Japan in the Heian Period and Cultural History: Crash Course World History 227

Hi, I’m John Green, this is Crash Course World History
and today we’re going to return to medieval times. Mr. Green? Mr. Green? Finally, we get to watch
jousting and eat with our hands and root for the Blue Knight. Yeah, No, Me from the Past, for starters,
Medieval Times doesn’t closely reflect Europe in medieval times. And furthermore, we’re
not going to be talking about Europe in medieval times, although we will be talking about kings
and courts and aristocratic intrigue, but we’re gonna be talking about all those things
in Japan. So discussions of Japanese history often focus
on the Tokugawa period because it’s got ninja and samurai, but much of the foundation of
Japanese culture dates to the Heian period between 782 and 1167 CE. And when I say Japanese culture, I do mean
culture, because the achievements of the Heian period were primarily artistic, especially
in literature. So for most of this episode, we’ll be looking at cultural history as opposed
to like economic or political history. As a novelist, and also a consumer of culture,
I’m a big fan of cultural history. What I love about it is that it embraces the human
imagination. I mean, you can’t just make up economic theories. Just kidding, you can. Anyway, for our purposes, Heian culture is
the high culture of the upper-upper-class aristocracy, and obviously focusing on this
tiny sliver of the upper class leaves out the experience of most Japanese people. But
we know a lot more about the elite than we know about everyone else because it was the
elite who were doing all of the writing things down and they were writing about the people
they found the most interesting – themselves. In fact one of the reasons we know a great
deal about the Heian aristocracy is because of Japan’s first great novel: The Tale of
the Genji, by Lady Murasaki Shikibu. Now the historian James Murdoch called the Heian aristocracy “An ever-pullulating brood of greedy, needy,
frivolous dilletanti – as often as not foully licentious, utterly effeminate, incapable
of any worthy achievement”. But when you boil all the unnecessarily fancy
words out of that quote, that sounds like people I’m very interested in learning about.
In fact, I love some fallicentuousness. So one of the first things we learn from texts
about the Heian aristocracy is that the aristocracy was dominated by a craze for things Chinese.
Now Chinese visitors to Japan thought the country was backwards and out of the way and
uncivilized. But one of the reasons the Japanese seemed
backwards to Chinese visitors is that the Japanese in the 10th century admired Tang
China, which had flourished a couple of hundred years earlier. But there was also the fact
that the Japanese blended Chinese ideas, especially Chinese Buddhism, with native traditions. In fact one of the most interesting aspects
of Heian Japan was the overall attitude of the aristocracy, which was characterized by
a love of color, and grandeur, and ceremony, and ritual, that was tinged with some Buddhist-inspired
ideas. You know, it’s sort of like how everyone in Canada wears powdered wigs and knee breeches
to look like 18th century England. And one of the central ideas in Buddhism is
that everything beautiful, and also everything not beautiful, is fleeting. Like historian
Ivan Morris wrote that in the literature of the time, there was a quote “feeling that
the familiar order of things will soon come to an end.” Which by the way is always an
appropriate feeling. So the center of aristocratic court life was
the capital, Heian Jyo, which during the Heian golden age may have had a populations as high
as 100,000 people, making it much larger than most European cities at the time. It may have
been a glorious capital but we don’t really know because most of the city was destroyed
by earthquakes, or possibly fires, or possibly wars, or just the desire for new construction.
We’re not sure. We also know that the Heian aristocracy was
rigidly hierarchical, with society divided into about 30 grades based on one’s birth.
The top 4 grades were reserved for princes, and the top 3, known as the Kugyō, received
all the most important privileges, including governmental posts and revenues from special
rice land. These people in the highest ranks could send
their children to university, wear ceremonial dress, they were given lighter punishments
when they committed crimes. Can you imagine a world in which rich people systemically
receive lighter sentences for crimes committed than poor people? These rules were so detailed that they even
determined what type of fan you could hold. The top 3 ranks got to hold 25-fold fans. But when The Tale of the Genji was written,
this rank system, like all those ranks, applied to less than 1/10th of 1% of the total population,
so we’re really talking about the elites. As Ivan Morris put it: “Members of the upper class are almost all
related to each other. They are totally uninterested in everyone outside their charmed circle and
exceedingly sensitive in judging the precise social level of each person who does belong.
