Fujiwara Clan

Fujiwara Clan

The Fujiwara clan rose to power as a result of the coup d’etat of 645 that overthrew the Soga, which had dominated the Japanese government until then. The period between c. 857 and 1160 is called the Fujiwara period. Even after losing power it continued to monopolize positions in the imperial court at Kyoto until 1867.

In 645 a nobleman named Nakatomi Katamari helped a prince, who later became Emperor Tenchi (Tenji), to overthrow the politically dominant Soga clan. In gratitude Tenchi granted a new surname to his ally, who became Fujiwara Katamari (Japanese list their surnames before personal names).

He was the founder of the Fujiwara clan and assisted Tenchi in launching the Taika Reforms that continued Prince Shotoku’s policy to Sinicize Japan’s government. They sponsored five embassies to China between 653 and 669 that sent young Japanese to learn about every aspect of the Chinese civilization.

Katamari’s descendants continued to accumulate power in the court of Emperor Tenchi’s successors through marrying their daughters to each generation of emperors. As a result almost all emperors since that time were sons of Fujiwara women, and the few whose mothers were not Fujiwara made no headway in restoring power to the imperial family.

Initially Fujiwara men were content taking important government positions, but after 858 Fujiwara Yoshifusa went a step further— he placed a grandson on the throne and became regent. This pattern of ruling through a nominal emperor continued even when the emperor became adult, because then the regent just took another title, as kampaku or civil dictator, and continued ruling. This practice continued until 1867.

The Fujiwara clan proliferated into five branches by the 13th century, each named after the area in Kyoto where their palaces were located. They were the Konoe, Kujo, Nijo, Ichijo, and Takatsukasa. Each branch kept a meticulous genealogy. One descendant of the Konoe house served as Japan’s prime minister at the beginning of World War II.

The Fujiwara used their government positions to accumulate huge estates throughout the country and became the richest family in Japan, richer than even the imperial family. They also used their court positions to become protectors of other nobles, taking a cut of each protégé’s income. However the Fujiwara never attempted to usurp the throne. This is because of the deep reverence all Japanese felt for the emperor as descendant of the sun goddess and therefore Shinto high priest.

Fujiwara clan reaching its zenith under Fujiwara Michinaga (966-1027)
Fujiwara clan reaching its zenith under Fujiwara Michinaga (966-1027)

Fujiwara power began to decline by the mid-1100s, partly because of the growing impotence of the central government. On the other hand the provincial nobility who had to gain protection by organizing armies became more powerful; they then withheld revenues meant for the central government and their Fujiwara patrons. Rivalries between different branches of the Fujiwara clan also weakened all of them. As a result two new groups rose to undermine their dominance.

One group was the retired emperors (adult emperors were often induced to retire and take up monastic life in favor of their young sons, who were easily controlled by their Fujiwara maternal grandfathers or uncles), who tried to reassert power by forming a shadow government from their retirement palaces. The other group consisted of provincial nobles who were no longer content with their subservient status.

In the 12th century the provincial military class banded behind the banners of two great noble houses, the Taira and Minamoto, each descended from a cadet branch of the imperial family. In two great wars in the late 1100s the Taira and Minamoto would in succession gain ascendancy and thus control of the court. In victory the Taira attempted to mimic the Fujiwara by moving to Kyoto and marrying their daughters to the emperors. But they soon succumbed to the decadent life at court and were eliminated by the Minamoto in 1185.

The victorious Minamoto leader Yoritomo did not move to Kyoto but established his headquarters at a town called Kamakura, where he ruled as Seii-tai-shogun, or “Barbarian Quelling Generalissimo.” The Fujiwara were allowed to regain their monopoly of supplying empresses and concubines to the emperors in a court that no longer held power but retained its religious and ceremonial functions.

The Fujiwara era was one of decline of central authority in Japan but also one of flourishing high culture, especially at the imperial court in the capital Heian (later Kyoto). Although frequent contact with China continued, the Japanese became increasingly confident and began to experiment with innovations.

Buddhism became popular throughout Japanese society, but with Japanese characteristics, assimilating elements of native Shintoism and identifying with local deities. Rejecting earlier Buddhist schools, which identified with the upper classes, a Japanese monk, Ennin, returned to Japan after a lengthy stay in China in the late ninth century and popularized a school called Pure Land Buddhism.

The Japanese also developed a new writing system based on simplified Chinese characters used for their sound. It was called kana and was a phonetic syllabary system used for writing Japanese. Kana was popular with court ladies, who wrote a new genre of literature—novels and witty commentaries that described court life and romances between noble ladies and courtiers who no longer governed and had been reduced to social butterflies.

The most notable works of the genre were The Tale of Genji by Murasaki Shikibu and the Pillow Book by Sei Shonagon; both authors belonged to the Fujiwara clan. The Fujiwara clan was important in Japanese history for dominating the imperial family for many centuries. It also presided over a period that initially imitated Chinese ways and then developed into a unique Japanese culture.