Fujiwara clan

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  • Japanese: 藤原(Fujiwara-shi)

The Fujiwara clan, one of the classical uji (clans), first formed in the 7th century. They rose to power and prominence in Nara and Heian Period Japan, with the Northern Fujiwara effectively controlling the reins of power during the transition from the ritsuryô system of government. The period during their height, when they effectively controlled the Imperial throne through careful political manipulation and "marriage politics", is sometimes referred to as the Fujiwara period.


The formation of the Fujiwara

The first to bear the name Fujiwara was Nakatomi no Kamatari (614-669), who was granted the name for his service to the throne, including the assassination of the Soga chieftain in 645. The Nakatomi family were a provincial family, possibly descended from the Emishi chieftains in eastern Japan who were incorporated into the Yamato polity. They appear to have had a major influence in Hitachi province, where they were responsible for the prominence of Kashima Shrine, a major shrine with an imperial grant overseen by the Nakatomi since at least 645. Though Kamatari is generally thought to have come from Fujiwara in the Kinai, some records say he was originally from Hitachi, though this probably was more true of his immediate ancestors.

The Nakatomi had created a power base for themselves as court ritualists. It is interesting to note that they are hardly to be found in the Kojiki, but appear much more often in the later Nihongi, possibly indicating their rise to power and a desire to legitimize their position.

Fujiwara no Kamatari's sons continued to bear his name. Perhaps the most famous is Fujiwara no Fuhito (659-720), who was only 10 years old when his father died. Three years later, in 672, the Jinshin War broke out, and Prince Ôama succeeded to the throne. The Nakatomi and their descendants fell into disfavor, and Fuhito appears to have been taken in by a scribe (fuhito) named Tanabe no Osumi in Yamashina.

In 689, Fuhito was appointed a judge, and from there his fortunes took a turn for the better. He was chosen by Empress Jitô (r. 690-697) to aid her after the death of her husband, and later as the guardian of her grandson, who would eventually become Emperor Mommu. Fuhito's daughter, Miyako, was chosen, along with two other women, as a consort for Mommu in 698. After Mommu's death in 707, Fuhito was made Udaijin (Minister of the Right) by Empress Gemmei (formerly Empress Jitô). This gave him tremendous power over the administration of the ritsuryô code, which he had helped implement.

Fuhito's sons included Maro (695-737), Umakai (694-737), Fusasaki (681-737), and Muchimaro (680-737), who would become the progenitors of the Capital, Ceremonial, Northern, and Southern branches of the Fujiwara family, respectively.

Northern Fujiwara
Regents' Lineage

  • Kamatari (614-669)
  • Fuhito (659-720)
  • Fusasaki (681-737)
  • Matate (706-764)
  • Uchimaro (756-812)
  • Fuyutsugu (775-826)
  • Yoshifusa (804-872)
    • Regent*, 858-872
  • Mototsune (836-891)
    • Regent, 877-884
    • Kampaku, 880-891
  • Tokihira (871-909)
    • Kampaku*, 898-909
  • Tadahira (880-949)
    • Son of Mototsune
    • Regent, 930-936
    • Kampaku, 936-949
  • ...
  *Held the powers of the post,
but not the official title.

Early Fujiwara Regency

From the 9th to early 10th centuries, the influence of the Fujiwara family grew at court. They were crucial in reforming--and ultimately replacing--the ritsuryô administration of previous generations. With the eventual creation of the extracodal posts of Sesshô (Regent) and Kampaku (Viceroy), they were able to place themselves at the top of the administrative structure, in effect subject only to the emperor. At the same time, provincial power was also growing, while court positions slowly became traditional hereditary posts. Towards the end of the 9th century, Japan would officially cut its ties with China and focus more specifically on internal reform.

From the 8th century onwards, Fujiwara no Fusasaki's lineage grew and continued to accumulate wealth in the capital and provinces, including his son Fujiwara no Matate (706-764) and grandson Fujiwara no Uchimaro (756-812), who, along with another member of the Northern lineage, Fujiwara no Sonohito (756-818), served as an influential member of the Daijôkan (Council of State). However, it would be Uchimaro's son, Fujiwara no Fuyutsugu (775-826), who would really be seen as the start of a new age of Fujiwara power and influence.

Fuyutsugu served Emperor Saga while he was still Crown Prince Kamino. Fuyutsugu's posthumous biography describes him as extremely capable in matters of both military and civil administration. He appears to have been quite sociable and reportedly benevolent. He became director of the Kurodôdokoro (Royal Secretariat) along with Kose no Notori when that office was established in 810, and then joined the Daijôkan as an advisor the following year. He eventually rose to become Udaijin after Sonohito's death.

Fuyutsugu became inextricably connected with the royal line when his daughter, Nobuko (alt. reading Junshi), became the senior consort of Saga's son, Prince Masanaga (later Emperor Nimmyo), while Saga's daughter, Minamoto no Kiyohime, became a consort of Fuyutsugu's son, Yoshifusa (804-872). Fuyutsugu's grandson, Prince Michiyasu, would eventually come to the throne as Emperor Montoku, but not before the former's death. Fuyutsugu was posthumously granted the supreme role of Dajôdaijin (Prime Minister). With the Fujiwara and Imperial lines so co-mingled, the stage was set for a period of regency by the scions of the Fujiwara family.

