Heian period | The foundation of traditional Japanese crafts


History tells the characteristics of traditional crafts

The history of Japan, such as Heian period, cannot be left out when discussing traditional crafts. However, this does not mean that we will introduce the entire history of Japan. We would like to introduce Japan’s history directly related to the birth and development of traditional crafts, as well as the periods that had a significant impact on change in the crafts. Traditional crafts were born in line with the needs, techniques, and culture of the times, and have grown up to the present day in response to the changes of the times.

There are about 15 periods in Japanese history, and most of the more than 100 traditional crafts that remain today were born in one of these periods. For example, the histroy of Nambu ironware, Hidehira-nuri (lacquerware), Nishijin brocade began in Heian period and have developed into well-known traditional Japanese crafts. Of course, traditional crafts must have a history of over 100 years, so they must have been created at least before 1900. But even so, there are still 12 classified eras. Why these four periods are so important for Traditional Japanese crafts? Actually,

there are three common characteristics.

  • It was a relatively stable period with few wars.
  • Because of the stability, culture developed.
  • The upper classes had strong cultural habits.

Furthermore, even within these four categories, the characteristics of the traditional crafts that came into existence differ depending on the historical background of the period. The most important characteristic that contributed to the difference is the aristocratic or samurai culture. As you can imagine, the period of aristocratic culture favored features that were anyway luxurious and relatively showy. On the other hand, in the samurai culture, calm and austere features were popular. 

One of the most obvious examples is the Kinkakuji and Ginkakuji temples. Both temples are located in Kyoto, but the Kinkakuji was built by a shogun who favored the opulent aristocratic culture. On the other hand, Ginkakuji was built by a shogun a generation later. At that time, the earlier Shogun had sought too much opulence, and as a result, his finances had broken down, so the era had changed to one that sought frugality. Thus, one of the interesting aspects of Japanese culture is that the characteristics of objects vary depending on the era in which they were built and what was sought after.

Kinkaku temple
Left: Kinkaku temple  Right: Ginkaku temple

This is the overall explanation so far, but now it is time to explain each of the periods. In this article, we will focus on the Heian period. This was the first time in Japanese history that aristocratic culture blossomed, and it was an era of tremendous opulence. It is no exaggeration to say that every culture that exists in Kyoto originates from this period. Maiko in Gion, Ozashiki culture, and other symbols of glamour were born in this period.

Heian period (794-1185)

The Heian Period refers to the 390 years from the time Emperor Kanmu moved the capital to Heian-kyo (Kyoto, present-day Kyoto City, Kyoto Prefecture) until the establishment of the Kamakura Shogunate.

Luxury and economic conditions in the Heian Period

The main source of income for the Heian nobles was not necessarily manors, but rather rice paddies and stipends paid by the state in accordance with their official positions. The salaries were enormous; for example, the head of the Fujiwara no Kita family received about 300-500 million yen in today’s money value from the state in the form of shokuden (rice paddy), kishida (rice paddy), shokusei (seal of office), kisei (seal of rank), shijin (stipend), and kiroku (seasonal stipend). Even so, the upper class aristocrats were aggressive in their property formation. This was not only for their own luxurious lifestyle, but also because they needed to spend large sums of money to strengthen their relationships with other powerful nobles and to provide wives and furnishings for their children who entered the imperial court. This was the reason why they received the services of the receiver.

Not only the upper nobility, but also the middle and lower nobility earned salaries of tens of millions of yen. Receivers, who were local officials, are also believed to have earned a great deal of money. Under the dynastic state system, as long as the receiver paid the stipulated taxes to the kyōshin, he could use the remainder of the taxes as his own income. However, the evaluation of the work of the receivers was very strict, and it is believed that they would not have been subjected to very severe tax deprivation.

Even so, it is said that the receivers were able to accumulate a large amount of wealth, and not a few middle-class nobles tried to secure their positions as receivers by providing private services to the upper-class nobility through their savings. This service to the upper class nobility through the accumulation of wealth is called “success.

In the late 11th and 12th centuries, manors and provinces of the court rapidly increased, and became an important source of income for the nobles of the Heian period. The manor lord system, a system of rule centered on manors and other lands, was established during this period, and manors continued to be a source of income for the nobility until the 16th century.

Heian Period Culture

National Culture

The culture that became mainstream during the Heian period (794-1185) was this nationalistic culture. Unlike the previous period, when there was a large amount of cultural transfers from Tang China (a country located in a certain part of China, and distinct from the current Han Chinese nation of China), there was a marked development of a culture unique to Japan. It refers to Japanese-style culture as opposed to Tang-style culture. The influence of Tang culture weakened after the mid-Heian period due to the decline of the Tang Dynasty and the suspension of Japanese envoys to the Tang Dynasty, and the development of kana literature (women’s literature) and the development of Pure Land Buddhism art and architecture due to the popularity of Pure Land Buddhism. This period is also referred to as the Fujiwara period or Fujiwara culture.


reading poetry in Heian period

Development of the kana script

During the Heian period, the elite were fluent in Chinese. Chinese characters were used for writing. However, some people found it difficult to express detailed and delicate content in the Chinese writing style or in Chinese characters. The main group was women. They created certain characters by breaking Chinese characters. This is the kana script.

Representative Literary Works

Here are some famous literary works;

Sei Shonagon “The Pillow Book”

the pillow book in Heian period
The Pillow Book, English Edition

Sei Shonagon was the tutor of Sadako, daughter of Fujiwara no Michitaka. She wrote the essay “The Pillow Book. The first part of “The Pillow Book” is always found in Japanese language textbooks for junior high schools in Japan.

The Tale of Genji” by Murasaki Shikibu”

The author, Murasaki Shikibu, was the tutor of Akiko, daughter of Fujiwara no Michinaga. Her masterpiece is “The Tale of Genji,” said to be the oldest work of fiction in the world. The main character is Hikaru Genji, the son of an emperor and a woman of low status. The Tale of Genji is said to be about 2,000 sheets of manuscript paper. It is a long novel.

the tale of Genji in Heian period
The tale of Genji, English Edition

Murasaki Shikibu is said to have been modest in everything and did not often flaunt her talent. Murasaki Shikibu has a personality that is the complete opposite of that of Sei Shonagon. In fact, Murasaki Shikibu dissed Sei Shonagon in her “Murasaki Shikibu Diary. It is interesting that this kind of thing remains as a literary work.

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