The Regency (摂関政治)

The regency is a form of government during the Heian period where actual power was long monopolized by a deputy or adviser to the emperor from Yoshifusa's line in the Fujiwara family (the Northern House of the Fujiwara clan), who was installed as a regent, a chancellor or a nairan (private inspection) from generation to generation.

History of the preceding period

It was FUJIWARA no Fuyutsugu who first created the basis for the regency. Fuyutsugu was installed as Kurodo no to (Head Chamberlain, the chief of the newly-founded Kurodo dokoro (Chamberlain's Office)) in 810, which was the head secretary to the Emperor (or the Chief Cabinet Secretary), and compiled and presented a considerable group of laws and regulations, the Konin kyaku-shiki. This achievement became a foothold for the rise of the Northern House of the Fujiwara clan in the following generation.

The beginning of the regency's existence

FUJIWARA no Yoshifusa, the son of Fuyutsugu, took office as prime minister in 857 and became regent in 866, both of these firsts for an imperial subject. Yoshifusa had two major political techniques. First, reducing other powerful court nobles' resistance to the Northern House of the Fujiwara clan by undermining them politically (expulsion of other clans from the Imperial Court). Second, he married his daughters into the emperor's family, had them bear children, and then seized power as the maternal grandfather of emperors.

As an example of the first method of ejecting other clans, he brought about the downfall of the Otomo and the Tachibana clans, along with the Ceremonial House of the Fujiwara clan, in the Jowa Incident of 842, and then the Tomo and Ki clans in the Otenmon Incident of 866.

As an example of the second method, he married his daughter to Emperor Montoku, and as a result Emperor Seiwa was born, and he built a solid political foundation as the emperor's maternal grandfather.

This method of marrying a daughter to Emperor became a tradition of the Northern House of the Fujiwara clan and also the source of their status as the emperor's deputies and advisors.


Soon after Yoshifusa's death, his adopted son FUJIWARA no Mototsune was installed as regent, and when the aged Emperor Koko hastily ascended the throne in 884, he was installed as chancellor in all but name. He had been exercising authority as a regent on behalf of a child emperor, but now at last attained the position of chancellor, an advisor to an adult emperor (a de facto authorized deputy). In addition, in the process of obtaining the official post of chancellor, an incident called the Ako Controversy occurred, and Mototsune succeeded in getting an apology from an emperor.

In the time of Mototsune's son FUJIWARA no Tokihira, SUGAWARA no Michizane came to the forefront as his rival, but in 901, Tokihira caused Michizane to be demoted (the Shotai Incident). Although Tokihira was a remarkably competent politician and displayed impressive skills, he died before he was appointed as a regent or a chancellor.

Tokihira's brothers FUJIWARA no Tadahira and FUJIWARA no Morosuke were installed as regent and chancellor, however, Emperor Murakami directly administrated the Imperial Court after Tadahira's death (the glorious reign of Tenryaku) and the posts of regent and chancellor became vacant.

However, FUJIWARA no Saneyori became chancellor due to the death of Emperor Murakami, and after that the posts of regent and chancellor were maintained continuously until the Meiji Restoration (except some periods such as the Kenmu Restoration by Emperor Godaigo, etc.).

The golden age

After the exclusion of other clans from the Imperial Court was completed by MINAMOTO no Takaakira's expulsion in the Anna Incident and MINAMOTO no Kaneakira's returning to the Imperial family following the incident, a struggle for power was played out within the Northern House of the Fujiwara clan. After the Anna Incident, FUJIWARA no Kanemichi and his brother FUJIWARA no Kaneie, the sons of FUJIWARA no Morosuke, a maternal relative of both Emperors Reizei and Enyu, competed for the posts of regent and chancellor, and each tried to prevent the other's promotion.

