Shaping Heian, Japan

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Shaping Heian, Japan

Tenth-century Japan is characterized by images of elegance, beauty, and sophistication. Ritual and ceremony shape nearly every aspect of life during this time. Throughout The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon there are several examples of how everyday lifestyles are shaped through these mediums. Politics, religion, self-image, and interpersonal relationships played important roles in shaping life in Heian society, and a form of either ritual or ceremony influenced each of these assets.
Government and political forces were a very important part of Heian Japan. The government and its actions affected all aspects of life. Under the emperor, the government was divided into two separate entities, one religious and one secular. One’s rank within the government was closely related to the political position held. Aristocracy and the civil service were combined so that a person was usually given a rank first, then a suitable office to fit that rank. This made it nearly impossible for anyone to enter the rank hierarchy by merit, allowing the Japanese to make their system diverge in fundamental and damaging ways from the Chinese governmental model. Those who held rank were afforded special tax breaks, special rights to have certain clothes, or to send their sons to universities (Morris 64-5). It is only natural to assume that when religion and government are so closely tied that a level of ceremony and ritual would be incorporated into political practices. The detail and precision put into deciding rank and position is just one example of how ceremony plays a role in politics during this period.
Religion played a very significant role in tenth-century society, especially as it was tied to the political affairs of the country. During the time that Shonagon wrote, the traditional religion was Buddhism. Ritual and ceremonial practices dominated all aspects, from the practices to the wardrobe. For instance, “… priests pay their respects to the statue [Buddha]; then, while intoing words of praise, they pour coloured water on the statue’s head. The Court Nobles also pour water over the statue, make obeisance, and withdraw…” (Morris 160). Throughout the course of a year, several different ceremonies were held each representing some important face of the Buddhist lifestyle. One ceremony, which took place near the end of the Twelfth Month, was The General Confession. This ceremony was aimed at expunging the sins one had committed during the course of the year with “…painted screens depicting the Horrors of Hell are set up under the eaves as a reminder of the need for penitence” (Morris 165).
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