Asian Matriarchy Series | #1 | The Fujiwara Clan of Heian Japan
The Fujiwara Clan, although technically ruled by men, and not women, could not have consolidated or maintained power without the use of its women. The Fujiwara family - who were technically not the rulers at first - wrested control of the Imperial Palace from the hands of the actual Emperors by extensive use of “marriage politics”, ingratiating themselves in the royal court and dominating Heian authority. The Fujiwara Clan was brought to heel with the rise of the warrior class, military defeats by the Taira Clan and eventually by strong control from the Minamoto Clan. Modern Japanese royalty continues to have some genealogical roots to the Fujiwara branch families; Prince Konoe who committed suicide in 1945 was called “the last of the Fujiwaras”.
The Fujiwara Clan has its origins a couple centuries before the Heian period where the previous ruling family known as the Sogas were overthrown during the Asuka period (538-710). The Fujiwara gained their name for initiating plans of the revolt against the Sogas and plans for the Taika (Great) Reform in a “plain of wisterias”, which is what Fujiwara literally means. The Fujiwara continued to amass power and influence during the Nara period until they were cemented as political heavyweights in the Heian.
Like the Soga Clan of the Asuka period, the Fujiwara Clan ruled from behind the scenes. The Soga used marriage politics and political measures to consolidate power, the same as would the Fujiwara, but the Soga did something the Fujiwara did not: the Soga tried to rule.
After the Soga were defeated, the Fujiwara Clan resolved to stay behind the curtain and consolidate its power. They officially gain their consolidation in the 10th century, which is a pretty slow process, but it happened gradually. They never appeared to be a group that would usurp the throne; their biggest asset in this process was that they lacked military might, which also became their largest pitfall when the Taira defeated them in battle in 1185, marking the end of the Heian.
But the Fujiwara were tacticians and politicians first and foremost and so they used the strongest asset they had to get to power: women. The Fujiwara exploited various power structures in Japanese society and social customs concerning women to gain power.
First, they would arrange marriages between the imperial princes and their daughters. This meant that the child of the union would typically deal with and grow up in the house of his mother. The Fujiwara women would give birth in the homes of their fathers where the child would grow up until he was able to rule. The woman’s father was then able to influence the current Emperor to abdicate under a system of obligation, forcing them to abdicate relatively young (between mid-20s and 30s; long enough to sire a child).
Next, when the new Emperor was born, he was under the care of his mother and her father. Traditionally, to maximize the power they could hold over an Emperor, they had him take the throne at 8 years old. He would stay in power long enough to choose a bride - who was a Fujiwara woman, and sometimes one of the sisters of his mother (thus making his wife also his aunt) and once she gave birth to a child, he was obliged to abdicate.
Aside from the grandfather/father-in-law having power behind the scenes, there was also the position of Empress Dowager. Dowagers are the women who rule in place of their ailing husbands or more commonly their infant children. Although China has a more prominent position of having Dowagers wielding immense power like Empress Dowager Cixi, the Japanese Dowagers still commanded impressive sway. Aside from having a certain faction with her ladies-in-waiting and some of the women of the court, who could manipulate their husbands, she also held some power over her son, the Emperor. This included typical mother-son dynamics like not approving of something he was doing or trying to help him pick a suitable wife or help with his children, but the Dowager was even more pervasive in terms of influence than the grandfather/father-in-law, because she probably knew more about what was going on in the palace itself while the men focused more on politics.
It was also possible for the Empress Dowager to be in place while there was actually an Empress. The Empress and the Empress Dowager were often related, typically sisters, so they got along better than an Empress Dowager and the daughter of someone who wasn’t a Fujiwara.
