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Medieval Japan: Aristocratic Life in Heian-kyo . Mrs. Rand University Preparatory school 2011. The Golden Age of Japan: the Heian Period. Why is this period of japan’s history referred to as its Golden Age?.

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medieval japan aristocratic life in heian kyo

Medieval Japan: Aristocratic Life in Heian-kyo

Mrs. Rand

University Preparatory school


the golden age of japan the heian period
The Golden Age of Japan: the Heian Period

Why is this period of japan’s history referred to as its Golden Age?


During the Golden Age in Japan, the objects that were prized among the higher class of people were:

    • Beauty
    • Elegance
    • Correct Manners
  • Art was a big part of Japanese culture and changed during the Golden Age.
  • These changes included:
    • Poets writing about delicate feelings and fragile nature
    • Women composed diaries and nonfiction
    • Painters and sculptors invented new styles of art
    • Performers entertained with new types of music, dance and drama
rise of the fujiwara family
Rise of the Fujiwara Family

How and why did this family get to be so powerful?


During much of the Heian period, aristocrats were the political and cultural leaders of Japan.

  • By the mid 9th century, the real power in the imperial court shifted from the emperor to aristocratic families.
  • The Japanese believed that the emperor’s family was descended from Japan’s sun goddess… this gave the family a special right to govern, but the Fujiwara had other ways of exercising power.


    • Beginning in 858, the Fujiwara married many of their young daughters into the royal family.
    • They also made sure that sons of Fujiwara royal wives were chosen to be emperors.
  • Second,
    • The Fujiwara acted as advisors to the emperor –in reality they had more power than the rulers they guided.
    • The Fujiwara often coaxed (convinced) older emperors to retire so that a child or youth could take the throne… from this point the Fujiwara ruled as regents in the young emperor’s name.

The Fujiwara family used their power to better their own lives.

  • However, they also kept peace in Japan for nearly three hundred years.
  • This helped Japanese culture blossom during the Heian period.
social position in the heian court
Social Position in the Heian Court

Why was rank and social standing so important to members of the emperor’s court?

rank and social standing
Rank and Social Standing
  • Rank was highly important during the Heian period.
  • A person’s rank was determined almost completely by what family he or she came from.
  • Being born into high-ranking family mattered more than personal qualities or skills.
ranks within heian court hierarchy
Ranks Within Heian Court Hierarchy
  • There were nine ranks in the Heian Court:
    • High nobles filled in the top three ranks
      • These nobles were appointed by the emperor and dealt directly with him.
    • Less important officials filled the fourth and fifth ranks.
      • Nobles in these ranks received profits from rice farms throughout the countryside.
      • They also received money from taxes paid by peasant farmers.
    • Sixth through the ninth ranks were filled by minor officials.
      • Officials, clerks, and experts the fields of law or medicine made up this group of officials.
how does the rank system work
How Does the Rank System Work?
  • Members of different ranks were divided into classes such as senior and junior, upper and lower.
    • In all, there were some 30 sub-ranks.
    • Each rank brought with it specific privileges and detailed rules about conduct.
  • Members of different rank had different types of houses and carriages. Rank determined the number of servants people had and even the number of folds in the fans they carried
    • Men of 1st, 2nd, or 3rd ranks carried fans with 25 folds
    • Men of the 4th and 5th ranks used fans with 23 folds
    • Fans of those in lower ranks had 12 folds
rank system continued
Rank System Continued
  • The precise ranking system also determined such matters as what color clothing a noble could wear and the height of the gatepost in front of a family’s home.
  • In addition, if a person was found guilty of a crime, rank determined how harsh the sentence would be.
beauty in japanese society

Beauty in Japanese Society
beauty and fashion in the heian period
Beauty and Fashion in the Heian Period
  • Heian society prized beauty, elegance, and fashion.
  • To be described as yoki (good), people had to come from an important family.
  • People from these families were expected to look nice and be sensitive to beauty in nature, poetry, and art.
  • Individuals were judged by how good their taste was – the ability to recognize beauty was valued over qualities like generosity and honesty.
what did this mean for men and women of the nobility
What did this mean for men and women of the nobility?
  • Men and women groomed themselves with great care.
  • Small, pointed beards were considered attractive on male courtiers.
  • For women, long hair was an important beauty feature.
    • Ideally, a woman’s hair would grow longer than she was tall.

The Japanese considered white teeth unattractive at this time in their history.

    • Both men and women carefully blackened their teeth using a salve they made from iron and other ingredients they soaked in tea or vinegar.
  • How one smelled was also very significant
    • As a result, both men and women wore scents
    • Perfume competitions were frequent and popular.
    • People guarded their scent recipes carefully.

