Today marks the thirty-fourth installment in a series of articles by called Centers of Progress. Where does progress happen? The story of civilization is in many ways the story of the city. It is the city that has helped to create and define the modern world. This bi-weekly column will give a short overview of urban centers that were the sites of pivotal advances in culture, economics, politics, technology, etc.

The thirty-fourth Center of Progress is Kyoto during the Heian (meaning “peace”) period (794–1185 AD), a golden age of Japanese history that saw the rise of a distinctive high culture devoted to aesthetic refinement and the emergence of many enduring artistic styles. As the home of the imperial court, Kyoto was the political battleground where noble families vied for prestige by patronizing the best artists. This courtly competition produced groundbreaking innovations in many areas, including literature, and birthed a new literary form that would redefine fiction-writing: the novel.

Today, Kyoto remains the cultural heart of Japan. Its well-preserved Buddhist temples, Shinto shrines, and royal palaces attract tourists from around the world, and its zen gardens have had a profound influence on the art of landscaping. Some of its historic sights together comprise a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Traditional crafts represent an important part of the city’s economy, with kimono-weavers, sake-brewers, and many other renowned local artisans continuing to produce goods using heritage techniques.

In other ways, Kyoto is on the cutting-edge. The city is a hub of the information technology and electronics industries, houses the headquarters of the video game company Nintendo, and contains some 40 institutions of higher education, including the prestigious Kyoto University. The population of Kyoto now exceeds 1.45 million people, and the broader metropolitan region, including Osaka and Kobe, is the second-most populated area in Japan.

Surrounded on three sides by mountains, Kyoto has been renowned for its natural beauty since ancient times, from the famous Sagano Bamboo Grove to the blossoming cherry trees along the banks of the Kamo River in the city’s southwest. That natural beauty helped win the city’s nickname, “Hana no Miyako,” the City of Flowers.

Archeological evidence suggests that humans have lived in the area since the Paleolithic period. While few relics remain from the city’s beginnings, some of Kyoto’s architecture, such as the Shinto Shimogamo Shrine, dates to the 6th century AD. Japanese architecture relies heavily on wood, which deteriorates quickly, so the original building materials have not survived. However, the millennia-long Japanese tradition of continuously revitalizing wooden structures with rigorous respect for their initial form “has ensured that what is visible today conforms in almost every detail with the original structures.” The most famous example of this architectural renewal is the Shinto shrine in Ise, 80 miles to Kyoto’s southeast, which has been completely dismantled and rebuilt every two decades for millennia. During the Heian era, that shrine became known for imperial patronage, with the emperor often sending messengers from Kyoto to pay respects to the sacred site.

Kyoto was officially established in the year 794. Emperor Kanmu (735–806 AD), likely feeling threatened by the growing power of Buddhist religious leaders, moved his court away from the great monasteries in the old capital of Nara. Initially, in AD 784, he moved the capital to Nagaoka-kyō, but a series of disasters struck after the move, including the assassination of a key imperial advisor, the death of the emperor’s mother and three of his wives (including the empress), drought alternating with flooding, earthquakes, famine, a smallpox epidemic, and a severe illness that sickened the crown prince. The government’s official Divination Bureau blamed that last misfortune on the vengeful ghost of the emperor’s half-brother Sawara, who had starved himself to death after a politically-motivated imprisonment.

While a popular narrative holds that Kanmu abandoned Nagaoka-kyō to flee the purported ghost, there may be a less spooky explanation. In AD 793, the emperor’s advisor Wake no Kiyomaro (733–799 AD), perhaps one of the best hydraulic engineers of the 8th century, may have convinced the emperor that flood-proofing Nagaoka-kyō would be more expensive than starting from scratch in a less flood-prone location.

Whatever the reason, in AD 794, Kanmu moved the capital again, erecting a new city along a grid pattern modeled after the illustrious Chinese Tang-dynasty (618–907 AD) capital of Chang’an. The lavish new capital cost a staggering three-fifths of Japan’s national budget at the time. Its layout strictly conformed to Chinese feng shui or geomancy, a pseudoscience that seeks to align manmade structures with the cardinal directions of north, south, east, and west in a precise way thought to bring good fortune. The imperial palace compound, enclosed by a large rectangular outer wall (the daidairi), was built in the city’s north and faced south. Fires presented a constant problem to the predominantly wooden complex, and, although rebuilt many times, the Heian Palace no longer exists. (The present Kyoto Imperial Palace, modeled on the Heian period style, occupies a nearby location). 