In Murasaki’s milieu, to determine a person’s milieu was no simple diversion, but a matter
of overriding importance.” Now that description reminds me a lot of my
high school experience. Aristocrats dominated the government, which
over time became more and more ceremonial and ritualistic. In fact by the 10th century,
much government work was carried out at night and consisted almost entirely of ceremonies.
The nice thing about doing boring ceremonial work at night though: there was a lot of wine. So yeah, that doesn’t make for like, excellent
government efficiency. Heian Japan’s economy was not much better than its governance. There
was very little trade and attempted land reform, which was supposed to grant every citizen
a parcel of public domain land, totally failed. Meanwhile, aristocrats accumulated vast agricultural
land holdings, and by the 10th century court nobles were largely supported by these tax-free
estates called manors. Now interestingly, the nobles didn’t technically own the land
outright, as they did in much of Europe. Instead they owned the rights to income from the land
and then those rights could be transferred to their heirs, so it was similar to ownership,
but it wasn’t quite ownership. Also different from Europe: upper-class Japanese
women could hold the rights to a manor, and thus have a rather impressive degree of economic
power. And that matters a lot because women played a key role in the flourishing of Heian
literary culture that makes this period of history so interesting to study in the first
place. Like over all this inefficient corrupt cronyism
of Japan’s government and economy definitely weakened this state. But it also provided
time and money for the aristocracy to make beautiful and interesting things. Let’s go to the Thought Bubble. Heian aristocrats
were expected to feel melancholy over the transience of existence. “In Murasaki’s time,” according to Ivan Morris
“periodical protestations of melancholy and gloom were essential for people who regarded
themselves as sensitive,” and sensitivity especially to art was the hallmark of aristocratic
breeding. The aristocratic gentleman is exemplified by prince Genji himself: quote “With his gentle
nature, his sensitivity and his wide range of artistic skills, who represented the ideal
of the age and who set the tone for the social and cultural life of the good people” Buddhism was very influential on the aristocrats
aesthetic ideal that beauty must be cultivated because it is so impermanent. This quote from
the tale of Genji illustrates this focus on impermanence: “‘Like the waterfowl that play
there on the lake, I too am floating along the surface of a transient world’ I could
not help comparing them with myself. For they too appeared to be enjoying themselves in
the most carefree fashion; yet their lives must be full of sorrow.” Stan, are you sure that’s from the tale of
Genji? I think I’ve seen that quote attributed to me on Tumblr. But we don’t only know about
the emotional state of the aristocracy, we also know about their pastimes. We refer to
nobles as the leisure class for a reason after all, they spent a lot of time playing games,
and engaging in contests. Poetry contests were popular, as were board
games, like Go, and much of their time was taken up with ceremonies and rituals. Here is an example from the court calendar:
“18th day: Bowman’s Wager, the new year’s celebrations are concluded by an archery contest
which is held in his majesties presence between officers of the inner and middle palace guards.
This is followed by a banquet during which court dances are performed and prizes awarded
to the winning side. Members of the losing side are forced to drink the cup of defeat.” Thanks, Thought Bubble. I’d like to make an
announcement here at Crash Course from now on whenever we refer to anyone losing anything
we will say that they were forced to drink from the cup of defeat. So you know other than pure Game of Thrones
style drama, this highly ritualized very insular social order of the elites of the elites of
the elites isn’t usually the kind of stuff we’d study at Crash Course. But first, thinking about the lives of the
Heian aristocracy tells us something about the lives of the rich and powerful generally.
Like obviously they had to increasingly separate themselves from each other to feel more and
more wealthy and powerful. Which progressively led to them being more
and more separated from, you know, the vast, vast majority of people living in Japan. But
also they produced and consumed cultural artifacts that came to define the style of the age but
also have continued to shape culture. Heian aristocracy and the documents that describe
it tell us a lot about women, who as we’ve seen are often left out of historical narratives.
The Heian period, at least culturally, was dominated by women, particularly Murasaki
Shikibu and Sei Shōnagon. So in some ways at least, unlike almost everything
we’ve studied, our view of the period is dominated by women’s perspectives, although it is the
perspective of the most privileged women. And what we see is consistent with a lot of
upper-class mores: these women are obsessed with their looks, and especially with their
