What would you do if you stood at the top
of the Japanese government in the Heian Period? I suggest getting down because you might get
hurt. The Fujiwara clan found themselves at the
top and what they did was… removed their enemies, and tried to stop
the government from collapsing. If you didn’t know, the Fujiwara (藤原)
clan famously married their daughters into the Imperial Family, allowing them control
over the Heian court for 200 years, from around 850 to 1068. These guys didn’t mess around. The clan was founded by Nakatomi no Kamatari
(中臣鎌足) after he helped rid the court of the tyrannical Soga (蘇我) clan in 645. At least, that’s how they told the story. If you were a Soga, you would have said they
took power through a treasonous bloody coup. You say potato, I say tomato. Japan in these early years was still a teenager,
engaged in high school drama. This drama took the form of a struggle for
dominance between the Imperial Family and the country’s top clans. After the Heian Period, Japan grew up, discovered
it had superpowers, and went mad and started blowing up houses and people. I’ve been watching The Boys. The ties that bound clan members together
were strong since the beginning. It’s not surprising then that various clans
would often dominate the Japanese court. In the Heian Period, it was the Fujiwara’s
turn. It became accepted that a Fujiwara would hold
the title of regent, someone who made decisions on behalf of the emperor. If the emperor was a child, a Fujiwara would
be sessho (摂政), regent for an underaged emperor. When the baby emperor grew up, a Fujiwara
would be kanpaku (関白), regent for an adult emperor. It became common to give the throne to child
princes so that the regent could rule in his stead. It wouldn’t do to have a troublesome emperor
interfering in the ruling of his own court. Over time, Fujiwara clan members grabbed all
of the top government positions, and the Fujiwara tentacles tightened. These were not happy tentacles. At the height of their power, a man named
Fujiwara no Michinaga (藤原道長) sat at the head of the clan. He was the strongest of them all and the apex
politician in court. He actually only held the regent position
for one year, then slid it to his son. For the two decades afterwards, Michinaga
controlled the court as the court document inspector, technically a lower ranked position. Just goes to show that Fujiwara power did
not come from the regent position, it came from the family name and the amount of Fujiwara
members and allies they had in government. Michinaga didn’t take crap from no one. He packed every level of government with his
clan members and allies. He was ruthless in removing his enemies. Once, his nephew opposed him and
Michi-not-ganna-take-any-s–t exiled the fool. It was easy for the aristocracy to immerse
themselves amidst the paper screens and swanky parties of the Heian capital, where people
wore $120 T-shirts from Kanye. But Michinaga was smart enough to notice the
warrior culture rising outside the capital, in the provinces. He made friends with a minor clan, the Minamoto
(源). Now the Minamoto were minor only in the glittery
eyes of the capital elite. In the provinces, they were a military clan
that loitered around the top of the food chain. Having Minamoto allies meant he could gently
persuade people with violence. His two main loyal generals were Minamoto
no Yorimitsu (源頼光) and Minamoto no Yorinobu (源頼信), both interesting men who we will
ignore. Michinaga’s enemies called these men the
“running dogs” of the Fujiwara. Good one, Michinaga’s enemies. He was rolling in dough that Michinaga. Being the most powerful man meant many offers
of bootylingus and people showering you with gifts, which makes me jealous because you
guys don’t give me s–t. I meant gifts, not bootylingus. Michinaga also wasn’t above using government
funds for private gain like rebuilding his estate after a fire. The Fujiwara house looked back at his reign
favorably, calling it a golden age. Not a stranger to flexing, Michinaga said
during an illness, “I have nothing to be embarrassed about if I die, none in the future
will equal what I have done.” He died at 62, from a burst ego, we presume. The Fujiwara regents presided over an age
of cultural flowering, when the Heian aristocracy worshipped their cult of beauty and churned
out endless love stories and emo poetry. Thought it’s important to understand that
the Fujiwara did not have absolute power. They worked within the system. Sure, they had men at the top and their patriarch
led the government, but they didn’t make policies like dictators. The court deliberated and hashed out policies
within the governing Council of State. There was also conflict within the Fujiwara
clan, it wasn’t monolithic. Clans had their own bureaucracies, internal
offices to manage things and resolve disputes. So the Fujiwara had kind of a parallel government
structure running alongside the official government. People would often go to a Fujiwara office
to resolve disputes rather than go to the court. They often agreed on important decisions using
the private bureaucracy before going to the formal channels to make things official. The larger struggle for power between the
Imperial House and the clans happened on a smaller scale within the Fujiwara house. Because they dominated the court, they were
pulled in two opposite directions. In the Heian Period, the court started giving
away tax-free land, or shoen, to temples and government officials as payment and rewards. You didn’t have to pay taxes to the court
if you owned these shoen. People treated these lands like Pokemon and
tried to catch em all. The Fujiwara accumulated the largest number
of shoen. Giving the Fujiwara more shoen diverted tax
money that would have gone to the court into Fujiwara coffers. Good for them right? Not quite, because they also controlled the
court remember. Less tax revenue for the court also meant
less resources that the Fujiwara could use for government projects and paying court officials
and controlling the power of rival clans. It was a balancing act. The Heian government was in a bad place. The extravagant ceremonies and money flexing
of the capital elites hid a poison underneath. It wasn’t a time of growth for the government. Many of the policies passed by the court in
this period revealed a government that was not trying to grow its resources and power. No, it was a government desperately trying
to cling to the power it already had, a government gradually losing tax revenue and influence. We’ll talk about why in a future video. When faced with growing problems and crises,
the nobles continued to carry out their lavish ceremonies and rituals. Now you may criticize these out of touch one
percenters for paying too much attention to stupid rituals. But it wasn’t because they just wanted to
party and ignore their problems. Most people back then believed the best way
to handle problems was to appeal to the gods. They thought ceremonies and rituals to please
the gods were more useful than anything humans could do. Happy gods, happy times. So you’re right, they did pay too much attention
to stupid rituals. While the capital was secretly struggling,
like my friend’s marriage, a new breed of nobles arose in the provinces. The job of the governors of Heian Japan’s
68 provinces was to send tax revenue to the capital. The capital didn’t really care how they
got the money. These provincial governors could pretty much
do whatever they liked, so they would send an appropriate amount of money to the capital,
and keep the rest. Lack of oversight allowed these governors
to pull all kinds of shenanigans to keep the money that flowed to the capital as low as
possible. These provincial governors became the new
money. If you were a court official who wanted to
be rich, you’d go after these provincial governor spots. These positions were appointed by the regent’s
office, the Fujiwara. This was good news for them. Ambitious nobles would shower the Fujiwara
heads with gifts like horses and oxen and money. Some people called these bribes, but those
people were losers. The Fujiwara were doing great. They were riding high, and they rode right
off a cliff, a cliff named Emperor Go-Sanjo (後三条天皇). So I have a playlist about the Fujiwara clan
right here, starting with the Soga coup. Check it out, check it out. I wanna thank the new patrons this week: Antara
Choudhary, bander, Fabian Kaus, Kayli, and Yukinobu Kurata. Alright much love guys, and spread the knowledge!