Wednesday, January 18, 2012

The Age of Tranquility and Peace: Heian Japan #12: The Narrow Tip of the Pyramid: The Rank System

Welcome to my continuing series on Heian-era Japan. If you have no clue what I'm talking about, just click here for an overview of the Heian era.


Although I've alluded to the complexity of social organization in Heian society, I've not really shared much in the way of detail other than repeatedly referring to the Heian-era people as rank and status obsessed. Over the next few weeks, I'm going to delve a bit deeper into the social classes of Heian society. We shall start at the top and work our way down to the bulk of the population, the working peasants.

The keystone of the social pyramid, of course, was defined by the emperor. Though, as discussed in a previous entry, the relative political power of the emperor varied by decade and century thanks to the machinations of the Fujiwara clan and others.

Before we take another step down the pyramid, I should note that the social structures that defined Heian-era Japan were mostly codified by the Taika Reforms in 645. These reforms heavily influenced land and governance. They were key in establishing a true centralized imperial government. Although they were heavily influenced by Chinese society and Confucian thought, they did not set up a mere copy of Chinese society. Among other things, the established pre-Reform aristocracy retained considerable power and influence. It'd be far too much of a tangent to wander off on now, but the summary version of why this is important is that it contributed rigidity in Japanese court society, which, in turn lacked most of the (albeit limited) social mobility seen in Chinese society in the same period. So even if the Taika Reforms crystallized things a bit, and in many cases made things a bit more complicated at court, in practical terms they were also, arguably, just doing a lot to cement already existing social hierarchies.

The reforms helped established a detailed rank system for court officials and aristocrats. There were ten court ranks with the a junior/lower upper/senior division for the top three (kugyō, mostly peopled only by members from branches of the imperial family or members of the most powerful clans). The various other ranks could also be divided into lower and upper divisions. Overall, there were thirty distinct political ranks and sub-ranks.  Each of these grades had distinct privileges, but all received reduced criminal penalties and immune to unpleasant things like conscription either for military or labor purposes. 

Rank was, for the most part, assigned by existing family status and connections. Promotion was possible, but, in reality was also mostly related to existing family connections. This marked the system as rather distinct from its main inspiration, imperial China, which while imperfect, still offered the possibility for talented men of more modest birth to rise in stature and enrich the quality of the bureaucratic machinery of the government.

The ranks were not just about who could wear the longest tail on their sokutai. Rank determined both what types of positions you could have in the government and relative wealth. Income from rice holdings or tax revenue from peasants, for instance, was assigned on the basis of rank. There were even government allowances for things like silk.

Despite all the legal privileges and wealth that came with court rank, it wasn't all fun taxing peasants and free silk. Rank also rigidly defined many behavioral codes, which were bolstered by imperial regulations.

For example, the number of riders that could accompany a person during travel was determined by rank. Now, much like aristocrats in all societies throughout the ages, the Heian aristocrats certainly didn't always obey these rules, but these rules carried both societal and legal power, and made  life as a ranked noble a complicated affair. 

An often ridiculous level of bureaucracy defined their actual working lives as well. Indeed, one can make the argument that, at the time, the Heian government was much more concerned with the ritual of government than anything approaching actual efficient governance (the more things change, the more they stay the same). The rank system narrowed the field of competition for many positions, but given the limited opportunities for advancement, competition could be ferocious and often played out through social and political battles that rippled throughout the tiny and tight-knit aristocratic community.


I.J.Parker said...

Excellent write-up. By the late Heian period, the power was exclusively in the hands of one part of the Fujiwara clan and most of the top slots were filled by family members. In later years, each rank division was further subdivided. In theory, an official was evaluated each year for his performance, but this had become a way of controlling non-Fujiwara officials rather than rewarding excellence.

J.A. Beard said...

Thanks for the compliment, I.J. (and the elaboration). It means a lot coming from someone like you who has such a thorough knowledge of the period.

passionate man said...

As a learner interested in the period in which my ghost is from I appreciate greatly your sharing. Thank you.
Daniel O'Brien, author the Japan Series.

passionate man said...

Daniel O'Brien

J.A. Beard said...

Thank you, Daniel.