Japan’s “classical” period, when what we now know as Japanese culture first flowered, came later than classical periods in the West, China and India. But once it began in the late eighth century C.E., the four centuries of the Heian period saw the archipelago transformed.
The Heian period – named for the original name for Kyoto, Heian-kyo, where Japan moved its capital from nearby Nara in 794 C.E. – was the period during which Japan first distinguished itself from the imported Chinese culture that had inspired the early Japanese. By the end of those 400 years, Japan would devolve into its feudal era, under the military rule of the shogun, for several more centuries. Japan would struggle for centuries to find a lasting governmental form. But the essentials of what we know as Japanese culture that were established during the Heian would prove to be enduring.
This transformation affected nearly every aspect of life, but was particularly pronounced in evolving forms of language, writing and literature; in the structure, manners and fashions of the Imperial court; and especially in Japan’s understanding of Buddhism, which it would develop separate from the form that had been imported from China.
China’s Tang Dynasty of the time was in crisis, and Japan’s small government was being shaken by the troubles of its big brother to the west. China had given Japan much of its culture, but Japan was ready to strike out on its own, and to do that, it officially disengaged from China and began what would be one of its periods of distance from the rest of the world.
This was to become a recurring theme in Japanese history, as the country vacillated between absorbing foreign influences and then withdrawing into itself. Japan had long had a distinctive culture, as artifacts of its early Yayoi and Jomon cultures show hints of what was to come, particularly in its arts. But it was in language and writing that Japan would first establish its cultural independence.
While the new capital at Heian-kyo was laid out on the Chinese grid model, and the Japanese language continued to use Chinese characters in its writing – as it continues to do to this day – the aristocracy that controlled early Japan developed a new script, called kana, which facilitated the writing of a distinctive Japanese literature. As the Japanese would do a thousand years in the future, when they incorporated Western letters (romaji) into their language as well, the introduction of kana was a deliberate and successful attempt to create a Japanese literature separate from China’s.
In the Imperial court – the establishment of which is the stuff of legend rather than history, but has continued with varying degrees of actual political power until the end of World War II – was where all of this happened. Only the aristocracy, which some historians number as few as 5,000 people in an archipelago with as many as five million, had the time and education to pursue writing and other arts, as well as to manage the endless machinations required to acquire and maintain their position.
Several practitioners of the newly-important literary arts were aristocratic women, members of the Imperial court who would write two of the most important books in Japanese, and world, literature: The Pillow Book of Sei Shōnagon, in 1002 C.E., and the book that is still widely regarded as the world’s first novel, The Tale of Genji by Murasaki Shikibu, in the early 11th century.
Buddhism, which had been imported from China and was taught using Chinese texts, developed a more uniquely Japanese quality during the Heian, producing the first two of what would come to be many Japanese sects in Tendai and Shingon, both of which aimed at uniting the growing religion with the developing state. The religious buildings in Kyoto, even today, are less Chinese-influenced, as shown by the contrast with those in Nara.
But many significant changes during the Heian period were of a political nature, and that is reflected in the period’s name itself: Heian means “peace,” and these four hundred years were, in fact, largely peaceful. That name indicates that this period of peace was distinctive; Japanese history would soon become very violent.
Part of the reason they were peaceful was that one family, the Fujiwara clan, was able to gain almost control over the government. The means by which they did this was complex, but it boiled down to the strategic use of marriage, through which the clan was able to place its women in marriages with successive emperors, who were then beholden to the Fujiwara clan.
That said, despite the relative peace of the period – and there were frequent, if small conflicts between the Fujiwara clan and two other major families of the time, the Taira and Minamoto – the Heian period ended with much of the island nation in poverty.
The result was political upheaval and Japan’s descent, by the end of the 12th century, into chaos and a new era, when the victor of the five year Genpei War gave himself a new title: Shogun. The shogunate he founded would last for the next several hundred years, the period now known to historians as the Medieval period.
This ensuing period would take Japan even deeper into itself, and away from the rest of the world. Japan’s isolation would not completely end until Commodore Matthew Perry’s American gunships sailed into Tokyo Bay in 1853.