A Comparison of Japanes and German Civilizations: 10th to 12th Century Essay

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When the East meets the West is a known slogan which implies the meeting of different cultures with fewer things in common. Even in psychological parlance, there is a distinct difference between the Oriental and Occidental psyche. In the interest of discovering the extent of these differences in the social context, two civilizations, one from the East and one from the West that have had considerable impact in the modern era is investigated. This paper will briefly summarize the historical events between the 10th and 12th century that shaped the civilizations in Japan and Germany using encyclopedic references. A comparative summary will be made based on the overview.

Brief overview of the histories


            The Heian period occurred between 794 and 1185 and is considered the end of the classical Japanese history. Chinese influence, previously very strong in the country, declined during this period and Japanese civilization took off on a different track, developing a culture as distinct from China as any other country. This was the time of the Fujiwara family and the clan wars that eventually led to the establishment of the samurai class and the shogunate. This was also the period of cultural flowering that led to such uniquely Japanese customs as the Tea Ceremony and the development of the writing system kana. (Heian period, 2007)

The importance of the emperor as the political ruler of Japan declined in the 9th century, often being a youth not qualified to exert any real political role and ending up becoming figureheads. The official title of chancellor, or kampaku, originated from the time of the Fujiwara family. As kampaku, they provided Fujiwara-descended brides for the imperial house for two centuries, thus ensuring hereditary power.

A master manipulator of this strategy was Fujiwara Michinaga, who numbered four emperors as sons-in-law and another four as grandsons from 995 to 1027. Emperors were encouraged to retire early, to be succeeded by young royalty able to be controlled by wives or mothers. The nobility was seduced into becoming courtiers in the brilliant court life of elegance, sophistication and scintillating taste, without much regard for sexual morality. (History of Japan,2007; Japan, 2007)

The Fujiwara control of the imperial court ended with the ascension of Go-Sanjo in 1068 that refused to submit to the dictates of the clan. After his abdication in 1086, Go-Sanjo continued to wield power as an Insei emperor, controlling through political figures. This form of government persisted until 1156 when Taira family leader Kiyomori took political power by replacing Fujiwara appointees in key positions in government. (Nara and Heian Periods,2007)

The concept of centralized rule adapted from China worked with less effectiveness in the more rugged landscape of Japan. By the 10th century, tax and land systems were in shambles as corruption set in at the local level. The ability of the imperial government to implement checks and balances was thwarted by the lack of qualified people to do the job. Instead, a system of private estates called shōen was tapped to do the monitoring at the local level, where landowners monitored the performance of estate managers, who in turn monitored peasant farmers. At each stage some type of income sharing arrangement was reached. (Japan, 2007; History of Japan,2007)

In the clash between the two most powerful clans of this period, the Taira family proved victorious against the Minamoto family and ruled from 1168 to 1178. This initial Taira clan victory was short-lived when the Minamoto clan, which had built up its military strength annexing parts of Northern Honshu in the Early Nine Years War (1050-1059) and the Later Three Years War (1083-1087), defeated them in the land and sea battles in the Gempei War of 1184 and 1185. The final blow was at the Battle of Dannoura. (History of Japan,2007; Nara and Heian Periods,2007; Japan, 2007)

After the Battle of Dannoura which signaled the end of the Taira clan to supremacy, the control of Yoritomo extended beyond Kyoto to Kyushu. Yoritomo established the government at Kamakura in eastern Japan, displacing the central imperial government as the real seat of political power, and the emperor in Kyoto became the civil figurehead. This military form of government would become the prevalent power structure for the next seven centuries, and would come to be known as bakufu.