clothes which were cumbersome and heavy. They were expected to wear their hair very long,
preferably reaching to the ground. They had to powder their faces and blacken their teeth
and they lived the circumscribed lives typical of upper-class women throughout the world. Although there were some legal protections
that they enjoyed: like we talked about how they could have income from property. Laws
also protected them from physical violence, specifically prohibiting a husband from beating
his wife, which might not sound like that big of a deal but compared to women’s lives
in Europe, that was a big improvement. And upper-class women in Heian Japan were
all literate and educated, although their education was limited to the types of cultural
skills that would make them attractive to men: poetry, music, calligraphy, maybe some
literature. Disciplines like history and law and philosophy were mostly off limits. And that brings me to something I want to
talk about: all of these privileges: from the heavy, cumbersome clothes that make it
difficult to move to the kinds of education women could have or the kinds of limited legal
protections they could have, all of that is evidence of a patriarchy. So we see through these women’s stories the
way that they were able to express themselves and their philosophies and the way that they
lived in the world. So women like Murasaki Shikibu lived constrained, cloistered lives,
but of course there were opportunities available to them that weren’t available to men. And
that’s what’s so exciting about being able to read their narratives. We just don’t have
many equivalents to that in Europe at the time. That noted, these women, like their male counterparts,
spent most of their lives indoors, and communicated mostly by intermediaries or letters. Women
couldn’t show themselves to men or make conversation with them. But there was a great deal of interest
and intrigue around love and romance, not least because Heian gentlemen were expected to be
polygamous and also to engage in extramarital affairs. But just because sexual relations were often
divorced from marriage and love affairs were common doesn’t mean that they lacked emotional
consequences. In the stories you read about Heian Japan everybody is always worried that
they’re going to like, fall out of favor with their lover or their husband or their whatever.
It’s so exciting! To read about, I mean, I’m sure if you’re living inside of it it would
make you very anxious. Also when courtship and marriage had political
dimensions, as they did in the highest noble ranks, women were often in danger of being
displaced by a more advantageous match. And we know from the stories that all of this
combined into pangs of jealousy and fear of being abandoned and then pain when you actually
were abandoned. And those kinds of stories, I’m sure I don’t have to tell you, have a
kind of universality about them. The last thing I want to say here is that
power works differently when you’re not in power, right? Like if you’re a student in
a high school classroom the teacher has the power, but you have some power. And the most interesting thing about the stories
from the Heian aristocracy is the ways that women used the power that they did have to bring about
change in their own lives and in their communities. So by looking at history through the lens
of literature we get a very different perspective than if we were to focus on government documents,
or archaeology, or descriptions of war. This helps us to try to develop a sense of how
people at the time felt, although we’re only dealing with a very limited group of people,
obviously. The cultural achievements of the Heian Period,
described and exemplified by The Tale of Genji, were considerable, especially when compared
to what Europeans were accomplishing at the time. And it’s another reminder that we need
to be careful when we talk about the 9th and 10th centuries as the Dark Ages. It’s also interesting that the Heian Period
in Japan wasn’t particularly successful politically or economically, but that it did lead to great
cultural achievements. And almost all of the literary achievements were made by women,
which as Morris points out is “a rare, if not unique, phenomenon in cultural history.” For Heian Japan the historical record was
written primarily by women. And while The Tale of Genji doesn’t discuss politics or
economics the way that we usually imagine them, and while it describes a world that
leaves out 99% of Japanese people during the period, it has a lot to tell us about the
way that at least some people felt and lived, which is more than can be said for a lot of
history books. And that’s a type of history that most of
us can relate to more than stuff with generals and kings in it. For instance when I look
at the history of my own life I find that generals and kings have played a very minor
role. Jealously on the other hand: not insignificant. Thanks for watching. I’ll see you next week. Crash Course is filmed here in the Chad & Stacey
Emigholz Studio in Indianapolis. Thank you for watching and as we say in my hometown:
don’t forget to be awesome.

