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