Yoritomo further established the positions of shugo or provincial constables who maintained order in the provinces and the jitō or land stewards who assigned land and protected the rights of landowners. With his further defeat of a northern Honshū based Fujiwara family bid for power in 1192, the emperor granted the title of sei-o-tai-shogun to Yoritomo, tasked with keeping peace, making him essentially the feudal warrior monarch and he was the first of a long history of powerful shoguns. (History of Japan,2007)

The problem of security at the local level intensified as imperial power declined. The bakufu was ably supported by a warrior class known as samurai that emerged during the wars between clans in the 11th and 12th century, and became a social class with peculiar status as aristocrats of the independent territories. Provinces enlisted the aid of samurai to serve as local district officials for the remaining public lands. They settled land disputes and protected the land from bandits. These warrior families lived in fortified compounds and honed their military skills as well. They banded together to strengthen their positions, often with kinfolk.

The samurai pledged loyalty to regional lords, who in turn sought alliances with other lords during war, eventually supporting the top of the power pyramid in peacetime, the shogun himself. The emperor benefited from these arrangements, tapping into alliances with regional leaders to contain civil unrest, rebellions and piracy. The samurai code known as the bushido, emphasized absolute loyalty, commitment, respect, decorum and military values of courage and physical prowess. (History of Japan,2007; Japan, 2007)

The shogunate or bakufu ruled beyond Yoritomos death in 1199, passing on to his wifes family, the Hōjō, who never became shogun but ruled through court-appointed child-shoguns as figureheads. Their rule was marked as fair and efficient, but troubled by two Mongol invasions in the 13th century which eventually cost them their supremacy despite their success in repulsing the invasion. (Japan, 2007)

Japan no longer looked towards China for artistic inspiration. Aristocratic rule of the Fujiwara family was characterized by a flourishing of culture in Japan, and the era is considered the classical age of Japan. Japanese forms of artistic and literary expression began, as well as the development of the phonetic writing system kana, leading to unique forms of poetry and prose.

As part of civilized life, literature flourished during the Heian period, where accomplished poets could count on court favor. It was a social pastime and competitive in nature. The depiction of court life and landscapes in paintings also became popular in this period. (Japan, 2007)

It was during this time that women established their place as creators of prose, one of the most famous of which is Sei Shonagons Pillow Book, a collection of impressions and thoughts as lady-in waiting to the empress in the 990s and illustrated with words the vividness of a scene, apparently the precursor to the Japanese color prints. The best known writer in all of  Japanese history also achieved fame during this period.

Known only as Murasaki Shikubi, a pseudonym, she was a widow also in the court of the empress and wrote about her experiences from 1007 to 1010 in a collection known as the Genji monogatori or The Tales of Genji in which she described the psychological subtleties and vivid characters in the life of the women who had liaisons with Prince Genji. (History of Japan,2007)

Buddhism, imported from China, found its way into Japanese culture in many forms during the Hōjō era. The new forms of Buddhism included Pure Land Buddhism which emphasized personal salvation for ordinary believers by invoking the name of the Amida Buddha; Zen Buddhism that relied on meditation and absolute self-discipline, a sect favored by the warrior class including the Kamakura warrior leaders; and the movement popularized by Nichiren, who urged the invocation of the name of the Lotus Sutra.

Zen had great appeal for the samurai class because of its great emphasis on discipline, and approached the status of state religion at one time. From the teachings of Zen masters came some of the more famous facets of Japanese cultures, such as the Tea Ceremony. (History of Japan,2007; Japan, 2007)


The country known in modern times as Germany was once a part of a kingdom known as the Frankish kingdom under Charlemagne, also known as Charles the Great. The revival of the Holy Roman Empire under his expansionist and reformist policies resulted in the Carolingian Renaissance which was marked by an artistic and literary  revival in Western Europe and eventually established what is now known as France (West Frankish kingdom) and Germany (East Frankish kingdom).

