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The Heian period opened in 794 with the building of a new capital, Heian-kyō, later known as Kyoto. The grand plan of the new city, on a larger scale than earlier capitals, expressed the ambitious vision of Emperor Kammu. No other Japanese emperor had ever taken into his own hands so decisively the absolute powers of the emperor as conceived in Chinese theory. He and some of his immediate successors not only asserted the authority of the throne; they took positive measures designed to improve the effectiveness of the central government in administering the country. Theirs was a dedicated attempt to revitalize the system of administration modeled on the governmental machinery of T'ang China and operate it effectively. Throughout the four centuries of the Heian era the imperial court continued as the only political center, but the effectiveness of its administration declined gradually. The title of emperor continued in the imperial line without dynastic change, as it does to this day, but many of the reigning emperors were reduced to figureheads, manipulated by noble families at court, notably the Fujiwara, and later by senior retired emperors. The Heian period closed in 1185 when the struggle for hegemony among the warrior families resulted in the victory of Minamoto no Yoritomo and most political initiatives devolved into his hands at his headquarters at Kamakura. The imperial court continued at Kyoto, playing a largely ceremonial and legitimizing role, while political power was exercised by military overlords until the Meiji Restoration of 1868.
During Heian times, however, there was no challenge to the central position of the imperial court; rather, there was a gradual decline in its ability to derive adequate income from the provinces to sustain itself in the style it had designed.
This volume provides the most comprehensive treatment of the Heian period, the golden age of the Japanese imperial court, in any Western language. From Heian-kyo, founded in 794, the Japanese emperor ruled over an elaborate government modelled on China's absolute monarchy. Ambassadors to the T'ang court and students studying in China brought back laws, ideas, Buddhism, temple architecture, sculpture, and wall-painting. Chinese influences blended with native Japanese elements in courtly painting, calligraphy, poetry and prose. The world's first novel, The Tale of Genji, was completed about 1020. In 1185 the elegant and peaceful world of the court was shattered by the struggle of the Taira and Minamoto warrior clans, who usurped real political power and left the emperor with a symbolic, legitimizing role. Contributors to this volume emphasize political history, the land system, provincial administration, the capital and its society, aristocratic culture, and the acceptance of Buddhism and popular religious practices.
Major economic and social changes followed political unification and the establishment of a stable political order under the Tokugawa in the years after 1600. The interest in popular entertainment and culture in the major cities developed rapidly, especially in the second half of the seventeenth century, culminating in a brilliant flowering of popular culture known as the golden age of Genroku. This chapter focuses on popular culture, which had wide appeal to urban commoners. The development of popular culture, during its early stages, took place largely within the urban environment of Kyoto. The increase in literacy during the seventeenth century among both samurai and urban commoners was an important factor in the functioning of the administration and the expansion of commerce. During the century of warfare preceding the establishment of the Tokugawa bakufu, there was little time or necessity, even among the daimyo, for extensive formal education.