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Shogunate Japan: The rise and fall of the Emperor during the Heian period

A resource guide for the Year 8 History Samurai assignment

“A Lovely Garland” (Tamakazura), from The Tale of Genji, Painting by circle of Tosa Mitsuyoshi 土佐光吉 (Japanese, 1539–1613), Album leaves mounted as a pair of hanging scrolls; ink, gold, silver, and color on paper, Japan Source: "A Lovely Garland” (Tamakazura), from The Tale of Genji (early 17th century) by Tosa Mitsuyoshi (Metropolitan Museum of Art)

As the Jomon period came to an end and clans came into power the way in which Japanese society was structured began to change. One clan in particular, the Yamato Clan, became more powerful and through them the way in which Japan was governed would change. It was from this clan that Japan's first Emperor would emerge, and the Emperor would remain an important figure throughout Japanese history. However, the actual power that the Emperor had would rise and fall over time as different factors came into play. Read through the following resources to learn more.

Three Poems from the Collection of Poems Ancient and Modern (Kokin wakashū), one of the Araki Fragments (Araki-gire)

The long strands of calligraphy were inscribed without lifting the brush from the paper. Such “unbroken-line” (renmentai) brushwork, considered de rigueur for ladies of the palace during the age of Genji, came to characterize much of the period’s poetic inscriptions.

The “cloud paper” (kumogami), moreover, recalls the type popular in the Heian court from the tenth century onward. Indigo-dyed pulp was used when fabricating the paper, resulting in abstract undulating patterns of blue or purple—especially striking across the wide expanse of a handscroll—that were favored as an attractive backdrop for presenting poems.

Flying Apsaras (Hiten)

Apsaras, or hiten in Japanese, are flying celestial beings that accompany Buddhas. These two examples, which display apsaras riding clouds and playing musical instruments, are believed to be part of a group of twelve or fourteen that formerly adorned the mandorla of an eighty-foot-tall statue of Amida at Jōruriji, a Pure Land sect temple in Kyoto. Although the disks and flying sashes are later additions, the apsaras themselves, carved in high relief in Japanese cypress and gilt, are dated to the turn of the twelfth century, when the Amida statue was installed.

Scroll of Mudras

This handscroll depicts hand gestures known as mudras in Sanskrit, the Indian language in which many early Esoteric Buddhist texts were written. In Japan, the gestures are called insō, the Japanese term for a Chinese word that combines the characters for "seal" and "form." In Esoteric Buddhism, mudras are physical enactments of ultimate truths revealed through the buddhas and other deities. Practitioners of Esoteric Buddhism in Japan form mudras during meditation and rituals and use them to interpret the meaning of painted and sculpted Buddhist images. This scroll was passed down in the Kyoto temple Shōren-in, a Tendai School temple traditionally administrated by imperial princes who had taken religious vows.

Excerpt from Bai Juyi's "Autobiography of a Master of Drunken Poetry Recitation"

The highly skilled courtier-calligrapher Fujiwara no Yukinari earned a reputation as the consolidator of wayō (Japanese-style) calligraphy. The poet Bai Juyi’s collected works had a greater influence on Murasaki’s tale than any other Chinese work. The lines from Bai’s autobiographical statement read:

Therefore, he called himself the “Master of Drunken Poetry Recitation.” Now in the third year of the Kaicheng reign era [838], he has reached the age of sixty-seven. Though his beard has turned white, his head is half bald, and his teeth are falling out, his enjoyment of wine and poetry has not diminished. Turning to his wife, he said, “Before now I have always been at ease, but from now on, I do not know if I can enjoy these pleasures in the same way.”
—Translation by John T. Carpenter


Daishōgun (Great General) was a popular guardian spirit stationed at vulnerable locations in the capital of Kyoto, such as the northeast, where special shrines were established according to Onmyodō, or Chinese concepts of the yin-yang order of the universe. The deep and simple modeling of a single block of wood suggests a product of the later Heian period. Traces of the original finish on the face and torso reveal that the figure was once bearded, red-faced, and clothed in Japanese-style armor over a patterned garment.

