A History of Japan: From Mythology to Nationhood/The Early Heian Period

I date this period from the death of Kammu Tenno in 806 to the death of Fujiwara no Tokihira in 909. This is one of several possible end points, but it may be said to mark the end of the last attempt to restore life to the model of government and social organization inaugurated by Tenchi Tenno and Temmu Tenno in the Asuka period. The early Heian period was clearly a continuation of the Nara period in that the government remained committed throughout to make the "ritsu-ryo" system established by the law codes of 694 and 701 work. On the other hand, in contrast to the Nara period, the early Heian period was clearly a time when the efforts of the government were inadequate to counteract new developments that were pushing in a different direction entirely, one that would eventually lead to the feudal society of the medieval period.

The issues fall naturally into three categories.

The first is the development and elaboration of what is known as the shoen system. Shoen refers to a legal category of estate that separated blocks of land from the "public" lands that were subject to the land redistribution system and the full range of taxes and made them "private" lands that were to some extent immune to taxation and to the interference of the provincial authorities. The original shoen were created by Shomu Tenno in the Nara period to finance his great Buddhist temple Todaiji. However, they only started to grow into an institution threatening the integrity of the system in the Heian period. By the end of the early Heian period shoen were on the verge of replacing the taxes from the public lands as the primary economic support of the ruling class in the capital. Taxes were still collected, but they mostly ceased to be available for budgeted expenditures of the government and flowed directly into the pockets of the governor and his subordinates as another form of essentially private income.

The second main theme is the development of the regency system. During the course of the early Heian period the imperial clan lost control of the government to the Fujiwara clan for a substantial portion of time. The institutional marker of this was the development of the offices known as Sessho and Kampaku. Both may be translated as "regent", one applied in the case when the emperor was a minor and the other in the case when the emperor was an adult, but the substance was identical. The regent had the authority to act without restraint in place of the emperor, to sign valid imperial edicts. The underlying mechanism was rooted in the marriage customs of the aristocratic class whereby wives continued to live in the house of their father and this was where their children were raised. The children came under the control of their father only when they became legally adult. The girls were usually moved into his house and his sons usually established houses of their own. This meant that a man had a much closer relationship with his father in law than with his natural father, and that a male child was essentially raised by his grandfather. The Fujiwara regent was in principle the grandfather of the emperor or, if the grandfather was dead, one of the emperor's uncles. Whenever it happened that an emperor came to the throne who was not a Fujiwara grandchild there was the possibility that Fujiwara dominance would be broken, and that eventually happened, but not in this period.

The third main development, which only became apparent late in the period under consideration, was a transformation of life among the provincial nobility which led them to become much more independent of the capital nobility and politically active in their own right. One aspect of this was to have enormous importance, the militarization of this class, leading to the development of the social group later known as bushi or samurai. In the early Heian period the word samurai meant servant and it had no military connotation and did not refer to a person of elite status. Actually, the more common term was rodo, which meant the same thing. When provincial nobles started to form private armed forces, they did so by arming their dependents, some of whom were farmers and some of whom were servants, rodo. These rodo were housed and fed and equipped by their master and were of humble status, but they eventually evolved into the haughty samurai of later times. We have some very valuable sources on the early stages of this process thanks to the emergence of Japanese language fiction at the end of the 9th century.

Outline of Political History


The political history of this period falls into three clear phases.

From 809 until the death of retired emperor Saga in 842 the sons of Kammu were in charge. Emperors Heizei and Saga were in complete charge of the government. Emperors Junna and Nimmyo were interested in other things and made no effort to challenge Saga.

When Saga died in 842 Nimmyo Tenno turned control of the government over to Fujiwara Yoshifusa, who converted his dominance into a new institutional form, the "regency". In 857 he took the title Dajodaijin, vacant since Dokyo, and in 866 invented a new title, Sessho, which is translated regent. When he died in 862 his power was maintained by his heir Mototsune. In 887 Mototsune invented a new title, Kampaku, to identify the regency when applied to an adult emperor. The regency temporarily lapsed when Mototsune died in 891.

The period from 891 to the end of this era was dominated by Uda Tenno who functioned as the ruler. He was able to refuse to appoint a new regent when Mototsune died, and also succeeded in transferring power to his son Daigo Tenno.

The Sons of Kammu


During his reign Kammu Tenno was unquestionably in complete charge of the government. He consistently left many sangi-level offices vacant and throughout his reign maintained only one "great minister", the Udaijin, held by a succession of members of the Fujiwara clan. There are sources which state that it was his intention to return to the ancient pattern for the succession which was a succession of generations. It was vital for the imperial clan to ensure that the ruler was an adult of ability, not a child, so when a ruler died who did not have an heir who was an adult, he was to be followed by a brother. There was another factor to this mode of succession because the status of a member of the clan was determined by the degree of his relationship to an emperor. If three brothers held the throne in succession then all of their sons would be of the highest status, ensuring a larger pool from which to make sure that the ruler was up to the task of keeping the clan on top. Of course, this also increased the possibility of conflicts over the succession.

When Kammu died his son prince Ate followed him and a second son prince Kamino was designated the official heir. These are Heizei Tenno and Saga Tenno respectively. Heizei was 33 at his accession, and the government immediately showed itself active, sending out circuit inspectors, with a particular mandate to look for cases where water from government irrigation systems was being diverted to open private farmland. Later the same year there was an edict directed to the management of temples, to ensure that people could not create a new temple and endow it with land (which became exempt from many taxes) but then continue to treat the land as their private property.

There were three branches of the Fujiwara clan active in court politics and they were very competitive. There had been four branches, of course, descended from the four sons of Fujiwara Fuhito, but the branch that led to Fujiwara Nakamaro had been eliminated from consideration. Prince Iyo, a brother of the emperor, was a grandson of Fujiwara Korekimi, who had been Udaijin from 783 to 789, and a nephew of Fujiwara Otomo, a member of the sangi. These men were of the "shiki" branch of the Fujiwara. The current Udaijin was Fujiwara Uchimaro of the "northern" branch. Prince Iyo was currently the administrator in charge of the imperial palace, a senior position. Fujiwara Otomo was the leader of the remaining "southern" branch and also a member of the sangi.

According to the official history, Otomo informed Uchimaro that he had heard that another Fujiwara of the southern branch, Munenari, had secretly approached Prince Iyo and urged him to rebel. Prince Iyo became aware of this report and immediately went to the emperor and reported that Munenari had approached him. Munenari was arrested and he claimed that Prince Iyo was the instigator of the plot. Iyo and his mother (the daughter of Korekimi) were arrested and immediately committed suicide by taking poison. Munenari was exiled and Otomo was removed from office and exiled as well. This largely eliminated the southern branch of the Fujiwara from the competition. The speedy resolution of this incident shows that Heizei shared his father's aggressiveness in handling any hint of a threat.

Early in 809 Heizei announced his intention to abdicate in favor of his brother. His own son, prince Takaoka, was appointed crown prince. He claimed to be too ill to fulfill the obligations of his office. It is speculated that he feared that he might die in circumstances which would lead to the exclusion of his sons from the line of succession.

The retired emperor changed his residence 5 times in the next few months seeking relief from his illness (a not uncommon practice at the time, seeking what we would call "good feng-shueh") without success. He then announced that he would move back to Nara, and without waiting for an official residence to be prepared he moved into a borrowed mansion in the old city at the end of the year. At about the same time Saga Tenno also became seriously ill and the court cancelled the usual new year ceremonies. This led Saga to revive the Kurodo office that had been used by Kammu so that he could work from his private suite, and it is from this time that it became a permanent institution. He recovered for a time but in the 7th and 8th months of 810 became seriously ill once more.

