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Japan Travel Guide

Nara and Heian Periods (710 - 1185)

In the year of 710, the first stable Japanese capital was based in Nara, a city modeled after the Chinese capital. Large Buddhist monasteries were built in the new capital. The monasteries agilely obtained such strong political influence that, in order to defend the position of the emperor and central government, the capital was moved to Nagaoka in 784, and finally to Heian (Kyoto) in 794 where it should remain for over one thousand years.

One feature of the Nara and Heian periods is a progressive decline of Chinese influence which, however, remained strong. Several of the foreign ideas were gradually "Japanized". In order to satisfy specific Japanese needs, many governmental offices were based in addition to the government system which was copied after the Chinese model, for example. Also, in the arts, native Japanese movements were progressively popular. The formation of the Kana syllables made the conception of actual Japanese literature viable. Many new Buddhist sects that were accepted from China during the Heian period, were also "Japanized".

Between the worst failures of the Taika reformations were the land and taxation reforms: Elevated taxes were the cause for the impoverishment of many farmers who then had to vend their properties and became tenants of larger land owners. Besides, several aristocrats and the Buddhist monasteries had success in achieving tax immunity. Consequently, the state income decreased, and over the centuries, the political power steadily shifted from the central government to the large independent land owners.

The Fujiwara family influenced the political situation of the Heian period over many years through strategic intermarriages with the imperial family and by occupying all the major political offices in Kyoto and the important provinces. In the year 1016, the power of the clan reached its peak with Fujiwara Michinaga. After Michinaga, nevertheless, the efficiency of the Fujiwara leaders started to decline, and public order could not be controlled. Many land owners hired samurai for the protection of their properties. That is how the military class became more and more dominant, particularly in Eastern Japan.

The Fujiwara dominance had their end in 1068 when the new emperor Go-Sanjo was decided to rule the country by himself, and the Fujiwara couldn't control him. In the year 1086 Go-Sanjo renounced but continued to rule from behind the political stage. This new way of government was known as Insei government. Insei emperors exercised political power from 1086 until 1156 when Taira Kiyomori became the new leader of Japan.

During the 12th century, two military families with aristocratic funds gained much power: The Minamoto (or Genji) and Taira (or Heike) families. The Taira substituted many Fujiwara nobles in main offices while the Minamoto gained military experience by bringing parts of Northern Honshu under Japanese control in the Early Nine Years War (1050 - 1059) and the Later Three Years war (1083 - 1087).

Subsequently in the Heiji Rising (1159), a combat for power among the two families, Taira Kiyomori becomes in leader of Japan and they ruled the nation from 1168 to 1178 through the emperor. The main threats with which he was controlled were not only the rivalling Minamoto but also the progressively militant Buddhist monasteries which repeatedly led wars between each other and disturbed public order.

Posterior to the Kiyomori's death, the Taira and Minamoto clans had a confrontation to deciding the supremacy, the Gempei War, which lasted from 1180 to 1185. Toward the end of the war, the Minamoto were effective to put an end to Taira supremacy, and Minamoto Yoritomo had succee as the leader of Japan. After defeating all of his potential and acute enemies, including close family members, he was nominated Shogun (highest military officer) and based a new government in his home city Kamakura.

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