100 Replies to “Japan in the Heian Period and Cultural History: Crash Course World History 227

  1. A bit of modern-day melancholy poetry:

    “I'm a cork on the ocean
    Floating over the raging sea
    How deep is the ocean?

    I'm a rock in a landslide
    Rolling over the mountainside
    How deep is the valley?

    I'm a leaf on a windy day
    Pretty soon I'll be blown away
    How long will the wind blow?

    Until I die
    These things I'll be until I die”
    – Brian Wilson

  2. Still gotta love that episode from the beginning of Genji, where Genji's mom needs to go see the emperor, but her rival has had a maid put a rotten pear in the hall leading away from her chambers, so she's stuck there, and the anxiety of being so hated by a peer disturbs her so that she goes home, has genji, and dies.

  3. Medieval Times is an unchecked evil private company that abuses its workers and animals. Don't give them attention or money.

  4. I'm doing an article on this topic now. Can you confirm that the vast majority of normal peasants in Japan during the Nara and Heian lived in pretty much poverty and near starvation as the elite upper class wrote the history of that period as they saw fit? Thanks in advance.

  5. Can you imagine a world in which rich people systemically received lighter punishments than poor people? Ummm… who needs to imagine that? It’s the prevailing situation pretty much everywhere.

  6. December 2018:
    Korean/Japanese Mythology

    July 2019:
    Cultural (Historical) Super Mash-Up Packs (Cultural Bundle and Super Bundle).
    (Includes all present mash up packs. Greek, Norse, Chinese, Egypt, and Japanese.)
    (-Celctic Mythology World and Skin pack.
    (-Korean Mythology World and Skin pack.
    (-Cultural Super Skin Pack.

    (-Celtic Skin Pack includes 25 Skins.
    (-Korean Skin Pack includes 25 Skins.
    (-Both cost 5.99 in U.S. dollars.
    (-Cultural Bundle includes all new Celtic and Korean Mash up packs and Skin packs.
    (-Cultural Super Bundle includes all previous mythology mash up packs, new mytholgy mash up packs, and the exclusive Cultural Skin Pack and Historical Mini Mash-Up.
    (-Cultural Bundle costs 9.99 in U.S. dollars.
    (-Cultural Super Bundle costs 14.99 in U.S. dollars.
    (-Enjoy History through all these new beautiful Mash-Up Packs!
    This will all be coming in December 2018 and Late Spring 2019, as apart of a mini celebration.

  7. you repeated yourself like 10 times saying that it was all about women, it gets repetitive, you got the ponit across the first time and its like you're hammering on it

  8. 100 000 people, "a much larger city than any other euopian city". Rome 1000 years earlier had a popultaion of 6millions, five cities in italy exeeded 100 000, two cities in the netherlands were larger than 100 000, one in france, one in austria, four in Germany, two in spain, two in the bakans…

  9. I’m a bit late but Fun fact, from what I learned in my courses from Japan, is that the case of male dominant society has its impact significantly during the area in ways unexpected. For instance the male female separation was a huge factor in life then as it is now, but in ways we really didn’t think. The best example given is that Japanese men have more privileges even with languages, as the males were allowed to learn and use Chinese characters which were recently imported and used en masse. As the Japanese aristocracy then considered China to be a more educationally and spiritually enlightened land, many of the higher ups sought to live like the Chinese and thus emulate the life style vicariously through art or language. Women during the period then were only allowed to study and write in Hiragana which is the old Japanese form of writing (Chinese characters or Kanji are the boxy ones with complex designs, whereas Hiragana is the more flowy, interconnected characters which can be written in a single brush stroke in some cases). Because the Hiragana characters were considered to be less complex, it was considered to be “feminine” and thus this separation occurred. Much more distinctive separation occurred and appeared as time passes (such as: Buddhism associated with the rich and elite, Chinese artstyle associated with the military and aristocracy as military daimyos sought power over territory as compared to the emperor (and thus Japanese characters and older style art were considered weak and feminine due to the lack of military association), and finally tea ceremonies associated with the rich even though they are meant to emulate the simple lifestyle of a peasant (this was born Wabi Sabi)). It’s very interesting to see how such stagnant class divide shaped Japan then and to a degree now. I hope I was insightful! Love the video.