On the 6th day of the 9th month the retired emperor issued an edict announcing the abolition of Heiankyo and the restoration of Nara as the capital. He also named two illustrious officials, Sakanoue Tamuramaro and Fujiwara Fuyutsugu, to serve as body guards to the emperor. This might be interpreted as a request to the two to take the emperor into "protective custody," but little is certain about this episode. On the 10th day Saga Tenno overruled Heizei's edict and sent out officers to raise troops in nearby provinces. Heizei found out about this the next day and immediately made preparations to leave Nara for the east. Saga Tenno appointed Sakanoue Tamuramaro to take command of forces positioned to protect Kyoto. Heizei left Nara with a small party, but encountered troops and became frightened and returned to the city, where he shaved his head and took monastic orders. There was no actual fighting. Heizei and two officials who accompanied him were exiled. Heizei lived another 14 years. His son was removed from the succession in favor of another son of Kammu (future Junna Tenno). The future of the imperial clan belonged to the descendents of Saga via his son Nimmyo Tenno, successor to Junna. Saga took steps to eliminate Nara as a base from which to stage a takeover: he ordered the demolition of the city. However, an unofficial town just outside the official city centered on a cluster of important temples and shrines survived to become the modern city of Nara.

This incident has attracted a lot of attention, but there is really very little information about it. It is felt that Heizei Tenno was mentally unstable and impulsive and that he regretted abdicating and hoped to reclaim the throne before Saga could die and pass it on. As it happened Saga recovered his health and had a relatively long reign, abdicating in 823 and living until 842. He has the reputation of having taken his responsibilities seriously and generally continuing the policies of Kammu. He remained the effective ruler up to his death.

However, there are clear signs that there were problems. Saga conducted land redistributions in 810 and 828 (technically Junna), failing to make Kammu's schedule of 12 years. It is also not clear from the evidence whether these redistributions covered the entire country. It is only known for sure that the provinces near the capital were done. After Saga's death, the Nimmyo court undertook the census required for a redistribution in 844, but the redistribution itself was never performed. There is no record of another attempt before 879. It is thought that all attempts to keep the registers were abandoned, because the redistributions were their only purpose. The local officials naturally knew where all the farm land was and where to go to collect taxes from it.

The end of the redistribution system did not mean the end of the involvement of the government in agriculture. The government noted that farmers of the Uda district of Yamato province invented wooden drying racks for sheaves of rice that dried the grain (so that it could be threshed) more quickly with less chance of rot setting in, and in 841 an edict recommended that all farmers take up the practice, still in use today. In 829 there was an edict urging the use of a type of waterwheel that had been invented in China to power pumps for irrigation. Amidst a series of years in which harvests were poor, the government exerted efforts to persuade farmers to vary their crops by adding buckwheat and three kinds of millet, kibi, kibinomochi and hiemugi. As in the 8th century, the farmers seem to have ignored this advice. Only in feudal times did multiple cropping become widespread.

Saga Tenno supported the completion of a project that had been much discussed during Kammu's reign to put together an official compilation of materials that had the effect of amending the administrative codes. These fell into two categories, kyaku, which were administrative rulings, and shiki, which were legal judgments and interpretations of the law. A set of 10 volumes of kyaku and 40 volumes of shiki was completed in 820 and Saga ordered that copies be made and distributed throughout the government, a process that took 10 years to complete. They include documents created from the time of Konin Tenno forward. Fujiwara Fuyutsugu had a collection of Saga's edicts created in 821 and in 833 a group of scholars produced a very important book in Ryo no Gige (10 volumes) intended to provide a summary of all of the rulings that were considered to be currently in force. It was also during this period that copies of the Yoro code of 718 were made which are the only reason that large parts of it survive. Also, the "national histories" were continued. In 819 Saga ordered preparation of a continuation of Shoku Nihongi. However, the project apparently got sidetracked when Fujiwara Otsugu died, but it was revived later and completed in 840. This is Nihon Koki and it covers the period from 792 to 833 in 40 volumes. Unfortunately, only 10 volumes survive. Most of Kammu's reign is lost.

Another innovation of Saga's time was the establishment of the office of Kebiishi. The government kept guard units in the capital. There were six of them with a nominal total strength of 2,400 men. They were organized as military units and also provided security for the palace and official buildings. They probably also managed the city gates. The Kebiishi on the other hand amounted to a civilian police force for the city, showing that it had become densely enough populated to need one. They were conspicuously successful in keeping order when the city was seriously flooded in 837 and in 839 were given control of all police related functions that were, under the code, spread among a number of small offices. By 850 they were also running a prison system and in 857 two executioners were added. Also Kebiishi began to be posted to rural areas around that time. Kyoto was from the 830's at least overrun with professional criminals and the Kebiishi were only moderately successful in suppressing them. In 837 the emperor came across two female robbers stealing clothing in the palace who pulled knives on him.

Saga Tenno was 38 when he abdicated. Fujiwara Fuyutsugu, the chief minister at the time, objected on the grounds that the government could not afford two palaces and two emperors, but Saga insisted. He continued to run things and there is no evidence that Junna Tenno, who was mild-mannered and scholarly, objected to this. Junna abdicated as soon as Saga's son Masayoshi was old enough to become emperor, and his own son Tsunesada was in turn designated the crown prince. Fuyutsugu was right to be worried, it seems, as Saga and Junna (and Nimmyo later) were fond of high living and were noted for giving frequent and expensive parties.

Saga Tenno lived a long time and had many wives. The result was approximately 50 children. Because there were so many of them, he took a group with low status mothers and set them up as a new clan, Minamoto. Several later rulers followed this precedent, leading to several different groups of Minamotos (and Tairas, another clan name used the same way). The group descended from Saga are in later times known as "the Saga Genji." Genji is "Minamoto clan" if pronounced as Chinese. Several of the Saga Genji had prominent political careers from the reign of Nimmyo Tenno forward. They were moved into high status jobs at very early ages. Minamoto Tokiwa was made Udaijin at the age of 29 whereas the Sadaijin at the time was Fujiwara Otsugu, aged 69. Fujiwara Yoshifusa, the future dictator, was merely Chunagon at age 37 at the time.

During the reigns of Kammu and Heizei men appointed to high office had lengthy experience of low ones that would have exposed them to the lives of the ordinary population, usually including service as an active military officer in the field or as provincial governor. One of the sangi at this time, Ono Minemori, is known to have worked at Dazaifu where he was active in setting up a chain of hostels that could be used by corvee laborers while travelling. He also worked on an experimental system of kueiden in Kyushu. This was a project to find out whether it was feasible for the government to take direct command of farming activity. The government designated a special block of land and peasants to farm it. The government then fed the workers and paid all of their expenses directly, collected the entire crop, paid the workers' taxes and the expenses out of it and kept what was left as profit. The goal was to split the wealth between the peasants and the government and freeze out the local aristocracy, who usually creamed off most of the profit. The foremen who controlled the work were also peasants, paid extra. The project was considered a success, though it was not followed up. A man like Ono Minemori would have had a pretty good idea what the real world was like by the time he rose to high office. That would not necessarily be the case for a man like Minamoto Tokiwa who stepped directly from a youth in the palace to appointment as a senior minister.

