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Ie no Yoshikuri
Early, Late, What's the Difference?



A comparison between early and late period Japan, directed specifically toward those who are considering a Japanese persona

By Yoshikuri Nagayori

I have found that having a Japanese persona in the SCA provides quite a challenge. Resources abound, but you need to know what you are looking for. And unlike those that have Norse or Celtic personas, one who has a Japanese persona has few people he or she can simply walk up to and talk to. This is a problem, because there are a few things one should know right from the start. First and foremost is the period in which one will focus study. Not many people realize the dramatic difference between Heian period and late period Japan, the two most common choices for a Japanese persona. With this essay, I hope to give the reader at least a basic understanding of the differences between the two periods. I will talk generally about a number of topics; more in-depth research is up to the discretion of the reader.

The Heian period ran from 794 to 1185. It started when the capital moved from Nara to Kyoto and ended with the end of the Gempei war. In this time, Japan was still modeling itself after China. The Imperial Court was based on its Chinese counterpart, as was the art and architecture of the era. The Emperor ruled from Kyoto and appointed governors to rule the different provinces across the country. The court assumed theoretical ownership of the land and allocated it as it saw fit, usually to those that had made the biggest bribes, or had the most political sway. Near the end of the period, the provincial landowners began to view the lands they held as their own, and passed the governance to their children. This eventually led to drying up of the Imperial coffers and a feeling of independence in the governors. The aristocracy in the capital began to acquire large personal estates and would marry off daughters for greater political gain. The Emperor was beginning to lose control, after centuries of prosperity. Late in the Heian, the office of the Retired Emperor was instituted. The Emperor, busy with ceremonies and religious obligations had little time for executive affairs. The Retired Emperor was the one that now took care of the country as a sort of unofficial Emperor, but had almost as much power. Though, near the end of the Heian, Retired Emperor Sutoku and his majesty Go Shirakawa had a falling out. This falling out resulted in a battle known as the Hogen-no-ran. Sutoku was put down, but the fighting resulted in a split in the aristocracy in Japan. The powerful Fujiwara clan was divided and the Taira (Heike) and Minamoto (Genji) clans were head to head. The Minamoto withdrew from the Capital into their own lands while the Taira became more powerful. One man, Taira Kyomori, through great political maneuvering, was able to become the most powerful man in Japan. Kyomori gained his power not only through marriage, but also through timely acquisition of different offices. He made the Taira even more powerful by appointing his own family and close associates to high offices. Often, he would promote those who many thought unworthy of such prestigious offices, causing much anger towards the Taira. Kyomori was a ruthless and terrible man. The people of the capital feared him and would not speak against him on fear of death. There was, however, great hatred for him. Offence after offence occurred. Kyomori even had the Retired Emperor imprisoned and a puppet Emperor installed. With a great amount of backing, Minamoto Yoritomo opposed the Taira, which resulted in the Genpei War, that lasted from 1180 to 1185. (Genpei being the first syllables of Genji and Heike in their Chinese writing) Yoritomo won, and became the first Shogun.

In the Heian era, warfare was quite interesting. Fought only between noblemen and their retainers, it is unlike the open field warfare of Europe, or even late period Japan. When lined up for battle, Heian armies would first exchange a hail of arrow fire to signal the opening of the battle and the intention to make hostilities. As the armies clashed, high ranking warriors and those of renown would call out their names and lineage and fight only those of similar prestige. As well as the one on one duel, the Japanese would also use bow and arrow from horseback as their preferred way of attack. Naval warfare at this time was quite basic. Really, all they did was run their ships up beside one another and fight the same way they did on land.

The belief system of Heian Japan was, of course, Buddhist. Buddhism was the state religion as decreed by the Emperor, and Shinto was amalgamating nicely with it. Confucianism contributed greatly, though to legal and educational institutions. There were six main sects that operated near the capital and many of the great families had ties to their respective temples. Aristocrats would often make pilgrimages to the temples to ask the gods for favours, or to get the holy men to pray for them. The greater the request, the higher the price and the greater the reward if said favour gets fulfilled. We can see why it was that the temples gained a lot of wealth and almost as much power as the nobles they served.