  10. 9:23 What evidence is there to claim that entire Europe in medieval times was sexist towards women?
    10:13 Oh look! No evidence.

  11. Anyone else realize that in the thought bubble the prizes were 2/3 anime charicters? Anyone?!?…

    Fine ill just brood in my golden corner over her
    nobelity 2018

  12. I look forward you another installment of the program examining this culture and period in which your usual sarcasm is wielded upon the utter injustice that this time and place truly stank of…

  13. The lives of the .0001% haven't changed much over time. Except ours are usually utterly artless. Also, John Green is a national treasure and my hero.

  14. Japan gets an extinction bomb to the face twice
    Japan: I need healing
    🇯🇵🗡Japan:Welp, time for some Samurai sucide.
    Murica: makes more democraticsized Japan

  15. Honestly the Heian Period sounds like it sucked. All I can see is a bunch of Kim Kardashians running around mansions worrying about who's sleeping with who, indulging in the latest trends (such as melancholy), and writing books with might be the equivalent of TV back then. Sorry but I don't see anything to admire here at all.

  16. dang watching this after world history 1, john green seems so dead inside and monotone. Get pumped john!

  17. Hello people of the comment section. Take a shot every time someone mentions anything from Bill Wurtz "history of the world, I guess" and "history of japan."

    Happy drinking!!!

  18. Come on now. The first Europe was developing differently from the rest. Second, most of the horrors that were committed by the Anglo-Saxons (greeting Canada). Thirdly, Europe is not a country, it is a continent.

  19. 🔎🔍🔎🔍🔎🔍🔎🔍🔎🔍🔎🔍🔎🔍🔎🔍🔎🔍🔎🔍🔎🔍🔎🔍🔎🔍🔎🔍🔎🔍🔎🔍🔎🔍🔎🔍🔎🔍🔎🔍🔎🔍🔎🔍🔎🔍🔎🔍🔎🔍🔎🔍🔎🔍🔎🔍🔎🔍🔎🔍🔎🔍🔎🔍🔎🔍🔎🔍🔎🔍🔎🔍🔎🔍🔎🔍🔎🔍🔎🔍🔎🔍🔎🔍🔎🔍🔎🔍🔎🔍🔎🔍🔎🔍🔎🔍🔎🔍🔎🔍🔎🔍🔎🔍🔎🔍🔎🔍🔎🔍🔎🔍🔎🔍🔎🔍🔎🔍🔎🔍🔎🔍🔎🔍🔎🔍🔎🔍🔎🔍🔎🔍🔎🔍🔎🔍🔎🔍🔎🔍🔎🔍🔎🔍🔎🔍🔎🔍🔎🔍🔎🔍🔎🔍🔎🔍🔎🔍🔎🔍 put this in google translate

  20. Europ being back warded in VIII century is an exaggeration. Like seriously ever heard of Charlemagne and Carolingian renaissance? Or Leno the sixth and Opus Basilicon?

  21. John Green: The Renaissance didn’t exist because it was upper class. Also John Green: Does a whole episode on Japanese aristocracy because the art they produced defined the Heian period

  22. Crash Course!! Yes very very fast speaking English. Bullet English. Heian era is important era as Hiragana was completed definitely.

  23. to a chinese, "heian" seems to be "黑暗“ , the Chinese for "dark", rather than its true Japanese meaning, "safe and stable". I don't know which one is more appropriate.

  24. I may not be the brightest light on the tree but I hate being talked down to as if I were a fu*&ing idiot.

  25. If there were only three people on Earth, and only three apples on Earth, one of those people would come up with a very good reason why he should get two apples.

  26. This is my favourite sentence from now…

    "An ever-pullulating brood of greedy, needy, frivolous dilettanti – as often as not foully licentious, utterly effeminate, incapable of any worthy achievement"

    the alliterations. it's sheer poetry.

  27. Most interesting & very precise. Enjoyed his presentation, he made it very interesting & you just want to hear more.

  28. Literally more than half of the comments on this video are bill wurtz references
    There’s more to Japanese history than “conquer the north ,get that squared away ,”
    Like think of something constructive you know

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