Zaō Gongen

Zaō Gongen is a rare example of a purely Japanese deity in the Buddhist pantheon. Many of the religious practices associated with Zaō took place in remote temples deep in the mountains. Through these rites, mountain ascetics (yamabushi), who were practitioners of Shugendō, attempted to appropriate for themselves the sheer physical power of the deities. This powerful icon in a demon-quelling aspect was made for the Kōshōji Temple in Kyoto.

Poem from the Collection of Elegant Flowers (Reikashū), one of the Scented-Paper Fragments (Kōshi-gire)

During the Heian period, with the evolution and flowering of calligraphy in Japanese kana script as opposed to Chinese characters (kanji), it became fashionable to inscribe poetry in the chirashi gaki (scattered writing) mode, with the vertical lines of writing beginning at different heights on the page. This transcribed poem, written entirely in the Japanese syllabic kana, displays the fine brush lines and occasional linkage between the cursive characters that appears in many of the refined calligraphic works of the late Heian period.

This piece is attributed to Kodai no Kimi (also known as Koōgimi), a court lady and poet active from the late 10th through the early 11th century. The wife of an imperial prince and lady-in-waiting to two emperors, she was later included in the ranks of the revered—and predominantly male—grouping of famous poets known as the Sanjūrokkasen, or Thirty-six Poetic Immortals.

Page from the Sekido-bon Version of the “Collection of Poems Ancient and Modern”

Upon pale blue dyed paper, court poems (waka) are inscribed in an elegant, flowing script, mostly kana (Japanese phonetic writing). This particular eleventh-century transcription of poems is from the Collection of Poems Ancient and Modern (Kokin wakashu), the first imperially commissioned anthology of waka, compiled by around 905. Until this time, poetry composed at official palace gatherings had always been kanshi (Chinese poems composed by male courtiers). This detached page, remounted as a hanging scroll, was originally part of a bound booklet with pages dyed various colors. The Sekido Version of the Collection of Poems Ancient and Modern Poems—referred to in abbreviated form as the Sekido-bon Kokinshū—to which this page belongs, has long been esteemed as an exemplary model of ancient court kana calligraphy.

This work is among a couple of dozen or so superlative examples of brush writing traditionally attributed to the renowned calligrapher Fujiwara no Yukinari, active in the early eleventh century, who was known as a master of brush writing styles of both kana and kanji (Chinese characters). This work, however, is unsigned and such speculative attributions to Yukinari were already prevalent by the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries—when there was revived enthusiasm for the study of Heian calligraphy models of the tenth and eleventh centuries. In fact an authentication statement dating to the seventeenth century inscribed in one of the surviving intact volumes still in the Sekido Family Collection states, “….these pages are indubitably the genuine handwriting of the Provisional Major Counselor (Gon Dainagon) Yukinari.” In all likelihood, however, this work dates to a generation or two after Yukinari died in 1027, by which time he was already revered as a master calligrapher and his descendants had established a lineage of calligraphers, called the Sesonji-ryū, which for several centuries was viewed as the upholder of an orthodox, highly refined calligraphic style admired by the aristocracy. The work, nonetheless, may be considered to reflect the kana calligraphy style he passed down to his oldest son and daughter, and others in his aristocratic social circles.

The page here was originally part of Book One, the opening section of the Kokinshū anthology, which comprises poems on spring topics. The so-called Sekido Version (Sekido-bon) refers specifically to five separate bound volumes—Books One, Three, Four, Eleven and Twelve—that were preserved in the modern collection of the Sekido family Collection of Nagoya, in central Japan. For over three centuries, before passing to the Sekido family in 1882, the volumes had been part of the renowned collection formed by Lord Maeda of Kaga Province (modern Ishikawa Prefecture), which was then passed down through his descendants.