The women of the time held an inferior status compared to men. Their aims and duties were defined by Confucian tradition. A woman was to be obedient to her husband or father, ever faithful to her husband and bear him a son and respectful to her family. As a girl, the Japanese woman would have to learn Calligraphy, poetry and music, all things a woman of high regard was expected to know. Women were expected to be able to dress properly, to blacken their teeth, shave their eyebrows and paint their faces white and lips red. Fathers would marry their daughters off politically in order to raise their own status. This made women quite valuable to higher families with aspirations to greatness. When married, a woman would still live at home with her parents, at least for the early part of the marriage. Once in her husbands home, she would not be allowed outside except for special occasions such as festivals or pilgrimages. Indoors, she had to stay behind a screen of state at all times, talking only to her attendants, husband or family. All other conversation was through intermediaries. Women, mostly, could only wait in their quarters for something exciting to happen. Some pass-times were taken up, though. Go was popular among women as were poetry, music and calligraphy as mentioned before. There were also year round ceremonies and festivals that provided welcome distraction.

To the Heian noble, clothing was not just something one puts on the body, it was an art to properly select colour combinations and layer effects. Often, people would wear many layers of clothes, 12 being the most common. Each layer would be worn in such a fashion that each sleeve was longer as it came closer to the skin. It was of paramount importance to properly select colours according to the season and to nature. The following is from The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon, and illustrates this point.

First we could see the fans come into sight, then the yellow-green robes of the gentlemen from the Emperors Private Office. It was a splendid sight. The men wore their under-robes in such a way that the white material stood out against he yellowish-green of their outer robes, and I was reminded so much of white u no hana blossoms in a green hedge that I almost expected to find a hototogisu lurking there.

On the previous day I had noticed several of these young noblemen crowded together in a carriage. They had taken down the blinds, and I could see that they were messily dressed in hunting costumes and violet cloaks; altogether they had made a very bizarre impression. Today these same young men were beautifully attired in full Court costume and ready to take part in the High Priestesses banquet, to which they had been invited as extra guests. They looked extremely demure as one by one they passed, each in his own carriage; and the young Palace pages who followed were also very attractive.

There were a few fashionable ways to display ones choices in clothing. Oshidashi had the sleeves protrude from beneath the curtain of state women lived behind. This was usually employed attract men. Idashiuchigi saw the bottoms of each robe extend slightly below the robe above and Idashiguruma was letting ones full array of sleeves hang outside the carriage for the enjoyment of those on the street.

The late period that I am going to deal with lasts from 1543 to 1600. From the first time that Europeans came to Japan to the end of the SCA period. It is the latter part of the Sengoku Jidai, the Age of the Country at War. By this time, the Imperial Court held little power and the Emperor was only a figurehead. The Shogunates power had been destroyed by the Onin war in 1467-1477. Japan had no one to rule and there was great turmoil. The provinces were being run separately by Daimyo (Literally "great names," they were more or less like barons) that were at constant war with one another as each vied for power. This was the state of Japan when a Portuguese ship was wrecked off Tanegashima Island in 1543. In 1560, a young Daimyo named Oda Nobunaga ambushed and army of 25,000 sent to kill him with just 3,000. He killed his would-be attacker and was able to prosper. With alliances and some fruitful military campaigns, Oda was able to march into Kyoto eight years later with an army of 60,000 behind him. In Kyoto, he installed Ashikaga Yoshiaki as his own puppet Shogun. Over the years, Oda was almost successful in completely unifying Japan. Before he could get everything in place, however, Akechi Mitsuhide, one of Odas own generals betrayed and murdered him in 1576. Another of Odas generals, Toyotomi Hideyoshi took revenge on Akechi, then picked up where Oda left off. Toyotomi was born the son of an ashigaru, a commoner, but made his through the ranks and became the unifier of Japan. In 1588, he made an edict to disarm all the common people and then in 1590, he prohibited movement by individuals between classes. Through politics and alliances, Toyotomi was able to unify Japan in 1590. Because Japan was used to constant warfare for almost a century, peace was something of a mystery to the people. In 1592, Toyotomi started his invasion of Korea. At first, the invasion met success, but because China came to the aid of Korea, the Japanese attack was brought to a standstill. When Hideyoshi died in 1598, the Japanese withdrew from foreign shores. During his rule, Toyotomi had appointed 5 regents to secure the future of his heir and 5 magistrates to govern the country. Not long after the death of Toyotomi, the foremost magistrate Ishida Mitsunari began to conspire against Tokugawa Ieyasu, the senior regent. Soon, Japan was again split; half supporting Ishida, the other supporting Tokugawa. The two met at Sekigahara in 1600 where Ishida was killed. Tokugawa was made Shogun three years later.

