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Friday, January 13, 2012

Asian Miscellany (18)—Work in Heian Japan

[a] Built RF
My last few posts in "Asian Miscellany" have been driven by deadline—and many of them will follow in the coming weeks and months, since I have signed contracts to deliver a whole passel of encyclopedic material to various publishers before a self-imposed deadline of January 30th. As I explained in the introduction, this series of posts allows me to try out a few ideas that I plan eventually to include in various encyclopedias or on-line sites that have asked for my input. They are not the same as the pieces that will eventually be published, but constitute more of a "long draft," meant to work through a few ideas as I work on brief essays that often mandate strict "word counts" of 250, 500, 1,000, or 2,000 words. 

For the next dozen or so posts, I have been asked to write about Heian Japan (794-1185). It is one of the most fascinating periods in world history, so I trust that the topics will "connect" for readers of the first ten "Asian Miscellany" posts (almost all of the topics—children, family, urban/rural—are the same). They work well for people interested in a brief introduction to Heian Japan or for people interested in comparative issues. Although an introduction to the Heian period in Japan would require its own introduction, I trust that a reading of these "Heian Japan posts (11-20 in Asian Miscellany) will encourage a few of you to read a bit of the literature of the period.

Click here for other posts in the Heian Japan mini-series:
City-Country    Children         Food-Drink      Entertainment               Sports-Games
Education        Family Life     Work-Labor     Language-Literature     Housing-Shelter

Narratives of leisure dominate the literature of the Heian period. The reader of such narratives often comes to the conclusion that the Heian elite had too much time on its hands. In the narrow sense, this is doubtless true. There are so many tales of court games, displays of fashion, and conspicuous leisure that their descriptions account for quite literally thousands of pages of Heian writing. The careful student of literature, society, and economy, however, will quickly be able to see a picture of work in Heian Japan that is as distinctive as it is laborious. The remaining, albeit far fewer, texts that speak to labor beyond the life of court give us an even deeper picture of what it was to work in Heian Japan. 

Rural Work 
[b] Work RF
Surrounding the capital city like revolving planets were the rural estates (shōen) that supported the refined court life in the capital and would ultimately uproot that very lifestyle. They covered all of the territory in central Japan (the main island of Hōnshū), as well as large swaths of the west and east, at least as far as present-day Tokyo. Although regarded by inhabitants of the capital as boorish and hopelessly countrified, these areas could be said to contain the very approach to labor that over the centuries would reshape the Japanese work ethic. 

The rural estates required farm labor, farm labor supervision, the manufacture of agricultural implements, and many other layers of production and leadership. In time, the estates would require guarding, which led to the creation of entire protective forces that would be the foundation for the samurai culture of future generations. Nowhere is this budding rural work ethic better seen than in a fragment of text from the early Heian period. It shows the devotion of the tato to the lands on which he is employed, as well as the sense of detail he needed to have about everything from field laborers (he is clearly a kind of “foreman”) to his superiors. 

     The husband of the third daughter is a man by the name of Tanaka Hōeki. He is 
     diligent in his farming occupation and entertains no other ambition. He owns 
     several chō of land, and is called the daimyō-tato. He provides his own spades 
     and hoes to cultivate the rich and poor fields, and prepares ahead for dry seasons. 
     He repairs his own domestic-style and Chinese-style plows. He is skillful in his 
     handling of workers…In spring he wastes not a single grain of seed, but in the fall 
     he receives ten-thousandfold in return. From the time he beings planting in the 
     spring to the time he completes his harvest in the fall, he commits not a single 
     faulty step...[1] 

Urban Work 
[c] Modern tato RF
Life in the urban center that was Heian Kyō differed from what we have just read of the rural tato. It is not at all difficult, however, to stretch our historical imaginations and to envision the text above through the eyes of an urban shopkeeper devoted passionately to the family operation. Indeed, there are many texts that show glimpses of this kind of urban work ethic, and most readers will certainly have seen examples (all over the world) of shopkeepers who rise early, work hard, and close late, devoting almost all of their energies to the operation.  