The year 842 marks a major transition, the death of the retired emperor Saga, who had dominated the government since his accession to the throne in 809. Junnin had died two years earlier and Nimmyo Tenno was now on his own. He was clearly not up to it, and power almost immediately shifted into the hands of Fujiwara Yoshifusa. He was a high-ranking official but by no means the highest, but he quickly demonstrated high-class conspiratorial skills, and then maintained his control without much effort for many years. Clearly, he knew what he was doing.

The first Fujiwara Regency


Eight days after the death of Saga Nimmyo arrested Tsunesada and deposed him. A large number of officials were demoted and others were promoted to replace them, headed by Fujiwara Yoshifusa. One month later Nimmyo Tenno's son prince Michiyasu was designated crown prince. The most unusual thing about this episode is that Tsunesada was not killed. Like Heizei Tenno he was allowed to live out his life. It is worthy of noting that both princes involved, Tsunesada and Michiyasu, had Fujiwara mothers. However, Tsunesada's mother was of a branch that was rival to Yoshifusa. Michiyasu's mother was Yoshifusa's sister.

Yoshifusa was the second son of Fujiwara Fuyutsugu who had been Sadaijin. However, Fuyutsugu died while Yoshifusa was still quite young and he was only a mid-level official without great prospects when he was assigned to work in the palace of the crown prince and became friendly with the future Nimmyo Tenno. Once Nimmyo became emperor Yoshifusa began to rise rapidly. When Michiyasu was made crown prince he was already married and had three children headed by prince Koretaka. In 843 Yoshifusa was able to introduce his daughter into this family. She was a granddaughter of Saga Tenno because Yoshifusa had been able to marry a daughter of the emperor, something currently permitted only to Fujiwaras among the aristocracy. This girl quickly produced a son who eventually enabled Yoshifusa to transform the political situation in his favor.

Nimmyo's reign was not a successful one. All of the registers and maps were prepared for a land distribution in 844, but it was never carried out. There is no explanation given as to why. There was to be no further attempt for more than 30 years. The quality of life in the capital was deteriorating visibly. There were thieves and bandits everywhere and fires were constant. It appears that thieves often set fires and sounded the alarm and when the occupants of the house fled out one side, the thieves entered the other side to loot it. Occasionally such fires spread and destroyed large sections of the city. The Kebiishi proved unable to cope successfully with this and for a time the regular guards troops were deployed in the streets in the area around the palace where most noble mansions were located as patrolmen.

Nimmyo became ill in 850. Two days before his death he took the vows of a Buddhist monk. He was only 41. His mother became a Buddhist nun and two of his brothers became Buddhist monks. This was unprecedented in that Kammu Tenno and his three sons had all been conspicuously Confucian in orientation. When they wrote poetry, they wrote it in Chinese. However, Buddhism was now very obviously on the rise among the common people and the nobility alike. This is often associated with the noted monk Kukai, later considered the equivalent of a saint and awarded a posthumous name, but it went far beyond the efforts of one man. From this time forward imperial monks become common, and many other nobles also took monastic vows late in life as a sign of retirement from public life.

Montoku Tenno was 24 years old when he ascended the throne. His son by Yoshifusa's daughter was immediately appointed the official heir despite being but one year old. This was entirely unprecedented, and particularly opposed to the system that Kammu Tenno had attempted to set up. Given that Saga Tenno had 50 children, there would have been no difficulty about finding a brother of Nimmyo capable of taking the throne. However, it is clear that we have returned to the general situation that had prevailed during the Soga dominance and at intervals during the Nara period when the relationship to the dominant noble family at court controlled the succession. To be fair, no one expected Montoku Tenno to die young, but still, the risk was obvious. At the time the senior official was Minamoto Tokiwa and Yoshifusa ranked second. However, Tokiwa died in 854.

The main problem afflicting the government at this time was rapidly falling revenue from taxes. The response was a series of edicts urging the people to pay attention to agriculture. The actual cause was the spread of shoen and the removal of lands from the tax registers. The government made no effort to enforce the land redistributions, nor did it follow up on the experimental direct farming system explored during Saga's reign.

The year 857 saw numerous examples of dissatisfaction around the country. On the island of Tsushima, which was also a province, a mob of 300 men led by the district magistrates stormed the residence of the governor and burned it down, killing him and 16 other persons. In other places the locals limited themselves to sending in petitions protesting against misrule. In the same year Yoshifusa was appointed to the office of Dajodaijin, last occupied in 765 by the monk Dokyo. It may be that that was an attempt to respond to the crisis. Montoku's edict making the appointment specifically states that it was because Yoshifusa was his relative, and it may be that this was a first pass at the regency that followed soon after. A few months later the emperor fell gravely ill and he died in the 8th month of 858 at the age of 33. It is believed that he was always frail and it seems that he almost never left the palace. His son was placed on the throne becoming Seiwa Tenno. He was nine, the previous record (which occasioned much controversy at the time) was Mommu Tenno aged 15.

Despite his youth, Seiwa Tenno already had a Fujiwara wife, whose father was Yoshifusa's younger brother Nagayoshi. This woman eventually became the mother of Yozei Tenno. Nagayoshi was also the father of Yoshifusa's eventual successor, Mototsune. Yoshifusa did not have a son, nor did he have a spare daughter to marry to Seiwa Tenno. In the official genealogies Mototsune counts as Yoshifusa's son, but he was adopted.

In 862 a rather strange edict said, essentially, that everything was going to hell and all government officials needed to work harder. There is no evidence of anything specific being done. This is the beginning of the phase in which the provincial administration ceased to operate for the benefit of the government and instead became the personal fief of the governor, to loot to whatever extent he was capable. It is from this time that we see in the record frequent mentions of "good officials" who were honest and actually tried to run things in a manner that was fair to all. This flows from the Chinese idea that all that is necessary to have a successful government is moral officials.

In 863 there was a major influenza epidemic and there was a wave of popular belief that it was caused by vengeful ghosts from imperial scandals going all the way back to the overthrow of Tenchi Tenno's son prince Sawara. The government held a public propitiation ceremony at Shinsenen, which was a vast garden that had been added to the southern side of the palace. A portion of thr garden survives today just south of Nijo Castle, which sits on the southeast corner of the ancient imperial palace. Many private ceremonies were also held, some of which attracted large crowds. The gatherings continued and the government attempted to prohibit them in 865. In 866 the emperor and all the leading nobles went to the mansion of Yoshifusa for a lavish cherry blossom viewing party. Ten days later one of the gates of the imperial palace, known as Otemon, burned down. This was popularly taken as a divine criticism of the government. The government tried to respond by mobilizing military forces which were sent out to deal with pirates in the Inland Sea and bandits operating in various places. In the midst of this one official informed another that he had heard that the fire had been set on the orders of Minamoto Tokiwa. The second official immediately ordered Tokiwa's arrest. The officer who received this order was Fujiwara Mototsune. Instead of carrying it out he went to ask Yoshifusa what he thought about it, and Yoshifusa replied that he was sure that Tokiwa was innocent. He sent people to circulate around the palace and calm everyone down.

The man who started the rumor about Minamoto Tokiwa was Otomo Yoshio. Five months after the "Otemon incident" an informer accused Otomo of having burned the gate himself. He continued to protest his innocence under torture but was convicted and exiled along with four of his relatives. He was the grandson of a man who had been convicted in the murder of Fujiwara Tanetsugu in 785 and exiled.

When Yoshifusa died in 872 the government treated it as a crisis and mobilized the guard units and activated the barriers on the major roads, something ordinarily done only on the death of an emperor. However, there was no trouble and his heir Mototsune continued to exercise his authority and was immediately appointed regent. Seiwa Tenno abdicated in 876 and was replaced by Yozei Tenno, Mototsune's nephew. Yozei was nine and the regency continued.

