One of the great classics of Japanese literature, The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon is by far our most detailed source of factual material on life in eleventh-century Japan at the height of Heian culture.
To keep things in proper perspective we should remember that most of this elaborate governmental machinery, of which the above is only a minute fraction, was concerned with the affairs of a select aristocracy who comprised about ten thousand people out of a population of some four million.
Of vital importance for this aristocracy was the complex rank system, which was an integral part of the Great Reform. In Shōnagon's time the system included four grades for Imperial Princes and thirty ranks for other mortals. Each rank was divided into Senior and Junior, and below the Third Rank each was further sub-divided into Upper and Lower grades. Every courtier and official had some sort of rank, ranging from the Senior First Rank for the Prime Minister to the Lesser Initial Rank, Lower Grade, for a Clerk in the Division of Carpentry and Metal Work. As we know from section 8 of The Pillow Book, even a cat could receive Court rank: indeed Emperor Ichijō's pet cat belonged to at least as high a rank as the Governor of the largest province of Japan. The joys of rank were also extended to troublesome ghosts and even to inanimate objects like ships.
Rank was closely correlated with governmental office. By combining the aristocracy with the civil service in such a way that a person was usually first given rank and then a suitable office to fit that rank, and by making it impossible for anyone to enter the rank hierarchy by merit, the Japanese made their system diverge in fundamental and very damaging ways from the Chinese model. Not only were holders of rank automatically appointed to government posts, but many of them received large allotments of tax-free rice land as well as other privileges like exemption from military service and the rights to have certain types of clothes and carriages, to send their sons to the University, and ultimately to rest under burial mounds of specified degrees of magnificence.
For people of Shōnagon's circle almost every aspect of material life was dictated by position in the rank system. It is small wonder that many of them became obsessed with matters of appointment and promotion and that members of the provincial governor class should...Continua
Next in rank to the Great Ministers were the Major, Middle, and Minor Counsellors and the eight Imperial Advisers, who were all members of the Great Council. The Major Counsellors, of whom there were usually three, retained a good deal of real administrative influence long after other parts of the structure had lapsed into desuetude.
Under the Great Council came the Controllers. They were responsible for the two Controlling Boards, which like almost every part of the hierarchy were divided into Left and Right in imitation of the formal arrangements of officials in the Chinese Court. The Controlling Board of the Left was in charge of four Ministries, including the Ministry of Central Affairs and the Ministry of Ceremonial; The Board of the Right controlled the Ministries of the Imperial Household and of the Treasury among others. The Ministry of Central Affairs, whose responsibilities included Palace ceremonial, the promulgation of edicts, the supervision of officials, the study of astronomy and divination, and the compilation of official histories, was by far the most important; the least respected was, quite rightly, the Ministry of War.
Each of the eight Ministries was headed by a Minister and composed of a varying number of Offices and Bureaux. The following are mentioned in The Pillow Book:
1. Ministry of Central Affairs: Bureau of Divination, Bureau of Imperial Attendants, Bureau of the Wardrobe, Imperial Storehouse, Office of the Empress's Household....Continua
In the seventh century the leaders of Japan instituted a Great Reform which, at least on paper, affected every aspect of national life. Their main aim was to weaken the ancient clan-family system that had dominated Japanese society since the beginning of history and to substitute a modern Chinese style of government. As in the corresponding great change some twelve centuries later when Japan renovated herself on Western models, the reform movement of the seventh century was spread over several decades; the final codes incorporating the changes were not promulgated until the eighth century. Though few of the specific changes were to be permanent, and though the structure collapsed almost entirely with the advent of feudalism, the new modes of provincial and central administration were still the theoretical basis of government in Sei Shōnagon's time, and some of the innovations have lasted in form until modern times.
A primary motive of the reformers was centralization. In the provinces all local officials were subordinated to a Governor who was appointed every six years by the central government. The central government itself was reorganized in pyramidal form with the emperor at the apex. Theoretically all authority in the land derived ultimately from him; but, as it turned out, few emperors in Japanese history had any real secular power, and by Shōnagon's period the divine sovereign was in fact an impotent young puppet manipulated by the Fujiwara family.
Under the emperor came the two divisions of government, one religious and the other secular. The secular branch was headed by the Great Council of State, whose hierarchy included a Prime Minister and the Great Ministers of the Left, Right, and Centre. Since the first and last of these posts were usually unfilled, the highest officials were the Ministers of the Left and Right, who from the middle of the ninth century were usually leading members of the Fujiwara family.
By Shōnagon's time, however, the real ruler of the country was neither the emperor nor any of these Great Ministers but the Chancellor, who was always the head of 'northern' branch of the Fujiwaras. This post was extra-legal in the sense that it was not part of the system...Continua
I shall conclude with a single complete example. The fourth quarter of the watch of the Tiger on the fifteenth day of the Sprouting (First) Month in the Fourth Year of the Chōtoku year-period, in which the Elder Brother of the Earth coincided with the sign of the Dog, corresponded to about 6 a.m. on 15 February A.D. 998. And it was at this moment in history that a maid announced to Sei Shōnagon (p. 107) that her precious snow-mountain had disappeared....Continua