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The Middle Ages

5th - 15th century



CA. 400-1338


Influenced by China, a Japanese empire began developing in the fourth century and experienced its blossoming in the eighth century. During the ensuing period, great cultural achievements were accompanied by a decline in imperial power. With the emergence of the samurai class between the 8th and 12th centuries, the form of feudalism developed that would remain characteristic for Japan into the 19th century.


Development of State and Culture

Following the phase of state building, the Nara Period was a cultural high point.


According to mythology, the state of Japan was founded in 600 B.C. when the god Ninigi descended on Mount Kirishimayana and was the forerunner of Jimmu, the first emperor.

In reality, there probably existed only various subkingdoms that were first united into a large empire around 400 a.d. under the 4 Yamato dynasty, which still reigns to this day.

The Yamatos based their claim to rule on their descent from the sun goddess Amaterasu, the highest god in 6 Shintoism.

4 Burial gift from a ruler of the Yamato Period,
clay sculpture, seventh century

6 Shinto ceremony in Kyoto: Drummer playing
the big Taiko drum, which is used to call and
entertain the gods

This combined in the Japanese emperor, the Unno, the functions of a high priest and political power. Many 1 cultural achievements were adopted from China, such as script and metallurgy. Buddhist missionaries began arriving on the islands in 552.

Empress Suiko and her designated prince regent 2 Shotoku later promoted Buddhism.

1 Pagoda in Nara in the family temple of the Fujiwara,
built 710

2 Prince Shotoku flanked by younger brother (left: Prince Eguri)
and first son (right: Prince Yamashiro), woodblock painting



Taishi Shotoku

Taishi Shotoku, original name Umayado (born 574, Yamato, Japan—died April 8, 622, Yamato), influential regent of Japan and author of some of the greatest contributions to Japanese historiography, constitutional government, and ethics.

Shōtoku was a member of the powerful Soga family and was the second son of the short-reigned emperor Yōmei. When political maneuvering brought his aunt to the throne, Shōtoku became crown prince and regent in 593. He remained in that position until his death. One of his first acts was to resume sending envoys to China, a practice that had been discontinued since the 5th century, thus opening up avenues for cultural, economic, and political exchange. He imported scores of Chinese artists, craftsmen, and clerks into Japan, adopted the Chinese calendar, created a system of highways, and erected many Buddhist temples, including the Hōryū Temple, built in 607 in Ikaruga, near Nara, which is now considered among the oldest surviving wooden structures in the world.

Shōtoku promoted Buddhism and Confucianism in what had been an exclusively Shintō milieu and brought new political, religious, and artistic institutions to Japan. By means of persuasion and political maneuver, he emulated in his own country the giant bureaucratic empire of China and expanded the authority of the imperial house, bringing back into its hands powers that had been delegated to the feudal lords.

Shōtoku compiled the chronicles of the government, after the Chinese model, to make up the first book of Japanese history. He also instituted a system of 12 court ranks, each identified by the colour of the cap an official wore. This scheme became one of the most important changes in the Japanese government, for it meant a break with the old system of hereditary posts and implied a bureaucracy of merit along the Chinese model.

His “Seventeen Article Constitution” (604) instructed the Japanese ruling class in Confucian ethical concepts and the Chinese bureaucratic system, which he held up as an ideal for Japanese government. Although there is some doubt whether this document was the work of Shōtoku or perhaps a later forgery, it represents his thinking and resulted from his influence. He is remembered also for irrigation projects and social-welfare measures. He worked for the spread of Buddhism and after his death was looked upon as a Buddhist saint.

Encyclopaedia Britannica

In 604, a 17-article constitution was promulgated that contained, among other things, moral maxims and the principle of a hierarchical order of society.
The Taika reforms introduced in 646 followed Chinese precedent and were meant to strengthen centralized imperial power over the aristocracy. The country would be ruled from the capital city Nara through imperial officials. All land was claimed by the emperor, who granted estates to loyal nobility as fiefs.