Kanemichi, coming from the post of acting major counsellor, became the next chancellor, by being appointed as chancellor after becoming a Private Inspector, then Great Minister of the Center. To award Kanemichi the qualifications as minister to be installed as chancellor, the post of Great Minister of the Center was used for the first time in 72 years.
(As the previous appointment was out of respect for FUJIWARA no Takafuji, the Dainagon (chief councilor of state) and maternal grandfather of the emperor who was in critical condition, it was in fact the first time in 191 years since FUJIWARA no Uona at the end of Nara period.)
However, MINAMOTO no Kaneakira, the minister of the left, and FUJIWARA no Yoritada, the minister of the right (later a chancellor), has ranks higher than Kanemichi, and Kaneakira secured the real power of the Great Council of State as ichinokami (the ranking Council Member). So Kanemichi took the post of prime minister, made MINAMOTO no Kaneakira return to the emperor's family and made the minister of the left resign by issuing an imperial edict, and appointed Yoritada as ichinokami. Kanemichi promoted his sons to court nobles and attempted to make their positions hereditary, but failed due to his death from an illness soon after appointing them as court nobles.

Kaneie, who had lived in obscurity due to Kanemichi for a long time, took the post of regent as the maternal grandfather of Emperor Ichijo. Although Kaneie was minister of the right, prime minister FUJIWARA no Yoritada (the former chancellor) and MINAMOTO no Masanobu, minister of the left, were superior to him in rank, and Masanobu served as ichinokami. As Kaneie could not find any pretext to remove Yoritada or Masanobu, he himself resigned his post as minister of the right and was treated as jusangu in exchange for it, then took a higher rank than any other officer as chancellor, after taking the post of regent, even though he was an ex-minister. After this, the rank of regent and chancellor in the Imperial Court was regarded as higher than that of prime minister. Also, he promoted his four sons and brothers-in-law to court nobles, appointed his heir FUJIWARA no Michitaka to Great Minister of the Center and died immediately after he resigned the post of chancellor in favor of him.

It was FUJIWARA no Michinaga, the fifth son of Kaneie who won a chain of disputes within the clan, and created the golden age of the regency. In 995, Michinaga won the struggle for power with his nephew FUJIWARA no Korechika (Michitaka's heir) and took the post of Private Inspector.

Michinaga's son, FUJIWARA no Yorimichi, was in the positions of regent and chancellor for approximately 50 years. However, his daughter, who was married into the emperor's family, failed to give birth to a boy who would have become an emperor.

The decline

In 1068, Emperor Gosanjo acceded to the throne through the trend of integrating the emperor's successors in the dynasty. Emperor Gosanjo was an emperor whose grandfather, for the first time in approximately 170 years, was not from the Northern House of the Fujiwara clan, and his supporters were FUJIWARA no Yoshinobu (Yorimichi's brother by a different mother) and others who were excluded from being eligible for the posts of regent or chancellor even though they were from the same regent's house. Emperor Gosanjo came out with one policy after another intended to revive the emperor's prestige and the ritsuryo system (a legal system introduced from the Tang dynasty in China), and the following Emperor Shirakawa also continued these policies. In the regent's house, however, Yorimichi and FUJIWARA no Norimichi (Yorimichi's brother by the same mother), who took over the post of chancellor after him, were in conflict during this period and they were not in any condition to take any concrete measures against the emperor.

Although Emperor Shirakawa became the Retired Emperor in 1086, it was not a retirement, but rather the start of government by the retired emperor, the so-called cloistered government. As a retired emperor he was able to use power equal to an emperor under the provisions of the ritsuryo system, and had the advantage of being the real father of an emperor, so political power shifted from the regents and chancellors to the retired emperors. Furthermore, after the death of FUJIWARA no Moromichi (the grandson of Yorimichi), there occurred a coincidental struggle for the successor in the regent's house, and it was eventually settled by the Cloistered Emperor Shirakawa's intervention. Because of this, after that it became impossible to ignore the wishes of the Retired Emperor (Cloistered Emperor) when appointing someone as regent or chancellor. These circumstances inside the regent's house itself spurred the decline of the regency.

The regency in the traditional sense definitively came to an end due to cloistered government. The regency in the traditional sense is an administration monopolized by emperors and court nobles related on the maternal side, with the key person in the maternal line taking the posts of regent and chancellor. However, the social structure of the aristocracy became fixed with the appearance of cloistered government. In the traditional sense of the regency, only an infant emperor's maternal grandfather and his relatives had the right to take the post of regent, and then the post of chancellor or court noble, but after the cloistered government was formed, it was officially recognized that the posts of regent and chancellor were to be passed down from generation to generation only within Yorimichi's line in the Northern House of the Fujiwara clan.
Ironically, it was the cloistered government that ended the regency that produced the concept of the 'regent's house.'
And therefore the real regency should be regarded as having already come to its end in the reigns of Emperor Gosanjo and Shirakawa.

