Heian Palace

The Heian Palace (平安宮, Heian-kyū) was the original imperial palace of Heian-kyō (present-day Kyoto), the capital of Japan, from 794 to 1227. The palace, which served as the imperial residence and the administrative centre of for most of the Heian period (from 794 to 1185), was located at the north-central location of the city in accordance with the Chinese models used for the design of the capital.

Schematic map of Heian-kyō showing the location of the palace as well as the Tsuchimikado temporary palace that developed into the current Kyoto Imperial Palace.

The palace consisted of a large rectangular walled enclosure (the Daidairi), which contained several ceremonial and administrative buildings including the government ministries. Inside this enclosure was the separately walled residential compound of the emperor or the Inner Palace (Dairi). In addition to the emperor's living quarters, the Inner Palace contained the residences of the imperial consorts, as well as certain official and ceremonial buildings more closely linked to the person of the emperor.

The original role of the palace was to manifest the centralised government model adopted by Japan from China in the 7th century — the Daijō-kan and its subsidiary Eight Ministries. The palace was designed to provide an appropriate setting for the emperor's residence, the conduct of great affairs of state, and the accompanying ceremonies. While the residential function of the palace continued until the 12th century, the facilities built for grand state ceremonies began to fall into disuse by the 9th century. This was due to both the abandonment of several statutory ceremonies and procedures and the transfer of several remaining ceremonies into the smaller-scale setting of the Inner Palace.

From the mid-Heian period, the palace suffered several fires and other disasters. During reconstructions, emperors and some of the office functions resided outside the palace. This, along with the general loss of political power of the court, acted to further diminish the importance of the palace as the administrative centre. Finally in 1227 the palace burned down and was never rebuilt. The site was built over so that almost no trace of it remains. Knowledge of the palace is thus based on contemporary literary sources, surviving diagrams and paintings, and limited excavations conducted mainly since the late 1970s.


The palace was located at the northern centre of the rectangular Heian-kyō, following the Chinese model (specifically that of the Tang dynasty capital of Chang'an) adopted already for the Heijō Palace in the earlier capital Heijō-kyō (in present-day Nara), and Nagaoka-kyō. The south-eastern corner of the Greater Palace was located in the middle of the present-day Nijō Castle. The main entrance to the palace was the gate Suzakumon (35°0′49″N 135°44′32″E / 35.01361°N 135.74222°E / 35.01361; 135.74222Coordinates: 35°0′49″N 135°44′32″E / 35.01361°N 135.74222°E / 35.01361; 135.74222), which formed the northern terminus of the great Suzaku Avenue that ran through the centre of the city from the gate Rashōmon. The palace thus faced south and presided over the symmetrical urban plan of Heian-kyō. In addition to the Suzakumon, the palace had 13 other gates located symmetrically along the side walls. A major avenue (大路, ōji) led to each of the gates, except for the three along the northern side of the palace, which was coterminous with the northern boundary of the city itself.


The palace was the first and most important structure to be erected at the new capital of Heian-kyō, where the court moved in 794 following Emperor Kanmu's order. The palace was not completely ready by the time of the move, however — the Daigokuden was completed only in 795, and the government office in charge of its construction was disbanded only in 805.[1]

The grand Chinese-style compounds of Chōdō-in and Buraku-in started to fall into disuse quite early on, in parallel with the decline of the elaborate Chinese-inspired ritsuryō government processes and bureaucracy, which were gradually either abandoned or reduced to empty forms. The centre of gravity of the palace complex moved to the Inner Palace or Dairi, and the Shishinden and later even the Seiryōden overtook the Daigokuden as loci for the conduct of official government business.

