Heian Period Politics

Emperor Kanmu and the early strength of the Imperial Institution
The Rise and Power of the Fujiwara Regents
The Emperor Strikes Back: The Cloistered Emperor System

The Pennsylvania State
     University ©1997

Emperor Kanmu and the early strength of the Imperial Institution

In 784 Emperor Kanmu decided to move the capital from Nara to escape the political influence of the Buddhist temples surrounding the capital. The Court first moved to Nagaoka, but after ten years of construction, work abruptly stopped. The location of the capital was moved a few miles away, to another location that fitted the specifications of the Court diviners and geomancers. The reasons for the move aren’t entirely clear, but seem to be linked to a series of difficulties that befell the imperial family. These difficulties were believed to be caused by supernatural forces connected with the site at Nagaoka.

The new capital was called Heian-kyo, the "Capital of Peace and Tranquility." Construction began at the new location, now known as the city of Kyoto, in 783, and in 784 Emperor Kanmu moved into his new palace. The capital was modeled after the Chinese city of Chang-an, the capital of the Sui dynasty, and was the seat of the emperor for over a thousand years, until the Meiji Restoration in 1868.

Upon settling into the new capital, Emperor Kanmu created new edicts to try and limit the amount of influence the Buddhist clergy could exert on the new capital. The danger of the Buddhists was due to both the political ambitions of some of its clergy and the fiscal immunities which they enjoyed and abused on their land. Though a student of Buddhism may wonder how it is that a Buddhist monk could have political ambitions, it must be realized that the type of Buddhism practiced during the Nara and early Heian periods was a far cry from the original teachings of the Buddha, which had originated over a thousand years before in a place far removed from the Japanese islands. Religion and politics had always been related in the practice of government in the Japanese islands, so it did not seem unnatural to the people of the time that the great Buddhist temples should have influence with the central government. The fiscal immunities of the Buddhist clergy were the beginning of a new economic institution that would be a major factor in the decline of the power of the imperial institution: the shoen. The Buddhist temples and clergy, and later their armies of warrior monks, were not however the primary threat to the fledgling Heian government. As George Samsom says in his History of Japan to 1334,

"The misbehavior of the clergy, however, was no more than the proximate cause of the financial troubles of the government. Their real origin was the failure of the ruling class as a whole to grasp the problems raised by an expanding agrarian economy." (101)

The problems caused by this expanding agrarian economy would be made obvious only slowly however, as the complex political system borrowed by the Taika Reformers from China began to reveal its inherent deficiencies.

The Rise and Power of the Fujiwara Regents

In the century or so after the establishment of Heian-kyo, there were no significant eruptions in the political realm. After the strong rule by Kanmu (781-806), the power of the emperor gradually began to be usurped by the Fujiwara family. The Fujiwara increased their power by manipulating the politics of marriage, as the Soga had before them. However they never made the same mistake as the Soga did in attempting to actually take control of the imperial institution, because they realized two things. First, they knew that the other aristocratic families would object to such a move, and the Fujiwara had almost no military forces with which to try and persuade them. Secondly, they realized that because the emperor had such a large number of ritual ceremonies to conduct, it would be more efficient to control the throne than posses it.

The nuts and bolts of the Fujiwara manipulation of the politics of marriage was somewhat complicated. The basic idea was to try and provide as many Fujiwara women to emperors as wives and consorts as possible, and then manipulate these connections with the emperor to have as many Fujiwara members as possible appointed to all the important offices in the government. The ideal situation, which soon came to be the norm, was that the son of the current emperor and one of his Fujiwara wives or concubines would be named as the heir apparent. The maternal grandfather, who would be the leader of the Fujiwara clan, would be appointed to the office of Regent. The job of the Regent was to govern in the name of the heir apparent in the event that he became appointed to the office of emperor while still a child. Not surprisingly, when a Fujiwara became Regent, he would apply his considerable power and influence to persuade the current emperor to retire early, while the heir apparent was still a child. Upon taking control of the government as Regent, the head of the Fujiwara clan could then appoint other clan members to positions of power in the central government. As time went on, the Fujiwara Regent began holding on to power even after the young emperor had reached a sufficient age that he could take control of the government. This process of familial infiltration took time, but eventually it was successful. From 794 until 891, the imperial institution had a significant but decreasing amount of control of the government. After the death of Fujiwara Mototsune in 891, when his son Tokihira was to young to effectively control the government, there was a brief resurgence in the power of the imperial institution under the Emperor Uda and his son, Emperor Daigo. Uda retired early, at the age of 31, in an apparent attempt to use his wisdom and prestige as the father of the reigning emperor to insure that his young son was firmly in place as his successor. He also enlisted the help of several rival ministers including Sugawara Michizane, a well-known tragic figure in Japanese history. However by this point it was too late. With Daigo’s death in 930, a Fujiwara regent was appointed for the next emperor. Tokihira banished Sugawara Michizane to Kyushu, where he died. The imperial institution never again regained full authority. Interestingly, in death Michizane became a sort of martyr, with of course the subsequent development that Tokihira gained a reputation as a cruel and ruthless dictator. Regardless of the truth of Tokihira’s reputation, we know from his writings that he saw the problems, which were undermining the power of the central government, such as the increase of the shoen. This is a conflict, which the Fujiwara would face throughout their time in power. The shoen system was the economic basis of their clan’s power, yet the system was simultaneously undermining the strength of the central government, which they sought to control.