This system of marriage makes the Fujiwara family tree nearly impossible to read without confusion if you include the women. For instance: an Emperor marries a Fujiwara woman. The Fujiwaras prized their daughters almost more than their sons, so having multiple daughters was expected and encouraged; and these are the times where the Emperors and nobles had upwards of ten children. The father of the Fujiwara daughter would then hold the political power and encourage his grandson to pick a suitable Fujiwara woman - which was typically his own daughter, because she answered to him. It makes it so that the men would typically marry their aunts and typically have to contend with his nieces trying to exert power over his son.
So, why not just NOT marry a Fujiwara?
They weren’t allowed to. The Emperors often had no real ability to pick their wives themselves, and when they did the Dowager might have a hand in it. These are the times of polygamy as well, so if an Emperor were to fall in love with someone that wasn’t a Fujiwara, a suitable option, then, would be to make his love a concubine while he was married to a Fujiwara. As long as he sired an heir of the Fujiwara, it didn’t make much of a difference.
The Fujiwara typically controlled who the Emperor married and only in rare occasions did they not. Which, makes sense because if they’d known, they might not have gone through with it. There’s actually been a lot that was talked about in terms of the chance of inbreeding with the Fujiwara marriage system, but because it’s so long ago, it’s hard to find conclusive proof.
The political climate also made it easy for the Fujiwara family to maintain power with its women. The process of obliging an Emperor to abdicate was fairly routine when an Emperor was between twenty and thirty. The Emperors often had to deal with many religious and spiritual rituals, which made it so that politics all but impossible and the grandfather/father-in-law often presided over it.
The Fujiwaras even managed to turn frequent palace fires to account by making the emperor and his suite move into his father-in-law’s residence while his own was being rebuilt. Since the great Fujiwara mansions had become more imposing and luxurious than the Imperial Palace itself, these moves may have been quite welcome.
When a Fujiwara empress became pregnant, she would normally be moved into her father’s house; the emperor would visit her there after the birth; the young prince would be brought up in the Fujiwara household under the watchful eye of the patriarch; and sometimes even his accession ceremony would take place in the family residence rather than in the palace.
Multiple political factions which were those of - The Emperor, the former emperors, the empress dowager, and the various empresses - made power more spread out. No one expressly had imperial authority and so no one could make formal demands and edicts without the cooperation of the other parties and political factions.
After that, came what becomes known as the Sesshou and the Kampaku. Sesshou is more akin to a “regent” or someone who represents an emperor’s authority in court, not always a Dowager, but a Dowager Regent isn’t unheard of. The Kampaku is, in theory, the adviser, although in more modern terms it’s probably best to refer to a Kampaku as the Prime Minister, although it’s been translated as Civil Dictator and sometimes Chancellor. Sesshou is sometimes known as Mayor of the Palace in place of Regent.
The first child-emperor was Seiwa, who acceded in 858 at the age of eight. A Fujiwara regent was appointed for the term of minority, but managed to retain most of his powers even after the emperor came of age. Seiwa was obliged to abdicate when he was twenty-six; so far as the family was concerned he had filled his main function in life, which was to sire a son to his Fujiwara consort.
Now we find an ingenious variation in the pattern. The next sovereign was an incompetent aged fifty-five with the Gilbertian name of Koukou, and during his brief reign the Fujiwaras were able to establish the precedent that the imperial powers should be delegated to the head of their family even when the sovereign was of age. This act of delegation was the basis of the institution of Chancellor [Sesshou and Kampaku, sometimes known collectively as Sekkan], another vital departure from the Great Reform system [which was what brought the Fujiwaras into power in the first place].
…the country was governmed by the emperor’s father-in-law or grandfather who ruled as regent while the sovereign was a minor and as chancellor after he came of age.
The Sekkan came to eclipse the legislative abilities of the Great Council of State, who could still issue regulations and edict, but only really as ceremony and ritual without bite. The true power in Heian Japan was typically centered in the Mandokoro - the Fujiwara’s Administrative Council. Although for all intents and purposes, the Fujiwaras probably had the political power (likely not military power) to pull of a coup and start their own dynasty, that wouldn’t have worked in their favor. If they stood by the ruling line, they could prosper as the Imperial Family’s marriage-clan. If they ousted the ruling party, they’d lose the support of the Imperial Family, and much of the nobility since the Heian was considered Japan’s Golden Age, and be more or less linked to families like the Soga who were considered traitors.