After the death of Saga-in in 842, reports surfaced of a planned coup by supporters of Crown Prince Tsunesada, son of Emperor Junna and his queen-consort, Princess Masako, later known as the Jôwa Incident. Those accused were sent into exile, including Tomo no Kowamine and Tachibana no Hayanari, and Prince Michiyasu became the new Crown Prince, eventually reigning as Emperor Montoku. There seems to have been little motive for Prince Tsunesada in this coup, and suspicion has since fallen on Michiyasu's uncle, Yoshifusa, as well as his grandmother, queen-mother Tachibana no Kachiko (786-850). The resulting power vacuum left Yoshifusa the senior member of the Daijôkan. In 848, he was named Udaijin and began acting as the leader of the Council, despite the presence of Minamoto no Tokiwa as Sadaijin (Minister of the Left). In 857 he was formally named Prime Minister. In addition to all of this, his daughter Akirakeiko was Montoku's queen-consort, allowing Yoshifusa a great deal of sway in the politics during Montoku's reign.

In 858, Montoku died. His successor was nine year old Korehito, later known as Emperor Seiwa (r. 856-876). Yoshifusa was designated as regent for the young Seiwa until he came of age. While the official term sesshô was not yet in use for the Imperial regent, this was effectively the office Yoshifusa now held. This regency should have ended in 864, but that was interrupted by the Ôtenmon Incident, when the Ôtenmon gate burned down. Arson was suspected, and Dainagon[1] (Senior Counselor) Tomo no Yoshio and Yoshifusa's son, Udaijin Fujiwara no Yoshimi came under suspicion. Sadaijin Minamoto no Makoto was also suspected and agents were sent to arrest him. Yoshifusa, on learning about it, entered the royal presence and found that the agents were not sent by an imperial command. He freed Yoshio, Makoto, and others who had been arrested. Later, however, new accusations arose against Tomo no Yoshio and his son, Nakatsune, and their property was confiscated and they were sent into exile.

During this turbulent period, Seiwa ordered Yoshifusa to "carry out governance of the realm". He was given authority over the Daijôkan, authority that would later be codified in the office of kampaku. Yoshifusa used this power to reign in independent-minded nobles.

Yoshifusa died in 872, and he was not immediately succeeded. However, when Seiwa retired in 876, his successor was again a minor - nine year old Prince Sadaakira (Emperor Yôzei), son of Fujiwara no Takaiko who was sister to Fujiwara no Mototsune (836-891), Yoshifusa's adopted son and heir. Mototsune, who was at that time Udaijin, was appointed regent for his grandson as Yoshifusa had been for Seiwa, surpassing then Sadaijin, Minamoto no Tôru. Mototsune became Dajôdaijin four years later in 880, from which point on he is termed kampaku in the official documents, although the first extant use of the term would come in 884, when Yozei was removed from the throne and Emperor Kôkô succeeded him. Emperor Kôkô's edict directing Mototsune to continue to aid in the affairs of state would name Mototsune as kampaku.

When Emperor Uda came to the throne, he attempted to continue utilizing Mototsune in the same way, but without an official promotion to the position of kampaku. Mototsune refused, and eventually won out in what has come to be known as the Akô Incident (not to be confused with the Ako Affair of the later Tokugawa Period). A scholar, Tachibana no Hiromi wrote a memorial that "Yoshifusa should be named akô [most trusted minister]". Debate was sparked over what this new "akô" office entailed, and in the end Yoshifusa's position as kampaku was strengthened. This left Emperor Uda bitter, however, and Mototsune's son Fujiwara no Tokihira (871-909) did not find great favor in the Emperor after his father's death. Tokihira nevertheless held power as the Sadaijin, although Uda appointed his own advisor, Sugawara no Michizane (845-903) as Udaijin as a foil to Fujiwara power and influence, which had already grown so great that many officials were complaining one couldn't get an appointment without their backing.

Michizane was an able politician, but eventually his power waned. Emperor Daigo succeeded Uda, and was more friendly to Tokhira, who had Michizane exiled to the Dazaifu in 901, where he died shortly after. Tokihira followed soon after in 909. His brother, Fujiwara no Tadahira (880-949), would not succeed him as leading member of the Daijôkan until Udaijin Minamoto no Hikaru's death in 913. Tadahira never enjoyed the same relationship with Daigo that his brother had, but his power grew during the Enchô era (923-931). He was named Sadaijin in 924, and became Regent in 930, when Daigo abdicated for the three year old Emperor Suzaku. He became Prime Minister in 936, and eventually resigned as regent to be named kampaku.

Later Fujiwara Regency

After Tadahira's death, no regent was named for Emperor Murakami. However, it became common practice from the time of Emperor Reizei (r. 967-969) onwards. This later period is often seen as the mature regency, as the Fujiwara had consolidated their power base and position within the court. The old ritsuryô system was mostly replaced by a system of hereditary office holders, and much of the decision-making authority delegated to the Daijôkan, with the Kampaku at its head. Deliberation by this body was known as jin no za, and their decisions, which often held the power of imperial edicts, were known as jin no sadame. The Emperor, or Tennô, still held the preeminent authority, however, in matters where there was a difference of opinion.

The system continued into the 11th century, but another power also came to the fore--that of the retired emperors. As fathers or relatives of the reigning monarchs, they held great personal power of influence, while often being responsible for appointing the regent (sesshô) of their successor. Starting with the domination of the court by Shirakawa In, the regency often worked alongside the Insei, or Government of the Retired Emperor.

The 10th through 12th centuries saw the rise of various "gates of power" (kenmon), such as the rise of provincial military officials and the regligious institutions. The Fujiwara family remained one of the central kenmon organizations through the period of military rule in the late 12th century.


Piggott, Joan R. ed. Capital and Countryside in Japan, 300-1180, University of Cornell, NY, 2006.

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