Japan experienced a cultural high point during the Nara Period, particularly during the reign of Emperor Shomu, who ruled until 756. He modified the Taika reforms in 743, giving the nobility the right to bequeath their properties. Consequently, they were in a position to build up a power base and thus to increasingly weaken central authority over the course of a few generations. The gradual rise of the Fujiwara family, of which Shomu's mother and wife were both members, began during his reign.

Shomu also promoted 3 Buddhism.

He had the famous 5 Todaiji temple with the 48 foot-high Daibutsu ("Great Buddha") erected in Nara.

To avoid the growing power of the Buddhist priests and monasteries, Emperor Kammu moved the capital in 784 to Heian-kyo— modern Kyoto—and the Heian Period began.

3 Bodhisattva, from the Nara period,
varnished scupture, eighth century

5 Archway of the Todaiji temple in Nara, built in the eighth century




Shoguns, Samurai, and Daimyos

The imperial court lost political power with the development of feudal structures governed over by shoguns and based on military force and samurai warrior groups.


The arts, particularly literature, became highly refined during the Heian Period, from 794 to 1185; the ladies of the court especially were notable authors. While court culture blossomed, the political power of the emperor continued to wane.

His functions became limited to ritual religious tasks, while the real power rested with the noble families who had built up their estates into autonomous dominions and then entangled the country in 9 civil wars.

Initially, the 7 Fujiwara family was the leading dynasty.

During the war to expand the empire into the north in the eighth century, the fighting efficiency of the army of conscripts proved insufficient.

9 Burning of the palce in Kyoto during
a rebellion in 1159, painting,
twelfth-14th century

7 Villa of the Fujiwara family in Kyoto, built in 1052 in 1052, later converted into a temple

The well-trained 10 samurai mercenaries were much more effective in battle—and also in the civil wars.

Certain families specialized in leading these samurai and became a warrior nobility. The system was multitiered in which individuals swore allegiance to particular leaders, who in turn were loyal to certain powerful families. Among these dynasties, the Taira and the Minamoto clans increasingly challenged the power of the Fujiwaras.

The Tairas displaced the Fujiwaras after a 11 civil war in the mid-twelfth century and were in turn defeated in 1185 by the 8 Minamotos.

In 1192, 12 Minamoto Yoritomo had the emperor give him the hereditary title of shogun ("imperial general") and created the Kamakura shogunate, named after his seat of government.

Early in the Kamakura Period, which lasted from 1192 to 1333, however, a shift of power again took place, with the Hojo clan rising to become hereditary regents of the shogunate in 1203, while the shoguns were pushed into the background.

The daimyo class led the samurai warrior caste during the twelfth century. The Hojos were dependent upon them to drive off the invasion attempts of the Mongol Kublai Khan in 1274 and 1281. They succeeded—purportedly assisted by divine winds, the kamikaze—but because it was not a conquest and there were no spoils, the daimyos' loyalty to the central government diminished.
Emperor Go-Daigo took advantage of this dissatisfaction in 1333 and overthrew the Kamakura shoguns and their Hojo regents with the help of samurai from the Ashikaga family. This Kemmu Restoration lasted only until 1338, when Ashikaga Takauji, who himself had hoped to be shogun, took over power in a coup.

10 Helmet and steel face mask of a
samurai warrior in the style of the 14th с

11 Battle scene during the civil war
against the Fujiwaras, painting

8 Minamoto no Yoshitsune, the "ideal
knight" of the Japanese "middle ages,"
wood engraving, 19th century

12 Minamoto Yoritomo


Minamoto Yoritomo

Minamoto Yoritomo, (born 1147, Japan—died Feb. 9, 1199, Kamakura), founder of the bakufu, or shogunate, a system whereby feudal lords ruled Japan for 700 years.

Defying the emperor, Yoritomo established shugo (constables) and jitō (district stewards) throughout the Japanese provinces, thus undermining the central government’s local administrative power, and in 1192 he acquired the title of supreme commander (shogun) over the shugo and jitō.

Aristocratic and military background

Yoritomo was of noble and, as a descendant of the emperor Seiwa (reigned ad 858–876), even royal lineage.

His family name, Minamoto, is Genji in Chinese (Gen being the Chinese reading of the symbol for Minamoto), and it is immortalized as the embodiment of ancient courtly ways in
The Tale of Genji (Genji monogatari) by Murasaki Shikibu, one of the world’s earliest and greatest novels.