Yet never once did the Fujiwaras succumb to the temptation of trying to supplant the reigning dynasty and to put a male member of their family on the throne. Nor did they ever get into the position of having to use force against a hostile emperor or crown prince. In this they profited from the mistake of their predecessors, the Soga family, who came to grief precisely because they aspired (or gave the impression that they aspired) to imperial honor. Astute politicians as they were, the Fujiwaras realized that they could accomplish far more by exploiting the prestige of the imperial family than by becoming emperors themselves.
What led to the downfall of the Fujiwara family was similar to how the khanates (who were ruled by the Great Khan in Asia proper with various other khans ruling their own nation-states) collapses.
Although both the Fujiwara Clan and the khans had women in pivotal positions to unite and cement power, they ultimately broke down in on themselves. Although the Fujiwara family did have potential threats to its power in the court, such as Sugawara no Michizane (who was eventually disgraced and sent to the islands of Kyushu - which was code for “go have fun on your islands and enjoy the end of your career away from the seat of power”) most threats came from the Fujiwara Clan itself.
Issues brought about by multiple sons who would feel bitter if their brother was chosen to be Emperor, such as was the case with Korechika and his brother Michinaga - Fujiwara no Michinaga is probably the most famous figure of the Heian - as well as the political aspirations of some of the women like Empress Sadako, made the Fujiwara family unstable at times. The intricately designed marriage politics made it so that brother was pit against brother and factions developed within the family and not without.
In fact, it wasn’t even about politics. The Fujiwara puppetmasters were often in agreement in terms about what should be done. It wasn’t like the U.S. where the Democrats and the Republicans differ widely on views. The brothers were often in agreement in terms of policy, but the fighting and intricate plots to incriminate and disgrace each other were about who would be the one to control Japan. The family feuds and all the intrigue are famously recorded in the diaries of Murasaki Shikibu and Sei Shonagon (among others) who were ladies of the court.
In fact, the only real downfall that the Fujiwara had was what had kept them safe - little military power. No one saw the Fujiwara family as a great threat because they had such a small standing military that they were overlooked. Now, their plan to be unassuming left them vulnerable to outside forces.
While infighting weakened the communication structure, the rise of the warrior class which came to bring an end to the Heian period is what led to the Fujiwara’s eventual defeat. During the fighting between the Taira and the Minamoto clans, famously known as the Gempei War and recorded in the Heike Monogatari, the Fujiwara were defeated by the Taira.
Though the Minamoto did come to defeat the Taira in the end, it marked the end of the power structure that the Fujiwara Clan had built. To combat Fujiwara power, the Shogun was created and so the supreme power of the Emperor and the Fujiwara family then led to the shogunate period where warlords began to appear. This cut the political power of the Fujiwaras as did the inclusion of the Insei known as “Cloistered Rule” where an abdicated emperor could still have a hand in politics instead of an emperor being used to father a child with a Fujiwara woman and then be forced to abdicate. It also cut the power of the Sesshou and Kampaku, who now couldn’t rule unilaterally.
The Fujiwara Clan, built by using its women in key places, eventually fell out of power but not out of prestige. They continued to be court nobility and prominent members of society but never came to wield the same kind of power that they’d held before. This new era was one that would come to involve the shogunates - warlords who would soon vie for power with each other, in theory subservient and loyal to the Emperor, but in practice not always so. Some of these shoguns would come to eclipse the power and sometimes the relevancy of the Emperor as rulers and unifiers of Japan.
The World of the Shining Prince by Ivan Morris, pages 47-63
Diaries of Court Ladies in Old Japan - LINK HERE
Picture sources are Wikipedia and the Heian Costume Experience