The End

Later, the regency seems to have disappeared due to military rule, although warriors took advantage of the regent's house as a foundation of power because the posts of regent and chancellor still remained. The most conspicuous example was probably Hideyoshi TOYOTOMI's taking the post of chancellor. Hideyoshi took advantage of his status as chancellor as much as possible, and in a sense, he might be said to have revived the regency. However, Hideyoshi's power did not derive from the status of chancellor but rather his own political influence, and also because he tried to rank the regency as the 'the leading warrior' in place of the seii taishogun (literally, "great general who subdues the barbarians"), it did not take the same line as a restoration of the old regency. In the Edo period, the power of the regent's house was restored with the help of the Edo bakufu (Japanese feudal government headed by a shogun), but it was only a nominal one, and not given any real power. On the other hand, due to the bakufu's intervention, the regency was in fact negated because the representatives of the regent's house at the time were required to use a 'council system' when making decisions. Still, regents and chancellor were treated particularly well in the bakufu, and there were even chancellors, such as Motohiro KONOE, who had a certain amount of influence in the bakufu.

In the Meiji period the posts of regent and chancellor were abandoned, and at the same time, the regency completely disappeared. At present, only the position of the regent still exists, and the Imperial Household Law provides that the post is only for members of the Imperial family, such as the Crown Prince, and is used to conduct the Emperor's official duties in his place.

The background and value of the regency

In the ritsuryo system, the method of policy decision was that the emperor sanctioned political and personnel proposals reported by the great council of state. In other words, in the ritsuryo system it was stipulated that power be concentrated in the hands of the emperor, but with the appearance of the regent and chancellor, the emperor's deputy and adviser, the regent's house began to take over the emperor's right to exercise sovereignty.

In the period from the late ninth century to the beginning of the tenth century, when the regency became established, there were no particular threats either at home or abroad because the country took an isolationist policy toward foreign countries, and domestically, the subjugation of the Emishi (Japanese northerners) was almost completed, and the administration had entered a period of stability. From this reason, performing court events and ceremonies according to precedent or personnel decisions were given a greater importance in politics rather than actively carrying out policies. Also, military power started to be decentralized, such events such as the regent's house taking the militarily powerful Seiwa-Genji (Minamoto clan) into its service, while the official military force grew weaker.

The appearance of the regency might also be explainable in this historical context. That is, the more stable the administration became, the more routine managing the government became, and that made it possible to devolve the emperor's power to exercise sovereignty to his subjects. In these circumstances, it was the Northern House of the Fujiwara clan that swam with the tide, succeeded in being handed over the power to exercise sovereignty, and ended up not only monopolizing privileges but also maintaining its own military force.

Because the regent's house took the power to exercise sovereignty, the other family lines became unable to get ahead and survived as nobles by being in charge of a particular field of work.

However, the same thing can said about the cloistered government that replaced the regency.
Since the early days of government based on the ritsuryo legal codes, when cloistered government had not yet been formed, the retired emperor had taken the role of the emperor's protector and guardian upon himself as 'the patriarch of the emperor's family.'
One can say that in the regency, that function moved from the paternal line to the maternal line, and then moved back to the paternal line again in the cloistered government
(It was far from a coincidence that the death of the Retired Emperor Saga, who had patriarchal authority, was the start of FUJIWARA no Yoshifusa's taking over power, and that the regency stagnated for a while in the reign of Emperor Daigo, when the Cloistered Emperor Uda was supporting him as a patriarch, and also that the Retired Emperor Shirakawa, in a revival of the patriarchal retired emperor that had disappeared for a long time, started cloistered government in place of the regency.)

Also, backed by the country's stable administration, the decentralization of power became obvious, and there were examples such as someone who had received an official announcement of appointment as a local authority transferring that power so they could exercise sovereignty in the region to an influential local person. Some time later this movement resulted in the establishment of the Kamakura shogunate and military rule.