Monday, October 10, 2011

The Age of Tranquility and Peace, Heian Japan #3: The Fujiwara and the Poisoned Chrysanthemum, Fujiwara control of the emperor

I'm running a little late this week, but today, I present the third in my series on Heian-era Japan. If you have no clue what I'm talking about, just click here for a brief overview of the Heian era.


Despite the presence of a monarch who claims descent from a sun goddess, Amaterasu, much of Japanese history has been defined by emperors rather lacking in absolute power and the concordant ability to rule unchecked. Today, the current Japanese emperor spends much of his time involved in religious ritual and ceremonial procedures rather than phoning the prime minister to tell him how to run things. The evolution of the modern role of the emperor is outside the scope of this series, but we'll instead discuss the rise and fall of the emperor during the Heian period.

The Imperial Seal of Japan, a 16-petal  chrysanthemum, hence
why the sitting empire is sometimes referred to as sitting on the Chrysanthemum Throne

The Heian era began with the 50th Japanese emperor, Kanmu, moving the capital to Heian-kyo (present day Kyoto) in 794. This came only thirteen years after a previous capital move. It isn't that the emperor just liked to move, though. Instead, the second move, in particular, was reportedly motivated by political considerations. Buddhist temples and local aristocrats had become too influential, effectively limiting the emperor's power. By moving the capital, the emperor was attempting to refocus political power into the central government lead by him. 

Emperor Kanmu (737-806)
The government of Heian-kyo was a bureaucratic beast consisting of a governing council, many departments and many officials. Due to the complexity of both the governmental structure and the socio-political factors that went into becoming an official, we'll set that aside for now other than to note it was influenced by Tang-era Chinese government, and many elements that defined the Heian-era Japanese government were codified during the preceding Nara and Asuka periods (710-794 and 538-710, respectively).

The emperor sat onto his government. The mere existence of a bureaucracy already limited a lot of the emperor's power early on by limiting his ability to get things done easily and directly. Certain religious considerations also kept down a lot of the kind of pure terror that might keep certain people in line. Violence was considered to cause spiritual pollution, which, in turn, required purification. So, he couldn't exactly drag people into the palace to have their heads cut off and stuck on pikes to terrify his enemies.  One may laugh at my extreme example, but it's striking how many rulers in many lands (including Japan at different points in its history) basically preserved their power through monopolizing that sort of callous violence.

His daily routine was heavily influenced by religious ritual (particularly Shinto ritual) and so matters of spiritual purity were particularly important to the emperor. In fact, the emperor being so busy with daily rituals, both secular or otherwise, also limited his direct political influence. He simply didn't have time to micromanage the affairs of the government. 

Emperor Kanmu's efforts to reorganize the government and capital to tighten central power were also undermined by the machinations of the Fujiwara clan. The Fujiwara were a powerful aristocratic family that had been previously involved in disrupting the attempt of another powerful clan, the Soga, to consolidate control over the imperial government in the 7th century. By the time of the Heian era, Fujiwara were in many positions in the government. Many Fujiwara princesses had intermarried with the Imperial line since the Nara period.

By the 9th century, with their power on the rise and many of their enemies politically neutralized, the Fujiwara made a more bold bid for de facto control. If the sitting emperor produced a male child with a Fujiwara wife or consort, the Fujiwara lobbied hard to ensure that child would be named successor. In the interim, the child would spend a lot of time around his clan. They would also appoint a formal adviser. If underage when the assuming the Imperial Throne, the adviser would become a type of reagent called a sesshō, and, as a result, the elder Fujiwara would have general control of the government. Such was the case with the first Fujiwara regent, Yoshifusa, who became the regent for the Emperor Seiwa (850-881, reign: 858-876). Though the Fujiwara couldn't always keep complete control of the government, they would exhibit considerable influence to the 11th century.

Another way the emperor's true power was taken, regardless of whether he was of partially Fujiwara blood or not was because of the Japanese institution of retired emperors. As I noted above, the emperor had to spend a lot of time on rituals, protocol, and other assorted official activities. An emperor, however, could choose to retire. As I'll explain more of  in a bit, these retired emperors later ended up a power center themselves that competed with the sitting emperor.

The Fujiwara also exploited the earlier version of this system by encouraging emperors to retire young (usually in their thirties or forties) so that the next boy emperor could rise. So, even if a half-Fujiwara emperor started thinking seriously about limiting the ability of the clan (and why would he, if his own mother was a Fujiwara), he may soon have ended up finding himself pushed aside, so a newer, more pliable candidate could take the job. It is important to note that the Fujiwara were everywhere in the government, so the amount of social and political pressure they could bring to bear was tremendous, even on the emperor.

The Fujiwara's fortunes finally startd to reverse in 1068. The Emperor Go-Sanjō (1034-1073) had the particular misfortune (from the Fujiwara point of view) of not being born to a Fujiwara. There had been others since the Fujiwara squeezed their fingers around the throne, but he was the first in a hundred years. He also initiated several legal and political reforms to to curtail the influence of the Fujiwara. His son, the Emperor Shirakawa further eroded the control of the Fujiwara in an unusual way. He retired early as I discussed earlier, but went so far as to set up an alternative court in 1087 with officials and advisers. He became a so-called "cloistered emperor". This cloistered emperor system would seriously undermine the effective power of the sitting emperor, both weakening the emperor himself and the Fujiwara indirectly who had spent centuries developing their power around the control of the emperor.

With the close of the 12th century would come the Genpei War. That war saw the power of the emperor all but totally obliterated as the shoguns, military dictators, took firm control of Japan for centuries. Although the position of emperor was never eliminated, it lost almost all political power, either direct or indirect as the bureaucratic system, and the officials that populated it, became less important than the military might of the samurai. The cloistered emperors would linger for a few centuries, but their power had also been seriously curtailed.

There's a certain irony accompanying the cloistered system. I didn't go into detail above, but when these emperors retired, the standard practice was to go live in a Buddhist temple and take on Buddhist holy orders. So, the Emperor Kanmu had initiated the Heian era by moving the capital partially to escape the political influence of Buddhist temples on the government, but by the end of the era, retired emperors living as Buddhist holy men had tremendous influence.

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