At the very end of the eighth century, Emperor Kammu and the Japanese Court moved to a new site — Heiankyo (‘Capital of Peace and Tranquility,’ present-day Kyoto). The power and influence of Emperor Kammu, one of the few powerful emperors in the entire history of Japan, did not last much beyond his reign. Just as the Soga Clan had dominated the ancient Japanese Court, so too the Fujiwara Clan came to dominate the Heian Court. The foresight and open-minded nature of Emperor Kammu’s leadership gave way to an effete, cosmopolitan culture which increasingly neglected the provinces. The era of Heian was the era of mono no aware — the aesthetic of the pathos of things, a delightful melancholy associated with those things that are transient and passing in life. Lady Murasaki’s book The Tale of Genji (c.1010) evokes this aesthetic on nearly every page. The book tells the story of the life of Prince Genji as well as the following generation — the emphasis here is that the age of Genji was a golden age and that those who come after, as great as they are, still do not reach to the exalted heights of the time of Prince Genji. The closest person in real life to the fictional Genji was Fujiwara no Michinaga (966–1028). Lady Murasaki, whether she knew it or not, seemed to channel the spirit of her time in her magnum opus — she was living at the cultural apex of Classical Japanese civilization. The world in which she lived, the world of the Heian Court, was one which was already in decline for decades by the turn of the second millennium. The twelfth century would see the decline and fall of the Heian period amidst warfare, natural disaster, court intrigue, the rise of the samurai, and an increase in the power of the voices in the provinces. Effete cosmopolitan elites would loose their preeminence as a more pragmatic and effective system was developed to provide for a greater number of people on the Japanese archipelago.
I believe it was April 28th of the third year of Angen (1177). There was a strong wind blowing at the hour of the dog (8 o’clock in the evening) to spread a fire which broke out in the southeast part of the capital to the northwest. In that one night the Red Sparrow Gate, the Palace Council Hall, school dormitories, the Public Housing Ministry, and many other buildings were burned to the ground, reduced to ashes.
I heard that the fire broke out in Higuchitominokoji, in a shack where a dancer lived. Then, spread by the wind, it touched place after place, until finally it reached everywhere, like the unfolding of a fan. Houses far off became engulfed in smoke as those near the center were caught up in swirling flames. The brightness of the fire was reflected against the solid cloud of ashes blown up in the night sky, a deep red at the center, which, as the wind had flames leaping 100 to 200 yards, kept shifting. People caught in the middle gave up all hope. Some died as they were completely overcome by the smoke, others as they became dizzy in the eye of the flame. Still others, who barely escaped with their lives, lost everything they owned. Some of the great treasures in the Palace were also reduced to ashes. How great was the damage? Sixteen buildings in the Imperial Court were burned, but it is impossible to calculate the total loss. Perhaps a third of the capital city was destroyed by this fire. Scores of men and women were killed, and who knows how many horses and cattle?”
-Kamo no Chomei (c.1155–1216), from ‘Hojoki’ (‘An Account of My Hut’)
If we begin at the end, we have a witness who recorded various natural disasters which befell the people living in and around Kyoto in the late-twelfth century. Kamo no Chomei was a poet and recluse, a man who had left the Imperial Court to go live in the nearby mountains in a ten-foot-square hut with few possessions. He was the original minimalist and a pioneer in what, today, we could call the Tiny House movement. His motivations, however, we spiritual. He did managed to give particularly vivid accounts of the end of the Heian period, the natural disasters anyway. What he did not record, however, was the warfare going on at the same time. The Taira and Minamoto Clans — both proto-samurai families whose ancestors went out into the provinces for opportunity — vied for power over Japan. The Fujiwaras had been dislodged from power a century earlier and the retired emperors who ruled indirectly were increasingly dependent on these provincial warriors to maintain power. The struggle between Taira and Minamoto erupted into what became known as the Genpei War (1180–1185) — a series of battles which would change the course of Japanese history and establish precedents which would last until the Meiji Restoration of 1868.
Religiously, things were changing as well. Before the medieval period (1185–1603), Buddhism had largely been limited to the world of the Japanese aristocracy. Shinto remained far more widespread. The melding of Buddhism and Shinto, and the spread of Buddhism to large groups of people throughout the country began to develop with the fall of the Heian aristocracy. Vivid imagery of hell and spirits came to dominate art. Hell scrolls and scrolls depicting hungry ghosts — the spirits of greedy people condemned to eat human corpses in the afterlife — became popular.
Kamo no Chomei wrote his Hojoki in 1212, decades after the events he describes. He was a witness to the Heian-Kamakura transition, though there is no evidence that he witnessed much of the conflict between the Minamoto and Taira Clans in the 1180s.
“In the reign of Emperor Yowa [Anoku] (1181), I believe, though it becomes so long ago I have trouble remembering, there was a terrible famine, lasting for two years. From spring through summer there was a drought, and in autumn and winter typhoon and flood — bad conditions one after another, so that grain crops failed completely. Everything people did became wasted effort. Though they prepared the ground in the spring, and transplanted the rice in the summer, the fall’s rice harvest and winter’s prosperity were not achieved…After a year of such suffering, people hoped the new year would be better, but the misery increased as, in addition to the famine, people were afflicted by contagious disease. Everyone suffered from malnutrition, until gradually to say that “All the fish will choke in shallow water” would fit very well. Now even those wearing bamboo hats, with legs wrapped in leggings, walked frantically from house to house begging. I saw vagabonds of this kind, as they were walking, suddenly collapse and die. Close to the roofed mud wall at the side of the road, the number of bodies dead from starvation continually increased. Because no one even tried to clear away those corpses, the odor of the putrefaction became offensive throughout Heian-kyo, and people could not even stand to look at them. The city was permeated by the smell, and the mountain of corpses accumulated along the Kamo river bed until there were places where horses and carriages could not pass.”
