Heian period | The era for the birth of traditional crafts


Heian Period brought about various culture and traditional crafts

In the previous page, we share some culture and trends in Heian period. This article explains deeper aspects of this era. Back to the previous page


The aristocrats of the Heian period lived
in a style of architecture known as shinden-zukuri.


The family living quarters and tsuriden (buildings facing the pond from east to west) are connected by a corridor around the main building. One of the most famous buildings is the Byodoin Hououdō (Phoenix Hall) in Uji City, Kyoto Prefecture. This temple was built by Yorimichi Fujiwara, son of Michinaga Fujiwara. It is still pictured on the ten-yen coin. It is now a World Heritage site.

As a feature, it is just huge. It symbolizes the era of luxury and splendor. In terms of size, one house is as big as a baseball stadium (including stands). Moreover, only about 20 people at most live in the house. Of course, maids and other helpers do the housework. Usually, the men go to their offices, while the women gather together to recite poems and hold tea ceremonies.

At first glance, it may seem that women were not able to advance in society, but in the aristocracy, it was by far the easiest time for women to live. (To begin with, in many periods in Japan, it was actually easier for women to live.) The majority of the ridiculous amount of income I just described was spent on women’s clothing, hobbies, and socializing. Prices were naturally much lower then than they are now, which means that they were able to make a tremendous amount of purchases without having to work. Moreover, it is unimaginable to imagine a situation in which women left the housework to their maids and spent their money to the fullest on hobbies and other things they wanted to do on a daily basis.

Summary of Heian Period Culture

The “national culture” was not born out of a denial of or a break with Chinese culture, but rather was formed through the digestion and absorption of Chinese culture. Therefore, the characteristics of Kokubu culture as “national culture” can be summarized as follows.

1. The digestion and absorption of continental culture by the aristocracy progressed, and the sensitivity and aesthetic sense of the Japanese people, which would have a great influence on later generations, was refined in the process.

2. The foundation of kana script, art forms, and lifestyles as a means of expressing this sensibility was laid.

3. The establishment of national borders and the isolationism of the Japanese people from the rest of the world also contributed to the emergence of a consciousness that the above sensibilities and the means and styles for expressing them were uniquely Japanese (ethnic Japanese).

A Heian-period aristocrat’s game

The Heian period was a time when elegant aristocrats created much of Japan’s unique culture. The aristocrats created their own unique “games” one after another, and the tools they used for these games and the games themselves have been handed down to the present day as important cultural assets such as academic and historical documents.

Uta (poetry = tanka)

poetry in Heian period

The word “tanka” here refers to a tanka poem consisting of a standardized number of letters (5, 7, 5, 7, 7, 7). The first part of the poetry contest was a poetry competition in which nobles were divided into East and West. The details of the poetry contest were as follows.

  1. the emperor or an influential aristocrat acts as host and decides on a theme.(The theme could be given in advance or decided on the spot.)

  2. One group from either the East or the West recites a poem in turn.

  3.  the aristocrat facing the aristocrat who composed the poem in 2 improvises a reply poem in response to the aristocrat who composed the poem in 2

  4. the organizer judges which song isbetter

The poetry contest was a social occasion for the nobility, and a game in which the nobles showed off their high level of education. Even though the poetry contest was for fun, it was an event that brought a lot of pressure to the aristocrats. In the Heian period, it was said that the better you could sing, the more educated you were, and the better you could sing directly related to your relationships and success in life, and was even used as a criterion for women in deciding whom to marry. The poems composed at the poetry contests were included in the Manyoshu and Kokin Waka Shu, which later developed into the study of classics, haiku, and tanka poetry.



Shell-matching was a highly visual game, also known as “picture matching. For shell matching, a clam or other bivalve shell with a picture painted on it is used. Two identical pictures were painted on each shell. The shells were then turned over two at a time, and if a player could match the same picture, he or she could keep the shell. The aristocrat with the most shells wins.

It is similar to a nervous breakdown of playing cards where the same numbers are matched. The shells used in the shell-matching game were made to depict scenes from The Tale of Genji, which is known to have been written by Murasaki Shikibu, and have become historically important historical documents.

kemari (Japanese football game)


Kemari, a ball game popular in Japan during the Heian period and continuing to the present day, is a game in which players kick a ball[1] made of two pieces of deerskin sewn together with horsehide at a certain height (up to 2.5 times the height of the player) for a number of times. Kemari was not limited to aristocrats, but was enjoyed by samurai, priests, and even ordinary citizens of all ages and genders. The masters of kemari were praised as “Meisoku”.

In addition, there are also mental disciplines, one of the most difficult of which is “kicking noddily. Even if a difficult ball comes flying at you, you must not show it in your face, and you must appear to be kicking it in a relaxed manner. And, to keep the audience from getting bored, they should kick the ball in a fun way. Also, it is forbidden to show a grim face. With such a variety of rules and regulations, it can no longer be called an elegant game for the aristocracy.

The Heian Period is the Starting Point of the original Japanese Culture

As we have shown, a uniquely Japanese culture developed at a rapid pace during the Heian period. Traditional crafts were also born and developed at once in the same way. Frugal tableware used by common people is not used for sumptuous meals in luxurious houses. Instead, many pieces of luxurious tableware made by artisans were lined up on the table. This is precisely the origin of the traditional crafts that emerged during the Heian period. That is why they still retain the characteristic of luxury.

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