In 878 there was a large-scale rebellion of Emishi in Dewa province. There had been no serious fighting in the north since early in the reign of Saga Tenno. A provincial of neighboring Mutsu province who had the title of Oryoshi, which was a provincial version of the Kebiishi, on his own authority assembled an army of 2000 men and marched to Dewa where he found 5000 men at the provincial capital. About a month later they were attacked by rebels and the bulk of the army fled. Only one small unit commanded by a man named Funya Arifusa stayed to fight, but they were defeated. The rebels captured large quantities of military gear.

Back in the capital, Fujiwara Yasunori, a man noted as a "good official" but with no military experience, was appointed governor and sent off to deal with the situation. He appears to have had only 600 men with him, but he found 300 more in Dewa, and then was reinforced by 2000 more men following behind him. He came under a lot of pressure from the government to attack the rebels, but he said that the rebels had problems of their own and he thought that with good government he could resolve the situation without fighting. He said that he wanted to get the farmers back to work, settle refugees, and build up his resources. The government permitted him to take this approach and the rebellion in fact came to an end with no more fighting and Yasunori was back in the capital before the end of 879. This is the last item in the history of the frontier wars. The northeast region remained an unusual region with a history in many ways independent of the rest of the country for a very long time, even into the 19th century in some ways, but it was administratively now a permanent part of Japan. The name Emishi went out of use soon after.

The record shows Fujiwara Mototsune as being much more aggressive than had been Yoshifusa in attacking the problems facing the government. He backed Fujiwara Yasunori's policies in Dewa and made an effort to try to put an end to the abuses commonly practiced by governors. However, it is clear that his focus was on trying to get moral men into office rather than changing administrative systems. He was responsble for last iteration of the land redistribution system. His edict on the matter pointed out that because of the lapse of this system the government had almost no idea of what was happening in the provinces. The registers were not being kept, so that there were no maps of the arable land and no indication of the numbers of taxpayers or where they were living, making it impossible to manage the tax system intelligently.

In the five inner provinces we know that the government appointed five senior officials (all sangi) to go to the five provinces to supervise. The original law called for female members of the family to receive 2/3 of the allotment of a male, but this had been cut in 828 to 1/3 and now in 880 it was eliminated. Also, the allotments for males were changed from entirely rice paddy to a mixture of paddy land and dry land for wheat or millet. The redistribution was ordered for all provinces, but outside of the inner provinces the details were left up to the governor. There was a flood of complaints about difficulties, but there is evidence that the redistribution occurred in at least 7 provinces and it is believed that it was pretty widespread, though we don't know how thorough it was outside of the inner provinces.

In 882 Yozei Tenno became a legal adult at the age of 15, and he inquired about terminating the regency. Instead a new title, kampaku, was invented to apply to the regency in respect to an adult emperor. About one year later Mototsune and the emperor quarreled about something unknown and refused to make up. Whatever one proposed the other tried to sabotage. At one point Mototsune proposed ending the regency and Yozei refused. Yozei was definitely an exception to the recent run of weakling emperors who died young. He lived to be 82. There is speculation that he was not sane. In late 883 there was an unsolved murder inside the imperial palace and the rumor was that it had been committed by the emperor in a rage over something. Mototsune increased his pressure on the emperor and in early 884 he abdicated. There was no designated successor. There was a prince who was Mototsune's grandson, Sadatoki, age 7. However, he was a son of Yozei and Mototsune appears to have been determined not to appoint a son of Yozei. Many candidates were discussed and the selection was prince Tokiyasu, a brother of Montoku Tenno. His mother was a Fujiwara, though from a different branch of the clan than Mototsune. He was 55 years of age and had a modest career working in the government. He was Koko Tenno. Despite the age of the new ruler and his experience working in the government the regency was continued. It is claimed that this was the decision of the emperor himself. The best man should rule, and the best man was Mototsune.

In 885 Mototsune's son Tokihira achieved adulthood and was launched on his official career.

There was no immediate decision on an heir to Koko Tenno. The emperor wanted his 7th son Minamoto Sadami. This presented a problem in that as a Minamoto he had been removed from the imperial clan, legally speaking. Mototsune had rejected one candidate to succeed Yozei on exactly that ground. However, this time he agreed. Sadami was formally restored to the clan and made crown prince. His mother was not a Fujiwara but an imperial princess. The same day this was accomplished the emperor died and prince Sadami immediately succeeded. He is designated Uda Tenno. When the retired emperor Yozei was informed of this he said, "but isn't he a servant?" As Minamoto Sadami the new emperor had served as a page in the palace. This all occurred in 887.

The first edict issued by Uda Tenno contains the first use of the word Kampaku. The edict changed the name of Mototsune's office to "ako." Mototsune protested that the new word didn't mean anything. The two fought about this with many arguments for six months before Uda finally issued an edict putting everything back the way it was. One historian called this "the Ako War." It signalled that Uda was not going to be anyone's puppet emperor.

Mototsune then died in 891 before he could arrange for a proper successor through a new grandson or get his sons advanced to high positions in the government. He had 4 sons, Tokihira, Kanehira, Nakahira, and Tadahira, and 4 daughters. Two of them were married to Seiwa Tenno, one was married to Uda Tenno, and the last would eventually become married to Daigo Tenno. Tokihira was 21 years old and not yet of Sangi rank. As manager of the fortunes of the northern branch of the Fujiwara clan Mototsune seems to have made a real mess of the position achieved by Yoshifusa.

At this point in time occurred the beginning of the great age of classical Japanese literature. Up to then literature in Japan had meant Chinese literature, even though Nihon Shoki and Kojiki contain snippets written in Japanese by using Chinese characters for their sound only, and the great Manyoshu collection of Japanese poetry had been put together using the same method. Now, a simple and elegant system for writing Japanese with a syllabary of about 50 characters (the exact number varied for a time) based on highly simplified Chinese characters had been invented and come into wide use. There were some exceptions, but it was generally thought that there was no need for women to learn to read and write Chinese, so any literature intended for both men and women must necessarily be written in Japanese. The first major book published was Ise Monogatari which may be considered a tribute to the life and works of Ariwara Narihira, a poet who died in 880. The exact date of the book is not known, but it was early in the 10th century. Another crucial book for this era is Konjaku Monogatari. It is thought to have been completed around 1077 but it is a collection of short stories that includes much old material, including many pieces evidently written about this time.

When Mototsune died emperor Uda wasted no time in reestablishing the principle that the emperor is the ruler. The office of Kampaku lapsed and was not revived for forty years.

Yasunori, Michizane, and Tokihira


The emperor took several measures to try to assure that control would remain in hands of the imperial clan. He made sure to promote men from several lineages of the Fujiwara clan so that they could be rivals of each other, and he also moved many of his relatives into the Minamoto clan and appointed them to high office. At the same time that the 21 year old Tokihira was raised to the sangi level, so was Uda’s brother Minamoto no Osamoto. And, over the next few years Osamoto was followed by Sadatsune, Tato, Mare, and Noboru. In 893 the emperor established as crown prince Atsuhito, 9 years old, whose mother, although a Fujiwara, was only a cousin of Tokihira. Her father, Takafuji was first raised to the sangi at this time, possibly to serve as a rival to Tokihira. Finally, he raised two relatively obscure “good governors” to high office. They were Fujiwara Yasunori, one year after the death of Mototsune, and Sugawara no Michizane, the year after. Yoshifusa and Mototsune had run things for 30 years, between them, and Uda was now trying to do something quite different.

