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Realms of
Aristocracy

The Fujiwara was an aristocratic clan of the Heian period that rose to power as a result of politically arranged marriages with the imperial family starting in the ninth century. Members of the Fujiwara clan served in such regent positions as Sesshō and Kampaku (official titles in ancient Japan), thereby administering or assisting in imperial rule. This aggrandizement of political power became known as “Sesshō-Kampaku government.” In the middle of the ninth century, the Ōtenmon Incident (866) laid the foundation for the political regency of the Fujiwara clan, the power of which reached an apogee and flourished during the administration of Fujiwara no Michinaga (966-1027).

After the An Lushan Rebellion (755-763) in the Tang dynasty, China went into decline and its high international status collapsed. As a result, Japan ceased official diplomatic activities in the form of sending emissaries to the Tang. Against the backdrop of China’s weakening influence, Japan’s previous emulation of continental culture took a new course to seek form and content more suited to the Japanese environment and people in what became known as “Kokufu Bunka (National Style).” In the arts, this included using the Japanese hiragana syllabary for calligraphy and yamato-e (Japanese-style) painting. Exhibiting the unique sensibilities and aesthetics of the Japanese manner, they had a profound impact on later generations.

In the realm of formative arts, Japan also departed from the imitation of Chinese art to express a delicacy and lyricism of its own. The themes and styles reveal a similar tendency towards Japanization.

Arts of
the Aristocracy

The Heian aristocracy is noted for its aesthetic of grace and beauty. Found throughout the literary works produced at the time and in surviving calligraphy, painting, and crafts is an ephemeral and refined taste. The Heian period was also a time when hiragana flourished. Hiragana writing derived from the cursive form of Chinese characters or their parts, making it easier for Japanese to express themselves. With the appearance of Kokin wakashū (Collection of Ancient and Modern Poems), native waka poetry and calligraphy became the fashion. Female writers particularly used hiragana to convey the opulence and refinement of court culture, many of the resulting works becoming classics of Japanese literature.

Representing Classical Culture

The Heian period, which spanned four centuries, formed the backbone of classical Japanese culture and spawned aesthetic norms and emotive visual forms that would become identified as uniquely Japanese. Imperial culture evolved against a backdrop of elegant sentiments in aristocratic life and continued to serve as a romantic symbol of longing in artworks created in later generations. Despite the distance in time from the Heian period, the descriptions of aristocratic life in literary works from that period not only continued to enjoy an avid readership, they became an important source of subject matter for painters, touching the hearts of many artists yearning of old.

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