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Japan’s Change and Slow Growth A.D. 838-1150

BETWEEN THE ninth and twelfth centuries, Japan developed at a slower pace. It was as if the people knew that they needed time to digest what they had learned. After 838, the government sent no more official missions to China. The Japanese continued to value Chinese civilization as highly as ever, but they went about things in their own way. Slowly, Japan became thoroughly Japanese.

Prince Shotoku’s dream of a strong central government had come true. In time, however, the same evils that plagued Chinese dynasties in their later stages began to plague Japan. Thanks to their high positions at court, the noble landowners did not have to pay taxes. As a result, they grew richer and were able to buy more land. Although more Japanese land was being farmed all the time, less and less of it could be taxed. The government’s income fell while its expenses rose.

Naturally, the government tried to make the landowners pay taxes. This move was bound to fail, for the officials who were supposed to carry out the order were the very men who profited most from not having to pay taxes. It was like asking them to pick their own pockets. Failing in this attempt, the government raised the taxes of landowning peasants instead. To escape paying these taxes, some peasants put themselves under the protection of the nearest great landowners, while the more adventurous headed north for the thinly settled Ainu country of North Honshu. Either way, their taxes were lost to the government, which became weaker and weaker.

In China, a foreign invader or a rebel leader would have overthrown the sickly government and made himself ruler. In Japan, nothing of the sort happened. For one thing, there was no enemy at Japan’s borders, only miles and miles of empty ocean. For another thing, any Japanese would have been horrified at the thought of taking up arms against the emperor, whom he had been brought up to worship as a god. Anyway, who cared whether the central government was strong or weak? To the peasants it was all the same if they paid taxes to the government or rent to their landlords. The landlords, of course, found this new state of things very much to their liking.


In one way, at least, the shift of power away from the capital was good for the country. Many landowners kept scholars and artists on their estates, because wealthy men were expected to patronize learning, the arts and because it brought them honour to do so. Culture spread out into the country districts and seeped down to the levels of society below the top. At the same time, Kyoto kept growing. Life at the imperial court was gayer and more elegant than ever. The noble families who took part in the endless ceremonies and banquets could well afford gorgeous robes and fine jewels and costly entertainments.

Of all the Kyoto noblemen, the richest belonged to a family named Fujiwara. Their wealth, which came from their vast landholdings, gave them great power. In fact, they were so powerful that for three centuries some member of the family was in control of the government, as regent for an under-age emperor. For this reason the period between 857 and 1160 is called the Fujiwara Period.

Most of the Fujiwaras were shrewd men. They never tried to “buy” the emperors and never threatened them with their great power. Instead, they simply supplied the emperors with brides from their family. For hundreds of years, both the wives and the mothers of most emperors were Fujiwaras. For the Fujiwara family, this system worked out very well. It was a rare young emperor who dared to argue with his regent, his mother and his wife all at the same time.

Nevertheless, some of the bolder retired emperors disliked being told what to do. The first such rebel was the Emperor Uda, who reigned from 887 to 897 but did not die until 931. Toward the end of the eleventh century, a bitter struggle began between the retired emperors and the Fujiwara regents. This struggle would go on for hundreds of years. By the middle of the twelfth century, however, it had already become quite unimportant, for by then the imperial government had lost all power.

The Buddhism that was fashionable at the Fujiwara court could hardly be recognized as a form of the Indian religion. It consisted entirely of an elaborate ritual, made up of magical prayers. The Buddhism of the ordinary people was simpler, but no closer to original Buddhism. Its goal was no longer nirvana. Instead, a believer looked forward to a cheerful place called the Pure Land of Amida into which he could be reborn when he died — if he had faithfully chanted the names of the Buddha and his disciple Prince Amida over and over during his lifetime. Buddhist art and sculpture were equally unspiritual. On all the jolly carved and painted faces of the Buddha, it was hard to find any hint of religious feeling. The natural cheerfulness of the Japanese people had won out over the solemnity of the Indian faith and Buddhism in Japan had become something quite new: Japanese Buddhism.


In the Fujiwara Period, artists began to paint landscapes, views of nature and scenes from everyday life. Unlike the Chinese, they used colour. One form of art much admired by the public was the “picture scroll.” Picture scrolls were like comic strips, for they told a story on a continuous long paper scroll, either in one picture or several. During this time, too, a great number of diaries and and novels were printed. The authors were aristocratic court  ladies with time on their hands. The greatest of their works was a novel called The Tale of Genji, written by a noblewoman who signed herself Murasaki no Shikibu. This long account of the romantic career of the imaginary Prince Genji has captivated readers in many lands.

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