At the top level his government had 7 Fujiwara and 6 Minamoto and one lonely representative of the remaining ancient aristocracy in the person of Sugawara no Michizane. The sadaijin was Minanoto Toru, aged 72, followed by Fujiwara Yoshiyo, also 72, Minamoto Yoshiari, only 50, Minamoto Hikaru, 49, Fujiwara Morokatsu , 66, and Fujiwara Tokihira, now 23. Yoshiyo was now the chief of the Fujiwara clan, however Tokihira’s prospects were still pretty good since he was going to outlive all of these men and inevitably rise to the top barring some disaster. And, it was not enough for Uda to assert himself. He had to show that he could pull it off, politically, over the long run. His elevation of Yasunori and Michizane was going to be very important to him. It was necessary that it work out. There were plenty of problems to deal with. It was pretty clear that the pattern of rural government established in the Nara period had broken down.

Fujiwara Yasunori was from the “southern” branch of the Fujiwara that had been knocked out of the top aristocracy. His grandfather had held the rank of chunagon, but his father never got higher than vice-commander of one of the guards units, barely clinging to aristocratic status. In 855 Yasunori got a low ranking post in the central bureaucracy, and in 871 he went to Bitchu province as a zuryo, and subsequently transferred to Bingo. In 878 when the rebellion in Dewa broke out, Mototsune assigned him as the governor supporting the forces sent to deal with it. He was, as previously noted, very successful and suppressed the rebellion despite an extreme shortage of resources and with a minimum of violence. After that he went back to work as a zuryo, but he continued to attract attention as a “good official” in Sanuki province and as the deputy commander at Dazaifu. Immediately after Mototsune’s death emperor Uda brought him back to the capital and in the next year raised him to the sangi level. At the time he was 68 years old (and therefore no real threat to Tokihira).

Yasunori was certainly well qualified to advise the government about conditions in the countryside and what it took to be able to keep the peace, as he had successfully done for many years.

Sugawara no Michizane’s route to high office was somewhat different. Following his grandfather and father, he was a scholar attached to the university and a well-known poet (since the age of 11). Neither his grandfather nor his father had had any political or governmental role. However, his father Koreyoshi had been promoted to sangi rank in 872 (when Michizane was 28), opening the way for Michizane to seek a career, if he wished to. In 874 Michizane was given 5th rank, passed through several minor bureaucratic offices, and in 877 was given a concurrent appointment as professor at the university. In 886 he was appointed governor of Sanuki province and decided to actually go to his province, resigning 3 other posts in the central government to do so.

He was in Sanuki for 4 years. While there he wrote a book of 140 poems, but also worked hard to be a “good official” in the mode of Yasunori, with whom he was familiar, work that shows up in many of the poems. When he returned to the capital he was among those who criticized Mototsune’s determination to remain Kampaku over an adult emperor. This naturally attracted Uda’s attention.

Emperor Uda had a strategy for dealing with the problems facing the government, but it was not one that involved creating new arrangements. Rather it was an attempt to go back to the approaches of the Nara period system. The main idea seems to be that if the system were run humanely, people would accept it. This is very Confucian, holding that morality is far more important than structure in solving governmental problems. His reign title combined characters for benevolence and tranquility.

The immediate goal was to return to the policy of the first years of Mototsune’s control (877-884) and resurrect the handen system. Yasunori had been in the field as a zuryo when the last distribution was accomplished. Historians are inclined to think that the reform effort did not just depend on the men at the top, because the middle and lower ranking officials in the central government realized that if the tax revenues failed they were doomed. Only the very highest in rank could form shoen. And, although zuryo were doing very well at the moment, if the opposition of the local aristocrats, the farmers, and the shoen owners did not weaken, their long term prospects were not good either. Fujiwara Tokihira was not opposed to this line of thinking and came to be counted among the reformers himself.

Yasunori led the efforts to reform rural government from 892 until his death three years later. Afterward, Michizane and Tokihira were the leaders. The first thing that was done was to repeat a step taken several times since the time of Tenchi Tenno and send out inspectors to gather information about conditions in the countryside and what local people thought about them. In actual fact the district magistrates were responsible for gathering testimony from locals and passing it on to the inspectors. There are no details about exactly what was done, but it is usually assumed that shoen were ignored since the focus was to be on zuryo and whether they were performing properly or abusing their powers.

Another aspect of the effort was an attempt to cut the cost of the central government by abolishing unnecessary offices and combining their functions into the remaining ones. The number of men on duty in the various guards units was considerably reduced also.

There was also thought given to resuming contact with China. The last embassy had been more than 60 years previously. In 894 it was ordered that an embassy was to be organized and that Michizane should be the ambassador, but only 1 month later he recommended that the project be abandoned, and it was. The T'ang dynasty was in the process of collapsing at this time and the prospects for a successful embassy were actually not very good. The kingdom of Silla in Korea was also in a state of collapse. After 890 or so it had almost no control over its provinces, and local groups began fighting each other for primacy. In 900 there began a large-scale civil war that only resulted in unification under a new dynasty in 936. This breakdown of order led to a major increase in the incidence of attacks by Korean pirates on Japan, at first mainly on the island of Tsushima, but later in much of northern Kyushu. In 893 there was a large scale raid in Higo province and many farmers' houses were burned. In 894 the government sent additional troops to Tsushima, and provinces along the Japan Sea coast were ordered to take precautions. This of course shows that they still had the resources to respond to such a situation.

In 896 Yasunori died, and he was soon followed by the sadaijin Minamoto no Toru, and at the end of the year, the newly promoted sadaijin Fujiwara Yoshiyo also died. In 897 the udaijin Minamoto Yoshiari followed. Suddenly Tokihira at the age of 26 was the senior official in the government. Uda was worried about this and consulted with Michizane. The decision was to immediately enthrone the emperor’s son. Uda abdicated and emperor Daigo took the throne at the age of 13. This was clearly to obviate any threat that Tokihira might manage to manipulate the succession to his advantage. A daughter of emperor Koko was immediately married to the emperor and made empress. One of Michizane’s daughters was married to Uda’s second son, prince Tokiyo. As usually was the case, Uda planned to continue ruling despite his abdication.

In 899 Tokihira was appointed sadaijin and Michizane udaijin. Fujiwara Takafuji and Minamoto Hikaru were made Dainagon. Takafuji was soon promoted to naidaijin but died almost immediately afterwards. However, his son Sadakuni was immediately promoted to the sangi to take his place.

It is believed that Tokihira began actively plotting to remove Michizane at about this time. His wedge was the fact that Michizane had been rapidly promoted to a much higher rank than his pedigree qualified him for because of the improper favor of emperor Uda. This made it easy to promote resentment against Michizane among the other courtiers. Uda continued to shower favors on him, which made the campaign all the easier. Finally, at the beginning of 901 Tokihira sprung his trap. Having made an ally of Minamoto Hikaru, they went together to emperor Daigo and told him that Michizane planned to force him to abdicate so that his son in law prince Tokiyo could become emperor. Retired emperor Uda had already agreed to this plan, they said. After a few days of this, they secured an edict denouncing Michizane’s crime and banishing him to Kyushu in the usual role of unpaid supernumary official at Dazaifu. 5 days later Uda went to the palace to discuss the matter with the emperor, but Tokihira had arranged that he would not be allowed to enter. This was a case where Tokihira was able to take advantage of the abdication. In much later times retired emperors issued edicts directly, but in this period valid edicts came only from the reigning emperor.

