The Heian Period - Important Events and Cultural Developments

Among the relatively few countries around the world that are known for having a colorful history, Japan stands to be the one to beat. Having been settled by various Asian migrants, ruled by countless emperors and samurai warriors, gone through a period of isolation, defeated, and bounced back stronger, the country is one of the greatest examples of restraint and pacifism on a global scale.

Accordingly, Japan is also recognized for having an incredibly rich culture inspired by several Asian traditions and religious beliefs. The art forms, literature, and life practices of Japan have continuously evolved throughout time to reflect and adapt to the different circumstances experienced by the local community.

At present, Japanese culture is considered to be completely unique mix of the ancient and modern times. Although it continues to change according to new developments and advances in technology, the essence of Japan’s practices goes back to the country’s roots, particularly to the Heian Period which is considered to be the time when art, poetry, and social hierarchy rapidly grew.

Japan’s Heian Period – Overview, Definition, and Facts

By 伝狩野元信 (『源平合戦図屏風』 赤間神宮所蔵) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The Heian Period, known as Heian jidai in Japan, is considered to be the last division that makes up classical Japanese history. The term “Heian” is written as 平安 and serves as the Japanese equivalent of “peace”.

Emperor Kanmu, the fiftieth emperor of Japan, chose to move the capital to Heian-kyo instead of Nagaoka-kyo when a string of disasters fell upon the latter. As such, the period, which ran from the year 794 to the year 1185, is aptly named after the then capital city called Heian-kyo (literally translates to mean “capital of peace and tranquility”), now better-known as Kyoto.

Towards the end of the 9th century, a rebellion had transpired in China which made political ties unstable. Japanese efforts aimed to understand the civilization and culture of China were suspended and subsequently halted the entry of Chinese exports.

As a result of these changes, the culture of Japan rapidly developed as an independent entity. The Heian Period served as the growth and peak age of the historical Japanese national culture known as Kokufu Bunka.

Although total control of the country supposedly fell into the hands of the emperor as dictated by Japan’s laws, the true rulers in power were actually the Fujiwara nobility. In the 9th century, the Fujiwara had begun to intermarry with Japan’s imperial family. Soon after, a member of this clan gained a position at the private office of the emperor.

Throughout the Heian Period, the Fujiwara clan continued to gain more and more control within the government until they finally became the most powerful family in the country. General affairs of the state including the succession of emperors were governed by the Fujiwara.

As a means to protect themselves, many noble families including the Fujiwara needed soldiers and guards. At the time, Japan relied on a group of professional warriors for situations that required military assistance. This organization was initially meant to serve the imperial family only but soon became intertwined with civil and religious entities. Eventually, this military class would go on to start the rise of the samurai class, another thing the Heian Period is known for.

The power of the Fujiwara clan began to decline when Emperor Go-Sanjo came into power. Go-Sanjo was the first emperor since the 9th century who did not have a Fujiwara mother. One of his ultimate goals was to restore the authority of the imperial court. He implemented several reforms meant to curb the influence of the Fujiwara.

The struggles for succession and power during the latter years of the Heian Period led to several civil wars and rebellions, the most notable ones being:

  • Hogen Rebellion

The Hogen Rebellion, also known as Hogen no ran, was a civil war that transpired for a short period from July 28 to August16, 1156. This was fought as a means to resolve the dispute regarding successions to the throne. Several unanticipated consequences rose from this war which formed the foundation for the eventual dominance of the samurai class.

  • Heiji Rebellion

The Heiji Rebellion or Heiji no ran was another relatively short civil war which went on from January 19 to February 5, 1160. It is considered to be a result of the earlier civil war but was between two rival clans that were struggling for political power.

  • Genpei War

The Genpei War, which is also referred to as Genpei kassen or Genpei gassen, was a five-year-long war between the clans of Minamoto and Taira, two great clans of the Heian Period who dominated Japanese politics. This war started in 1180 and was ultimately won by the Minamoto clan. Subsequently, Minamoto no Yoritomo established the Kamakura shogunate in 1192.

