37|Part 2of — 4 Heian Period History  794-1192   (平安時代歴史)

This chapter is a detailed part of chapter 4 Heian Period History.  Please read Chapter 4 before reading this section.

0-timeline - size 24 Heian

The circle above indicates the time we discuss in this section

Around the middle Heian period, a novel, “Genji Monogatari” (“The Tales of Genji”: 源氏物語) was written by a female author, Murasaki Shikibu (紫式部).  She was an aristocrat court lady.  Her father was Fujiwara Tametoki (藤原為時), a scholar.  There were several novels and essays written by female authors around that time, but “The Tales of Genji” is the worldly known literature as the greatest Japanese literature.  “The Tales of Genji“  is a treasure for the Japanese.  We love this novel so much that the Japan Mint issued 2000-yen bill*ᴵ with a scene from the novel.  See the photo below.  The author herself is printed at the lower right corner on the back of the bill.  The bill is very beautiful that, instead of using it, people just keep it.   Therefore, it does not circulate much.  I have four bills, but I cannot bring myself to use them.  It is too nice to use. 

The novel is about Hikaru Genji’s (the hero, 光源氏) love history (yes, history) from when he was about 16 years old until he died.  There are ten more chapters after his death, called “Uji Jyu- jyo.”  This section is a story of his son and grandson.  When he died, the title of the chapter is “Vanishes into the cloud (雲隠れ),” a very poetic title.  The Tales of Genji depicts the aristocratic society’s daily life, customs, lifestyle, and how people think in those days.  Surprisingly, though they did not have the technology we have, the way they thought was not significantly different from us.  The description of the process of courting is in 4 | Heian Period History (平安時代) 794 – 1192.  

The author created Hikaru Genji (光源氏), the main character, a high-level aristocrat, an emperor’s illegitimate son.  He was depicted as a most charming, good-looking, smart, and sophisticated aristocrat, and all the women fell for him.  He would go around all kinds of women one after another; a beautiful woman, not so good-looking but very smart, very young, older, even including his stepmother, wealthy or not so wealthy, etc.   It sounds like the story from the tabloid magazine.  Still, Murasaki Shikibu depicted the hero’s and heroines’ thoughts, emotions, daily lives, and how the men thought about the women and vice versa, with her excellent writing skill.  The author, Murasaki Shikibu, wrote this novel to entertain the female audiences in the court where she was living.  It became so popular then that it is said that even the emperor at the time asked her how the next story would develop.  “Genji Monogatari” is translated into English.  You can buy the translated book on Amazon or go to YouTube and search for “Genji Monogatari” or “The Tales of Genji.”   You will find many “Genji Monogatari” in Anime, old TV programs, and old movies in full or short clips. 

Another female author, Sei Sho-nagon (清少納言), wrote an essay called “Makura no Soshi “(枕草子)  around the same time.  In it, she described the court ladies’ daily lives.  In one chapter, she mentioned kakigori (shaved ice: かき氷).  High-class people then must have had a chance to eat shaved ice, though the ice was not easy to come by during summer in the middle Heian period.  

Once you have the general idea of how the Heian aristocrat life was like, you may realize why the Heian sword is shaped like the way it is.  And it becomes easier to identify a Heian sword from amongst other swords that were made in different times and different provinces than Kyoto.  All sword styles reflect the society where the swordsmiths lived.  During the Heian period, the Yamashiro Den style represented sword style.  In the next chapter, the subject matter is centered around the Yamashiro Den, though there were other sword groups in different regions.

*1  The back of 2000 yen bill

39 Part 2 Shikibu with arrow

5 Heian 3 photoes.jpgPart of the Burke Album, a property of Mary Griggs Burke (Public Domain)          Paintings drew by Tosa Mitsukuni (土佐光国), 17 century.   The scenes are based on the Tales of Genji

4 | Heian Period History (平安時代歴史) 794 – 1192

Heian period(平安時代 ) is from the time when the Emperor Kanmu(桓武天皇) moved the capital city to Heian-Kyo(平安京) at 794, that is Kyoto(京都) today.