Since the assertive but highly refined calligraphy of the Sekido-bon Kokinshū was so highly admired by connoisseurs, over the course of the past century or so, about forty sections—usually just a page, sometimes a double-page spread—were excised from the bound booklets and mounted separately in hanging scroll format. This process of taking pages or handscroll fragments of famous kana calligraphy models and mounting them in albums (called tekagami) or as luxurious hanging scrolls for showing in a tokonoma display alcove was a common practice by the sixteenth century. Although in the early medieval period the preferred practice was to show a Chinese-style ink painting or Chan (Zen) calligraphy in the tea ceremony tokonoma, it gradually became more common to display fragments of famous kana calligraphy, usually transcriptions of court poems, a practice that remains to this day.

The page included here shows two characters from the end of the poem on a previous page, and then has a headnote and the name of the poet, and poem 45. The final two columns of text comprise the headnote for a poem that would have been on the following page (see the transcription below).

Scroll of Deities of the Diamond World Mandala

This iconographic handscroll features representations of the thirty-seven principal Buddhist deities from the Diamond World Mandala, along with auxiliary deities, amounting to a total of forty-nine deities. According to an inscription, it was copied from a scroll belonging to the temple Zentō-in on Mount Hiei in Shiga prefecture. Zentō-in, in fact, possesses a scroll very similar to this one. Known as the Scroll of the Thirty-Seven Deities, the Zentō-in scroll was brought to Japan from China by the founder of the Tendai School, Saichō (767–822), in 806. Distinct from the Diamond World Mandala of Kūkai's (774–835) Shingon School (see example), in which bodhisattvas are shown sitting on lotus thrones, this Tendai School scroll depicts bodhisattvas riding animals and birds. The identities of some of the deities in the scroll are indicated with Sanskrit letters, while the attributes held by others are noted with Chinese characters. Scrolls such as this one were often copied by initiates into Esoteric Buddhism as a means of instruction, but the fine line work of this scroll indicates that it was brushed by a professional artist. It may have been used as a model for the production of hanging-scroll format painted mandalas.

Mandala of Monju Bosatsu

At the center of this mandala, which was used in rites to prevent natural calamities, is an orb framing Monju Bosatsu (Sanskrit: Bodhisattva Manjushri) surrounded by eight tiny Sanskrit seed syllables and eight attendants, each on the lion mount associated with the bodhisattva. Seed syllables are derived from mantras (sacred Buddhist formulas) or, as in this case, the first syllable of a particular deity’s Sanskrit name. Representing wisdom, Monju holds his identifying attributes: the sword and sutra. His hair, bundled in eight knots, symbolizes his childlike purity and detachment. The Four Guardians of the Buddhist Law protect the corners of the inner square, and the outer band is filled with his retinue of eight bodhisattvas and devas, superhuman beings in Buddhist cosmology.

Hand of a Buddha

One of the most common mudras in Japanese Buddhist sculpture—an open hand with an inflected index or third finger touching the thumb—symbolizes peace and the exposition of Buddhist teaching. It is most often associated with Shakyamuni, the historical Buddha, or Amida (Sanskrit: Amitabha), the Buddha of the Western Paradise. The modeling of this carving suggests the sensuous forms of religious sculpture of the early Heian period, when the styles and iconography of Tang-dynasty Esoteric Buddhist art were introduced to Japan from China.

Tobatsu Bishamonten

Tobatsu Bishamonten is one of the manifestations of Bishamonten, the Guardian King of the North, who is usually included in a group of Four Guardian Kings (Shitennō), protectors of the four directions. However, in the manifestation of Tobatsu Bishamonten (as captured by this sculpture), the deity is always shown independently and typically stands on a mount supported by the female earth deity, Jiten, and two dwarf demons, Niranba and Biranba. Wearing an angry expression and dressed in the armor of a Chinese warrior, he holds in his left hand a miniature stupa, which symbolizes the Buddha’s teachings and relics; his right hand most likely held a weapon to subjugate evil and suppress the enemies of Buddhism.