For women, make up was also important.

    • Women used white face powder to make themselves look pale.
    • Over the chalky powder, a Heian woman would put touches of red on her cheeks. The she painted a small red mouth.
    • also plucked out her eyebrows and painted on a set of eyebrows in just the right spot, high on the forehead.
  • How a woman dressed was important.
    • An aristocratic woman might wear as many as 12 silk under-robes at a time.
    • When she rode in a carriage, she might dangle a wrist so that people could see the lovely layers of silk.

The love of beauty also showed in Heian architecture, calligraphy, poetry, and artwork.

  • Concern with form and beauty was so great that courtiers sometimes performed stylized dances as a part of their official duties.
entertainment at the heian court
Entertainment at the Heian Court

How did members of the court spend their time?

In What activities were they expected to take part?

aristocrats in the heian court had lots of leisure time
Aristocrats in the Heian Court Had Lots of Leisure Time
  • Men enjoyed watching horse races, archery contests, and sumo wrestling.
    • In sumo wrestling, young men of great weight try to throw each other to the ground or out of the ring.
  • In good weather, men and women alike enjoyed watching boat races along the river than ran through the city.


Groups of courtiers played a game called kemari

    • they kicked a leather ball back and forth, keeping it in the air for as long as possible.
  • They played in the same elegant robes they wore at court.
  • Women used stone pieces of a board game go to play another game called rango.
    • The object was to balance as many stones as possible on one finger.
festivals and celebrations
Festivals and Celebrations
  • Many festivals and celebrations had its own customs:
    • Many involved contests that tested athletic, poetic, or artistic skill.
    • For example, in the Festival of the Snake, cups of wine were floated in a stream. Guests took a cup and drank from it. Then they had to think up and recite a poem.

festivals and celebrations1
Festivals and Celebrations
  • Other special days featured contests that judged the best-decorated fans, the most fragrant perfumes, the loveliest artwork, or the most graceful dancing.
  • Dancing was an important skill for Heian-kyo’s nobles, since dance was a part of nearly every festival.


Bagaku performances were a popular form of entertainment. Bagaku combined dance with music and drama.

  • Bugaku dancers wore masks and acted out simple stories using memorized movements.

writing literature in the heian period
Writing & Literature in the Heian Period

Why was writing the most valued form of expression?

How was daily life changed by writing and literature as a japanese art form?

writing in daily life
Writing in Daily Life
  • Poetry was a part of daily life in Heian-kyo.
  • People were expected to make up poetry in public.
  • If they couldn’t think up a few clever lines of poetry to fit a given occasion, others took notice of the failure.

Heian writers took care to present their work in a beautiful manner.

Calligraphy skills were as important as the ability to create poetry.

People believed that handwriting revealed their character and goodness better than the words they used.


Men and women carefully created poems to charm each other.

  • When someone received a poem from a friend, family member, or acquaintance, they were expected to write a response
  • The reply of the poem was expected to have the same style, mood, and imagery as the original.

women become japan s leading writers
Women Become Japan’s Leading Writers
  • The female companions to male courtiers of Heian-kyo were usually selected for their intelligence.
  • They often took great interest in literature.
  • As a result, women led the flowering of a golden age of Japanese literature in the 10th and 11th centuries.
the end of the heian period
The End of the Heian Period

What things were taking place in japan that caused the end of this “golden Age”?

problems brewing outside the courts of heian
Problems Brewing… Outside the Courts of Heian
  • Aristocrats lived well, but outside of Heian life for the majority of the population was difficult.
  • The lifestyle of the wealthy aristocrats was based on the labor and work of the peasant classes.
  • Making matters worse, these aristocrats often looked down on the poor and ignored their problems.
  • The practice of giving large estates to top nobles slowly reduced the emperors’ power.
  • Those who owned these estates paid no taxes.
  • Tax-free land (over time) was quite common…. The government could no longer collect enough taxes to support the emperor.
emperors begin to lose control
Emperors Begin to Lose Control
  • Bandits roamed the countryside.
  • People of different religions began to band together to attack and rob each other.
  • The government was too weak to supply law enforcement.
  • Estate owners created their own police and armies to protect their lands.

beginning of warrior society in japan
Beginning of Warrior Society in Japan
  • Profits from landowners’ estates went to pay for private armies and not to supporting the emperor.
  • By the 12th century, the power of some local lords rivaled that of the weakened imperial government.
  • Fighting broke out over control of the land.