Thursday, January 26, 2012

The Age of Tranquility and Peace: Heian Japan #13: Exile, Opportunity, and a Deified Bureacrat: The Provincials

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.


Last week I discussed the rigid rank system that defined the most elite of the social classes. The highest aristocratic elites were those typically concentrated in the capital. Court society was the center of Heian Japan, and high court position was the target of the ambitious. Despite the relative grandeur of the capital,  there still was an entire country filled with citizenry. What of the people who had some social standing but were not directly present for the social and political battles at court?

Heian Japan, while lacking the vastness and population of their neighbor and cultural mentor China, still was divided into various provinces. These provinces required governors and subordinate officials. In many societies, governorship of a province would seem a plum assignment, a way for an ambitious man to make his mark. The rigidity and peculiarities of Heian social organization, however, could make such an assignment a form of social suicide.

Court was the center of social and political life. Anything that put a person away from it was damaging not only that it kept people away from the front lines of social and politically maneuvering, but also just in the inherent less prestige associated with provincial assignments. Indeed, the typical rank of many provincial governors was equal or less than the rank associated with relatively minor functionaries in the government ministries of arguably lesser importance. In general, provincial distance from the capital and size influenced the rank associated with provincial positions (governorship or otherwise) and the relative hit in potential prestige. 

If one was given a provincial position and then returned to the capital, it could be difficult to successful re-enter court society (though not impossible). Indeed, being assigned to a distant province was used, on occasion, as a form of exile. It should also be noted, though, that many officials of lower initial status  ended up just having to do a requisite tour-of-duty in the provinces. So, the whole thing became a sort of self-fulfilling cycle. A high status official would be able to stay in the capital and consolidate their position, while the lower status officials would be sent off and have to play catch-up. Some officials with status might be assigned a provincial position but through deft maneuvering send a subordinate to actually perform the actual job. While one could see how in some occasions this might result in a talented lesser man being sent, there were many occasions where the men sent were not up to the task. Poor provincial administration would be a continuing issue as the decades and centuries of the Heian era passed.

One individual who demonstrates both escape from provincial social damage and provincial life as a form of exile is Michizane Sugawara (845-903; I will be doing an entire entry dedicated to him at some point). He started his career as a sixth-rank official. He had to do a four-year tour as a provincial governor. He later returned to the capital and worked his way up to third rank, but later political struggles had him reassigned to a remote province at reduced rank.  

Now, Sugawara-san is a rather unusual example. He was a hyper-talented individual who advanced in rank with more success than many officials. In addition, he was so respected and influential that following his death, a series of ill omens (drought, disease, lightning striking the palace, imperial children death, et cetera) were actually attributed to his angry spirit venting his wrath for an unjust exile. In response, not only was his higher rank and position restored posthumously, the court even built a shrine to him. He would subsequently be deified as Tenjin-sama, the kami of scholarship. To this day, there are people who pray at Tenjin-sama shrines.

Anyway, excluding future kami, many officials realized they would have trouble gaining decent status back at the capital and elected to stay in the provinces where they could consolidate local wealth, political, and even military power. This would, on occasion, lead to some issues including the occasional rebellion.

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