The Heian Aristocracy, Aristocratic Control
Despite such signs of imperial power, the political role of the emperor shrank in importance during the 9th century. Often the emperor was a child or youth, without the personal character, skills, and experience needed to play a strong political role. Emperors thus became figureheads whose main function was to preside over official ceremonies and religious rituals. Political power in the imperial court shifted into the hands of influential aristocratic families, most of whom descended from the clan chieftains who had been allied with the Yamato rulers in the 6th and 7th centuries.
The aristocrats held the highest official ranks and occupied the most important bureaucratic offices. They usually inherited their positions, and they paid no taxes. In place of a salary, aristocratic officials were given official land, residences, household servants, and agricultural workers. Secure in their inherited wealth and position, aristocratic families accumulated huge amounts of land and power over the generations. They dominated both the politics and cultural activities of the imperial court until the 12th century.
The most powerful of the aristocratic families were the Fujiwara, descendants of a clan chieftain who had played a central role in the Taika reforms. Beginning in 858 the heads of the Fujiwara family married their daughters into the imperial family, then served as regents (kampaku) or chancellors (sesshu), exercising powers delegated to them by infant or minor emperors. The most successful of the Fujiwara leaders was Fujiwara Michinaga, who married four daughters to successive emperors in the late 10th and early 11th centuries. Two emperors were his nephews and three were his grandsons. The influence of the Fujiwara family remained strong until the middle of the 11th century, when Fujiwara regents were displaced by retired emperors who dominated their minor successors. Thereafter, the Fujiwara continued to hold high office, but their power diminished.
Culture flourished in the era of aristocratic rule, a period often considered Japan's classical age. After 838 the court no longer sent diplomatic missions to China, and with the end of direct contacts, the Japanese developed their own forms of artistic and literary expression. In literature, the development of kana, a new phonetic writing system, encouraged new forms of poetry and a native prose literature. In painting, a style depicting scenes of court life, landscapes, and literary works became popular.
Aristocratic domination of the imperial court signaled the decline of the Chinese-model state. The official bureaucratic structure ceased to have anything to do with the actual functioning of government. Rank and office were sold to aristocrats hungry for more land or prestige, and eventually most positions became purely hereditary. The elaborate land and tax system instituted in the 8th century fell into decay as regular population censuses, land surveys, and land redistribution were abandoned because the imperial government lacked the number of educated people needed to manage such a system. Provincial officials stopped forwarding tax revenues to the capital and instead used their official powers to enrich themselves. At the same time, more and more landholdings escaped the public tax registers, reducing the inflow of official income.
The imperial family, the aristocratic families, and the great Buddhist temples at the capital gradually came to depend on a system of private estates (shoen) for revenue. These large hereditary estates, located in every part of Japan, were tax-free. Many peasants and small landholders commended their land to such estates to escape the heavy burden of taxes levied on public land. The estates' aristocratic proprietors shared the income from the land with local estate managers, who supervised the peasant farmers.