The family of Fujiwara was one of the most powerful clans in the history of Japan. Fujiwara held control over the Japanese government for three centuries beginning with the 9th and ending with the 12th. Their authority was based not on political planning or military excellence but diplomacy and judicious intermarriage. Fujiwara established a policy of keeping the connection with the imperial family via getting the daughters of the clan with emperors. As a result, the daughters became empresses, which led to grandchildren and other descendants becoming emperors, as well. Thus, the family obtained full control of the government. No matter whether the chief of the clan was in the government or not, he had all the necessary means to rule the country at his disposal.
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In order to make its impact even more powerful, the Fujiwara made connections with the Buddhist hierarchy. They convinced emperors to withdraw from worldly events. Additionally, the clan created a solid economic base for its political authority. Fujiwara emboldened the landowners to entrust their land to the clan. As a result, taxes for landowners were cut down to a great extent. Simultaneously, Fujiwara became able to redirect the profits into the family treasury.
The clan’s power was commenced in the Asuka period by Nakatomi Katamari. He was the leader of a coup that was held in 645 against the Soga. Katamari introduced several important reforms. In 668, Katamari received a title and a new family name from the Emperor Tenji. After Katamari’s death in the same year, his son Fuhito started using the new family name. He was also the one who launched the tradition of connecting his family to the imperial dynasty. Fuhito arranged the family alliance by getting his daughter married to Emperor Shōmu. Fuhito had four sons, and each one of them set up family divisions.
However, the full power of the clan was not acknowledged up until the 9th century. Fujiwara Yoshifusa’s son-in-law was the reigning monarch at the time. Accordingly, Yoshifusa’s grandson was the heir apparent. Upon the death of the Emperor, Yoshifusa managed to get his grandson receive the throne when the boy was only nine years old. Meanwhile, Yoshifusa was entitled to perform the functions of the regent. It was the first time in the country’s history that a man who did not belong to royal family received such a position. Since then, Fujuwara initiated and repeated the practice of convincing emperors to retire when they were still young and give up the throne to their children. Fujiwara’s role in the scheme was that they were regents to the child emperors. Over the next two hundred years, there were eight cases of throne abdication, and children became emperors seven times.
The only shortcoming in Fujiwara’s scheme was that regents could only rule the country until the emperor legally became an adult. This issue was resolved by Mototsune, Yoshifusa’s nephew. Mototsune introduced a new post that was more influential and esteemed than the regent: a chancellor. The duty of the chancellor was to act as the emperor’s representative and negotiator between the administration and the sovereign.
The only short break in the clan’s activity was when the throne was taken by the emperor Uda in 887. His mother did not belong to Fujiwara. Furthermore, Uda ruled without a regent and even without a chancellor after Mototsune’s death. His son, Tokihira, managed to return the clan’s control promptly. While he did not become a chancellor, Tokihira did everything possible to subdue or remove any resistance to his family. Because he managed to do so without playing any prominent political role, Tokihira proved that his Fujiwara had the absolute power in the country.
The pinnacle of the clan’s power was reached by Fujiwara Michinaga. Three of his daughters got married to emperors, and the fourth one got married to an heir apparent who became an emperor subsequently. Four of Michinaga’s grandsons were emperors. His son became a regent. Michinaga indulged in glory and prosperity for three decades. His exuberant lifestyle gave inspiration to writers who described the grandeur of Michinaga’s mansions.
While Michinaga enjoyed glory in the capital, the clan’s power started to deteriorate quickly in the provinces. In 940s, there were two major rebellions that were restrained by warrior families with which Fujiwara had friendly relationships. However, the victories affected Fujiwara in a negative way. Rather than supporting the clan, the landowners started helping the military families and were more likely to give their lands to them than to Fujiwara. Because the clan did not pay sufficient attention to such a tendency, they gradually lost their dominance to the military families.
In 1027, after Michinaga’s death, the clan’s decline was inevitable. They were not able to hinder the new emperor to take the throne because his mother was not Fujiwara. Moreover, in 1068, a new system of administration was introduced that undermined the clan’s power. Ironically, the Fujiwara were eventually defeated by warrior families which the clan had always treated with disrespect.