This coup did not change the fact that Uda generally ran the government until his death, and Tokihira learned to get along with him. However, Michizane was eliminated as a political factor. This event is still well remembered in Japan. Because Michizane was a prominent poet, the writers and artists of the day were all on his side, so his fate was accorded a lot of artistic attention over the years. He died of illness at Dazaifu in 903 at the age of 59. He had time to write a book about his experiences in exile.

Soon after the coup emperor Daigo’s wife Onshi, a sister of Tokihira, gave birth to a son, prince Munekata, the future emperor Suzaku. With this the Fujiwara for the third time put themselves in position to gain a special position in relation to the throne. Only three months later this prince was made the heir.

Starting in 902 the government issued a stream of edicts directed toward the reform of provincial government. They were all aimed at restoring the proper operation of things according to the original ryo, except as modified by subsequent kyaku and shiki. And, the government took up the matter of handen. Nothing had been done about this since 881 despite the reforming aspirations of Yasunori and Michizane, and this had had a big effect upon local government.

There had been time for the relationship between population and the allocation of the land to drift so that some had too much land and some too little, which made it difficult to assess and collect taxes. The government ordered all provinces to conduct a thorough census, 12 years after which the distribution would be conducted. This was a huge gap. All previous distributions had been carried out over a three year period from census to execution. There is no explanation as to why this was decided.

From the associated edicts it was clear that the government intended to strictly enforce the letter of the law in respect to the quality of goods accepted for the head tax and the timing of their delivery. There was to be no retreat from fill compliance with earlier practices.

There were obstacles to making this work as planned. “Wicked farmers, seeking to evade the taxes, move to the capital on their own initiative and attach themselves to wealthy households, or lie about their lands claiming that they have been donated, or claim that their houses have been sold, or take documents issued by a noble and affix seals to them and claim privilege. Even though they suspect these seals are forgeries, the governors cringe before higher authority, say nothing, and do not prevent these crimes.”

Also, in the absence of any census and distribution, all "new land" opened up on the initiative of locals was effectively private land and most likely not entered on any registers, making it effectively shoen land even if it didn't have documents. A thorough census and land survey would find it all, of course, and was not likely to be very popular.

The government now prohibited people in the countryside from donating lands and residences to temples and shrines, and the opening of new lands under protection was also to be stopped. Only shoen which could demonstrate valid documents from the dajokan and minbusho were to be continued. It was not at all clear exactly what might have come out of all of this because Tokihira died in 909 at the age of 39 and the reform effort died with him.

The development of the shoen system


Shoen is the name given to private estates that were exempt from the land redistribution process and were also immune to all or some taxes and were sometimes also immune to the entry of public officials. For most historians shoen were considered such a conspicuous aspect of life in the Heian period that the term "the shoen system" is often considered synonymous with the Heian period, to be contrasted with "the ritsuryo system" for the Nara period and "the feudal system (hoken)" for the subsequent periods.

The prohibition of privately owned land was never absolute, but the intention of the authorities was clearly that it would be limited to rare and special purposes. During the Nara period there were experiments with permitting nobles to pay for the necessary work to bring new lands under cultivation and then to be reimbursed by being allowed to treat the land as private property for a limited period of time, after which it would be taken into the redistribution system. Various edicts make it clear that there were abuses in which men tried to grab public lands and claim that they had reclaimed them, or illegally used public resources and corvee laborers to reclaim land which they then claimed for themselves.

That type of private land had disadvantages as well as advantages for it remained fully taxable and remained under the police powers of the provincial and district governments.

Shomu Tenno decided to provide funds for the operation of his new Todaiji temple by granting the temple lands that would be exempt from taxes, the taxes instead going to the temple as revenue. Subsequently, numerous other temples were financed the same way, and as the result of complaints from the monks, rules were passed granting these estates various degrees of immunity from the local officials. The nobility took notice, because this type of landholding looked attractive. The monks had no interest in farming land themselves. The normal mechanism for creating a shoen was for a management contract to be entered into whereby a local aristocrat would take responsibility for running the estate in return for a share of the profits. Usually the noble would open up new land and then "donate" it to the temple in return for such a management agreement. This removed the land permanently from the tax rolls.

Almost all surviving documents relating to shoen were preserved in temple archives, mainly the Todaiji archive, and there is no real documentation for the process whereby shoen began to be used for estates owned by noblemen rather than temples, but there is no doubt that it happened. It probably started during the period when Saga Tenno was in charge, but a lot of people suspect that it was mainly Fujiwara Yoshifusa who fostered the process. Essentially all that was required was to secure a charter from the emperor designating the land as shoen and defining its privileges. As regent, Yoshifusa was legally entitled to create such charters on his own. It now became possible for Yoshifusa to enrich himself that way, and also to extend the privilege to his political allies within the nobility. It is very clear from complaints coming in and the efforts of reformers that one very important channel for the creation of shoen was via the provincial governors. The governor with his political connections in the capital could arrange for charters relatively easily, raking off a share of the profits for himself. In particular we see numerous edicts attempting to prevent governors from retiring to a province they had ruled, out of the expectation that if they could do so they would aspire to put together a collection of shoen lands there to finance their retirement.

The shoen system eventually became very complicated. The way it was structured several different parties had explicitly recognized "rights," called by the Japanese historians "shiki," in various aspects of the shoen. In addition to the "proprietor" (ryoshu) in the capital, the on-site manager had a property right that was shiki, and the several lower level officers who were necessary for the management of the estate and the collection of its revenues also had explicitly defined shiki. Once these existed, it became possible to inherit them and to sell them. Logically enough, it followed that they could be divided. A man might leave his shiki to be divided equally among his children, for example. It therefore became possible for a person to own one quarter of the shiki pertaining to the office of collector of rents, without any personal obligation to do any of that work. It became merely the right to a certain specified income. As you may easily imagine, this led enevitably in the direction of causing numerous lawsuits. In principle, the proprietor was responsible for handling disputes over shiki that were entirely internal to the shoen. This was one of the factors in causing the Heian period nobles to set up business offices within their mansions. Sometimes, of course, people on the shoen found it desirable to sue the proprietor, or the proprietor might have a problem with their behavior.

The official legal system had no way to handle these matters. The very concept of a lawsuit was not a part of the administrative laws. If people had a complaint they could petition the Dajokan, which might appoint someone to investigate the matter and determine how the law applied to it. This was where shiki in the sense of kyaku and shiki came from. When an official determined how the law applied to a situation he wrote out his conclusions and filed a copy and this was called a shiki. Clearly the shiki considered as a property right in a shoen was thought of as being much the same, a written description of the rule that had been agreed on for the particular situation.

In the time of Saga Tenno it is most likely the case that law suits went mainly to his Kurodo office. The ultimate decision was credited to the emperor, but would actually be made by some official within the office. As regent, Fujiwara Yoshifusa set up his own version of the Kurodo, since "the regency" was not a legal office and did not appear in the budget or have a suite of offices assigned to it. From this time as long as the system lasted, whoever was the top dog in the political structure had to maintain a private lawcourt where officials of his appointment could examine the documents and interview witnesses pertaining to disputes over rights within shoen. This court had to appear to be at least moderately efficient and moderately fair or people would stop coming. After the collapse of the official administrative system these courts were almost the only regularly functioning organ of government, and the fact that someone had to provide them was the most powerful factor in permitting the government to hang onto existence in a context where it no longer had meaningful revenues.

Even in Yoshifusa's day, and to a steadily increasing extent as time passed, the government had no regular means to enforce judgements made by these courts. It was assumed that the two parties would abide by the judgement. The only lever it had was that if the losing side ignored the decision the court could disestablish the shoen and declare its charter void, turning it over to the mercies of the provincial governor. A particularly egregious individual could also be proclaimed an outlaw, in which case his heavily armed neighbors were free to go after him and seize his property.

