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The Contrast of the Heian-Era Courtier and the Kamakura Samurai

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    The Contrast of the Heian-Era Courtier and the Kamakura Samurai The major periods that shaped Japan’s history and future were the Heian-era of Aristocracy and the Kamakura period of Samurai. The Heian-era and the Kamakura period are interesting because of their differences in social structure, tradition, and culture. In the Heian era, the aristocrat’s social class was sought by many because of their social and cultural status. When the warrior rise in the Kamakura age the social classes change dramatically between aristocrat and warrior. The Heian-era (794-1191) was an age of self development in Japan’s culture and tradition.

    Before the Heian-era, Japan modeled China’s civilization because of their advancement in inventions and discoveries. “…Chinese economy had grown spectacularly, and in fields as diverse as rice cultivation, the production of iron and steel, and the printing of books, China’s method of production were highly advanced”( Bedford, 2009). Despite the economic growth China was going through civil wars that threaten Japan’s government stability. As the Tang Dynasty declined Japan turned away from Chinese tradition to develop their aristocratic society.

    As a result, Japan revised their former Chinese based government, and this brought about the Heian-era. The Kamakura period (1185-1333) was an age of military control within the government. Toward the end of the Heian-era nobles and imperials desire for power had no bounds. When the disputes between noble and imperials could not be solved through civil means, they sought the aid of warriors to fight their battles. As the governments weaken the warriors took control, and this brought about the rise of samurais also known as Feudal Japan. It is important to understand the social class of the Heian-era before analyzing the aristocratic society.

    Naturally the emperor claimed sovereignty over Japan. Government officials, warlords, and Buddhist members’ assisted the emperor in governing provinces and collecting taxes. Noble families like the Fujiwara were the highest members in the court. The Fujiwara family power did not exceed the imperial family but they manage to influence the emperor through marriage. The Fujiwara women would marry a member from the imperial family and produce imperial sons. The aristocrats were the next powerful group within Japan. The aristocrats were assigned many ranks, and the highest ranking was most often reserved for the emperor as an advisor.

    The rank of these nobles depended on their family/clan. The Fujiwara had to earn imperial prestige through marriage. Although some aristocrats’ class was stronger than other collectively, they processed noble prestige. The Buddhist clerks were the next powerful group. When, the emperors and nobility retire from their duties they sought positions in the Buddhist temples as monks. The Buddhist monasteries also possessed their own army of warriors which helped carried out government affairs. With the combine influence of the nobility and military the Buddhist exercised their influence.

    The warriors who will eventually become the samurais were the least powerful. The warriors consisted mostly of farmers who had lost their land because to heavy taxes imposed by governors. The warriors would form a clan together and rebel against the government. The imperial and nobles thought of the warriors as barbaric and often look down on their martial art. In the 11th century Kamakura samurai period the social structure suffered dramatic change due to power struggle among the noble class. During the Heian era three main clans struggled for control of the government, they were the Taira, Fujiwara, and Minamoto.

    The Fujiwara family who was very much in control of the imperial family was losing their influence. The women in the Fujiwara family could not produce anymore sons for the imperial family which caused a separation in bloodline. The emperor regained control of his throne and appointed the next emperor that was his son. Family feuding between the Minamoto and Taira families over the next emperor had warriors to battle over the dispute. In 1159, Kiyomori of the Taira clan was victorious over the Minamoto clan. Kiyomori murdered all the adults of the Monamoto clan and forced the children into exile.

    The emperor rewarded Kiyomori victory by giving him an advisor position in the government. This event was significant because Kiyomori was the first warrior in Japan’s government. Like the Fujiwara family, Kiyomori desired a royal bloodline within the Taira clan. So the Taira clan consorted with the imperial family in efforts to secure an imperial bloodline. Later, Kiyomori obtain a higher government position and more importantly a grandson was born and is heir to the throne. Feeling cheated an imperial prince sought the exiled Minamoto to overthrow the Taria clan.

    In 1180, Yoritomo of the Minamoto clan formed an army and battled with Taira clan that is known as the Genpei War. Eventually, Kiyomori died and the Taria clan shortly declined after him. During these battles warriors ran amok pillaging the Japan’s cuntryside. To end the chaos and violence the imperial turned to Yoritomo. Yoritomo in return raise an army of samurais and took complete control of the government and transformed it into a military government. The Kamakura government consisted of the emperor, shogun, and the house men. The emperor served merely as a figurehead, he little to no control of his government.

    The shogun had complete control of the government and he appointed house men to govern the providence. The house men were once peasants and famers who gained their status through battles as samurais. The customs, traditions, and values of the aristocrats during the Heian-era were dissimilar to Kamakura period. The aristocrats lived in a world of charm and glamour, where appearance was highly value. Through paintings and literature we are able to study the aristocrats’ thoughts and ideas of beauty. The women at that time considered white teeth ugly and they would occasionally blacken their teeth. Gleaming white teeth were thought to be horribly ghoul-like, so they were darkened” (Miller, 2006, p. 21).

