Lecture 20: Japan, 781 - 1473

In the last lecture I talked about Japan’s fundamental historical rhythms. Located on the margins of China’s world, Japan was insular, but not isolated. Thus, Japan borrowed heavily from the mainland when it saw fit, and stopped borrowing when it no longer appeared necessary. Two of the Japan’s great borrowings are important here. First, Buddhism, which came to Japan from China via Korea, became a powerful cultural and political force. Second, Chinese administrative methods, which were imported to Japan, aided in the creation of a powerful state. In both cases, however, Japan put these borrowings into a new context, changing them and reformulating them to meet the islands’ needs. We will want to keep these arrangements in mind as we pursue Japanese history into the fifteenth century.
As I noted at the end of the last lecture, Buddhism had become a political problem for the Japanese elite. As Buddhism become more important, it also became more political, and this trend culminated in 770 in the Monk Dokyo’s attempt to seize the throne. In 781, Emperor Kammu (781-806) ascended the throne, determined to eliminate the state’s weakness. Kammu and the three subsequent emperors pursued a broad program of reform. Kammu created a host of offices and ministries that gathered the power that had devolved to intermediaries over the years. (Typically for Japan, however, these new ministries did not replace the old ones, but simply went around them.) First, Kemmu created a new governing council the Sangi, which reported directly to him. Then came a new executive ministry the Kurodo-dokoro, which derived its power from its role as a central archive. Control of state papers is control of information. He also founded a new security ministry called the Kebishi-cho, which regained the police power that local strongmen had acquired. Kemmu also became militarily aggressive within Japan. Thanks to his general Sakanoue-no-Tamuramaro (758-811) the state asserted more control over neighboring regions. One of the most important military reforms came in 792, when the government replaced conscript armies with local militias. The armies had become unwieldy, since conscripts proved to be less than enthusiastic fighters.
Kammu’s two most important changes were, however, the founding of a new capital and the support of new Buddhist sects. These two themes are related. In 794, Kemmu moved Japan’s capital to Heian, which is today known as Kyoto, in order to get away from the monks in Nara. Thus, we enter the Heian period, which runs from 794 to 1185. Kemmu’s move was typically Japanese. Whereas the Chinese state responded harshly when it felt threatened by Buddhism, the Japanese state simply moved away from the perceived threat. In addition, Kemmu also forbade Buddhists from building their temples inside the city itself. All future monasteries would have to be built outside Heian. This leads us to Kammu’s relationship to Buddhism. Kammu patronized new Buddhist sects whose mission was expressly non-political. He encouraged these sects to build monasteries outside Heian, which he expected would break Nara’s grip on Buddhism in Japan. This worked, in the end, as Buddhism became less political over time in Japan.
Even with Kammu’s rise, however, we already see the outlines of the Empire’s next problem. During the late eighth century Japan’s emperors stopped ruling and yielded executive authority to powerful royal families. These aristocratic families assumed more power, because they had gained control over Japan’s agricultural lands, and eventually they all but ruled without reference to the emperor. As a result, centralized control gave way to local patrimonial arrangements. These arrangements were called shoen, which was basically a fief, and they gave local leaders control over almost everything, including agricultural management and law enforcement. This had enormous implications for the future. Whereas the civil aristocracy continued to live in the capital city, local strongmen in the countryside cultivated independent sources of revenue and lived a military lifestyle. Thus, a rural/urban break emerged in Japan, as the military aristocracy diverged radically different from the court.
The emperor’s decline became clear with the rise of the Fujiwara clan. The Fujiwara had been loyal to the emperor, even leading the defense against Dokyo’s uprising. During the ninth century, however, factionalization within the court allowed the Fujiwara to seize political control. The rise of the Fujiwara became clear during the life of the clan leader Yoshifusa (804-872). In 857, he was named Great Chancellor, using that position of authority to put his own grandson Seiwa on the throne. Seiwa was a minor, however, and Yoshifusa put himself in charge as regent, taking the title Sessho, which described a regent for a minor. Putting Seiwa on the throne led to three momentous changes. First, this was the first time that a minor had become emperor. Second, it was also the first time that someone other than a royal prince was named regent. Third, it was also the first time that the regency proved to be a permanent office. In 884, Mototsune (836-891), who was Yoshifusa’s successor, became regent for Emperor Koko (884-887). Mototsume took the title Kampaku, which soon became the name for a regent for an emperor of legal age. From this point on, the Fujiwara clan always had the title Sessho-Kampaku and had the right to marry their daughters to the emperor.