Charlemagne is sometimes considered the Father of Europe. It was during this period that Germany became the most powerful kingdom in Europe, but its political structure proved to be the weak link and resulted in the decline of the German kings. While other European regions started to develop strong monarchies in a central location, i.e. France and England, Germany continued to develop independent duchies with local rulers who competed intensely amongst themselves and who had minimal allegiance to the emperor. The territories were alternatively aristocratic or ecclesiastic in nature. (History of Germany, 2007; Charlemagne, 2007)

The Treaty of Verdun resolved the struggles for power among Chalemagnes heirs, dividing the Carolingian empire into several parts. Between 919 and 936, the Germanic tribes or duchies including the Franks, Saxons , Swabians and Bavarians were united under the Duke Henry of Saxon (also known as the Ottonian dynasty). under the East Frankish Kingdom or East Francia. (History of Germany, 2007; Frankish Empire, 2007)

Otto the Great, son of Henry I and also known as Otto I, succeeded in 936 and revived the Holy Roman Empire. He expanded his eastern border to include the territory of the Magyars in Hungary in 955 and proclaimed himself king of the Lombards in northern Italy, acknowledged by Pope John XII in 962. It was the beginning of a continuous succession of Holy Roman emperors that would last eight centuries. Although Otto I did not call himself Roman emperor, his son Otto II did to emphasize his independence from the other Christian emperor in Constantinople, (History of Germany, 2007)

The four kings after the last of the Salian kings of 1024, namely Conrad II, Henry III, Henry IV and Henry V, developed a system in which public administrators had to report to the crown, and they supported their authority with the help of the church. This support was withdrawn in 1075 in a move known as the Investiture Contest in which Pope Gregory VII questioned the divine right of the monarchy and demanded from then ruler Henry IV the cessation of imperial authority over the church. During the Salian Dynasty, the imperial crown exerted control over the papacy, dismissing and appointing popes at will.

This gave the German empire enormous status in central Europe but such interventions resulted in extreme conflict between German emperors and the papacy. The rift continued to widen, resulting in a civil war that lasted from 1077 to 1122, ending in an agreement called the Concordat of Worms. In it, the pope had the right to appoint church officials but the German kings retained the right to veto the papal selections. The effect of this conflict also resulted in the stagnation of the arts and intellectual pursuits in Germany. (The Salian Dynasty, 1024-1125, 2007; History of Germany, 2007)

The death of Henry V in 1152 without an heir resulted in conflict between the two houses with the strongest claims to the throne, the Welfs and the Hohenstaufens,. The dukes had selected a Welf, and then a Hohenstaufen, and the feud intensified when the Welfs openly supported the papacy against the Hohenstaufens.  (History of Germany, 2007; The Hohenstaufen Dynasty, 1138-1254, 2007)

Frederick I, the second Hohenstaufen king ruled between 1152 to1190 attempted but failed to restore the prestige of his family name by enlisting financial support in Italy. The Investiture Competition had severely curtailed imperial access to church funds. He succeeded in getting himself crowned emperor of Italy but met resistance from northern city-states of Italy who joined forces with the pope.

Upon his return to Germany, Frederick found his empire overrun by the feudal lords. Strategic economic enticements encouraged settlers and expanded the empires land base to include Pomerania, Silesia, Bohemia and Moravia. This was the era of literary awakening with lyrical love poems like the Minnesand and narrative epics such as Tristan, Parzival and the Nibelungenlied. Frederick died in 1190 during a crusade. (The Hohenstaufen Dynasty, 1138-1254, 2007)

The conflicts within the kingdom as well as the external forces threatening his borders made the position of the German king an unenviable one. Henry VI succeeded Frederick I and gained possession of Sicily through his wifes family and in 1196 extracted a guarantee that his son would succeed to the German crown, which he did when Henry VI died in 1197. Since Frederick II was only three years old, his uncle Philip served as regent. A civil war ensued in which counterclaims were made for alternatives, such as Otto IV, a Welf elect (History of Germany, 2007; The Hohenstaufen Dynasty, 1138-1254, 2007).

