Heian Period - Economics


While on one hand the Heian period was indeed an unusually long period of peace, it can also be argued that the period weakened Japan economically and led to poverty for all but a tiny few of its inhabitants. The control of rice fields provided a key source of income for families such as the Fujiwara and were a fundamental base for their power. The aristocratic beneficiaries of Heian culture, the Yokibito ("Good People") numbered about five thousand in a land of perhaps five million. One reason the samurai were able to take power was that the ruling nobility proved incompetent at managing Japan and its provinces. By the year 1000 the government no longer knew how to issue currency and money was gradually disappearing. Instead of a fully realised system of money circulation, rice was the primary unit of exchange. The lack of a solid medium of economic exchange is implicitly illustrated in novels of the time. For instance, messengers were rewarded with useful objects, e.g. an old silk kimono, rather than paid a fee. The Fujiwara rulers also failed to maintain adequate police forces, which left robbers free to prey on travellers. This is again implicitly illustrated in novels by the terror that night travel inspired in the main characters. The shōen system enabled the accumulation of wealth by an aristocratic elite; the economic surplus can be linked to the cultural developments of the Heian period and the "pursuit of arts". The major Buddhist temples in Heian-kyō and Nara also made use of the shōen. The establishment of branches rurally and integration of some Shinto shrines within these temple networks reflects a greater "organizational dynamism".

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