0-timeline - size 24 Heian

                             The circle indicates the time we discuss in this section.

During the Heian period, the emperors ruled Japan.  However, in the early part of this time, the Fujiwara family, a very wealthy aristocrat family, had real political power. The Fujiwara family managed their daughters to marry the emperors.  They obtained power through those marriages.  The family was called “Sekkan-ke” (摂関家), which means the family of the guardian or the representative of the emperor.

In those days, aristocrats led an elegant, refined lifestyle and cultivated a graceful culture.  Many essays and novels were written by female authors during the time.  The most famous one is “Tales of Genji (源氏物語)” written by Murasaki Shikibu (紫式部).  The Imperial court held ceremonies quite often followed by elaborate and extravagant banquets.  The imperial social life played an important role for aristocrats to get ahead in their political careers.  Women also actively participated in the ceremonies.  Many high-ranking officials had several huge houses.  Sometimes those houses were inherited by their daughters, and the daughters lived in the house.

The way of courting was very different then.  To begin a romantic relationship, a man would write a poem called “Waka” to a lady he set his eyes on and would have his servant bring the poem to her, hoping she would write him back a corresponding poem.  Once he was accepted by the lady, first he was allowed to visit her for a short time from some distance away.  As the relationship deepened, he visited her more often and stayed longer.  Once they were married, and if she was his first legal wife, she lived with him in his house.  However, if she was not the first legal wife, she remained in her home, and he would visit her for a few days or longer at a time.  The wife’s family raised their children.  In those days and up until the next Kamakura period, the women’s lineage was considered important.  By the middle of the Heian period, the Emperors regained their political power since their mothers were not from the Fujiwara family.

5 b Genji photo

Those two are scenes from the “Tales of Genji”.   I found those pictures in Kyoto sometime ago.

Origin of Samurai

Although the Heian Imperial court and aristocrats had a graceful and elegant life, they did not have a strong political power to control the country.  There were many thieves, constant fires, and fights everywhere.  The Imperial court, aristocrats, and temples began hiring armed guards or security force to protect themselves in order to maintain public peace.  Those hired hands were the origin of Bushi (武士) or Samurai (侍).  Samurais spread their presence and grew larger in power as they formed groups and quelled uprisings.  Eventually, two powerful samurai clans emerged: One was Heishi (平氏) or often called Heike (平家), the other, Genji (源氏).  Little by little, they gained power in the Imperial court.   After many power struggles between them, Heishi started to control the Imperial court by having their daughters married to the emperors.  Later in the Heian period, the political power was shifted to the Heishi.  They became tyrannical and arrogant.  This behavior created many enemies.  The Genji clan, together with the Fujiwara family, started a war against the Heishi.  The Genji pushed the Heishi to the final battleground called Dan-no-Ura (壇ノ浦) in 1185 and destroyed them.  This battle is the famous Genpei-Gassen (源平合戦).  The collapse of the Heishi was the end of the Heian period.


The Heian period is the time when curved swords appeared for the first time. Until then, swords had a straight blade.  Historical studies on Japanese swords start from this point.  The elegant, graceful lifestyle and culture the dominant Fujiwara family created then were certainly reflected upon the swords’ style.  A group of swordsmiths in the Kyoto region created a particular sword style called Yamashiro Den (Yamashiro School).  The shape of their blades shows a graceful line.  The most well-known sword among Yamashiro-Den is Sanjo-Munechika (三条宗近), which is a national treasure today.  The style of Yamashiro Den represents Heian period swords.

Sanjo Munechika

Sanjo Munechika (三条宗近)  From Showa Dai Mei-to Zufu (昭和大名刀図譜)  by NBTHK  Owned by Tokyo National Museum