Heian Period Politics

Problems with the Nara Period Government
The Role of the Shoen in Heian Period Japan
Rise of the Minamoto and Taira: End of the Heian Period

The Pennsylvania State
     University ©1997

Problems with the Nara Period Government

During the first century of the Heian period, before the Fujiwara had secured there grip on power, there were several issues that occupied the concerns of the central government in Kyoto. They were the campaigns against the aborigines (Ainu), the reform of the land tenure and taxation system, and from this the reform of the whole Nara period political system.

The campaigns against the Ainu in the eastern and northern provinces were begun in the Nara period and were conducted in an attempt to open up new land for farming. These new lands were desired both by adventurous farmers and by the government, who was looking forward to the additional tax revenues. The Ainu however managed to mount an effective resistance to the military forces sent against them, primarily because the provisions of the Taiho code that pertained to the raising of an army were insufficient. The army which the central government raised to fight the Ainu was a collection of farmers, men who were forced into service and then were required to supply their own weapons and provisions. This service was an incredible burden on the small farming families who still made up the majority of the Japanese islands, because not only were there primary laborers taken away, but the cost of equipping them was also high. Because of this, many recruits did everything they could to avoid being forced into service, so that by the time of Emperor Kanmu’s rule at the founding of the Heian period in 794, the lack of trained men was so acute that a solution had to be found. Kanmu attempted to institute a new policy, proposing that responsibility for the defense of the frontier lands should be placed in the hands of local well-to-do landholders, but this idea never really came into effect. The lack of imperial responsibility for keeping the peace in the frontier provinces caused the virtual collapse of imperial authority, leading to disorder and violence in these areas. It was in these circumstances that a class of private warriors began to emerge, which would one day dominate the country. Finally the central government managed to appoint someone who would be able to mount an effective attack on the Ainu. This person was Sakanoye Tamura Maro, who in two separate campaigns, first as the deputy to the commander of the army and then as its commander, finally managed to subdue the Ainu in 807. As a reward for his work, Tamura was given the title of Sei-I Tai-Shogun, or Barbarian-subduing Great General, which he was the first to hold. Because of the disdain of the aristocracy for the warrior class, the title of Shogun was at this time one of relatively low prestige. It was only later in the Kamakura period that title would become the most sought after prize in the country.

Though Tamura Maro was successful in his campaigns, the tax burden, which resulted from them, was very high. Add to this the costs incurred from the construction of the capital and the repairing and expansion of roads and bridges, and the tax burden on small cultivators became crushing. The great landholders also began to feel the burden of the taxes and became determined to avoid them. The opposition of the local landholders and the settlers to the control of the central government represented a major conflict between the administration and the provincial notables for control of the agricultural land.

Another matter pressing the central government in the first century of the Heian period was the reform of the land tenure and taxation system, whose breakdown was destroying the authority of the central administration in the provinces as well as impairing its financial stability. The process of attempting to maintain the land laws and the land distribution system of the Nara period was exceedingly difficult and cumbersome, which resulted in the gradual abandonment of the system. By the early 10th century, the government was seriously concerned about the tax from vacated lots. The absconders were known as ukarebito, or sometimes ronin, a term that would later be popularized when used to describe a masterless samurai. The failure of the allotment system was due to several factors. First, it was not appropriate to the mindset of the farmers under the rule of the Heian government, individuals who viewed believe that they had a right to farm the land they were on, regardless of what any imperial official said. Another problem was that the local officials who were supposed to represent the interests of the central government had stronger ties to the local area, and so tended to put the wellbeing of themselves and there friends ahead of that of the government. The sponsors of the Taika reforms also had not foreseen the heavy tax burden and the illegal activities of farmers that resulted from them. In the end it became obvious that, in the words of George Samson, "the hierarchical character of the Chinese government had been transmitted to Japan only in form, not in substance (108)."

The failure of the land laws is an example of the biggest problem of the Heian period, namely the reform of the whole Nara period political system borrowed from China, which was proving unworkable. In general one can say that the political system of the Nara period was simply too complex and cumbersome to function efficiently in the environment of the Japanese islands. However the real cause of the failure of the system was the actions of the aristocracy in the capital, who attempted to increase their wealth and power be corrupting provincial officials and thereby undercut the entire system. One of the most obvious ways in which the aristocrats managed to do this was in the development of the shoen system.