There was a lot of violence in the countryside starting roughly in Yoshifusa's time, and the best way to mitigate it was for provincials to respect the shoen system and the regent's (or later the retired emperor's) court. People did not actually want to live in a lawless society, so there was always a delicate balance. The government could not afford to maintain real police forces, so the people had to police themselves, which was inherently messy and open to abuse, but by resorting to the courts and respecting their decisions people were able to put pressure on the armed landowners to behave themselves, more or less. This was a time of what might be termed restrained chaos.

A highly similar set of arrangements developed within the district and provincial administrations also. Appointments to local office were mostly hereditary anyway, but now it came to be treated as a formal property right that could, again, be inherited, sold, and subdivided. By the 10th century this process was far advanced, so that although the legal terminology was different, the actual way of life was not much different on a shoen and on "public" land. The main difference is that the provincial governorship did not ever become truly hereditary but was handed out for a term of years. However, it came to be the case that the governor ceased to actually travel to his province but sent an agent known as a zuryo, which means someone serving in your place. Even the governorship became a shiki right and in the 12th century, a man of great power might hold six or eight governorships simultaneously, solely for his cut of the revenue.

This was a very peculiar system, obviously. The best way to understand it is to see it as a process of very slow collapse. Things always got worse, they never got better, the success rate of the courts in enforcing decisions went down, the level of local violence went up. At some point it was inevitable that the whole thing would fail completely, and many people were aware of this. It follows that some of those people began to put together new systems to take its place. However, the early Heian period is the era of decline. The first signs of new types of arrangements do not appear until the following century.

There is a lot of information about conflict in the countryside between governors (mostly now zuryo) and the locals over taxes and other matters. In the absence of proper tax registers, we find the zuryo improvising. There is a memorial from a zuryo in Kii province in 894 to the Dajokan. He said that rather than try to sort out taxes using the old rules, which was impossible given the information he had, he assessed a flat rate on everyone farming land no matter what their status might be of a fixed number of sheaves per unit of area. This was a comprehensive amount intended to cover crop tax, head tax, and corvee. The government approved this method, which completely ignored all of the laws. One might say that at this point the original system of the Taiho code was completely extinct.

In 884 there was an incident where a mob stated to consist of 170 farmers was organized by two district magistrates of Iwami province to attack the zuryo, who was seriously beaten, and other outrages were committed. The government sent officials to the province to investigate and the case was resolved 2 years later. The zuryo was exiled on the grounds that his illegal behavior caused the uprising. However, the two magistrates and three others who took leading roles were also punished for resorting to violence, but they were merely sentenced to suspension of their offices for one year. There was also a case in which locals petitioned against the governor and investigators were sent who found the governor guilty of crimes. However, the same man was later appointed governor again, and was accused again in his new province, though he died before the new investigation was completed.

Between 892 and 909 there occurred a major effort at "reform" of the government of the provinces including a project to restart the land redistribution system. There is no clear information as to exactly what impacts this had upon the ground, but it does seem certain that the effort came to an end when Fujiwara Tokihira died in 909. From that time onward the shoen system expanded steadily and eventually came to have equal status with the taxation system and the joint sources for the incomes of the nobles of the capital. It is the consensus that officially speaking no more than about half of the country's farm land ever came to be treated as shoen. The rest continued to be "public land" subject to the authority of the provincial governor and district magistrates. However, as noted above, the practical difference between the two from the point of view of the people living on the land became less and less over time.

The shoen system lasted for some time and started to fall apart only in the 13th century, when a completely new form of landholding began to appear, essentially the beginning of the type of landownership that exists today, with the concept that the land belongs to the state replaced by an explicit recognition that land is private property which can be inherited, sold, or rented at the discretion of its owner, who may be a commoner or an aristocrat or an organization. The interest of government in the land is limited to the right to tax it.

The Regency (Sessho and Kampaku)


The offices of Sessho and Kampaku that gave the holder the power to speak for the emperor (whether the emperor wanted this or didn't) were always the exclusive property of members of the Fujiwara clan. In archaic times the imperial clan was surrounded by a number of other clans of varying status. Almost the first thing that happens once we get into a period where detailed information about politics is available is that we find a ferocious struggle amongst the Otomo, Mononobe, and Soga clans for a position of dominance at court. Sometimes the emperor is actually the man in charge, but sometimes he is not up to the task and someone else has to do it. The Soga clan appears to have pioneered the strategy of manipulating the imperial succession so that the successive rulers are all children of Soga mothers. They managed to do this for three generations, but were then defeated by prince Naka no Oe, assisted by Nakatomi no Kamatari. Kamatari played such an important part in subsequent events that when he died a grateful imperial clan created an entirely new clan for his descendants. The name of this clan was, of course, Fujiwara. At the time that this happened the imperial palace was located at a place called Fujiwara, and I presume that that is the origin of the name.

Kamatari's son was Fuhito who also played a crucial role in the continued evolution of the new system of government. He had four sons who established four branches of the clan, but among these only the "northern" branch descended from Fusasaki survived the Nara period in a position of considerable political power. Yoshifusa, the first Sessho, was Fusasaki's great-great-grandson. During his lifetime Fusasaki took second place to his older brother Muchimaro, but had a successful career in his own right. Muchimaro's son Toyonari continued in the highest position, but Fusasaki's son Matate reached the sangi also. He died in 766 during the Dokyo era. His son Uchimaro reached the position of naidaijin when Heizei became emperor after the death of Kammu in 806. He died in office in 812. His son Fuyutsugu played an important part in the events of 810. He had been appointed head of the Kurodo office by Saga Tenno at the start of the year and he was one of the two officials to whom Heizei appealed for support against Saga. However, he remained loyal to Saga. Fuyutsugu became the senior minister in 821 and died in 826 at a comparatively early age, 52, leaving his son Yoshifusa in a relatively low position. Montoku Tenno who took the throne in 850 was a grandson of Fuyutsugu, but this had little practical effect given that Fuyutsugu was long dead.

Yoshifusa was able to seize power from a relatively humble starting position when the retired emperor Saga died in 842. He had been assigned to work in the palace of the crown prince who eventually became Nimmyo Tenno, who was on the throne in 842. Apparently the two became very close, so when Yoshifusa informed the emperor that there was a plot against him he was believed. We have no way of knowing the truth of the matter, but the end result was the demotion of one group of officials and the promotion of a second group headed by Yoshifusa. In 848 he became the senior minister lasting through the transition to Montoku Tenno and in 857 was able to claim the office of Dajodaijin, the highest of all. He was the first to hold this since the unfortunate precedents of Fujiwara Nakamaro and the monk Dokyo in the Nara period. He was thus in complete control of the government and able to designate his own grandson, a mere infant, as heir to the throne. When Montoku Tenno died and the child became emperor as Seiwa Tenno he was 9 years old and obviously required a regent and the only candidate was Yoshifusa. This was in 858. In 866 Yoshifusa secured formal appointment to the newly created office of Sessho. There had been one previous regency in the Nara period but the regent had been an imperial prince.

Yoshifusa died in 872 when Seiwa Tenno was 23 years old, but the regency continued under his son Mototsune right up to Seiwa's abdication in 876. The new emperor Yozei Tenno was also a child and the regency continued. Yozei appeared to be insane and was forced to abdicate in favor of Koko Tenno in 884. Koko was 55 years old but the regency still continued, as it did when Uda became emperor at the age of 21. It only lapsed when Mototsune died in 891 and Uda refused to appoint a replacement.