-Kamo no Chomei, from ‘Hojoki’
In any event, his observations about the natural disasters which befell the people in the Kyoto area in the late-1100s serve as an important introduction into a dynamic period in Japanese history, indeed one of the most important transformations. Before the transformations associated with the Heian-Kamakura transition, Japanese culture was in its infancy. It was heavily influenced by China. Selective borrowing yes, but still in the shadow of China for the most part. The Japanese looked to China even after the decline of Tang China — the contemporary China was no longer than appealing but the culture of preceding decades and centuries still held great cultural capital. Japanese culture began to deviate in two specific ways: the simplification of architecture (as opposed to the ultra-elaborate Chinese styles) and the development of vernacular literature (largely dominated by women).
The court nobles lost control of the country. Throughout the eleventh and twelfth centuries, a system of cloistered rule developed — an emperor would abdicate, become a monk, and rule indirectly through child emperors. This system was more or less maintained from the time of the displacement of the Fujiwara through the beginning of the Kamakura period (1185–1333). By the mid-12th century, the Taira (also known as Heike) Clan insinuated itself at the very heart of Japanese government. They ruled from Kyoto, marrying into the elite and trying to dominate the government. This caused considerable irritation at court. Go-Shirakawa (rule: 1155–1158, cloistered rule: 1158–1192) sought to dislodge the Taira from Kyoto and sought the help of the Minamoto. The Minamoto Clan had been defeated by the Taira in 1160 and their leaders banished.
By 1180, the Taira leader Kiyomori put his own grandson on the throne — Emperor Antoku, a two-year old. This sparked the beginning of what became known as the Genpei War. The details of the Genpei War are far too numerous to adequately cover in this short article, so a brief account will have to do. The significance of the Genpei War is that it set the stage for the Minamoto-Hojo government which followed to establish the first shogunate in Japanese history. Provincial warriors moved from being peripheral to central. The Japanese emperors largely remained little more than high priests of Shinto (as they had been throughout most of Japanese history, with only a few exceptions).
The naval Battle of Dan-no-ura, which occurred in the Strait of Shimonoseki, ranks as one of the most famous and most tragic battles in Japanese history. It was also one of the most decisive. The Minamoto victory here effectively ended the war. Most of the Taira leaders jumped overboard to watery graves. The now seven-year old Emperor Antoku, in his grandmother’s arms, followed. His grandmother, a nun, supposedly said “Beneath the waves lies our capital.” Then, hugging her grandson tightly, she jumped into the water. Accounts of the Genpei War have been recorded in the Tale of the Heike. This was a work, originally passed down orally. It was only written down about two centuries after the events it describes. Numerous accounts, including the monk Yoshida Kenko (c.1283-c.1350) claim that it was created originally by a blind storyteller. In any event, it was passed down orally for generations before being recorded. This suggests popular origins, rather than something created by an elite from the top-down. Perhaps there were multiple versions and the one we have is the one that just happened to get written down. This is likely what happened with the Homeric epics in ancient Greece. Indeed, it is rather striking that both the Homeric epics (Iliad and Odyssey) and the Tale of Heike are attributed to blind poets. Both were clearly in existence for centuries before being recorded and both have elements which can be confirmed by historical evidence. Both also have mystical elements which have been added for literary and metaphysical value.
Go-Shirakawa got what he wanted with the defeat of the Taira and to maintain his own power and influence in Kyoto. The Minamoto got what they wanted in gaining real control over Japan. The Minamoto established their capital in Kamakura, away from the Kyoto aristocracy. A few years later, the Minamoto leader, Yoritomo, was awarded the title shogun from the emperor. Historically, this title was not a permanent office, but a mark of distinction given by the emperor to one of his generals who helped expand the imperial domain. Yoritomo and his successors, however, made it into a permanent office. Indirect rule ultimately remained, and emerged in Kamakura. When Yoritomo died in 1198, his widow Hojo Masako emerged as the single most powerful person in Japan. She maneuvered to have her family, the Hojo Clan, dominate the Kamakura government as indirect rulers. She outlived her two sons (who both became shogun, though she really held the reigns of power) and saw to it that a cadet branch of the Fujiwara Clan succeeded when the Minamoto line died out with her second son. The Hojo Clan remained, holding the reigns of power until the fall of the Kamakura Shogunate in 1333.
Kamo no Chomei lived to see the rise of the Kamakura Shogunate, but he was a recluse and kept to himself and the simple life he set up for himself outside of Kyoto. Three shogunates would come to dominate Japan: the Kamakura, the Ashikaga, and the Tokugawa. The first was run largely by the Hojo, the second had almost no real power (as the country descended into civil war), and the third was the real success — the Tokugawa Shogunate. The Minamoto Clan succeeded in pushing aside a bunch of effete courtiers and the Taira Clan (who tried to become effete courtiers) but were unable to maintain power in their own government. The Kamakura government was beneficial for the people in the provinces and did set up a practical government structure which worked far better than that of the Heian period. Heian officials were largely absentee landlords who sought to maintain luxurious lives in the capital while outsourcing tax collection to distant relatives and largely ignoring the countryside. The Heian aristocrats caused their own downfall.