But the family’s immediate past was military as well as aristocratic, and Yoritomo was impatient with the court’s cultured and precious subtleties. He wanted power and was jealous, suspicious, and cold-hearted, even in his own circle. He went as far, in fact, as to liquidate several near relations. But once in power, he proved an excellent administrator.

Early life
Yoritomo was the third son of Minamoto Yoshitomo, who, in 1159, attempted to destroy Taira Kiyomori (scion of another dominant military family, the Taira clan) in the Heiji Disturbance, in Kyōto province. He was defeated, however, and his son Yoritomo was captured and banished to Izu province (a peninsula southwest of Tokyo, now part of Shizuoka prefecture), where for 20 years he lived under Taira surveillance.

Yoritomo enlivened his rustication by seducing the daughter of his jailer, Itō Sukechika. The latter’s rage forced Yoritomo’s flight to the protection of Itō’s superior and neighbour, Hōjō Tokimasa, a Taira vassal whose hostile attitude to the Taira clan typified the contemporary split between court and country. Hōjō’s daughter also succumbed to Yorimoto’s blandishment but had to postpone marriage until 1180, when her official fiancé, the pro-Taira acting governor, had been eliminated. The essential feature, however—an understanding between Tokimasa and Yoritomo—was swiftly completed; and Yoritomo’s political pretensions now enjoyed support.

Meanwhile Taira Kiyomori, the head of the Taira clan, exercised his power over the imperial court, thus alienating Go-Shirakawa, the retired emperor. (At this period of Japanese history the emperor often lived in “retirement” away from court so he could rule without the hindrance of the highly detailed court ceremonials. This practice was known as insei.) Most of the aristocracy and the heads of the great temples and shrines were also resentful of the Taira clan’s hold over the emperor.

Rise to power
In 1180 Minamoto Yorimasa, another member of the Minamoto clan, joined in a rebellion with an imperial prince, Mochihito-ō, who summoned the Minamoto clan to arms in various provinces. Yoritomo now used this princely mandate as a justification for his own uprising. Despite Mochihito-ō’s death, which occurred shortly before Yoritomo’s men were led into battle, he succeeded in gaining much support from the feudal lords in the eastern provinces. Many members of the Taira family also enrolled under Yoritomo’s banner, for they were disappointed with their meagre rewards from cousins at court. Yoritomo immediately advanced to Kamakura (about 10 miles [16 km] south of modern Tokyo) and established his headquarters there. As well as consolidating a hold over his own vassals in the Kantō area (around Tokyo), Yoritomo tried to organize the Minamoto followers under his direct control. He was loath to relinquish control to any of his various relatives, and to this end he established the Samurai-dokoro (“Board of Retainers”).

In 1183 Minamoto Yoshinaka, a cousin of Yoritomo, occupied the Hokuriku district and invaded Kyōto, the seat of the court. Go-Shirakawa, who always hoped to play off supporters, as well as enemies, against each other to regain some of the substance of imperial power, invited Yoritomo to put an end to Yoshinaka’s dangerously successful career; and Yoritomo accordingly crushed Yoshinaka at Kyōto. Yoritomo now established the Kumonjo (“Board of Public Papers”) and Monchūjo (“Board of Questioning”), setting up not only a military but also an independent political government in the east, yet one that was recognized by the central imperial court in Kyōto. In 1184 Yoritomo’s considerable armies, commanded by his two younger half-brothers Noriyori and Yoshitsune, the latter a brilliant commander of whom Yoritomo was jealous, were ranged against the Taira forces for what was hoped would be a climactic campaign, but decisive victory was not gained until the following year. After Minamoto’s next victory, the emperor supported Yoshitsune in efforts to restrain Yoritomo’s power. But Yoritomo immediately expelled Yoshitsune and imposed on the emperor the establishment of shugo and jitō throughout Japan, avowedly to capture Yoshitsune, though such arrangements were instrumental in making Yoritomo’s ascendancy nationwide. Soon after, Yoritomo succeeded in having Yoshitsune put to death.

