Fujiwara Michinaga

The Japanese noble Fujiwara Michinaga (966-1027) was one of the most powerful statesmen in the Heian period. Through his family, especially his daughters, he exercised virtually complete control over the imperial court.

Fujiwara Michinaga was a son of Kaneiye, a powerful member of the Fujiwara clan who, as regent, had consolidated the power of the Fujiwaras. After Michinaga's elder brothers, Michitaka and Michikane, died young, he became the most powerful member of the Fujiwara clan. Michinaga caused his nephew, Korechika, and Korechika's younger brother, Takaiye, to be exiled. After being appointed Minister of the Left, he persuaded the emperor Ichijo to demote his consort, Sadako, the daughter of Michitaka, to the newly established rank of chūgū (consort below the empress) and make Akiko, his own daughter, the empress. It was the first time in the Heian court that the chūgū and kōgō (empress) stood side by side.

In this period of Japanese history, maternal relatives of the imperial family exercised great political power. Families with blood connections with the reigning house of Japan often occupied mansions of greater splendor than the palace of the emperors, but they also frequently contributed to the preservation of the imperial house and the protection of the throne.

Upon the death of Emperor Ichijo in 1011, Emperor Sanjo (reigned 1011-1016) ascended the throne. Michinaga made another daughter of his lady-in-waiting to the Empress. When the Emperor suffered from a disease of the eye, Michinaga used it as an excuse to force him to abdicate. Emperor Sanjo was succeeded by Emperor Goichijo (1016), a son of Michinaga's daughter. Michinaga was thus the maternal grandfather of the Emperor and thereafter acted much like a kampaku (adviser to the emperor).

Michinaga became dajo daijin (chancellor) in 1017 and made his son, Yorimichi, sesshō (regent); his daughter, Takeko, was made chūgū of Emperor Goichijo, and Michinaga thus enjoyed unrivaled prestige and power at the court. He was so powerful a figure that no one in the court dared criticize him.

Though Michinaga turned out to be the most powerful of the Fujiwara regents, his claim to the highest office was not strong on grounds of birth and court rank. He was obviously fortunate in that his older brothers died young and that he had several beautiful and strong-willed daughters. But he was a very adroit politician who knew how to deal with both friends and enemies.

Being alert to the changes that were taking place in the country, he foresaw the rise of the military families, who were then just beginning to dominate provincial life. Early in his career he allied himself with certain members of the Minamoto clan, by whose talents he was impressed, and it was their presence in the background that enabled him in the early days of his rise to power to defeat or intimidate his rivals.

Further Reading on Fujiwara Michinaga

For illuminating interpretations of the life and times of Fujiwara Michinaga see Sir George B. Sansom, A History of Japan, vol. 1 (1958). Some relevant facts are provided in Jean and Robert K. Reischauer, Early Japanese History (2 vols., 1937).

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