Fun Facts on Life in Heian Period Japan

Lately, as I wrap up the Chibi Marukochan comic about the Hyakunin Isshu,1 there is a nice section at the end that talks about daily life in the Heian Court that I wanted to pass along. This section covers mundane aspect such as food, clothing to pastimes, so I thought it would be fun to pass along because such details are often overlooked.

The facts here are based on my own, possibly flawed readings of the text, but I did my best to verify things elsewhere. :-)

  • People who served in the Heian Court frequently had to get up before sunrise, and commute to work by foot, or maybe by ox cart. Replace “ox-cart” with “public transportation” and it sounds eerily familiar to me. ;p
  • People in the Heian Court typically ate only two meals, not three like we do now. Such meals often consisted of mainly rice, with side dishes consisting of dried fish and vegetables. Things like sushi, katsu and curry would not exist in Japan until much later. The notion of eating only two meals a day seems to persist even much later in the Edo Period, and makes me wonder if we simply eat too much food today. On the other hand, researchers think that people in the Court had vitamin B deficiencies due to all the polished rice they ate.
  • The Heian Court, loosely modeled on a Chinese-Confucian style of government, was pretty bureaucratic in nature. Officials at the court spent their mornings organizing records, holding meetings and generally were expected to maintain a serious decorum. The only thing they were missing were cubicles. No “Hawaiian-shirt Fridays” either. :)
  • People of the Heian Court worked hard and they played hard. Work usually ended by noon (lucky them). So by afternoon, the men might gather with their friends to play Go, Sugoroku (backgammon), or play kemari (蹴鞠) which was a game pretty similar to hackysack in that you’re supposed to keep the ball up in the air with your feet. Having played a lot of hackysack with Polish friends when I lived in Ireland, I can relate to the fun. I’ve also played Go before but really can’t wrap my head around the game. Shogi is more my game. People in this time also engaged in art, poetry, and singing contests too, which is why the Heian Period is famous for its arts and self-cultivation (all hallmarks of Confucianism ).
  • People usually hurried home before sunset, since they didn’t have streetlamps then, and thus the city would be extremely dark and lonely after sunset.
  • A typical mansion for a noble family of the Heian Court was a spacious villa with a wall surrounding the premises and had multiple buildings facing the four cardinal directions. The buildings had names like nishi no tai (西の対, “facing west”), kita no tai (北の対, “facing north”) and so on, with larger central building in the middle: the shinden (寝殿, “sleep chambers”?). The buildings were connected through a long open-air hallway called the watadono (渡殿), while the premises also had large gardens and ponds on one side for viewing, and entertaining guests.
  • Every building was a single-room, with little privacy. The only thing separating you from all the other people were large standing-screens, or kichō (几帳), bamboo-folding blinds for the windows, or misu (御簾) and a sense of discretion. The homes were breezy and cool in the summer and dreadfully cold in the winter, with only charcoal braziers to keep you warm and the house lit. Sadly these often resulted in fires. Records of the time show the Imperial Palace burnt down multiple times for example.
  • Of course, indoor plumbing and toilets were missing, so people simply made do with a kind of wooden toilet like an outhouse. When I was a student studying in Vietnam almost 10 years ago, I remember having to once use a toilet like that in a friend’s parents’ rural home. I had never squatted over a toilet like that and was terrified, but was glad afterward that I managed it well enough. The modern toilet, like the three meals per day, is very much a recent phenomenon.

It’s pretty amazing how the mundane things in life we take for granted were so different a thousand years before in Japan, from how rooms are divided, to food and plumbing.

P.S. Happy Birthday to someone I know well. I finally got the date right this year. :)

1 The comic is short enough for a Japanese person to read in a day, but it’s taken me 4 months and lots of dictionary searches. Yeah, I suck. :p It helped my reading a lot though, and was pretty entertaining too.

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2 Comments on “Fun Facts on Life in Heian Period Japan”

  1. johnl says:

    I have heard that the polished white rice was considered very luxurious, and only for the upper classes. Ordinary people ate buckwheat (soba), millet (awa) and other grains. I suppose the two meals were morning and evening? But I immediately thought of the eating pattern of Buddhist monastics, which is also two meals per day. However, it is early morning and before noon for monastics following the vinaya strictly. I don’t think many in Japan follow this now, although I heard that some refer to the evening meal as ‘medicine,’ since foods that were considered medicine were allowable later in the day.

  2. Doug says:

    Hi Johnl,

    You’re absolutely right. I remember in college a professor explaining that because polished white rice was considered more elite, the upper classes of the Court exclusively ate it, and thus often had Vitamin B deficiencies particularly beriberi.

    Then again, speaking from experience, eating brown rice isn’t really that good. You can do it from time to time, but the preparation takes longer, and often doesn’t keep well. Haiga rice seems a happy medium though, as does cooking your rice with other things like millet and such. :)

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