The office remained in abeyance through the reigns of Uda and Daigo, which is to say up to 930. However, it resumed under Fujiwara Tadahira, Mototsune's son, who was the grandfather of Suzaku Tenno, age 8. This time the office remained permanent, even outlasting the power of the Fujiwara clan. It was abolished in 1868 but revived again in 1889 in the Meiji Constitution, but it was taken away from the Fujiwara clan and restricted to the imperial clan. Taisho Tenno, Mutsuhito, was considered to be mentally disabled and his son Hirohito, the future Showa Tenno, served as Sessho from 1921 to 1926.

In 1947 the law which defined the Imperial Household Agency continued to recognize the office.

The beginnings of the warrior (bushi) class


Since at least 400 AD Japan had been dominated by an aristocracy that was notionally a warrior class. When we first see them in Nihon Shoki they wore swords on all occasions and used them frequently. In battle they fought wearing armor and riding on horseback and their principal weapon was the bow. This description would apply without any change to the rural aristocracy of the 12th and 13th centuries. However, a lot happened between the archaic period and the beginnings of the feudal era. Still, even in the peaceful Heian period members of the aristocracy routinely trained with weapons. This tends to be obscured because of the fact that much of the literature of the late Heian period was written by women whose view of the daily activities of the male aristocrats was limited. Young nobles played violent sports, they practiced sword fighting and archery, and they went on long hunting trips where they hunted deer from horseback with bows and wild boars on foot with spears.

The establishment of Chinese style government in the 7th century made significant changes, however. An official army was set up officered by aristocrats but made up of conscripted peasants who were expected to fight on foot with spears and bows in the Chinese manner. In the middle of the 7th century this army was significant due to the threat of invasion by the Chinese or Koreans, but the absence of any invasion or any serious threat of invasion after the 660s allowed the army to mostly wither away except for the guard regiments in the capital. The government sought to sequester all military arms in armories to be distributed in time of need.

The only significant regular armed forces were border guards maintained on the northern coast of Kyushu and forces in the northeast that were frequently engaged in conflict with barbarian people beyond the effective Japanese frontier. These troops were essentially militia modeled after the regular army, meaning aristocratic officers and commoner soldiers who fought on foot (because commoners didn't know how to ride horses). There is a very interesting note from the Heian period about the problem of training foot soldiers to fight Emishi barbarians who fought in the ancient Japanese manner as mounted bowmen. The solution was to equip the troops with powerful Chinese crossbows, parts from which turn up in northern archeological sites. Whenever a political blowup occurred in the capital that led to violence, the persons involved attempted to flee to the east or send messengers to the east in order to raise experienced troops. There were also occasions when officers would simply go into the fields near the capital and grab peasants, shove spears into their hands, and proclaim them an army. This was done at the time of "Nakamaro's rebellion" in the Nara period.

This began to change as the result of the spread of the shoen system and the corresponding collapse of the system of provinces and districts. The authorities had conscripted peasants for a short period of military training and some of these trained men had served police functions as part of their obligation for corvee labor. However, the financial changes of the 9th century caused large areas of land to be removed from the authority of the provincial governor and the district magistrate as shoen. The men who managed the shoen had to provide their own police services. And, in the land (roughly half even at the height of shoen) that remained "public" the offices associated with the province and the district came to be matters of revenue only, with no requirement of doing any work. The provincial governor ceased to go to his province and merely sent out agents to plunder it at thoroughly as they could manage. As a consequence local landowners of all sorts began to arm some of their men as a private militia.

There is a collection of short stories Konjaku Monogatari that report on conditions late in the 9th century and many of the stories concern rural landowners. One particularly charming one concerns two men who conceived a dislike for each other and therefore concluded that they should settle matters by fighting a war. They each formed up their parties of armed peasants and marched them off to an agreed upon site at an agreed upon time. The two principals were equipped as proper warriors with horses, armor and bows. Their followers were foot soldiers with spears. What actually happened was the two little armies drew up opposite each other across a large field to watch as spectators, and the two principals fought a duel, on horseback, with bows. They charged about seeking a good shot at each other. Each was able to fire once and hit his opponent but failed to penetrate his armor. Then they paused for a rest, complemented each other on the quality of their riding and their shooting and decided that they would be friends. The war was called off.

It is impossible not to conclude that significant elements of the ancient warrior ethos seen in tales of the 5th and 6th centuries had survived among the rural nobility thoughout the intervening period. This suggests that the changes in rural life imposed by the new regime may have been less impressive on the ground than they were in the law books. In social terms everything is present for the development of the bushi class (more often called in English the samurai class) of later times.

The difference between the scene in Konjaku Monogatari and what one would see in Heike Monogatari (13th century) or Taiheiki (14th century) is that the warrior tradition was disseminated to a much wider segment of the rural population. In archaic times the warriors were all aristocrats, a completely different class of person than the ordinary farmers. In the later periods every landowner who could afford the expense normally equipped himself as a warrior and also equipped a number of his men to fight in the same mounted archer style.

At first these men remained of low social status and were referred to as rodo which meant a man who had no land and who worked for his food and lodging at whatever task he was given, a common laborer. However once a man was trained to fight in the aristocratic style and had placed his life on the line alongside his master his effective status tended to rise quickly. The term rodo fell by the wayside somewhere along the line, but samurai is derived from the verb meaning "to serve" in the sense of to serve dinner but was gradually elevated to a term of pride.

The actual social status of a warrior could be relatively high or relatively low. Some of them were authentic aristocrats, descendants of emperors and commanders of armies numbering thousands. Others were large or small landowners with large or small bands of personal followers. Still others were individuals who owned no land and were provided with food and lodging by their master. But they were all warriors and treated each other with respect.

Another matter of importance is that there is a great difference between organizing some of your dependents into a personal militia for local self defense (or annoying your neighbors) and creating something like an army. An army must necessarily include men who are not your personal followers whom you have known since childhood. This was dealt with by forming a system based on patronage. In the classical American big city political machine the leader would be able to mobilize an army of election workers who would go out and do everything that they could to persuade the voters to vote the right way. If the election was a success, then those workers would be rewarded by being appointed to city jobs. You scratch my back and I will scratch yours. Feudalism is a method of government that is based on this principle.

An ambitious aristocratic warrior who wanted to build an army would attempt to recruit landowners to serve him on the promise that a major task of the army that resulted would be to protect the landowners who comprised it. You fight for me when I need it, and I will fight for you when you need it. He could not demand support in the way that emperors demanded it, he needed to persuade men to support him, and to do that he had to make deals. Feudal vassalage is not slavery, it is a deal which requires mutual support and also mutual respect. It contains the element that if a feudal leader treats his men badly they will desert him and they will not be thought disloyal for doing it.

You will say, but that's not the way it works in the samurai movies! The answer to that is that the samurai movies are not about feudalism but about a later time when the armor looked similar but the rules were completely different. In the society that is the real basis for the movie samurai the armies were once more peasants fighting on foot with spears or guns and the samurai were the officer class. It was much more like serving under an emperor and not at all like serving in a feudal band.

At the point that this section ends, 909, there were not yet any actual feudal armies, there were only well-armed landowners who fell into the usual categories of public spirited defenders of law and order and neighborhood hoodlums. There are accounts of gangs of thugs who stole whatever they could and others about bands of vigilantes who rose up against crooked governors. We will not see the first true example of feudal warfare until 40 years or so have passed.

Japanese History

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