The Kamakura shogunate
Yoritomo gave his shugo, each placed in a province, the function of administering and policing the Minamoto vassals locally. The shugo also administered the judicial proceedings in cases of rebellion and murder, and they thus acquired something of a military hold over each province. To supervise individual estates, the more pacific office of jitō was created, which levied taxes and undertook the management of the estates. And, not surprisingly, both the shugo and the jitō became feudal lords. Through these institutions, Yoritomo was thus able to undermine the central government’s local administrative power, and subsequently he even made efforts to rule remote districts, such as Kyushu, Japan’s southernmost island.

In 1185 he destroyed Fujiwara Yasuhira, an independent noble of the Tohoku area, demonstrating his ambition to create a power structure independent of the capital, at Kyōto. In 1192, a few months after his old rival Go-Shirakawa’s death, Yoritomo, now with no one to hinder his ultimate ambition, titled himself seii taishōgun (“barbarian-quelling generalissimo”), becoming the supreme commander over the feudal lords. The Kamakura shogunate was now formally complete.

After 1192 Yoritomo’s policies were designed to relieve the strain between the military lords and the court aristocrats, and the powerful temples and shrines. Thanks to the institutions of the shugo and jitō, relations between the court of Kyōto and Yoritomo’s government at Kamakura were fairly stable. Yoritomo died in 1199.

Yoritomo is often charged with cruelty, particularly in the killing of his cousin and brothers, but political circumstances of his time were difficult. He had above all to prevent discord among his vassals and the whole military class if his work was to attain the permanence that it did. See also Fujiwara family; Hōjō family; Taira family.

Keiji Nagahara

Encyclopaedia Britannica



The Tale of Genji

The Tale of Genji, Japanese Genji monogatari, masterpiece of Japanese literature by Murasaki Shikibu. Written at the start of the 11th century, it is generally considered the world’s first novel.

Murasaki Shikibu composed The Tale of Genji while a lady in attendance at the Japanese court, likely completing it about 1010. Because Chinese was the court’s scholarly language, works written in Japanese (the literary language used by women, often in personal accounts of life at court) were not taken very seriously; so too, prose was not considered the equal of poetry. The Tale of Genji, however, differed in being informed by a comprehensive knowledge of Chinese and Japanese poetry and in being a graceful work of imaginative fiction. It incorporates some 800 waka, courtly poems purported to be the writing of the main character, and its supple narrative sustains the story through 54 chapters of one character and his legacy.

At its most basic, The Tale of Genji is an absorbing introduction to the culture of the aristocracy in early Heian Japan—its forms of entertainment, its manner of dress, its daily life, and its moral code. The era is exquisitely re-created through the story of Genji, the handsome, sensitive, gifted courtier, an excellent lover and a worthy friend. Most of the story concerns the loves of Genji, and each of the women in his life is vividly delineated. The work shows supreme sensitivity to human emotions and the beauties of nature, but as it proceeds its darkening tone reflects the Buddhist conviction of this world’s transience.

Arthur Waley was the first to translate The Tale of Genji into English (6 vol., 1925–33). Waley’s translation is beautiful and inspiring but also very free. Edward Seidensticker’s translation (1976) is true to the original in both content and tone, but its notes and reader aids are sparse, in contrast to the translation published by Royall Tyler in 2001.

Encyclopaedia Britannica



Murasaki Shikibu

Murasaki Shikibu, (born c. 978, Kyōto, Japan—died c. 1014, Kyōto), court lady who was the author of the Genji monogatari (The Tale of Genji), generally considered the greatest work of Japanese literature and thought to be the world’s oldest full novel.

The author’s real name is unknown; it is conjectured that she acquired the sobriquet of Murasaki from the name of the heroine of her novel, and the name Shikibu reflects her father’s position at the Bureau of Rites. She was born into a lesser branch of the noble and highly influential Fujiwara family and was well educated, having learned Chinese (generally the exclusive sphere of males). She married a much older distant cousin, Fujiwara Nobutaka, and bore him a daughter, but after two years of marriage he died.

