Religion and Politics in Heian-Period Japan


Correspondence address: Heather Blair, Department of Religious Studies, Indiana University, 230 Sycamore Hall, Bloomington, IN, 47405, USA. E-mail:


The religious culture of Japan's Heian period (794–1185), like that of other times and places, was structured by power differentials; it can therefore fruitfully be understood as political. Combining kami worship (popularly known as Shinto), esoteric and exoteric Buddhism, spirit possession, and local traditions, as well as moral and ritual practices derived from Confucianism and Daoism, Heian religious life was characterized by multiple religious affiliations and a syncretic outlook. From the era of the statutory (ritsuryō) state, through the court-centered polity (ōchō kokka), to the Fujiwara regency (sekkan seiji) and rule by retired emperors (insei), religion proved indispensible to sovereignty, political authority, and power relations. Rhetoric of the ideal Buddhist monarch shaped political ideology, while rites of kami worship portrayed the emperor as a sacral king. Gender politics structured differences in men and women's religious practice and expression at the same time that patronage and pilgrimage served as important means for lay people to legitimate themselves and compete politically. By amassing landholdings in the form of manorial estates (shōen), religious institutions came to exercise juridical and economic control of extensive natural and human resources. Known as “power blocs,” institutions of this type shared in rights and functions conventionally viewed as being proper to the state.