Warfare had changed significantly since the Heian days. Gone were the personal duels between nobles. Now there were open field battles fought mostly by the low ranking ashigaru. It was they that used the new guns that had been introduced by Europe. Also, they now used the bow and arrow as well as spears that reached up to 15 feet long. The Samurai now favoured the yari spear over the bow and would often dismount to fight, followed closely by their retainers. Overall, it was a remarkable change from the past.

We see in the warrior a dramatic rise in Zen Buddhism. Zen focuses on meditation and transcendence through ones own actions, rather than those done by others on ones behalf. This way of thinking also put a new emphasis on the idea of actions affecting future lives and, consequently, more attention to ancestors and their acts and words.

Religious beliefs, worldly wisdom, spiritual training and military discipline, moral ideals and practical counsels were fused into Bushido, the Way of the Warrior. (History of Japanese Religion, pg. 222)

In 1549, Christianity was first introduced to Japan. The Society of Jesus, lead by Francis Xavier converted and baptized thousands of Japanese, despite heavy resistance from Buddhists, over the course of 10 years. The missionaries enjoyed favour with Oda Nobunaga, mostly because they brought trade from Europe with them. In 1582, however, Toyotomi found out that poor Japanese were being sold into slavery by European traders and that Nagasaki had been registered with the Vatican as a Roman Catholic colony. Greatly angered, Toyotomi expelled all the missionaries from Japan. When Tokugawa became Shogun, he demanded all Christian Daimyo revert to Buddhism, or suffer the consequences. By 1615, Christianity had been wiped from Japan.

The role that women played was mostly unchanged. The Confucian ideals were still instituted, but women were also considered Samurai and were expected to follow Bushido. They were taught to cheerfully accept the sacrifice of ones self, even in the most horrible way if it meant that their lords honour would be upheld. They were taught fencing and were expected to defend the house or castle in times of need. However, they were also expected to be the delicate flowers, like in days past; knowledgeable in all the same arts as in the Heian.

Clothing didnt hold nearly the importance in late period as it did in the Heian. Clothes were worn in a functional fashion, rather than an artistic one. Although colours did vary with the seasons, there wasnt as much emphasis on combinations as there was in the past. The main garment was the kosode. Only two would ever be worn. Over the kosode, men would wear hakama; a type of trouser-skirt and women would wear uchikake, an overcoat much like a kosode. Overall, a lot less rigid and a lot more comfortable.

We can see, just in these few pages, that there is a great difference between the two eras talked about. After reading this, one should have a good idea as to what period he or she would like to study further. The culture of Japan is rich and marvelous. Delve deeply, it is amazing what you will find!




King, Winston L. 1993 Zen and the Way of the Sword. Oxford University Press

Kure, Mitsuo. 2002 Samurai, An Illustrated History. Tuttle Publishing

Kennedy, Alan. 1990 Japanese Costume History and Tradition. Editions Adam Biro

Turnbull, Stephen. 2001 Ashigaru 1467-1649. Osprey Publishing

Bryant, Anthony J. 1994 Samurai 1550-1600. Osprey Publishing

Bryant, Anthony J. 1991 Early Samurai AD 200-1500. Osprey Publishing

Brownlee, John S. 1991 Political Thought in Japanese Historical Writing. Wilfrid Laurier University Press

Morris, Ivan. 1964 The World of the Shining Prince. Kodansha Press

Morris, Ivan (translation) 1991 The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon. Columbia University Press.

Anesaki, Masaharu. 1963 History of Japanese Religion. Tuttle

Bacon, Alice Mable. 1891 Japanese Girls and Women. Riverside Press.