoch’s essentials in her The Tale of Genji. Despite Prince Genji is a fictional character, the novel underlines the real specifics of the highest Japanese society during the Heian period. The illustrations provided by Lady Murasaki serve as the demonstrations of the Heian aristocracy’s unrealistic and alienated approach to the state that led to the growth of the bushi who caused the tumultuous Kamakura period.

To understand the specifics of the Heian epoch as Murasaki Shikibu presents it, the first point should be the analysis of the court politics of those times. Ivan Morris in his The World of the Shining Prince: Court Life in Ancient Japan claims that the main two sides of the epoch were the clan of the Japanese Emperors and the Fujiwaras clan. These two clans were on the top of the Japanese social structure. The Emperors nominally represented the highest state authority when the heads of the Fujiwara clan possessed the real power. The reason for such a situation was the Fujiwaras’ intention to provide their women as the Emperors’ wives in order to always remain the Emperors’ relatives and control them in this way. In such a way, it is very illustrious that the main feature of the court politics of the Heian period is the formal centralization of the state power that in fact belonged to the most influential clan of the aristocrats. It is also important that the way of the Emperors’ dependence on the Fujiwaras was the marriage politics provided by the latter. Thus, as Morris claims, the period described by Murasaki Shikibu is the time of Emperor Michinaga’s supreme power. At the same time, “the thirty years during which he (Michinaga) was in control represent the high point of Fujiwara power”. This duality of nominal and real power is crucial for the correct understanding or the epoch and its historical consequences.

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The duality of real and hidden power connected by the correct marriage politics presupposed the specifics of the social behavior among the Japanese elites during the period. Murasaki Shikibu describes the great court that included many Emperor’s concubines and illegitimate children who could not reign the state and at the same time had the Emperor’s blood in their veins. Such a contradictory status made those people factually isolated from the society because they had no purposes except different delights realization. It is clear because the Emperor’s illegitimate child could not achieve any status higher than he already had. At the same time, even the Emperor himself, the multiple illegitimate children’s father, had no real political power. In such a situation, the political elites treated themselves with art, poetry, court love affairs and other similar occupations. It is very important to underline the crucial role of the Chinese cultural and religious influences that determined the social reality of the Japanese aristocracy during the period. As a good illustration of Heian Japan’s dependence on China serves the movement of pietists who venerated Buddha Amida, the symbolic ruler of the Western Paradise. Thus, as Conrad Schirokaner claims, the break in this respect “came when Hohen (1133-1212) established Pure Land Buddhism as an independent school in the Kamakura era”. It means that in fact the Japanese religion during the Heian period was the result of the Chinese cultural expansion that transformed the Japanese culture in accordance with the Chinese social forms. The appearance of Pure Land Buddhism in the same time when the Heian period was close to its end demonstrates the connection between the Heian epoch and the Chinese cultural dominance in Japan. It would be better to underline that the Chinese dominance is lesser important than the national Japanese culture’s underestimation in Heian Japan. The same concerns poetry and prosaic literature. Thus, Murasaki Shikibu constantly underlines that the court used the Chinese (and in some situations Corean) language along with the Japanese one. For example, she writes about prince Genji’s childhood: “it was only to have been expected that boy would excel in his formal Chinese studies”. Then she mentions that the prince met a physiognomist and “they exchanged poems in Chinese, among them”. Both quotes characterize the Chinese language as the language of educated people, and in this respect, it is clear that the Japanese culture of the Heian period did not elaborate its own national traditions. The same concerns the social sphere in general as well as the sphere of politics.

The cultural alienation of the elites from the Japanese people led to the decline of the social order characteristic for Heian period. The most important in this respect was that growth of the shoen (manorial) system that became the powerful alternative to the centralized model of Japan. As Morris claims, “the growth of the manorial system has often been decried for leading to the enfeeblement of the imperial government and to a long period of disruption”. Such shoens were tax-free and they were not subjected directly to the Emperor. In fact, the main visual reason of their appearance was that the Emperor gifted his lands to his numerable relatives, illegitimate children and friends. At the same time, the unrealistic approach of the elite to their land did not allow them rule their shoens effectively. As it was mentioned, the highest Japanese elite preferred to read the Chinese poetry and celebrate every day because these people could not achieve anything higher than they already had since their birth. Thus, their administrative job did their samurai or bushi, the warriors who firstly served the aristocrats, but after the Heian period’s decline replaced their masters.

The division of the state into separate tax-free shoens is the central reason for the further Kamakura period when different samurai clans led their unstoppable wars. Morris claims that the Japanese aristocrats with their ineffectual policy “so weakened the central government that it was totally unable to withstand the military challenge from the provinces”. In fact, the entire text by Murasaki Shikibu can serve as an illustration of the reasons for such a decline. There is no mention in the text of the Emperor’s or some other authority’s political activity. The entire court (as well as the Emperor himself) described in The Tale of Genji looks like a collective of people who have neither obligations nor goals, except the different forms of retreat and games. Certainly, the author of The Tale of Genji was not a statesman, and she provided her own point of view limited by her courtesan way of life. Besides, it is also clear that the text demonstrates the main tendencies of the epoch, and the best proof of that is the decline of the Heian political order. In this way, the further dominance of active and initiative samurai is the logical result of the situation described in the text.

The Japanese aristocrats believed that the state might work without their assistance. At the same time, it seems that they considered their political superiority as the eternal state of things. Thus, the Japanese elites irresponsibly tried to avoid any obligations toward their state. It is also clear that the Japanese aristocrats of Heian times underestimated their national culture and tried to accept the Chinese culture through its language, calligraphy, arts and other elements of culture. In connection with the land’s separation and decentralization due to the shoe system’s establishment, the irresponsible elites alienated from their people both culturally and religiously could not oppose the bushi who became the new elites of the Kamakura period. Murasaki Shikibu does not know about the Kamakura period, but her text is a great illustration of the central social vices that caused it. Thus, The Tale of Genji provides a highly realistic point of view that allows one see the main tendencies of the epoch described.

Dec 19, 2019 in Informative
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