From the Heian Palace’s main entrance emanated a large central thoroughfare, the monumental Suzaku Avenue. Over 260-feet wide, Suzaku Avenue ran through the center of the city to the enormous Rashōmon gate in the city’s south. That gate lent its name to the famous 1950 murder trial film by Akira Kurosawa set at the end of the Heian era. In the north of the city, close to the imperial compound, substantial Chinese-style homes housed the nobility. The emperor named his pricey metropolis Heiankyō, meaning “Capital of Peace and Tranquility,” now known simply as Kyōto, meaning “Capital City.” (It retains that name although Tokyo succeeded it as Japan’s capital in 1868).

The Heian period of Japanese history derives its name from the era’s capital city. However, the age earned its moniker’s meaning and was relatively conflict-free until a civil war (the Genpei War that lasted from 1180 to 1185 AD) brought the period to a close. This long peace allowed the court to develop a culture devoted to aesthetic refinement.

For centuries, the aristocratic Fujiwara family dominated not only the politics of the court at Kyoto (marrying into the imperial line and producing many emperors), but also sought to steer the city’s culture, prioritizing art and courtly sophistication. The nobility competed to fund all manner of artworks, gaining prestige from association with the era’s greatest innovators in areas such as calligraphy, theater, song, sculpture, landscaping, puppetry (bunraku), dance, and painting. 

The nobility also produced art themselves. “[T]he best poets were courtiers of middling rank,” noted Princeton University Japanese literature professor Earl Roy Miner. “The Ariwara family (or ‘clan’), the Ono family, and the Ki family produced many of the best poets” despite the Fujiwara family’s greater wealth and influence. The poet Ono no Michikaze (894–966 AD), for example, is credited with founding Japanese-style calligraphy.

It was in Kyoto that the court gradually stopped emulating Chinese society and developed uniquely Japanese traditions. For example, the Japanese Yamato-e painting tradition, noted for its use of aerial perspective and clouds to obscure parts of the depicted scene, competed with the Chinese-inspired kara-e painting tradition.

Perhaps above all, the Heian courtiers prized poetic and literary achievement. According to Amy Vladeck Heinrich, who directs the East Asia Library at Columbia University, “a person’s skill in poetry was a major criterion in determining his or her standing in society, even influencing political positions.” That was for good reason, as poetry played a large role in both courtly romance and diplomacy, with formal poetry exchanges strengthening the ties between potential paramours as well as other kingdoms.

The chief poetic form was the waka, from which the now better-known haiku was derived. Waka consist of thirty-one syllables, arranged in five lines, usually containing five, seven, five, seven, and seven syllables, respectively. One of the era’s greatest poets was the Kyoto courtier Ki no Tsurayuki (872–945 AD), co-compiler of the first imperially-sponsored poetry anthology and author of the first critical essay on waka. “The poetry of Japan has its roots in the human heart and flourishes in the countless leaves of words,” he wrote. “Because human beings possess interests of so many kinds it is in poetry that they give expression to the meditations of their hearts in terms of the sights appearing before their eyes and the sounds coming to their ears. Hearing the warbler sing among the blossoms and the frog in his fresh waters — is there any living being not given to song!” (The Japanese word for song can also mean poem). 

A favorite subject for Kyoto’s artists and writers was nature, especially as it changed with the seasons. As the Metropolitan Museum of Art puts it, “Kyoto residents were deeply moved by the subtle seasonal changes that colored the hills and mountains surrounding them and regulated the patterns of daily life.” 

Another recurrent theme was the impermanence of beauty and transience of life. Life in Kyoto was, after all, despite its relative opulence, extremely short. The Japanese historian Kiyoyuki Higuchi has written, “actual living conditions in and around the imperial court were, by today’s standards, unimaginably unsanitary and unnatural. According to books on the history of epidemic disease and medical treatment, aristocratic women, on average, died at age 27 or 28, while men died at age 32 or 33. In addition to the infant mortality rate being extremely high, the rate of women dying at childbirth was also high … Looking at the specific causes of death at the time, tuberculosis (possibly including pneumonia cases) accounted for 54 percent, beriberi for 20 percent, and diseases of the skin (including smallpox) for 10 percent.”

One of the period’s most iconic poems, by Ono no Komachi (c. 825–c. 900 AD), a courtier famed for her beauty, focuses on the fleeting nature of her looks:

花の色は                     Hana no iro wa           The flowers’ color

うつりにけりな          utsuri ni keri na           already faded away    

いたづらに                  itazura ni                     so meaninglessly        

わが身世にふる          waga mi yo ni furu      I’ve aged, passing through the world

ながめせしまに          nagame seshi ma ni   gazing blankly at the rain

The poem exemplifies wordplay, and its multiple puns make it impossible to precisely translate – as the verb furu can mean either “to age” or “to rain,” and the word “nagame” can mean either “lengthy rain” or “vacant gaze.”

