(POWER and CLASS IN JAPAN, 500 to 1333 -- continued)

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POWER and CLASS IN JAPAN, 500 to 1336 (4 of 7)

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The Fujiwara Era, 858 to 1160: Wars among nobles and their Samurai

The Fujiwara Period in Japan's history is said to have begun in 858 and to have continued to 1160. At the emperor's court, life was gay and there was devotion to the arts, while the capital's aristocrats were losing political and economic control over the rest of the country. In the capital, paper makers, weavers, scroll painters, smiths and other specialists were developing their skills. Competition between the aristocratic families for land and resources was becoming more intense. Clans were expanding their estates while central government was inclined to leave the great landowning families alone. In the 900s more wealthy landholders freed themselves from paying taxes. The government was low on revenues and soon gave up supporting a national army. In the countryside, the more hardy aristocratic relatives of those in the capital were consolidating their various lands into single administrative units.

Province governors were marrying daughters of local aristocratic landowners and becoming a part of the local power elite. They collected taxes and used their authority to put peasants to work on projects that benefited them. Their hired agents over-estimated the size of peasant lands to justify increased taxation, and the governor-aristocrats depended upon violence to suppress peasant outrage.

Without a functioning central governmental authority the economy was suffering. By the year 1000, money was disappearing. Thieves were free to prey on travelers.

Rural aristocrats were recruiting peasants, workers and soldiers for their own armed force to protect themselves against lawlessness. Their armed men came to be known as samurai (men who serve), or bushi (warriors). Like the knights in Europe they had a code of behavior that gave some assurance to the estate owners (lord) of their loyalty, but unlike Europe's knights generally they were not proprietors.

The militarized aristocracy began to take over in the provinces – the carrying of swords not to be outlawed by the central government until the nineteenth century.

Concerned with rivals, lords were interested in improving their military technology: horses, armor, more powerful bows and better swords. A new, medieval Japan was in the making – called "middle period" (chusei) by Japanese scholars. The period's central figure was a local warlord on horseback, leading his men with his bow and sword and wearing steel armor.

The great landholders were like the old warlords and princes in China and like contemporary nobles in Europe: they were jealous and fearful of each other. They were concerned with their honor as well as their ability to commit violence. They made war on one another, while the common people and slaves, who labored at creating food and tried to survive, suffered.

Buddhist monasteries were also large landholders, and they were expanding in size as Buddhist temples were expanding in wealth. Buddhist estates had their own armies: armed monks called acuso. And occasionally they fought against each other, against some other expanding estate, or against the government in Kyoto.

Meanwhile, Kyoto was Japan's biggest city with a population of something link 200,000. note38   Towns along trade routes had at most several hundred inhabitants with the rest of Japan remained rural. People in the far north of the island of Honshu were considered under Kyoto rule and also considered half-barbarian. People on the eastern half of Honshu spoke a different dialect than was spoken in Kyoto, and with these cultural differences came distrust.


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