The Fujiwara control of the central government covered the time from about 930 to 1068, reaching its zenith under Fujiwara Michinaga (966-1027). Michinaga was so powerful that he never even needed to assume the highest positions in the government hierarchy. As the head of the Fujiwara clan, it was simply understood that he was the most powerful person in the government. Michinaga first came to power in 995, thanks to the efforts of his sister, the retired empress Akiko, who was perhaps the most powerful women in the Heian era, able to force the emperor to appoint her brother to a position of power.

Fujiwara Michinaga
Michinaga was a man of great intelligence and skill especially in the political realm. He was one of the first of the aristocrats to realize the occasional necessity of military force, ad so early in his career began to form connections with the Minamoto, a powerful warrior family. It was also under Michinaga’s reign that the distinct and detached court life of Heian Japan reached its peak. The leader of the Fujiwara spent huge sums of money on ostentatious ceremonies and the building of shrines and temples, surpassing any previous show of power and wealth. It was also during this that two of the most well known Japanese literary works of the Heian period were produced, the Tale of Genji by Murasaki Shikibu and the Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon.

However as in all times when a culture peaks, the seeds of the destruction of the way of life of the Heian aristocrats were firmly planted, and would soon begin to manifest themselves. The most competent regents had tried and to a large measure succeeded in creating in the capital an ordered and secure society. However in the provinces they had almost no success. And as the provincial military class began to grow and consolidate towards the end of the Heian period, the demise of the old society grew near.

The Emperor Strikes Back: The Cloistered Emperor System

The expansion of the shoen system seemed to indicate that the pattern of Fujiwara dominance over the imperial family would continue indefinately. However events were unfolding which would cause the clan to loose control of the government a scant fourty years after the death of Fujiwara Michinaga. They would loose it in a moment when they were distracted by bickering within the clan, when the first emperor in many generation without a Fujiwara grandfather, Go-Sanjo, came to the throne in 1068. Though Go-Sanjo was himself not able to directly break the power of the Fujiwara, he set the stage for his son, the Emperor Shirakawa, to be the first member of the imperial family since the 870’s to actually rule the central government. He did not rule as Emperor though. Instead, Shirakawa took power when he retired and set up his own alternate court, in the system which is known in English as the "Cloistered Government", since, like most emperors before him, he retired to a Buddhist monastery. The Cloistered Emperor had a number of advantages in his office. First of all, he retired while still in the prime of his life, after years of experience in the political intrigues of court life. Furthermore he was no longer burdened by the ritual duties which took so much of the Emperor’s time. An economic advantage was that the retired emperor was allowed to possess shoen. The Buddhist temples which Shirakawa and the subsequent Cloistered Emperors lived in could more aptly be described as fortresses, located in the mountains around the capital and possessing armies of warrior monks. This was also a time when the Fujiwara, who had made a tradition out of unity and loyalty, were busy fighting amongst themselves, while the strong resentment against the Fujiwara that had been building for years was finally given a viable outlet in the institution of the Cloistered Emperor. All these factors together gave Shirakawa the ability to wrest power away from the Fujiwara. From the time of Shirakawa’s retirement in 1087 to 1221 is known as the age of rule by the Cloistered Emperor.