Heian Period

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A twelve-layer kimono (jûnohitoe), such as Heian period court ladies would have worn, today on display at the Kyoto Bunka Hakubutsukan (The Museum of Kyoto).
  • Japanese: 平安時代 (Heian-jidai)
  • 794-1185

The Heian Period describes the era during which the political power of Japan was concentrated in the scholarly nobility living in the purposefully created capital of Heian-kyô (平安京-now known as Kyoto). Dates vary slightly, but usually start with the founding of Heian-kyô in 794 and continue until the Gempei War between 1180 and 1185. The period, which started during the height of Japan's self-imposed sinification, saw dramatic changes sweep through the country, both politically and socially. It saw the rise of the Fujiwara regents, and later the Insei rule by retired emperors. Japan cuts its official ties to China in the late 9th century, and began to focus on internal issues of the court. In the provinces, the rise of the Shôen estates and local cultivators as centers of power were one of the factors behind the rise of the military elite, which eventually led to military rule in the Kamakura period. This was also a period of literary accomplishments, including the Tale of Genji, one of the most famous novels to come out of Japan.


Model of the Heian Imperial Palace and parts of the city as they might have looked in the Heian period. Reproduction at Kyoto City Heiankyo Sosei-Kan Museum.

The history of Japan during the Heian Period is usually divided into three sections. First, the rise of the Fujiwara in the Fujiwara Period, followed by the consolidation of power within the hands of the retired emperors, known as Insei. Finally, the loss of political power by the nobility to the new warrior elite, embodied by the Taira and Minamoto clans.

Founding of Heian-kyô

At the end of the Nara Period, in 784, the court moved from its capital at Nara to a newly built capital in Nagaoka, known as Nagaoka-kyô. The move was prompted by the rise in power of the local Buddhist temples, which are said to have exerted an undue influence on the politics of this era. This capital was only to last for about 10 years until it was abandoned, ostensibly because of a curse by the spirit of a vengeful prince. The court moved again to a new capital, on the same site that would eventually become modern Kyoto. The site was chosen for its auspicious nature according to Chinese geomantic principles, including mountains on three sides, flowing waters, etc. It was laid out in an auspicious grid of nine main roads running north-south and east-west. The Dairi, or Imperial Residence, was situated in the center of the city to the north. The city proper was surrounded by gated walls which restricted the flow of traffic to and from the city.

Excavations in the eastern (commoner/peasant) parts of the city discovered homes not lined up in rows facing the street, but organized into small compounds or clusters, around wells, fields, and gardens. The homes themselves were built not with foundation stones, but in the older style using hottate bashira, pillars sunken directly into the earth. Each compound was separated from the next by fences or ditches.[1]

By this time, the population of the islands was perhaps around six million, with 0.1%, or about 6000 people, being court aristocrats.[2]

Fujiwara Regency

A model of the Sanjô Eastern Palace, residence of the Fujiwara clan Regents, on display at the National Museum of Japanese History.

The Japanese government in the Nara Period had been built upon the ideals of the Chinese meritocracy during the Tang dynasty. However, political power soon came to rest in the hands of powerful families and religious institutions, much as it had under the kabane system. These "Gates of Power" (kemmon) controlled promotions in the new system. One of the most powerful families was the Fujiwara, which rose to take on the extra-codal powers of the regents (sesshô and kampaku), as more and more emperors were installed at a young age and abdicated early. At the height of their power, other families often lamented their inability to obtain any high-ranking posts in the government without Fujiwara sponsorship. The power of the Fujiwara regents was eventually superceded by the power of the Retired Emperors, whose households formed the core of insei government. Even then, however, the Fujiwara family continued to exert significant influence as they had successfully managed to marry into the imperial line, and would continue to exert influence due to their familial ties for many years to come.

Sugawara Michizane

An important figure of opposition to the rule of the Fujiwara was Sugawara no Michizane. Raised to the position of Udaijin, or Minister of the Right, he was a check put in place by Emperor Uda to the power of the Fujiwara. He was eventually bested, however, by Minister of the Left Sadaijin no Fujiwara no Tokihira, thus cementing the position of the Fujiwara. After his death in exile at the Dazaifu, tragedy befell the capital and many of his opponents met untimely ends. The tragedies were blamed on Michizane's vengeful spirit, and he was posthumously restored to his position as Udaijin, and then promoted to Upper 1st Rank, and the post of Dajô-daijin (Prime Minister). Incidentally, this time also saw the rise of Tokihira's brother, Tadahira, and his branch of the Fujiwara family.