When Kyoto was founded, Japanese was usually written using the Chinese writing system, which was not ideal. Chinese characters could not easily convey aspects of the Japanese language that were not present in Chinese. But in the 9th century, in Kyoto, the court women–discouraged from studying Chinese–developed a simplified phonetic syllabary writing system better suited to the nuances of the Japanese language. Their system, hiragana, not only helped to spread female literacy but gave writers far more flexibility and resulted in much of the best writing of the era being done by women. Today, Japanese is written using a combination of Chinese characters (kanji), hiragana, and katakana (another simplified syllabary developed by monks).

Perhaps the best example of the feminine influence on Heian-period Japanese literature is the competition between two of Emperor Ichijō’s (980–1011 AD) wives, Empress Teishi (977–1001 AD) and Empress Shōshi (988–1074 AD), who each sought to outdo the other and place her own son on the throne. They fought not with violence but with the arts: each tried to fill her household with superior poets and artists, thus heightening her relative prestige at court. 

These dueling empresses brought about a literary rivalry for the ages between two noblewomen in their service, who went by the pen names Sei Shōnagon (c. 966–c. 1025 AD) and Murasaki Shikibu (c. 978–c. 1014 AD). Shōnagon was a lady-in-waiting to Empress Teishi, and Murasaki was a lady-in-waiting to Empress Shōshi. Each may have been summoned to serve her respective empress specifically because of her literary talent.

In the year 1002, Shōnagon completed The Pillow Book, a compilation of poetry, observations, and musings now deemed a masterpiece of classical Japanese literature and among the best sources of information on Heian court life. Murasaki fired back with a masterpiece of her own and wrote scathing critiques of Shōnagon’s writing and personality. By the year 1008, at least part of Murasaki’s The Tale of Genji was in circulation among Kyoto’s aristocracy.

The Tale of Genji, which chronicles the youth, romances, and eventual death of a handsome and frequently lovestruck prince, is often considered the world’s first novel. The Encyclopedia Britannica notes that The Tale of Genji remains “the finest work not only of the Heian period but of all Japanese literature and merits being called the first important novel written anywhere in the world.” 

The Tale of Genji contains many of the elements that define novels to this day: it was a lengthy prose fiction piece with a central character and minor characters, narrative events, parallel plots, and, of course, conflict. The novel also features around 800 waka, which the characters often use to communicate. The story became an immediate hit among the nobility, inspiring numerous paintings of the novel’s scenes. 

While the novel’s focus is an idealized vision of courtly love, it also contains untimely deaths and other unpleasant details that would have been all too familiar to Kyoto’s courtiers. For example, there is no mention of bathing in The Tale of Genji, which sadly reflected Kyoto’s state of hygiene. As Higuchi points out:

[T]he custom of bathing was not widespread among the nobility of that time … Although beyond the imagination of people today, if a Heian noblewoman were to approach you, her body odor would likely be powerful. Moreover, whenever they caught colds, they would chew on raw garlic, increasing the odor level even more. A passage in Genji clearly illustrates this point: a woman writing a reply to a man asks that he please not stop by tonight since she reeks from eating garlic.

Kyoto’s greatest literary feud had a decisive victor. Shōnagon remains relatively unknown outside of Japan, and the empress she served died in childbirth in her early twenties. Murasaki’s writing has gone down in history, and the empress she served lived to see two of her sons become emperors. Today, an entire museum dedicated to The Tale of Genji stands in Uji just outside Kyoto.

The Heian period came to a close with the rise of samurai (hereditary military nobility) culture, and the de facto rulership of Japan transferred from Kyoto’s refined albeit unbathed courtiers to warring military generals called shogun.

To this day, the Japanese Imperial family still runs an annual poetry-writing contest. But whereas in the Heian era, typically only the nobility and monks had the time and education to compose poetry or prose, today, amateur writing is a popular pastime throughout Japan and the rest of the developed world.

Kyoto, Japan old town skyline in the Higashiyama District in the afternoon
Kyoto, Japan old town skyline in the Higashiyama District in the afternoon.

Many centuries after Kyoto’s era of literary brilliance, in 1905, the American professor of English Selden Lincoln Whitcomb opined, “The novel is the most comprehensive form of representative art that man has discovered.” For being at the center of the novel’s invention, a turning point in the history of the literary arts, and its numerous other achievements in art and poetry, Heian-era Kyoto is rightly our thirty-fourth Center of Progress.