Some critics believe that she wrote the entire Tale of Genji between 1001 (the year her husband died) and 1005, the year in which she was summoned to serve at court (for reasons unknown). It is more likely that the composition of her extremely long and complex novel extended over a much greater period; her new position within what was then a leading literary centre likely enabled her to produce a story that was not finished until about 1010. In any case this work is the main source of knowledge about her life. It possesses considerable interest for the delightful glimpses it affords of life at the court of the empress Jōtō mon’in, whom Murasaki Shikibu served.

The Tale of Genji captures the image of a unique society of ultrarefined and elegant aristocrats, whose indispensable accomplishments were skill in poetry, music, calligraphy, and courtship. Much of it is concerned with the loves of Prince Genji and the different women in his life, all of whom are exquisitely delineated. Although the novel does not contain scenes of powerful action, it is permeated with a sensitivity to human emotions and to the beauties of nature hardly paralleled elsewhere. The tone of the novel darkens as it progresses, indicating perhaps a deepening of Murasaki Shikibu’s Buddhist conviction of the vanity of the world. Some, however, believe that its last 14 chapters were written by another author.

The translation (1935) of The Tale of Genji by Arthur Waley is a classic of English literature. Murasaki Shikibu’s diary is included in Diaries of Court Ladies of Old Japan (1935), translated by Annie Shepley Ōmori and Kōchi Doi. Edward Seidensticker published a second translation of The Tale of Genji in 1976, and Royall Tyler translated a third in 2001.

Encyclopaedia Britannica



Lady of the court


The Pillow Book

of the

"Lady of the Court"

Sei Shonagon

"A groom who is happy to see the father-in-law
A bride, that pleases the mother-in-law
A liegeman, who never defames his master...
Men, women, and priests who
maintain a lifelong friendship.
Many books capture that of
which does not know a single one."

Lady of the court



Sei Shonagon

Japanese writer

born c. 966, Japan
died c. 1025, Japan

diarist and poet, a witty, learned lady of the court, whose The Pillow Book (Makura no sōshi), apart from its brilliant and original Japanese prose style, is the best modern-day source of information on Japanese court life in the Heian period (784–1185).

Sei Shōnagon was the daughter of the poet Kiyohara Motosuke and was in the service of the empress Sadako at the capital of Heian-kyō (Kyōto) from about 991 to 1000. Her Pillow Book, which covers the period of her life at court, consists in part of vividly recounted memoirs of her impressions and observations and in part of categories such as “Annoying Things” or “Things Which Distract in Moments of Boredom” within which she lists and classifies the people, events, and objects around her. The work is notable for Sei Shōnagon’s sensitive descriptions of nature and everyday life and for its mingling of appreciative sentiments and the detached, even caustic, value judgments typical of a sophisticated court lady.

Sei Shōnagon was apparently not a beauty, but her ready wit and intelligence secured her place at court. Those qualities, according to the diary of her contemporary Murasaki Shikibu, also won her numerous enemies. Though capable of great tenderness, Sei Shōnagon was often merciless in the display of her wit, and she showed little sympathy for those unfortunates whose ignorance or poverty rendered them ridiculous in her eyes. Her ability to catch allusions or to compose in an instant a verse exactly suited to each occasion is evident in the bedside jottings that are contained in her Pillow Book. Legend states that Sei Shōnagon spent her old age in misery and loneliness. English translations of the Pillow Book were prepared by Arthur Waley (1929) and Ivan Morris (1967).


The Pillow Book

work by Sei Shōnagon

Japanese Makura No Sōshi

(c. 1000), title of a book of reminiscences and impressions by the 11th-century Japanese court lady Sei Shōnagon. Whether the title was generic and whether Sei Shōnagon herself used it is not known, but other diaries of the Heian period (794–1185) indicate that such journals may have been kept by both men and women in their sleeping quarters, hence the name. The entries in Makura no sōshi, although some are dated, are not in chronological order but rather are divided under such headings as “Amusing Things” and “Vexatious Things.” A complete English translation of Makura no sōshi by Ivan Morris appeared in 1967 (The Pillow Book of Sei Shōnagon). The Pillow Book belongs to the genre of zuihitsu (“random jottings”). Tsurezuregusa, by Yoshida Kenkō, is an outstanding 14th-century example of this genre.