The Role of the Shoen in Heian Period Japan

The shoen system was the major economic development of the Heian period. The shoen were private estates that developed initially from the tax-free status given to Buddhist temples. The system quickly began to grow however, as local landholders began to work together with influential aristocrats in the capital to procure tax-exempt status for their lands as well. The process of the creation of the shoen involved peasants giving over their lands to one of these local landholders or Buddhist temples in exchange for lower tax rates. The local entity could of course afford to do this because they themselves, as well as any land, which they acquired, did not have to pay taxes. The shoen managers would then turn around and give a portion of the money that they made to the individuals in the capital who aided them in getting their tax-exempt status. Throughout the Heian period the shoen system grew. The end result of this was that as more land became incorporated into the shoen, tax revenues to the government fell, but private payments from the shoen to aristocrats increased. The big looser in all this was the emperor, who couldn’t own shoen because according to the Taika Reforms, all the land in the Japanese islands was already his. Thus the aristocracy expanded its power at the expense of the emperor. Though the Nara period political system continued to exist as the outward, official form of economic control, in reality there was a return to the old Asuka style uji and be. The powerful aristocratic families functioning like the old uji, the shoen like their domains, and the workers and managers of the estates functionally like the old be.

The shoen were just one example of a number of extra-legal institutions that were created as a way of modifying the Nara period political system. These institutions illustrated two mistakes that the Taika reformers had made. They had been unable to break the power of local landholders, and they had been unable to instill in the aristocracy the desire to support and uphold the system.

Rise of the Minamoto and Taira: End of the Heian Period

Although the imperial family had regained control of the capital, the power of the central government over the outlying areas was fading fast. Filling these gaps were local strongmen, who were often distant imperial relatives. This was because in the early Heian period the central government realized there were so many imperial relatives that it would go broke supporting them all, so they became a certain distance removed from the emperor they were cut off from financial support from the government. These relatives would often travel out into the provinces, were any relative of the emperor no matter how distant was highly respected. In these circumstances, some of these individuals used their prestige and their ties with the capital to gain interest in shoen, giving them financial power. This had been the origin of two large military clans who emerged at the end of the Heian period as forces to be reckoned with. The Minamoto and the Taira had a lone history of opposition, and the imperial family and the aristocrats in the capital had a long tradition of playing them off against one another with the promise of some lowly title or another for the victor. However this policy failed to work when one family, the Taira gained the upperhand. The central government had no viable military forces of its own, and so could do nothing but give in when the Taira took up residence in Kyoto, demanding and getting high court rank, to the abhorrence of the aristocracy. The Taira moved in and in general ruled like virtual dictators, akin to the Fujiwara Regents at the height of their power.

The Minamoto began to regroup though. Under the leadership of two brothers Minamoto Yoritomo and Minamoto Yoshitsune, they gradually began to take the upperhand, until finally in 1185 they defeated the Taira in battle. Yoritomo then proceeded to eliminate his rivals, including his own brother, and set up his headquarters in Kamakura. In 1192 the emperor bestowed the title of Shogun on Yoritomo, a relatively lowly title which the leader of the Minamoto accepted in exchange for the majority of the actual political power of the central government. The Shogun then went about establishing a new military government called a bakufu, which would become the dominant form of government in the Japanese islands until the Meiji Restoration of 1868. Initially however, Minamoto Yoritomo’s bakufu ruled the eastern provinces, while Go-Shirakawa, the Cloistered Emperor, ruled the western provinces from Kyoto. The two governments even legitimized each other, with the imperial family in Kyoto supplying the religious and traditional cultural support to Yoritomo, while the bakufu gave its military support to the imperial family.

Yoritomo died relatively young at a time when he had no chosen successor. His principle wife, Hojo Masako, took advantage of the situation along with her father, Hojo Tokimasa, to use her power over Yoritomo’s sons to place members of the Hojo family into key leadership positions within the Kamakura bakufu. Gradually, the Hojo family gained defacto control of the bakufu. Yoritomo’s descendents continued to be the Shogun, but they were actually puppets of a Hojo regent, just like the imperial institution had once been controlled by the Fujiwara regents. Thus the political situation on the eve of the Jokyu war of 1221 was intensely confusing. In the west, the Cloistered Emperor ruled, passing orders through both his alternate court system and the established system under the present Emperor, who was still ostensibly being controlled by a Fujiwara Regent who actually had no power. In the east the bakufu had military power, though it needed the existence and apparent approval of the Emperor (the real one) to legitimate the rule of the Shogun, who was in reality controlled by the leader of the Hojo clan. The situation was ripe for warfare. And so it was that when the Cloistered Emperor Go-Toba launched a surprise attack on Hojo Masako and her brother, who had since done away with their father for acting in a manner that they did not approve. Though suffering some losses due to the element of surprise, which Go-Toba had miraculously managed to achieve, the superior military forces of the bakufu quickly defeated the Cloistered Emperor. The Hojo family then proceeded to abolish the institution of the cloistered emperor and exiled Go-Toba. They furthermore posted an overseer in Kyoto and forced the imperial court to allow the bakufu to post shoen and provincial governors to all parts of the country. From now on, the balance of power in the Japanese islands would be with the warriors