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The Fujiwara: 9th - 11th century

The most significant development in the early centuries at Kyoto is the rise to power of the Fujiwara family. An ancestor has been prominent in the ending of the line of Soga regents in 645. Now, two centuries later, his descendants acquire the same powerful role at court. In 877 they create for themselves a new office called kampaku, usually translated as 'chancellor'.

In this role they exercise hereditary power by a simple device. They reserve for their family the right to provide brides for the imperial house. For two centuries almost every emperor is either son-in-law or grandson of a Fujiwara chancellor.

A skilful manipulator of this system is Fujiwara Michinaga, who controls the court for more than thirty years (995-1027). During that time he is father-in-law to four emperors and grandfather to another four.

In normal circumstances this would imply a high rate of mortality among males of the imperial family. But it has no such implication, because the Fujiwara have introduced another useful custom. Emperors are encouraged to retire early, to a life of ease in a monastery. Since their imperial duties mainly consist of wearisome ritual, most are happy to do so. The chancellors are free to select a succession of royal youths, susceptible to control by Fujiwara mothers or wives.

The success of the Fujiwara clan in maintaining this system depends partly on the brilliance of the court life over which they preside in Kyoto. Nobles are enticed into the role of courtiers, preferring to live in the capital on funds drawn from their distant estates.

High society in Kyoto is sophisticated, elegant and more concerned with standards of taste than of sexual morality. The court life of the time is brilliantly depicted in two of the greatest works of Japanese literature, both written by women.

The Japanese classics: 10th - 11th century

The Heian period, with the Japanese capital at Kyoto, is distinguished by literature as elegant and subtle as the style of the court itself. As in China, poetry is here considered an essential element of civilized life. The competitive writing of verses is a social pastime. A good poet can expect preferment at court. Messages from a lover to his mistress are welcome in poetic form, preferably attached to an arrangement of flowers.

In905 the emperor commissions an anthology of poems, in the tradition of the Manyoshu of earlier times. The new collection, the Kokinshu, consists almost entirely of short tanka. It is more artificial than its predecessor - and more restricting in its subsequent influence.

The greatest glory of this classical period is works in prose, many of them by women. One important strand is the journals of court life. The earliest to survive, written in 974-7 by a noblewoman, is Kagero nikki (translated into English with the title 'The Gossamer Years'). But by far the best known is the Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon.

Sei Shonagon serves as a lady-in-waiting to the empress during the 990s. Her delightful text is more like a commonplace book than a journal. It consists of unlinked passages recording her impressions and thoughts. Many are vivid tone poems, conveying the visual impact of a scene with a Brightness and clarity which seems to prefigure the Japanese colour print.

The most distinguished writer of the Heian period, and indeed in the whole of Japanese literature, is another lady of the court. Known only by her pseudonym, Murasaki Shikubi, she is widowed in 1001 and is in the retinue of the empress from 1005. Her name would live in literature if she had written nothing other than the diary which she keeps of court life in the years from 1007 to 1010. But she also writes the extremely ambitious Genji monogatori ('The Tale of Genji').

This chronicle of court life, focussing with rich characterisation and psychological subtlety on the various women loved by Prince Genji, has a good claim to be considered the world's first novel.

Warring clans: 10th - 12th century

One of the main imports from China has been the concept of centralized rule, administered by a Confucian bureaucracy. It is a system well suited to the plains of northern China, where large public projects (such as flood control) require a strong regime to put them into effect.

It is less appropriate in the rugged landscape and isolated valleys of Japan (similar in this respect to Greece), where the pattern is more likely to be one of strong local loyalties and endemic warfare. By the 10th century the glittering court at Kyoto is losing control of much of Japan to bands of marauding warriors.

Gradually local chieftains ally themselves with the leaders of one or other of two great clans, both claiming descent from past emperors. They are the Taira and the Minamoto. By the mid-12th century there is full-scale war between the two groups.

The first outright victory goes to the Taira, in 1160. Their leader, Kyomori, inserts himself into the power structure at Kyoto in the time-honoured fashion. He marries Taira daughters into both the imperial and the Fujiwara families, adding a new tier to the system of government perfected by the Fujiwara. But his power is short-lived.

