Japan Heian Period

Japan has gone through numerous historical periods and one of these early eras include the Heian Period which covers the years 794 to 1185 CE. It was the time when the country’s culture flourished greatly, mainly on literature and art.

The government and its administration were ruled by the Fujiwara clan. Though eventually, they were challenged by the Taira and Minamoto clans. This period, which was named after the Heian-Kyo capital, ends with the Genpei War where the Minamoto clan emerged victorious. Their leader, Minamoto no Yoritomo, established the Kamakura Shogunate.

It was a vital era in the history of martial arts since it represents the creation of a new social class – the Samurai warriors. They were initially formed as a result of battling the Northern tribes called the Ainu. This tribe was said to have been the descendant of some of the earliest people in the country. Today, the Ainu can still be found living in the northern portion of Japan.

Samurai battle on Japanese Traditional paintings

The Golden Age

The Heian era is considered as one of the greatest times of cultural and artistic development. At the end of the 9th century, during the collapse of the Tang Dynasty, contacts in China were highly interrupted. With that, the country began distancing itself from China to develop its own unique culture that was more likened to the Japanese. Despite the confiscation of imperial authority, the Fujiwara clan took over the imperial court and the aristocracy.

The First Great Emperor

The very first first Heian Emperor was Kanmu. He was considered as one of the most powerful emperors of Japan. Yet after his death, the Fujiwara clan increased their political power. They offered the imperial house with their concubines and imperial consorts. This forged a marrying bond that gave the clan’s nobles entry to the highest administrative positions in court.

In the year 858, the Fujiwara clan gained full and legitimate control when Fujiwara Yoshifusa became the regent for his grandson, the Emperor Seiwa. This led to the creation of the office of Kampaku. Generally, the Kampaku was known as a dictator who issued a variety of commands as if he were the emperor himself.

During this period, there were multiple conflicts within the Fujiwara clan. Despite this, the emperor was still able to manage and maintain a certain level of autonomy. However, this ended when Emperor Daigo died in 930 A.D.

Early Heian Period

During the early Heian era, specifically around the late 8th and 9th centuries, Emperor Kanmu decided to consolidate and expand his rule, thus aimed for the Northern Honshu area. There, he began sending military campaigns to the Emishi who were highly against the rule of a Kyoto-based imperial court.

Kanmu then introduced the title Sei’i Taishogun or Shogun. He began relying on the power of the regional clans to rule over the Emishi. They were skilled in mounted battles and kyudo which made them the emperor’s preferred troops for attacking the rebels. The most popular one was Sakanoue no Tamuramaro.

This was the time when the term Shogun was first used. However, it was considered as a temporary title and was not ingrained with political power. This was not until the 13th century when Imperial Court officials considered the Shogun to be a military section that was to be controlled by them.

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The Decline of Power

Eventually, Emperor Kanmu opted to disband his army. From then, the power of the emperor dramatically declined. Though he was still considered the ruler, the powerful clans in Kyoto assumed roles as ministers. To acquire more wealth and to repay debts, these magistrates imposed heavy taxes. This resulted in a large number of farmers becoming landless.

There were a couple of clans who were originally formed by these farmers. They took up arms to defend themselves from the imperial magistrates that were ordered to govern their lands and gather taxes. The farmers formed clans to protect everyone from these powerful families, and by the middle of the Heian period, they adopted and accepted the characteristics of Japanese weapons and armor.

Sakanoue no Tamuramaro

A general and Shogun of the early Heian period, Sakanoue no Tamuramaro was the son of Sakanoue no Karitamaro. He served the Emperor Kanmu and was appointed as a shogun who conquered the Emishi or Emishi Seibatsu. They were a group of individuals who were native to the Northern part of Honshu which he was able to defeat later on.

There were some evidences that showed a group of Emishi that migrated to Hokkaido. This took place around the seventh and eighth centuries. It was a result of the policy that re-dated the appointment of Tamuramaro. However, there were still a few Emishi who remained in the Tohoku region. They were subjects for expanding the Empire and later on, established and incorporated independent domains.