Architecture During the Heian Period

By 663highland (Own work) [GFDL (, CC-BY-SA-3.0 ( or CC BY 2.5 (], via Wikimedia Commons

During the Nara and Asuka periods, Japanese architecture was greatly influenced by Chinese and Korean designs. As Japan started developing its own distinct style in the Heian Period, the aesthetics of their buildings evolved, as well.

Given that the period served as the peak of Buddhism, Taoism, and Shinto in the country, the layouts of temples, shrines, and other structures were designed to bring more focus on the beauty of nature than the money used for creating ornate details. Gardens and ponds were two of the most common concepts admired and used by architects to give their works a sense of life.

Furthermore, symmetry played an important role in Japanese architecture and was used to make complexes look as if they had arms stretched in an embrace towards their corresponding natural landscapes. Overall, the Heian Period’s approach to architecture represented the importance of nature and simplicity to the Japanese community.

Art and Literature During the Heian Period

As previously mentioned, the Heian Period is known for being the peak of Japan’s cultural development, particularly in terms of art and poetry. The most momentous advances from this period that greatly contributed to the unique styles of Japan recognized today include:

Japanese calligraphy

For many centuries, Japan only made use of kanji (borrowed Chinese characters). At the time, a lot of local calligraphers wrote in similar styles as that of China. However, when the act of writing started becoming popular on a nationwide scale, it was evident that kanji, alone, could not be used to effectively say what one wants to.

As such, the kana syllabary was developed as a means to represent different pronunciations that could not be translated using kanji characters. With this unique, syllabic alphabet, it was just appropriate that Japan soon develop its own calligraphy style.

According to historians, the first texts that showed a difference between Japanese and Chinese calligraphy date back a few years before the start of the Heian Period. Later on, Ono no Michizake, one of the three great calligraphers of Japan, developed a distinct calligraphy style unique to Japan known as wayo-shodo.

The work of Ono no Michikaze served as the foundation for more styles of Japanese calligraphy which continued to evolve until the Edo Period.


Given the vital role of Buddhism in the lives of the Japanese community, religious paintings and mandalas flourished during the Heian Period. These forms of art served as a way for Buddhist practitioners to contemplate the concepts and deities of the religion.

One of the most famous mandala examples from the Shingon sect of Buddhism is the Womb World or Taizokai. This mandala consists of twelve sections which represent the various aspects of Buddhism, which are believed to be innate characteristics of human beings.

The center of the mandala features the Vairocana Buddha, which sits on a lotus and signifies compassion. This is then surrounded by many other Bodhisattvas and Buddhas that serve as attendants, symbolizing other dimensions of the nature of Buddha.


See page for author [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Towards the end of the Heian Period, an illustrated, horizontal narrative that came in the form of a scroll came into development.  These handscrolls were referred to as emaki and date back to the year 1130.

The earliest emaki that remains intact up to this day is the Genji Monogatari Emaki, which serves as an illustration of Murasaki Shikibu’s novel revolving around the year 1000 entitled Tale of Genji. The loves and life of Genji, as well as his aftermath on the Heian court, were brought to life by a group of emaki artists who developed a pictorial convention system as a means to properly indicate the emotions for every scene.

About half a century later, a livelier technique was popularized through the Ban Dainagon Ekotoba. This scroll illustrated a court intrigue by making use of vibrant colors and rapidly painted brush strokes to give the picture a moving sense of energy and motion.

Emaki scrolls also serve as some of the greatest examples of onna-e and otoko-e which respectively refer to women’s pictures and men’s pictures. These distinct painting styles have various differences between them and are designed to please the aesthetic preferences of their corresponding target genders.

The Genji Monogatari Emaki falls under the onna-e category, which usually deals with romantic themes and court life. On the other hand, otoko-e paintings often illustrate battles and historical events, e.g. the “Night Attack on the Sanjo Palace” from the Heiji Monogatari Emaki.

