Japan's History: Heian Period - History Brought Alive
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Japan’s History: Heian Period

Following the political reforms of the Nara Period, the Heian Period marks the era in which Japan’s capital stayed in Heian-kyo (modern-day Kyoto). This period lasted from 794-1185 CE. While scholars disagree as to why exactly the capital was moved from Nara to Heian-kyo, a common theory posits that Emperor Kanmu wished to escape the political might of the Buddhist temples (The Heian Period, an Age of Art… Ending in a Shogunate | History of Japan 34, n.d.).

Why the Capital Moved to Heian-kyo

In the late Nara Period, the retired Empress Kōken had fallen ill. She called for an ascetic monk by the name of Dōkyō. He claimed to have magical powers gained through his Buddhist spiritual practices which he used to cure the Empress. The Empress was grateful to Dōkyō and rewarded him by giving him titles and political power. There were rumors that the Empress even took Dōkyō as a lover. When the former Empress stripped Emperor Junnin of his rank and exiled him, she promoted Dōkyō to the position of daijō-daijin which gave him authority over religious and civil affairs. The Empress also instituted a new law that would allow her to pick her successor. Many assumed she would select Dōkyō. Since he did not have royal blood, this would end the old line of emperors and start a new line. There were also fears he would create a theocracy, giving Buddhists political control over Japan.

Dōkyō promoted members of his relatively unknown and unprestigious clan to high-ranking government positions, including his brother. He limited the amount of land that nobles could own but set no such restrictions on Buddhist Temples.

The current nobles were understandably less than pleased with Dōkyō’s rise to power, especially as it meant losing their own power. These tensions came to a head when an oracle delivered the prophecy that if Dōkyō were made Emperor, it would bring peace to the country. This enraged the nobles, particularly the Fujiwara clan. It was seen as confirmation of a coup by a lesser clan that would strip them of their power.

Shortly thereafter, in 770 CE, the Empress died. She had been Dōkyō’s main champion. With her out of the picture, the Fujiwara clan moved quickly to strip Dōkyō of his rank and exile him. Dōkyō would die in relative obscurity.

It is likely the capital was moved to distance the Imperial court from a large number of Buddhist shrines in Nara. It is also possible that this incident, known as the Dōkyō Incident, was responsible for the lack of any female Emperors for the next 1,000 years. 

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