Insei Period

The power of the Fujiwara eventually waned under a new system, controlled by retired emperors, known as the insei (院政). As emperor, they had the power to appoint kampaku, and, when they abdicated, often chose the regent, or sesshô, for their successor. Combined with their influence as the parents and grandparents of the new emperor, this formed the basis for a new power behind the throne. Emperor Shirakawa was the first emperor to appropriate such authority for himself, ruling from his mansion, the Shirakawa-in (the term is also used to refer to Retired Emperor Shirakawa himself). His personal household became a powerful extracodal position for any ambitious courtier, and thus began a new period of political power. It is important to note that the positions of sesshô and kampaku were not abolished during this period, but nonetheless held significantly less power. The retired emperors remained pre-eminent until the advent of military rule brought by the rise of the Taira clan following the Heiji Disturbance of 1159, which was in turn followed shortly afterwards by the Gempei Wars of 1180-85, the rise of the Minamoto clan, and the establishment of the Kamakura shogunate. Even then, however, the Retired Emperors continued to exert a powerful influence on the politics of the country.

Beginning of Military Rule

With much of the court turned inwards, the provinces were often neglected during the Heian period. Branches of the Taira and Minamoto families, descended from royal princes who had been disinherited to prevent succession conflicts, moved out into the provinces and, with the help of local military, created a new power base. They were called on to defend the court's interests in military matters, replacing the conscript armies of the ritsuryô administration. Eventually, they were able to use their military power to gain a foothold in the capital. Perhaps the most powerful of these new military elite was Taira no Kiyomori, who came to power following the Heiji Rebellion. The power of the Taira (or Heike) was challenged, however, by the Minamoto (or Genji), who had initially been on the losing side of the Hôgen and Heiji Disturbances. The two sides clashed in the Gempei Wars, the events of which are recorded vividly in the Heike Monogatari (Tale of the Heike). At the close of the fighting, in 1185, Minamoto no Yoritomo became shogun, a title that did not yet have the connotations that it would have in later generations, and later Udaijin. He created an administrative structure in the town of Kamakura, in the Kantô area. This new bakufu, or camp rule, was the start of military rule in Japan and the effective end of the power of the court nobility.

The Shoen Estate System and the Rise of the Bushi

Minamoto and Taira clans

As princes and princesses of the Imperial line grew more numerous, succession disputes would have become extremely complicated without a method of disinheriting offspring. This was commonly done by assigning them to a non-Imperial house, and granting them a new surname, such as Minamoto or Taira.

The samurai class as a whole emerged from a combination of these disinherited lineages turning to military activities, and warriors from the provinces being hired by the Court to provide military service. The Imperial Court had exercised a conscript system during the Nara period, but abandoned this in 792 in favor of simply hiring warriors from the provinces. These warriors were freed from tax obligations in exchange for their service, and quickly came to embrace the warrior identity, focusing on warrior training and passing down that identity to their children, forming a new social class of warrior lineages and households; because they served the Court, they came to be known by a noun form of the verb saburau, "to serve": samurai.[3]

The Minamoto clan, and in particular a lineage known as the Seiwa Genji, emerged as the dominant clan providing warriors to the Imperial court for combatting rebels and as guardsmen in other capacities, while the Taira clan, in particular a lineage known as the Kammu Heishi, appeared as a particularly prominent family dominating port towns and maritime trade. The rise of the Taira and other kenmon (powerholders) in dominating maritime trade in the 12th century coincided with shifts within China at that same time, including a shift from Quanzhou as the chief dominant port to Ningbo, a port much closer to Hakata. While Japanese craft items such as lacquerwares, swords, fans, and armor were highly prized in China, Japan's chief exports at this time in terms of volume were materials such as lumber, mercury, and sulfur.[4]

Hôgen and Heiji Disturbances

The Night Attack on the Sanjô Palace Handscroll Painting (Detail), depicting the main action of the Heiji Disturbance. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. 11.4000.

Gempei Wars

The Court Rank and Promotion System

Art and Literature of the Heian Period

Chinese ceramics began to flow into Japan in the 9th century. The volume imported rose dramatically in the 12th century, towards the end of the period, and remained strong into the 16th century.[5]

Religion in the Heian Period

Previous Period
Nara Period
Heian Period Following Period
Kamakura Period


  • Piggott, Joan R. (ed.) Capital and Countryside in Japan, 300-1180, Cornell University, 2006.
  • Sansom, George. A History of Japan to 1334, Stanford University Press, CA, 1999.
  1. Gallery label, 「京内庶民の住宅地の復元模型」, National Museum of Japanese History.
  2. Albert M. Craig, The Heritage of Japanese Civilization, Second Edition, Prentice Hall (2011), 21.
  3. Craig, 20.
  4. Richard von Glahn, "The Ningbo-Hakata Merchant Network and the Reorientation of East Asian Maritime Trade, 1150-1350," Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies 74:2 (2014), 268-269.
  5. Geoffrey Gunn, History Without Borders: The Making of an Asian World Region, 1000-1800, Hong Kong University Press (2011), 213.