[d] Kyoto carrying (today) RF
Still, we have only glimpses that tell us of shopkeepers, street cleaners, food producers, and other occupations in Heian Japan. It is not hard to see that a wealthy elite could not survive without multiple layers of a service economy to meet their needs. Wealthy people who merely travel from home to court, or court to temple, need transportation, clothing, foodstuffs, offerings, prayer books, and the like. All had to be produced, and almost all of the production took place in the eastern sector of the Japanese capital. The wealth came from the provinces; the production of aristocratic daily life took place in the city. 

Occasionally, a cook or palanquin carrier appears in a Heian narrative. Our best example of the vast gulf between rural and urban work, however, might best be seen in a short historical document from the first century of Heian rule. Already, the provincial economic changes were altering society. It can be seen clearly in a document forbidding Heian nobility from leaving the capital to become local samurai—the protectors of landed estates.
     Lately, those people whose domiciles are in the capital city [of Heian], and who are 

     the children and heirs of princes and of important court officials, reside outside the 
     capital region. Some intermarry [with people from outer provinces] and others 
     engage in agriculture or commerce, and are no different from the people in the
     provinces…If they persist in their disobedience and do not mend their ways, 
     regardless of any connections they might have, they must be banished to distant 
That moving to the countryside to find work in agriculture (or commerce) would lead to serious penalty should give readers a perspective on how great the gulf was between urban and rural culture.

Court Work 
[e] Li'l samurai RF
Emperors worked, and often much harder than most of the other members of courtly families. Their “handlers” worked even harder. This could well seem amusing, given the fact that court life was rarely very exhausting for anyone except those who truly were running the operation. “Those” were the Fujiwara family. During the height of Fujiwara power in the Heian period, no figure was greater than Fujiwara Michinaga (966-1027). From the time he came to power within his clan, he struggled to gain more and more influence for himself and his family. This required a peculiar kind of “work.” To begin, a family that controls the imperial family (but does not supplant it) needs daughters. Part of the Fujiwara family’s “work” was to provide daughters to the imperial family who would become the mothers of emperors, making the powerful outsider family inextricably connected to court power. No one was more successful in the history of Japan at this kind of family and political control than Michinaga. He was the father of several empresses, the grandfather of emperors, and the most powerful figure in all of Heian history. 

On top of it all, there were the emperors themselves, with their own very challenging kinds of work. By the time that the Fujiwara family had taken control of the political life of Japan, it was in their best interest to make sure that emperor’s “ruled” only until early adulthood. A more mature emperor could learn the nuts-and-bolts of court politics well enough to challenge his handlers, and a few did, giving pause to the Fujiwara controllers and new ideas to the imperial family. 

The ideal model from the perspective of the “handlers” was to exhaust a young emperor in court ritual (often many different ceremonies every day, requiring painstaking changes of clothing and memorization of ritual texts) before giving way to another emperor who was also related to the “handler” family. In time, the former emperors—many of whom were alive at any one time—gained the upper hand, but not before the entire work and political structure began to crumble, and power moved to the provinces. 
***  *** 
If we only think of “work” as manual labor, we cannot begin to get a full picture of life in Heian Japan. To be sure, manual labor made up the vast bulk of daily life both within the capital cities and throughout the villages and small cities on the rest of the islands. Work exists on many levels, though, and political work figures prominently in Heian life. When we begin to think about the many layers of labor, our picture of Heian society becomes ever richer and more complex.

Click here for other posts in the Heian Japan mini-series:
City-Country    Children         Food-Drink      Entertainment               Sports-Games
Education        Family Life     Work-Labor     Language-Literature     Housing-Shelter

[f] Fighting works RF
[1] David Lu, Japan: A Documentary History (New York: M.E. Sharpe, 1997), 100.
[2] Lu, 103.

Lu, David. Japan: A Documentary History. New York: M.E. Sharpe, 1997.

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