    Court women during that time also had long lavish hair that was almost capable of touching the ground. The men and women were plump and had fair skin. Plump and pale appearances of the aristocrats were seen as a sign of wealth and beauty. “…women and men whitened their faces with a variety of substances: a powder made from rice, a liquid made from the seeds of the jalap plant, or white lead mixed with some type of starchy substance” (Miller 2006, p. 4). The aristocrats though the human figure was distasteful and regarded it as unattractive. They sought layers of clothes to enhance the beauty of the human figure. The Heian age is generally known for the aristocratic women who contributed to literature, art, and society. In the early stages of the Heian period women were actively involved in the government and serve vital roles as officials. According to Adolphson, Kamens, and Matsumoto 2007, these women served as communication between the court council and emperor or empress.

    In the eighth century, the female officials lessened as imperial family numbers increased. Eventually, official women completely lost their place in government and were replaced by men. “Rather, the female officials, who formerly held responsibilities in the administrative apparatus of the state, came to be replaced by male secretaries known as kurodo…” (Adolphson, Kamens, and Matsumoto 2007, p. 22). Changes in gender inequality continued to change as well; men and women were no longer seen as equals. The men took complete control of the court responsibilities.

    Without responsibility, aristocratic women sought the glamorous court life of beauty, literature, and art. These noble women explored the world of poetry and literature. One novel in particular, The Tale of Genji by Murasaki Shikibu is known as the first novel written and it continues to influence the world today. Women were also encouraged to partake in more graceful activities like practicing calligraphy or playing musical instruments like the koto. Writing poems and literature of the court life was permissible. The aristocratic men consisted of a small group, whose purpose was to serve the imperial family.

    The aristocrats were protected by the court and did not have to concern themselves with civil battles, cost of living and daily chores. An aristocrat’s appearance and reputation is his life. “Political disgrace, rumor of personal misconduct, decline in family prestige, and even exile lay in wait for them” (Schalow, 2007, p. 2). Not all the aristocrats served in the court and those who did were most fortunate. The aristocratic women could not study Chinese literature because this privilege was reserved for noble men. The noble women were only allowed to study Japanese literature.

    The aristocrats always sought the court favor to refine his or her status. “To be in favor at court was to be granted “human” status, and to suffer disfavor negated a courtier’s fundamental worth” (Schalow, 2007, p. 35). Although the aristocrats’ desired further control, movement through the ranks was nearly impossible because of the rise of the Fujiwara family within the court, as a result the aristocrat maintained his current rank. Aristocrats would write poems and other various literatures to relieve court life frustrations. Court life setback had aristocrats seeking romances in the court in hope to increase their status.

    The customs, traditions, and values of the Kamakura samurai were different from the aristocrats. In the Kamakura age the samurai is a warrior of nobility unlike the Heian period. In the Heian period the court thought the warriors were barbaric and a nuisance to society. Some of the warrior family would rebel against the government unfair practices. Now the samurai seized the power from the court to establish a military government. Eventually reading and writing became a necessity for samurais to know and understand. “After the 11th century, Samurai were expected to be cultured and literate.

    Samurai lived up to the ancient saying “Bun Bu Ryo Do” or “The pen and the sword in accord “(MI Marketing Pty Ltd. ACN, 2001). The samurai leadership desire to instill military and literate education as an example for the future samurais. Marriages among samurais were arranged because of the lack of time. Samurais were constantly involved in battles and didn’t have the time to properly charm a woman. The katana is the samurai weapon of choice. “Bushido taught that a samurai’s soul was his katana, and sometimes a samurai was pictures as entirely dependent on the katana when fighting” (New World Encyclopedia, 2008).

    The katana was considered a sacred weapon and it never left the samurai’s side. The longbow was also an effective range weapon used by samurais. Zen teachings enlightened the samurai way of thinking. The teachings allowed the samurai to be at peace mentally even if the body is curly suffering physical pain. The samurai women responsibility was limited to tending the household and her children. Confucian teaching required women to be submissive to their husbands and dedicated to their household. The women were trained in various weapons to defend the household when the men were away.

    Although women were not involved in the government, they were encouraged to further their education. The Heian aristocrat and Kamakura samurai were different in many aspects of their life. In the Heian period the aristocratic society obsession with beauty and power led to devious behavior within the court. While the court struggled for power the commoners were neglected and the governors remained unchecked. The Kamakura period valued military might and loyalty to the Shogun. The samurai’s honor was more important than his life.


    Adolphson, M. S., Kamens, E., & Matsumoto, S. (2007). Heian Japan, Centers and Peripheries. Honolulu, Hawaii: Honolulu University of Hawaii Press. Bedford /St Martin’s (2009). World History and Western Civilization. Miller, L. (2006). Beauty Up: Exploring Contemporary Japanese Body Aesthetics. Berkeley, California: Berkeley University of California Press. MI Marketing Pty Ltd. ACN. (2001). Japanese Lifestyle. Retrieved from Samurai.(2008, April 4). New World Encyclopedia. Retrieved 23:58, April 27, 2011 from Schalow, P. G. (2007). Poetics of Courtly Male Friendship in Heian Japan. Honolulu, Hawaii: Honolulu University of Hawaii Press.

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