After the death of the emperor, Tamuramaro continued to serve under Emperor Heizei and Emperor Saga. He was also appointed as Dainagon (major counselor) and Hyobu Kyo (minister of war). He was also the second individual to be given the title of Shogun.

The Awakening – the Japanese Samurai

The origins of the Samurai date back to the Heian period. During this time, numerous campaigns were commenced to subdue the Emishi located in the Tohoku region. Around the same time, a large number of warriors were hired by rich landowners who became independent from the central government. They were able to establish armies and gather weapons to protect themselves. These warriors were eventually known as the Samurai.

The land located between Kyoto and the North functioned as a buffer area that insulated the emperor from battle. As a result, these borders crafted some of the most skilled soldiers that Japan had to offer. With that, owners of land who controlled these warriors were provided with the task of extinguishing the Ainu who were considered as barbarians by the Japanese.

Eventually, these barbarians were subdued, and the warrior families who fought them were provided with tax exempted territories. They were eventually known as Samurai warriors and believed that their loyalty was only to their warlord above all. From the early ninth century, a number of powerful families began competing against each other. The strongest ones were able to improve their holdings via the spoils of war. Eventually, three most powerful family rivals emerged: they were the Taira, Fujiwara, and the Minamoto clans.

The Fujiwara, the Taira & the Minamoto

The Fujiwara was the first clan to dominate and they were known to have close ties with the emperor. By the year 850, the clan eventually controlled the emperor as well as his government. They conquered almost every area since they held a large number of vital military and administrative posts. The family’s head became a regent to young emperors and would be the very first consoler to the adult emperor.

As time passed, the Taira and Minamoto clans were increasing their strength and power between the tenth & twelfth centuries. They defeated the weaker clans and took their wealth and land. Eventually, the Taira and Minamoto engaged in two major conflicts that caused the end of the Heian period.

In the year 1160, Minamoto no Yoshitomo was defeated by Taira Kiyomori. However, three of Yoshitomo’s sons were allowed to live, something that was quite unusual for that period. Those who were left alive were Noriyori, Yoshitsune, and Yoritomo who was known to be Yoshitomo’s heir.

Keeping them alive has proved to be a big mistake for the Taira. Yoshitsune and Yoritomohave practiced martial arts and swordsmanship at a very young age. They did this to avenge their father’s death, and the two grew to become excellent Samurai legends and warriors. They engaged in battles called the Genpei War.

Genpei War

In 1180, the Taira and Minamoto battled. This started the Genpei War which ended in 1185. The battle left Minamoto no Yoritomo as the victor where he established the Samurai’s superiority over all aristocracies. In the year 1190, he visited the area of Kyoto, and eventually became the Sei’i Taishogun and started the Kamakura Shogunate. He established a Shogunate in Kamakura instead of ruling from Kyoto since it was close to his base of power.

When the Genpei War ended, Yoritomo acquired the right to assign the Jito and Shugo. He was also allowed to manage police and soldiers. Yet as time passed, the responsibility of the soldiers and police initially increased to arresting rebels, as well as acquiring necessary army provisions. Though they were prohibited from interfering with the officials of the Kokushi, the Samurai class soon became Japan’s political ruling power.

The Bakufu System

When Yoritomo was firmly established, the Bakufu system that ruled Japan was set and in place. He assigned Daimyo to rule over a number of provinces while the Jito or stewards supervised private and public estates. Yoritomo then shifted his attention to the removal of the powerful Fujiwara clan who sheltered his rebellious sibling, Yoshitsune. Three years after, he was appointed as a Shogun in Kyoto.

A year before Yoritomo’s death, he expelled and dethroned the teenage emperor, Go Toba. Two of Go Toba’s sons became successors. However, they were also removed by the successors of Yoritomo to the Shogunate.