Japan in the Middle Ages

Japan in the Middle Ages is also referred to as the “Classical Period” in Japan.  Three main periods, the Asuka period, the Nara period, and the Heian period, made up the classical period.  During this time empirical dynasties flourished and Buddhism became a central part of the culture.  The classical period in Japan in the Middle Ages was followed by the feudal period, which lasted from the twelfth to the nineteenth centuries.

Asuka- 538-710

By the end of the Asuka period of Japan in the Middle Ages, the proto-Japanese Yamato (an ancient province in Japan) polity had become a centralized nation state.  Over the period, it defined and applied a code of governing laws.  Two important laws included the Taiho Code and the Taika Reforms. 

The Asuka period also brought strong economic bonds with peoples in the southwestern coast of the Korean Peninsula.  These included the Baekje people, who lived on the southwestern coast of Korea.  This relationship began in the year 391 when the Japanese saved both the people of Baekje and their king from the Koguryo peoples.  The Koguryo lived in the northern part of the Korean peninsula.  The Japanese had also developed good relations with the Paikche people.

The Baekje people also were Japan’s introduction to Buddhism.  Beginning in 538, Buddhism was promoted by the ruling class, though it was not popular among the general population.
In 594, as Regent to Empress Suiko, Prince Shotoku came to power.  Shuiko was in power as the niece of Sujun who was the most recent emperor (ruler from 588-593).  Suiko was the first female ruler of Japan since the ancient matriarchal times.

 She had come to power when her uncle was assassinated, and had previously been married to Emperor Bidastu, who ruled from 572-585.  Shotoko decided to use his power as Regent to Shuiko to spread Chinese culture and Buddhism throughout Japan.  Using the Seventeen article constitution, he also was able to bring peace to Japan.  This Confucian constitution preached moralistic values for the government and subjects of the emperor.  Later, Buddhism became a staple in Japan and was assimilated into Japanese culture.

Nara- 8th century

The Nara period continued to strengthen Japan in the Middle Ages.  Nara is sometimes nicknamed the “golden age.”  During this time Japan’s capitol was changed to Nara.  It had previously resided in Asuka.  The government and laws became stricter and more defined.  A new, more powerful, nobility and aristocracy came to power.  Land had to be registered by the government, taxes were collected in a more efficient manner, and government buildings and other architecture were built.  A census was conducted every five years, and citizens’ allowance for land ownership was reviewed.  The social and popular culture also flourished as well.

During the Nara period in Japan in the Middle Ages, an increase in political development was signified by conflicts between church and state.  These conflicts occurred between the Buddhist clergy and the imperial family.  Conflicts between the imperial family and the Regents also occurred.  During this time Japan had a peaceful relationship with who they usually regarded as enemies, the Silla people.  The Silla people lived on the Southeast coast on Korea.  In the Nara period Japan managed to establish a good relationship with China’s Tang dynasty.

The capitol was moved again to Nagaoka-kyo in the year 784.  The reason for this move was in order to avoid more conflicts with the Buddhist priests.  Ten years later, in 794, it was moved again to Hein-kyo.  This capital city is the city of Kyoto today, and Kyoto remained the capitol until 1868. 

The emergence of historical writings in Japan started what would become legendary, mythological accounts of Japan’s beginning.  These writings started in the early 700s AD.  Examples include Kojiki(The Record of Ancient Matters), which was written in 712 AD, and Nihon Shoki (Chronicles of Japan) which was written in 720.  According to the myths, Japan’s founder was the ancient Emperor Jimmu. 

Emperor Jimmu founded Japan in 660 BC, and he was a direct descendant of the Shinto deity Amaterasu, the Sun Goddess.  Jimmu supposedly began a line of emperors that remains today.  Historians believe that the books contain some fact, but that in reality, the original emperor of Japan was Ojin.  Historians are unaware of the dates of his reign.  Also, empirical power has not always been the source of political power in Japan.  More currently, for example, Japan is run by a prime minister.

Heian- 794-1185

The third period of Japan in the Middle Ages was the Heian period.  This was the final period of “classical” Japanese history.  This time period is considered the highlight of the Japanese imperial rule and is noted for the art that was produced during the time.  The most significant art produced was the poetry and literature.  One of the oldest known novels in the world, The Tale of Genji, was written during this period.  The oldest collections of poetry were also collected at this time.

During this time the Fujiwara clan had most of the control politically and almost all of the control over the imperial family.  From 858-1160 is known as the Fujiwara period because of the great authority and influence that the Fujiwara family held over the court.  The way they were able to gain power was through matrimonial heritage.  Many emperors had Fujiwara mothers, so the Fujiwara family became closely identified with the imperial family. 

They were so close, in fact, that the general population saw no difference between them and the imperial family.  Many conflicts and rebellions broke out as a result of this as well as dissatisfaction with the government in general.  When the court appointed Yorimoto people of the Minamoto clan to many of the high positions in 1192, the Fujiwara were defeated and the Fujiwara Period ended.

The end of the Heian Period in Japan in the Middle Ages brought a rise in militant actions and a rise in army clans.  These clans included the Taira clan, the Fujiwara clan, and the Minamoto clan.  Civil wars broke out among these clans towards the end of the 12th century.  Also of important note was the Hogen rebellion.  The Hogen Rebellion was a climactic event which led to the beginning of the feudal period in Japan.

Feudal- 1185-1868

Feudalism in Japan was controlled by powerful aristocratic families in each region.  Military warlords also held some power.  Empirical rule was still in place during this time, but it was mostly for show and the emperor mostly served as a figurehead.  The power of merchants and artisans was almost nonexistent during this time.

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