Philip was murdered by Otto IV, who in turn was murdered by the French in 1214. Frederick II, grown up in 1215, returned from Sicily to be German king until 1250. He encouraged feudalism where local princes became independent territorial rulers. Following his death, The Great Interregnum (1256-73) ensued in which anarchy prevailed as local princes vied for advantage. Frederick II managed to maintain his control over the kingdom, even conquering and becoming king of Jerusalem, but his death in 1250 signaled the abeyance of the empires political power. (History of Germany, 2007; The Hohenstaufen Dynasty, 1138-1254, 2007)

The push eastwards by the German empire, although internally fragmented, benefited the empire on the whole as the realm expanded to the lands occupied by the Slavs and the Prussians. A steady advance through peasant settlement and the granting of feudal rights to ecclesiastical rulers included the extension of Baltic trading to the coast. Resistance by the colonized was inevitable, and to the north, the Prussians successfully resisted efforts at Christianization until the Teutonic invasion in the 13th century. (History of Germany, 2007)

 Nonetheless, L¼beck was established in 1159 by Henry the Lion, duke of Saxony and Bavaria, built to develop trade in the Baltic. The trade with the Netherlands and Rhineland was easily carried out from the strategic position of L¼beck to Hamburg and the North Sea. This was the beginning of the Hanseatic League, which would last until the 17th century.

Hanse is a guild of merchants and the alliance that developed between the German merchants in L¼beck and Hamburg ensured the safety of goods in transport, in particular against pirates. The success of these alliances made the cities the centers of trading networks in and around the Baltic and towards Cologne, Bruges and London. However, the late 14th century saw the merging of Poland and Lithuania and the unification of the Scandinavian kingdoms signaled the end of German dominance in trade and the decline of the Hanseatic League. (History of Germany, 2007)


            There are some interesting parallelisms between Japan and Germany that are indicated in their history in this particular period, especially in their political structure.

            Both Japan and Germany have monarchies that served as figureheads, the real power existing behind the scenes. Both thrived under a feudal system in which local landowners individually and in groups through alliances served as the administrators for the state, filtering up the pyramid to a ruling family or clan which in turn supports the monarchy and the court.

The question of succession is also decided by local leaders, either directly (as in the electors from the duchies) or indirectly (through judicious marriages and therefore influence, as practiced by the Fujiwara clan). The success of alliances between clans decided the ultimate power loci of the empire in either civilization, stressing the importance of symbiotic relationships in the absence of a centralized government. Both were also warrior nations, excelling in their particular type of warfare.

            However, in most other considerations, Japan and Germany are, well, worlds apart. Japan experienced a flowering of culture during this period, while literature and artistic development in Germany suffered stagnation beyond the time of Charlemagne and excepting the reign of Frederick I.

Religion in the form of Christianity led to the decline of political power in Germany, mostly due to conflicts between the empire and the papacy. The Zen sect of Buddhism served to solidify the warrior class of the samurai, which in turn supported the ascendancy of the shogunate in Japan. Economically, Germany became a force due to the Hanseatic League and subsequent establishment of trade between regions while Japan was primarily a closed economic system with no evidence of extensive trade with other nations.


            Perhaps because Japan was an island and essentially had an isolationist policy during this period, and Germany was part of a continent that mixed cultures and expansion was the order of the day that the differences in historical development occurred. In later years, Japan would also become an economic force and both Japan and Germany would become highly centralized and organized in political structure. They would also dominate the field of electronic technology. However, in the period roughly between the 10th and 12th century, the East and West were on different planes.


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Heian period. (2007, March 27). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 17:30, March 30, 2007, from http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Heian_period&oldid=118152778

History of Germany. (2007, March 26) History World. Retrieved March 29, 2007, from http://www.historyworld.net/wrldhis/PlainTextHistories.asp?groupid=2785&HistoryID=ac62

History of Germany. (2007, March 28). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 17:15, March 30, 2007, from http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=History_of_Germany&oldid=118528404

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Japan. (2007) MSN Encarta. Retrieved March 29, 2007, from http://encarta.msn.com/encyclopedia_761566679_15/Japan.html

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The Hohenstaufen Dynasty, 1138-1254. (2007) About. Retrieved March 29, 2007, from http://historymedren.about.com/library/text/bltxtgermany7.htm

The Salian Dynasty, 1024-1125. (2007) About. Retrieved March 29, 2007, from http://historymedren.about.com/library/text/bltxtgermany6.htm

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