The Fujiwara became increasingly despotic during the next century, and opposition to them appeared in the royal court, which they successfully opposed. The height of Fujiwara power came with Michinaga (966-1027), who ruled the court for thirty years. Four emperors were his sons-in-law, and three more were his grandchildren. After his death, however, the Fujiwara lost control, and the next generation could not prevent Emperor Go-Sanjo, who did not have a Fujiwara mother, from ascending the throne. The Fujiwara were eliminated as a power in the twelfth century by the Taira family. I will have more to say about them in a moment.
The Fujiwara’s rise and fall was due to changes in Japan’s social and economic structures. As power decentralized during the ninth century the clan system that had been destroyed by the rise of Nara began to reassert itself. Thus, the Taiko laws that we discussed last time were superseded. In particular the state was no longer an independent entity along Chinese lines; it was now seen as composed of nobles. This represents an important cultural shift, for Japan now made its definitive turn away from China. This is evidenced by the emperors’ putting a sudden halt to sending missions there, since they no longer felt the need to offer tribute. It was families and clans that, in effect, became state institutions, as they controlled large territories and managed them independently of the state. This was a big change from the original Yamato reforms, you will recall, that had banned all private property. The central force behind this change was the state’s desire to bring more land under cultivation. In 743, the emperor Shomu allowed families that developed lands to keep them permanently. Slowly, new privileges were added, as noble landowners were exempted from taxes, then from the civil and criminal laws. Finally, state officials were completely banned from entering the nobility’s land. By the 13th century, this trend had gone so far that Japan was divided into about 5,000 separate estates that existed independently of the central government.
With the appearance of these new social and economic relationships another hierarchy emerged in Japan. Most nobles lived away from their land at court and hired a protector (honke) who ran the estate. This system devolved into a system of personal relationships, for the protector then took other people under his protection. At the top of this systems were the landowners, who had their agricultural surplus sent to the court, where they lived in style. This arrangement changed both the warrior elite and the Japanese court. First, Heian court culture became much less Chinese. The court’s architectural style developed in new directions, as the Japanese began to emphasize the integration of structures into the natural surroundings. Second, a new form of art developed that is now called the Yamato style, which emphasized depicting local scenes and great historical moments. Japanese literature went its own way as well, as a Japanese script appeared that became the medium for a domestic literature. Finally, it highlights a problem that that would plague Japan for centuries, namely how to integrate a warrior aristocracy into the cultivated courtly world.
These trends reach their fullest extent by the twelfth century’s end. At this point, the court had lost all independence from the countryside, and the warrior aristocracy controlled the country’s resources. Thus, we begin to see the appearance of the Bushi, the warrior aristocrat. The Bushi were now feudal lords, with the entire social network beneath them tied to personal feudal relationships. More importantly, these Bushi rose in importance above the traditional noble families, and this shift is fundamental to Japan’s history over the next 700 years. In fact, historians divided this period into three ages that are based on the Bushi’s role in society. The first period is the Kamakura (1185-1333), in which a rough balance existed between the court and the new Bushi. The second is the Muromachi (1338-1573), during which the Bushi took over all of Japan. The last is the Tokugawa (1603-1867), in which Japan moved away from the Bushi’s feudal dominance.
Let us consider how this long-term process worked. During the ninth century the central government yielded power to provincial governors. Early in the 10th century, as the Bushi rose, these governors yielded power further down the system. The first sign of the Bushi’s rising power came in AD 939, when a local strongman named Taira-no-Maskado had the local governor Taira-no-Kunika, a relative, killed and took over his province. Taira was also killed later, but other strongmen soon appeared. Another example is Fujiwara-no-Sumitomo, who was sent by the powers in Heian to stop piracy on Japan’s western coast. Once away from Japan’s power center he promptly became a pirate himself and had to be put down by another of Japan’s rising families the Minamoto.
