Kyoto/ Cultural preservation/ A brief history of Kyoto from ancient Heian to early modern

Since 794 the found of Heian, Kyoto owns its superior role as the Japanese imperial city. Taking the monumental style of ‘Chinese ancient capital’ model, Kyoto displayed an emphasis on’ symbolizing the place of the emperor at the society centre.’ Since that time, it had been the only place of population concentration in Japan while other areas remained mostly rural. It has the prestigious status as the place signifying centre of politics, culture, spirit and economy. The urban layout by that time comprised of a series of avenues running and a systems of division of wards and districts was laid out. Blocks were the remarks of Heian era in the urban landscape. The rectilinear layout presented a tight assembly, defined and highlighted by enclosure and avenues which were wide in scale. A numbering system was adopted, reflected the imperial palace as the central place being the point zero of the coordinate. From this, we can deduce that, since the beginning of Heian, Kyoto has been intended, by the authority, and showed in its layout, to be a symbolic space in representation to announce the seat of power, the emperor, at the centre of the world, whereas the avenues running east-west, imperial palace, the restraints on aristocracy were the forms of expression played out in geometry, material and power.

During the 12th century, development was magnificent in Heian in transforming it into a ‘medieval miyako’, it ‘torn between the contradictory but complementary powers of the civil aristocracy, the military aristocracy, religions institutions and the emerging merchant class.’ Political and social composition of Kyoto were subjected to eminent changes, revealed in the restructure of the city organization from cho (blocks) to machi (streets). Machi signified a physical form in which social activities e.g. trades and art entertainments took place. The significance of the event of the departure from rigid urban layout and social classes spiritually was the creation of spaces connected to events and collective memory, therefore fostering the ambience of the place.

During the 15th century, what was important to this creation of Kyoto identity is the decision of the shogun government to not to rebuild the old streetscape but to relocate population to two fortified agglomerations, the Kamigyo no kamae in north side of the capital and Shimogyo no kamae in the south side of the capital. While infrastructure of roads and streets, and amenities and houses were built in accordance to the two areas, the block layout was again profound in the new configuration, conforming commoners together in mutual defense by the streets and houses organization.

From the 15th to 16th century under the impact of continuous wars, considerable number of collective defenses measures were in place, to name but a few, the arming of ordinary people and constructions of walls and fences. And it was this urban configuration that contained lively events during festivals or special occasions in the time of peace. This indeed adds to the communal identity and as well highlights the cultural conservative spirit in Kyoto.

The ideas of defensibility and fortification were well demonstrated in the mid-16th century, through the building of castle residence, sited in the suburban, for the shoguns. It was a ‘departure from the traditional custom of building only non-fortified residences within the town proper’. The castles restated the centrality of the area and presents the area again as focal points of the city. The settlements illustrated a model of self-defensive occupancy in a suburban setting that served for the daimyo. This suggested a strong sense of retreat from the urban context and a cultivation of a new and unique way of life. The proposition can hardly be attested without looking at the change of social structure during the late 16th century. The policies of Toyotomi Hideyoshi was particularly influential in this regard, creating the discrete social classes and administrative zones of towns and villages, thus as a consequence a celebration of the feudal system in Japan. The supremacy of the daimyo was exhibited as architectural representation the castle towns, in the way spaces and functions were articulated with a phenomenal differentiation of social positions. And in core idea is the implementation of control over the city through this new city organization.

The 17th century during the Tokugawa period, a flourish of merchant bourgeoisie was witnessed. Governor of Kyoto reinforced the authority of the shogunate as politically superior, inserting control over the aristocrats and commoners, notably in suspended the class from political activities in all extents.

From the ancient Heian’s emphasis on central authority to the medieval self-defensive measures to modern preservation laws, we see a populace that displayed in certain sense or another, a distinctive inclination on conservation and retain of their own culture and inhabitance. Cultural preservation was being manifested throughout different periods in history and reflected in urban layout and planning, though in different forms and configurations. While this was largely in relation to the politics and social order of the place, the defensive and conservative character were undeniable and accounted for the identity of the city of Kyoto.

Reference: Japanese Capitals in Historical Perspective: Place, Power and Memory in Kyoto, Edo and Toyko, Nicolas Fieve and Paul Waley, Routledge, 2003


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