While enjoying a lifestyle of material wealth and cultural elegance in the capital Heian-kyo, the imperial court’s political authority enters a period of decline. Provincial governors gradually amass greater military and economic strength. In the second half of the twelfth century, several devastating wars hasten the transfer of hegemony from the aristocracy to two rival military clans, the Taira and the Minamoto. When Minamoto Yoritomo (1147–1199) succeeds in defeating his Taira rivals in 1185, he establishes a military regime at Kamakura, his clan’s provincial power base.
Ironically, the Minamoto shoguns suffer a fate similar to that of the Heian emperors—within a few generations they are weakened by the growing power of ally clans, in particular their relatives through marriage, the Hojo. Eventually the Minamoto are supplanted by another military dynasty, the Ashikaga, who establish their base in Kyoto in 1336.
Beginning in the thirteenth century, the meditative Zen school of Buddhism takes root in Japan, brought to the country in part by Chinese monks fleeing the Mongol invasion. Enthusiastically received in Japan, Zen becomes the most prominent form of Buddhism in the country between the fourteenth and sixteenth centuries.
Lady Murasaki, a high-born lady-in-waiting, writes the Genji monogatari (The Tale of Genji). This lengthy, poignant description of court life, romance, and intrigue, frequently interspersed with poetry, is often considered the world’s first novel.
The name Heian-kyo is gradually changed to Kyoto, meaning “capital”.
Byodo-in temple (in Kyoto Prefecture), considered the finest surviving example of Fujiwara-period (894–1185) architecture, is established by the regent Fujiwara Yorimichi (992–1074) from a converted private villa. Inside the temple’s Phoenix Hall is a gilded wood statue of Amida Buddha by Jocho (d. 1057), the greatest sculptor of the period who advances the multiblock construction method (yosegi zukuri). Unlike earlier statues carved from single blocks of wood (ichiboku zukuri), those made of several pieces can be larger, assume a wider variety of postures, and can be built on an assembly-line system.
Emperor Shirakawa (r. 1072–86) abdicates the throne and becomes a Buddhist monk. Freed from the throne’s onerous ritual obligations, Shirakawa is able to dominate his successor and the government as the first of a series of “cloistered emperors” (the insei system).
The Battle of the Hogen Era is fought in the capital between rival court factions, allied with various members of the Minamoto (also known as Genji) and Taira (also called Heike) warrior clans. This battle was the first of a series of armed struggles that results in the collapse of Fujiwara control over the court and the transfer of power to military dictators.
The Battle of the Heiji Era pits the Minamoto military clan against the Taira, as each fights in support of rival court factions. The Taira succeed in defeating the Minamoto and supplant the Fujiwara family as the dominant power at court. However, their victory is short-lived, and they are challenged again by the next generation of Minamoto warriors.
The Buddhist monk Honen (1133–1212) spreads the Pure Land school (Jodo shu) among the population at large. Its appeal lies in the promise of salvation by Amida Buddha to all those who sincerely seek his assistance by calling out his name (nembutsu).
The Gempei War marks the culmination of the competition between the contending warrior clans, the Taira and the Minamoto. The Minamoto succeed in brutally defeating the Taira after the naval battle at Dannoura.
The Buddhist monk Saigyo (1118–1190), one of Japan’s most talented poets, compiles a three-volume collection of his own compositions, entitled Sankashu (The Mountain Hermitage). Saigyo’s poems, which often have a melancholy tone, combine simplicity with deep emotion and evocative descriptions of nature, observed during the monk’s several long journeys on foot around Japan.
Reconstruction work begins on Todaiji temple in Nara, destroyed by the Taira in retaliation for the monks’ armed support of the Minamoto in the preceding years’ wars. Two of the most accomplished sculptors of the early Kamakura period, Unkei (1151–1223) and Kaikei (active 1183–1223), participate in this large project.
The monk Eisai (1141–1215) returns to Japan from China and begins teaching Zen Buddhism. Based in Kamakura, Eisai’s emphasis on meditation, restraint, and self-reliance appeals to the warrior class. While this is not the first time Zen is taught in Japan, it marks the beginning of its great popularity and influence.
Emperor Go-Toba (r. 1183–98) names Minamoto Yoritomo (1147–1199) Seii tai shogun (“barbarian-quelling general”), legitimizing his military dictatoratorship, based in Kamakura, on the coast east of modern Tokyo. The establishment of the bakufu, or government by warrior chieftains (shogun) or their regents, creates a binary system whereby emperors reign but shoguns rule. This system endures for the next 700 years, a time of dramatic transformation in the politics, society, and culture of Japan.
The courtier-turned-recluse Kamo no Chomei (1155–1216) completes the Hojoki (The Ten-Foot Square Hut), which exemplifies the spirit of the new military age. In this account of Chomei’s personal misfortunes and subsequent search for solitude and salvation in the Pure Land of Amida, Chomei gives a detailed description of the famine of 1181 (in only two months, more than 42,300 people died of starvation in the capital). His documentation of the most pitiful and repellent aspects of reality, reflecting the warrior’s honest and direct outlook on life, ushers in a period of unprecedented realism.
The Heike monogatari (The Tale of the Heike) is written and becomes one of the most popular war tales of the Kamakura and Muromachi periods. Through vivid descriptions of battles and military exploits, the saga of the Taira clan is told from the time of the Battle of the Heiji Era to the end of the Gempei War (1160–85). Emphasizing the eventual pathos of the Taira’s fate, the tale has a prominent Buddhist tone, lamenting the fleeting quality of life. Although the text is thought to have been written by a courtier a few decades after the main events transpired, it is transmitted by itinerant blind storytellers who recite the narrative from memory to the accompaniment of a lute.
The Mongols, after establishing the largest land empire in world history, invade northern Kyushu twice with the help of Korean forces. Each time, the valiant efforts of Japanese soldiers are decisively assisted by well-timed typhoons (kamikaze), which scatter the invading ships and force them to retreat. Despite these victories, however, the Kamakura government is rendered nearly bankrupt by the construction of fortifications along the coast.
Shoin architectural style begins to be prevalent in the private quarters of Zen monasteries. Initially a “study” consisting of shelves and an alcove near a window, with tatami mats and sliding screen panels, this form of interior design later becomes the basis of the standard pattern for domestic architecture.
Emperor Go-Daigo (1288–1339) and his supporters overthrow the Kamakura shogunate in an attempt to restore political power to the throne, in what becomes known as the Kenmu Restoration.
A disgruntled ally of Emperor Go-Daigo, the warrior Ashikaga Takauji (1305–1358), usurps control from the sovereign, ending his short-lived imperial revival. Takauji drives Go-Daigo from Kyoto and enthrones an emperor of his own choosing. Meanwhile, Go-Daigo travels south and takes refuge in Yoshino. There he establishes a Southern Court, which rules in competition with Takauji’s Northern Court in Kyoto until 1392, in a period known as Nanbokucho.
Emperor Komyo names Ashikaga Takauji as shogun. The Ashikaga shoguns, however, never succeed in consolidating their authority as effectively as did the Minamoto. The era of their reign, known as the Muromachi period, named after the district in Kyoto where their headquarters are located, is characterized by frequent warfare and political intrigue between contending provincial warlords (daimyo).
“Japan, 1000–1400 A.D.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/ht/?period=07®ion=eaj (October 2001)