Clothing and Fashion During the Heian Period

By Corpse Reviver (Own work) [GFDL ( or CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

As Japan seized their missions to China and decided to focus inward, their clothing style changed quite dramatically, particularly when it came to women’s fashion. The color, style, and combination that a person wore during the Heian Period served as the prime indicator of his social ranking.

One of the most popular articles of clothing from this period is the juunihitoe, which translates to mean “twelve-layer robe” in English. This was used by the highest-ranking woman of the Imperial Court. Other women could also wear this type of garment, which, interestingly, does not always make use of twelve different layers.

Depending on the occasion, season, or social standing of the wearer, a juunihitoe could have as few as two layers or as many as twenty layers. The outfit served as the most formal attire for Japanese women and was even more complex during the winter season.

Color played an important role in Japanese fashion during the Heian Period. A certain shade of red could only be exclusively used by men from a particular court rank, while another shade was reserved for the women.

To make things more complicated, a third shade of red, which could be acquired from safflower, could only be used by women from the Imperial family. The countless symbolisms and importance of particular shades and colors remain significant up to this day in many kimono designs.

For the men and the commoners of the Heian Period, a garment known as kosode was quite popular. Although the term “kosode” means “small sleeve” in English, the robe does not particularly have short sleeves. Instead, each sleeve has an opening at the wrist which is meant to make the outfit more comfortable to wear and move in.

People who were not allowed or not privileged to wear extravagant robes such as the juunihitoe often chose kosode-style robes, instead. Colors were also used to indicate social ranking in these and other standard forms of clothing. Blue, green, red, and purple, in particular, indicated a wearer’s ranking from lowest to highest, in that order.

A Timeline of the Heian Period – Emperors, Rise of the Samurai, and Other Highlights

The Heian Period consisted of nearly four centuries of growth and development. Various emperors and clans came to rule Japan which not only shaped the existing laws of Japan but also its diverse culture. The historical and cultural highlights of the Heian Period are summarized in the timeline below:

  • 794 – The capital is moved to Heian-kyo by Emperor Kanmu.

  • 804 – Denyo Daishi (also known as Saicho), a Buddhist monk, establishes the Tendai school

  • 806 – Kobo Daishi (also known as Kukai), a Buddhist monk, establishes the Shingon school

  • 819 – Kobo Daishi establishes the Mount Koya monastery

  • 826 – The To-ji temple grounds is added with a 5-storey pagoda

  • 858 – The rule of the Fujiwara clan is started by Emperor Seiwa

  • 859 – The Iwashimizu Shrine, which is dedicated to the Shinto god of war Hachiman, is built in Heian-kyo

  • 874 – The Daigoji temple is built at Heian-kyo

  • 895 – The missions to China are halted by Sugawara no Michizane, a renowned politician, poet, and scholar

  • 901 – Sugawara no Michizane is exiled to Kyushu

  • 905 – Japanese poems are compiled in the Kokinshu anthology

  • 951 – The Daigoji temple grounds is added with a 5-storey pagoda

  • 987 – Sugawara no Michizane is officially revered as the Shinto god of learning and is given the name Tenman-Tenjin.

  • 990 – The Pillow Book essays, which describe the court life of the Heian Period, are written by Sei Shonagon

  • 1000 – 1008 – The novel Tale of Genji is written by Murasaki Shikibu

  • 1050 – The rise of the samurai class begins

  • 1052 – Fujiwara no Yorimichi builds the Byodo-in Temple

  • 1068 – The Fujiwara clan is overthrown by Emperor Go-Sanjo

  • 1087 – Emperor Shirakawa relinquishes his duties to become a Buddhist monk

  • 1156 – The Hogen Rebellion

  • 1160 – The Heiji Rebellion

  • June 1180 – The capital is moved from Heian-kyo to Fukuhara-kyo (the city now known as Kobe)

  • November 1180 – The capital is returned to Heian-kyo

  • 1185 – The Taira clan is defeated in the Genpei War. Minamoto no Yoritomo becomes Japan’s first shogun.