The Heian Period (794 to 1185)   平安時代

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Ujigami jinja

Ujigami jinja is considered the oldest Shinto altar and one of the few surviving structures from the Heian era

The Byodo-in is considered magnified expression of aristocratic art of the Heian period (794-1185).

Byodo-in is considered a fine example of aristocratic art of the Heian period (794-1185).

murasaki shikibu kunisada

Murasaki Shikibu. Kunisada print produced in 1858.

 Portrait of Emperor Kammu

Portrait of Emperor Kammu (737 - 806)

The glorious antiquity of Japan

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


Before settling in Kyoto, the Imperial Court had known a number of capitals in previous centuries, the most famous of which were Nara and Asuka. The decision to relocate was motivated by the influence deemed 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 displacement of the latter in Tokyo.

Also read: Edo period

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

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

Portrait of Fujiwara Michinaga

Portrait of Fujiwara Michinaga


The Heian era is inseparable from the political power of the Fujiwara family. The latter gradually mingle with the highest spheres of power through a strategic marriages through which they obtain positions of regents. They then assert their power by presenting themselves as the representatives of their son or their grandson. They took the title sessho ("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 managed by this family. The Fujiwara power fell into decline as the country's warrior class, the samurai, took more and more power.

Also see: Kofukuji


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

New literary forms are emerging like the novel or storytelling, it is at this time that several classics of Japanese literature are born. Thus, the Genji Monogatari by Murasaki Shikibu was written at that time, just like the "Bedside Notes" by Sei Shonagon or the lyrics of the current Japanese anthem, the waka (Japanese style poem) Kimi Ga Yo.

Portrait of Murasaki Shikibu

Portrait of Murasaki Shikibu

Enryakuji temple on Mount Hiei

Enryakuji temple on Mount Hiei


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 Japan. The monk Kukai founded the Shingon school ("true word") while one of his students, the monk Saicho, imported the Chinese school of Tiantai, which became the Tendai school ("celestial terrace").

It was also at this time in history that the power of Mount Hiei was formed, whose "sohei" ("monk-soldiers") will have great importance in later political conflicts.

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