By the mid-12th century the new social and economic system’s maturation was apparent, as the Taira and Minamoto became the most powerful clans in Japan. Each clan built its own system of alliances, which meant that conflict was unavoidable. In 1156, a fight between the reigning emperor Go-Shirakawa and the previous emperor Sutoku invited intervention by the Taira and Minamoto. The Taira clan’s leader Taira-no-Kiyomori (1118-1181) took the emperor’s side, and his counterpart Minamoto-no-Tameyoshi sided with the old emperor. By 1160 the Taira had won this battle, and Kiyomori rose rapidly within the royal court, becoming the first rural noble to enter this world successfully. He became the great chancellor, of course, and in the usual manner, put his grandson put on the throne in 1180. With Kiyomori’s rise Japan’s power center moved to Kiyomori’s palace in Heian. Their rule was, however, dictatorial and opposition arose, which allowed the Minamoto clan to rise again. During the so-called Gempei War (1180-85), the Minamoto defeated the Taira, though this only inaugurated a new tyranny, as the Minamoto then founded perhaps the most famous institution in Japanese history the Shogunate.
In 1192, after winning a final series of victories, Minamoto-no-Yoritomo was given the title of Shogun, that is, protector of the emperor. In essence, Yoritomo now took possession of the emperor, protecting him by ruling in his name. Yoritomo put his headquarters in Kamakura, creating yet another power center. Indeed, for a few centuries after Yoritomo’s victory, Kamakura and Heian were of equal importance. During the thirteenth century, however, Kamakura became supreme. Now all local officials were appointed by the Shogun, making Japan’s shift to clan-based political control complete. Yoritomo died in 1198, leaving behind two incapable sons. His widow Hojo-no-Masako (1157-1225) seized power and filled key court positions with her relatives. The Hojo family ruled the Kamakura Shogunate until it ended in 1333. There was, however, no great shift from the one family to the next. Power remained among the clans, and for a time this actually worked well, as the countryside remained calm and productive.
The relative strength of this new system became apparent by the end of the thirteenth century. In 1274 and 1281, Kubilai Khan the Mongol leader in China sent invasion fleets against the Japanese islands. Each time, the Japanese repulsed the invasion, with a significant assist from typically foul weather. Kubilai Khan died in 1294, but the Japanese remained on military alert until 1312. This period of conflict had three important effects. First, the Japanese came to see their independence in divine, even arrogant, terms. They were now a chosen people, after having fought off the greatest army in the history of the world. Second, the Bushi were now able to surround themselves with a myth of superiority, and their values of honor and duty became fundamental to the Japanese worldview. Finally, the costs of the defense against the Mongols brought more changes in Japan’s social structures, as I will discuss in a moment.
The Kamakura Shogunate strengthened Japan and managed its resources well. Problems began to appear, however, by the middle of the fourteenth century. The court once again broke up into factional fighting over the imperial succession. In 1259, the court broke with long-standing tradition and a younger son of the imperial line was chosen emperor. Now the court split into two parts, with one part supporting the older prince and the other part behind the younger one. The fight was finally resolved in 1290, as both sides to agree to an alternating succession. While this occurred, however, problems appeared in the countryside. The cost of fighting the Mongols and the increasing splintering of noble land ownership made room for the rise of local strongmen again. As nobles felt they could no longer do their duties to the Shogunate, they sought protection from another, stronger noble, and this led to the Shogunate’s fall. In 1331, there was brief restoration of the old empire under the emperor Go-Daigo (1318-1339). Go-Daigo asserted imperial control by making his son Shogun, and by marginalizing the warrior aristocracy at court. This was not a good strategy, as Ashikaga Takauji, a Bushi was irked by the mistreatment and rose up against the emperor. In 1336, he took Heian. By 1338, he was Shogun. The resulting civil war did not finally end until 1392. What is important, however, about this new Shogunate is that it moved back to Heian. Now the military aristocracy took over every last vestige of the imperial tradition, with the emperor merely being a collection of symbols. Still, this Shogunate was unstable. By the reign of the 8th Shogun Yoshimasa (1443-1473), even the Shogunate no longer projected power into the countryside, and this weakness led to the rise of the Daimyo, or local king, who controlled every aspect of life within his little realm. Power fragmented once again in Japan, just in time for the Europeans to arrive. When the Portuguese first landed in Japan, they found a politically fractured society, in which it was never clear who had control. This weakness would be addressed later, when the Shogunate made another comeback after 1603, but we cannot trace that story here.

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