Tap to Read ➤

The Heian Period of Classical Japanese History

Anup Patwardhan Feb 25, 2020
The Heian period is known for the birth and growth of Japanese arts and culture. A Japanese way evolved from the influence of Chinese culture during this era.

Did You Know......

In ancient Japan, imperial permission was necessary to wear anything made of silk.
The Heian era in Japanese history extends from 794 CE to the 1185 CE. This period was preceded by the Nara period, while it was followed by the feudal age. The capital was set up at Heian-kyô, present day Kyôto, which means city of peace and tranquility. It was a social, political, and cultural hub of Japan.
This period, of close to 4 centuries, is the longest and considered as being one of the most stable times in their history. The 'Fujiwara' family was the most influential during this time.
Up to this time, Japan was under a strong influence of Chinese culture. In the Heian period, influence of the T'ang Dynasty was coming to an end, loosening hold of Chinese culture over Japan. This led to the Heian era being known as the 'classical' period of Japanese history.
Here's a look at the Japanese Heian Period, with some of the aspects that were reformed with the contemporary Japanese touch.


The style of dressing saw significant changes during these times. The robes for women, which were round-necked like the Chinese, now changed to cross-necked. The colors and their shades signified the ranks of people. Their formal wear was the 'jūnihitoe', a 12-layered robe.
The women had to wear layers of robes with equal length of sleeves. The color of these sleeves, their combination, and sequence was according to the strata of society that the woman belonged to.
The way of clothing for men, for a major part of this era, remained the same as that was in the Nara period. Later on, men also started wearing the cross-collared robes, though with smaller opening sleeves known as 'kosode'. Men usually had faint mustaches and a thin goatee, and women had black, flowing hair.


There were some changes in the religious structuring of society as well. Buddhism began to spread a lot during this period, and had a strong influence over Japanese architecture. This era witnessed formation of two new Buddhist sects, Tendai and Shingon. Tendai originated in China, while Shingon has its origin in Japan.
The Tendai sect, formed by Saichō, believed in the use of speech and had a greater following. The Temple of Tendai (Enrayakuji) is located at Mt. Hiei, whereas, the monastery for Shingon, founded by Kūkai, is located at Mt. Koya. The Shingon sect, unlike Tendai, does not make use of speech for the transfer of teachings from master to student.


Japanese society was predominantly a matriarchal society.
They believed the sun to be a female―Goddess Amaterasu'. After marriage, a man was supposed to live with the family of his wife. The maternal grandparents were in-charge of the care and upbringing of the children. This norm was very much used by the 'Fujiwara' clan to stay in charge for the better parts of 4 centuries.
Though the emperor was in power, the Fujiwara nobility controlled most things. And for their protection, the warrior class came into prominence during these times. Noble men and women powdered their faces and used to blacken their teeth.


As mentioned earlier, in the Shingon sect of Buddhism, speech was not used for knowledge transfer. They made the use of mandala (paintings) and mudra (gestures). This encouraged the use of gestures and paintings, which have left their mark on visual arts of the country.
The Japanese language, as it evolved, was used more in poetry that was predominantly written by women, as against the official documents which were mostly drafted by men, and were in Chinese. One of the very first books in Japanese is the Kagerô Diary by a writer known as Michitsuna's mother. There have been speculations that she was one of the many wives of Fujiwara Kaneie, a descendent of the main family branch.
'Genji Monogatari' or The Tales of Genji by Murasaki Shikibu is considered as one of the greatest creations in Japanese literature. Its popularity was rivaled only by 'The Pillow Book' authored by Sei Shônagon . Both the authors were rivals in field of literature as well as in politics. They were ladies-in-waiting to rival empresses.


Towards the end of the 12th century, there were conflicts in the imperial family for succession, that led to wars. This gave birth to a clan of warriors called the Samurai. Their original intention and purpose was to protect the imperial family.
But as the position of the imperial family began to weaken and decay due to internal disputes, the Samurai posed a threat to the imperial family themselves, and eventually did end up overthrowing the imperial family and coming to power.
Thus began the feudal age in Japanese history, where the Samurai were the power hub of the country, marking the end of the Heian era in Japanese history.
The lyrics of Japan's national anthem were written during the Heian period. These are the oldest lyrics for any country's national anthem, and also one of the shortest anthems in the world.