In 1184 and 1185 the Minamoto defeat the Taira in great battles on land and sea. These victories become famous set pieces in Japanese heroic tales.

This triumph brings to power Yoritomo, a canny and unromantic member of the Minamoto clan whose relationship with his younger half-brother, Yoshitsune, is also a favourite theme of popular literature. Yoritomo, by nature a strategist, leaves the fighting and the spectacular victories to his brother. Later, in jealous self-interest, he attempts to capture him. Yoshitsune commits suicide in northern Japan when he finds himself cornered by Yoritomo's men. Yoshitune is the romantic lead in this story. But Yoritomo is the figure of significance in Japanese history.

Yoritomo and Kamakura: from1185

Yoritomo conducts his campaign against the Taira clan from a seaside base at Kamakura, south of modern Tokyo. With his victory in 1185 this becomes the headquarters of a military regime exercising the real power in the country, while the emperor remains in his palace in Kyoto. Yoritomo calls Kamakura his bakufu (meaning 'military headquarters'). This becomes the term for a form of government which will prevail in Japan for almost 700 years.

The position is formalized in 1192 when the emperor gives Yoritomo the ancient high military title sei-i-tai-shogun. He is the first in the long succession of powerful shoguns.

Shoguns and samurai: 11th - 19th century

The military rule of the shoguns, a central thread of Japanese history, is made possible by a new warrior class known as the samurai. They emerge during the clan warfare of the 11th and 12th centuries, establishing themselves as the local aristocracy of small independent territories.

In a pattern similar to contemporary feudalism in Europe, the samurai enhance their status by serving more powerful regional lords. The result, once warfare has given way to peace, is a pyramid of loyalty leading up to the military overlord of Japan, the shogun himself.

With oriental thoroughness, the code of honour of the samurai becomes a more absolute commitment of loyalty and discipline than is practised by any feudal warrior in Europe. It is formalized as bushido, an ideal of behaviour similar in some ways to Confucianism (in its obligations of respect and decorum) but with an added emphasis on the martial virtues of courage and physical skill.

The ultimate safeguard of samurai honour is the ritual suicide known in Japan as sepukku, but usually called Hara-kiri in the west.

New sects of Buddhism in Japan: 12th - 13th century

One of Japan's most famous monuments is a vast bronze sculpture at Kamakura. Known as Daibutsu, and cast in 1252, it depicts Buddha. But this figure seated in peaceful meditation is not the historical Gautama Buddha. He is Amitabha Buddha, known and revered in Japan as Amida.

The cult of Amida, also called 'Pure Land' Buddhism, is one of several new sects in Japan, mostly arriving from China, which become naturalized during the Kamakura shogunate. It is based on a sutra in which Amida, who has achieved enlightenment as Buddha, assures all those who adore him that they can live with him for ever in a pure land - a Promise made in the Sukhavativyuha Sutra.

Another foreign sect of Buddhism, which the Japanese make very much their own, is known in China as Chan and in Japan as Zen (both derive from a Sanskrit word meaning 'meditation'). Zen, reaching Japan from China in the 12th century, lays great emphasis on intuition, or finding the truth within oneself, but it also stresses the importance of discipline.

It appeals to the new samurai class (several Zen masters teach sword fighting), and at periods during the shogunate it becomes almost the state religion. Zen masters encourage some of the most distinctive cultural aspects of Japanese life, including the Tea Ceremony (closely linked with the tradition of Japanese ceramics).

The most aggressive of the Buddhist sects is the only one to have its roots entirely in Japan. It follows the teaching of Nichiren, a fiery prophet who spends much of his life in exile for his criticism of the shoguns in Kamakura. They favour the rivals on whom he pours scorn, the devotees of Pure Land and Zen Buddhism.

Like Old Testament prophets, Nichiren foresees disaster befalling his misguided compatriots. The Mongol invasion of 1274 is seen by many as the fulfilment of his prophecies. His passion inspires a sect which still has a considerable following in 20th-century Japan.

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