The Heian Nobles (平安貴族)

The "Heian nobles" refer to the noblemen in the Heian Period. Although there was no clear and actual condition of the Heian nobles, since the political, socioeconomic, cultural domination by the nobility was achieved from the mid to late Heian Period, this term is often used to refer to the nobles in this period. Before the war, the nobles in the Heian Period were regarded to have seized political power from the Emperor and to have pursued a life of pleasure in Kyoto, but after the war, Yoshihiko HASHI

See also Ancient Nobles.

Brief History

The noble class in the early Heian Period consists of the clans from the local powerful family class in the Asuka Period, in its upper noble class. However as time went by, new clans including the Minamoto clan, the Tachibana clan, the Kiyohara clan, the Sugawara clan as well as the Fujiwara clan who established a deep matrimonial relation with the Emperor, started to rapidly occupy the upper noble class. Then, the Fujiwara clan and the Minamoto clan, the relatives of the Emperor, almost created a monopoly of the Giseikan (a legislative organ), and it is worthy to note that the direct descent of the Northern House of the Fujiwara clan achieved the position of Sessho Kanpaku (regent and chief adviser to the Emperor) in the late ninth century, which made them receive and deal with the political discretion of the Emperor; and they were also successful in making the position hereditary.

From the end of the ninth to the beginning of the tenth century, it was no longer possible to keep the Ritsuryo system (a system of centralized government based on the Ritsuryo code), based on the huge bureaucratic organization and the sophisticated statutory system, and a dynastic nation-state was newly established, in which certain administrative and legislative authorities were undertaken by the local officials and central bureaucrats. During this period, when the Fujiwara clan and the Minamoto clan started to occupy the political nucleus, the middle and lower class nobles who had no hope for fame, competed for assignments in the local official (Zuryo, the head of the provincial governors) or specific bureaucrats.
The middle and lower class nobles who gained such positions strived to secure such positions, attempting to make them hereditary or a 'family business.'
This is called succession of the family business. The concept of the family business became established in the noble class from the tenth to the eleventh century, and a number of 'clans' were arose after the eleventh century. For example, the Sekkan-ke (the families which produced regents) (the Northern House of the Fujiwara clan) which worked for Sessho and Kanpaku as a family business, the Kanmu (literally official duty) family (the Ozuki clan) which worked for the Oversight Department of the Grand Council of State as a family business, the Kyokumu (literally bureau duty) clan (the Nakahara clan and the Kiyohara clan) which worked for the duties of Geki (upper secretariat) as a family business, and the Army clan (samurai families) which was in charge in exercising force. Such a system where a certain clan took charge in the administration of a specific bureau was called the government office contract system. Of these, 'the Emperor clan' topped the rest of these 'clans,' and referred to the position of emperor as a family business. After the late eleventh century, the predecessors of the Emperor clan took control of the Emperor clan as a Retired Emperor or a Cloistered Emperor, and were called Chiten no kimi (the retired emperor in power), and held the cloister government by seizing political power.

Samurai, that had risen in the mid Heian Period, were also a part of the Heian nobles. The Army clan which worked for military arts and force as a family business, developed into military nobles, and they established a gradual relation of master and servant with the local rich farmers when they transferred as a local official (Zuryo). The military nobles and rich local farmers developed into samurai like this, but they were none other than Heian nobles in essence.

In the late Heian Period, disputes over the succession of family business frequently occurred inside the 'clan,' and in the mid twelfth century, the disputes evolved into tangible forms of armed conflicts (the Hogen war). Later, TAIRA no Kiyomori from the military nobles established the Taira clan administration, and as a result of the civil war of Gisho-Juei (the Genpei war) which occurred during the course of overthrowing the Taira clan administration, a military administration (the Kamakura bakufu (Japanese feudal government headed by a shogun)) was established in the East, but the nobles continued to seize political power afterwards as well.
(See Noble administration)

Economic Base

The income source of the Heian nobles was not necessarily their shoen (manor in medieval Japan), but rather mainly in farmland and stipend given by the government depending on government post. This salary was huge, and for example, the head of the Northern House of the Fujiwara clan earned about 300 to 500 million yen by the government when converted to modern currency, which included Shikiden (a rice field provided for Dainagon and the higher rank), Iden (a rice field provided for yuhon-no-shinno or the fifth and higher rank officials), Shikifu (a fief to the Imperial families, higher-rank officers, and shrines and temples), Ifu (a fief to the third rank and higher vassals and princes), Shijin (lower-rank officers provided to the Imperial or noble families and used as a guard or miscellaneous services), and Kiroku (salary paid to the officers under the ritsuryo system).

A salary of tens of millions of yen was not limited to those in the upper class of nobles, middle and lower classes of nobles also received such amounts. It is thought that local Zuryo officials also earned a significant amount of money in terms of income. Under the dynastic nation-state, as long as Zuryo paid the specified tax to Kyoto, they could take the rest of the tax as their own income. However, the performance review of Zuryo was very severe, so it is thought that they were unable to impose taxes that were overly harsh. Still, it is said that they could accumulate great wealth once they worked as Zuryo, and quite a number of middle class nobles served the upper class nobles privately by providing them with a substantial financial contribution in order to keep the position of Zuryo. Service to the upper class nobles by the wealth is called Jogo (succeeding by service).

From the late eleventh to the twelfth century in the late Heian Period, shoen and chigyo-koku (provincial fiefdom) increased, and they could not be ignored as a source of income for Heian nobles. Shoen koryo sei (The System of Public Lands and Private Estates) mainly based on shoen, was established in this period, and after that until the sixteenth century, shoen continued to exist as a source of income for the nobles.

Royal Court Culture

Konin-Jogan culture around the reign of the Emperor Saga in the early Heian Period, was centered around the culture of the central nobles, which was deeply influenced by China (Tang). Later, Chinese elements in the noble culture faded, upon which a uniquely Japanese culture emerged. And in the mid Heian Period, Japanese noble culture called Kokufu bunka (Japanese style culture), bloomed.

The clothes the nobles wore were originally introduced from China, but changed to sokutai (traditional ceremonial court dress), Japan's unique formal wear. Also, Kana, which is a phonogram created by disrupting Kanji (Chinese characters), was established in this period. A number of court ladies from noble families worked for kokyu (empress's residence) of the Imperial court, and they were well educated and created many stories and a diary literature through the use of Kana.
(See Japanese medieval literary history)

The mansions of the upper class nobles were built in the architectural style called Shinden zukuri (architecture representative of a nobleman's residence with a huge main house). This is also a Japanese architectural style, which was developed uniquely in Japan separate from Chinese architectural style.

In terms of religion, various Buddhism sects were introduced from China, and the nobles worshipped them. In the early Heian Period, Shingon sect was introduced by Kukai, Tendai sect by Saicho, which greatly influenced the noble's belief in Buddhism. In the same period, the belief in the Pure Land (worship of Amitabha) was also introduced from China, and when Mappo-shiso (the "end of the world" belief) spread in the mid Heian Period, the belief in the Pure Land flourished among the nobles.