The Heian period (794 - 1185) 平安時代

  • Published on : 13/04/2020
  • by : S.R.
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Japan's Glorious Antiquity

The Heian period began in 794 with the installation of the imperial capital in Kyoto and ended in 1185 with the birth of the Kamakura shogunate. This period takes the name Heian-kyo "the capital of peace", the ancient name of Kyoto. It represents a period of cultural and artistic apogee, as well as one of the peaks of imperial power.

Fixing in Kyoto


Before settling in Kyoto, the Imperial Court had known several capitals in previous centuries, the most famous of which were Nara and Asuka. The decision to move was motivated by the influence deemed far too strong by the monasteries of Nara.

With the arrival in Kyoto, the political power inaugurates a capital which will be that of the country for more than a thousand years, until the Meiji era and the move of the latter to Tokyo.



The Imperial Palace, Kyoto-Gosho, secondary residence of the emperor.

The imperial palace, Kyoto-gosho, secondary residence of the emperor.

Luca Mascaro

The Fujiwara era


The Heian era is inseparable from the political power of the Fujiwara family. The latter mingle little by little with the highest spheres of power thanks to a strategy of marriages through which they obtain posts of regents. They then assert their power by presenting themselves as the representatives of their son or grandson. They took the title sesshô ("political substitute") when the emperor was a minor, and kanpaku ("great reporter") when the emperor was an adult.

The Fujiwara were at the height of their influence around the year 1000, under Fujiwara no Michinaga (966-1028), when all the affairs of the country were directed by this family. Following him, the Fujiwara tended to decline as the country's warrior class, the samurai, grew in importance.



Painting of Fujiwara Michinaga, by Kikuchi Yôsai


An era of culture


As said in the introduction, the Heian period is also seen by the Japanese as a great era of culture. It was during this era that the kanas were created, allowing literary production to take off.

New literary forms are born like the novel or the story, it is at this time that several classics of Japanese literature are born. Thus, Murasaki Shikibu's Genji Monogatari was written at that time, as were Sei Shônagon's "Bedside Notes" or the lyrics of the current Japanese anthem, the waka (Japanese-style poem) Kimi Ga Yo.



Print by Murasaki Shikibu


The rise of Buddhism


One of the salient features of the Heian era is the rapid development of Buddhism within Japan, with the creation of some of the largest sects in the archipelago. The monk Kûkai founded the Shingon ("true speech") school while one of his students, the monk Saichô, imported the Chinese school of Tiantai, which became the Tendai ("celestial terrace") school.

It was also at this time in history that the power of Mount Hiei was constituted, whose "sôhei" ("soldier-monks") would be of great importance in later political conflicts.

Le temple enryakuji, sur le Mont Hiei

Enryakuji temple on Mount Hiei

Yu-Jen shih flickr

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