In parallel with the concentration of activity within the Dairi, the Greater Palace began to be regarded as increasingly unsafe, especially by night. One reason may be the prevalent superstition of the period: uninhabited buildings were avoided for fear of spirits and ghosts, and even the great Buraku-in compound was thought to be haunted. In addition, the level of actual security maintained at the palace went into decline, and by the early 11th century only one palace gate, the Yōmeimon in the east, appears to have been guarded. Hence burglary and even violent crime became a problem within the palace by the first half of 11th century.[2]

Fires were a constant problem as the palace compound was constructed almost entirely of wood. The Daigokuden was reconstructed after fires in 876, 1068 and in 1156 despite its limited use. However, after the major fire of 1177 which destroyed much of the Greater Palace, the Daigokuden was never again rebuilt. The Buraku-in was destroyed by a fire in 1063 and was never rebuilt.[3]

As of 960, the Dairi was also repeatedly destroyed by fires, but it was systematically rebuilt and used as the official imperial residence until the late 12th century.[3] During periods of rebuilding the Dairi following fires, the emperors frequently had to stay at their secondary palaces (里内裏, sato-dairi) within the city. Often these secondary palaces were provided by the powerful Fujiwara family, which especially in the latter part of the Heian period exercised de facto control of politics by providing consorts to successive emperors. Thus the residences of the emperors' maternal grandparents started to usurp the residential role of the palace even before the end of the Heian period. The institution of rule by retired emperors or the insei system (院政, insei) from 1086 further added to the declining importance of the palace as retired emperors exercised power from their own residential palaces inside and outside the city.

After a fire in 1177, the original palace complex was abandoned and emperors resided in smaller palaces (the former sato-dairi) within the city and villas outside it. In 1227 a fire finally destroyed what remained of the Dairi, and the old Greater Palace went into complete disuse. In 1334 Emperor Go-Daigo issued an edict to rebuild the Greater Palace, but no resources were available to support this and the project came to nothing.[4] The present Kyoto Imperial Palace is located immediately to the west of the site of the Tsuchimikado Mansion (土御門殿, tsuchimikadodono), the great Fujiwara residence in the north-eastern corner of the city.[5] The Jingi-kan, the final standing section of the palace, remained in use until 1585.

Primary sourcesEdit

Memorial stone at the site of the Daigokuden hall of the palace.

While the palace itself has been completely destroyed, a significant amount of information regarding it has been obtained from contemporary and almost contemporary sources. The Heian Palace figures as a background for action in many Heian period literary texts, both fiction and non-fiction. These provide important information on the palace itself, court ceremonies and functions held there as well as everyday routines of the courtiers living or working there. Notable examples include the Tale of Genji by Murasaki Shikibu, the so-called Pillow Book by Sei Shōnagon and the chronicle Eiga Monogatari. In addition, paintings in certain emakimono picture scrolls depict (sometimes fictional) scenes that took place at the palace; the Genji Monogatari Emaki, dating from about 1130 is perhaps the best-known example. Finally, there are also partially damaged contemporary maps of the palace from the 10th and 12th centuries showing the layout and function of the buildings within Dairi.[6]

In addition to literary evidence, archaeological excavation conducted mainly since the late 1970s have revealed further information about the palace. In particular, the existence and location of buildings such as the Buraku-in compound has been verified against the contemporary documentary sources.[7]

Greater Palace (Daidairi)Edit

The Daidairi was a walled rectangular area extending approximately 1.4 kilometres (0.87 mi) from north to south between the first and second major east-west avenues Ichijō ōji (一条大路) and Nijō ōji (二条大路) and 1.2 kilometres (0.75 mi) from west to east between the Nishi Ōmiya ōji (西大宮大路) and Ōmiya ōji (大宮大路) north-south avenues.[8] The three main structures within the Greater Palace were the Official Compound (朝堂院, Chōdō-in), the Reception Compound (豊楽院, Buraku-in) and the Inner Palace (内裏, dairi).


Schematic plan of the Greater Palace

Chōdō-in was a rectangular walled enclosure situated directly to the north of the Suzakumon gate in the centre of the southern wall of the Greater Palace. It was based on Chinese models and followed Chinese architectural styles, and archaeological evidence from earlier capitals shows that this building complex was present in earlier palaces and had a remarkably stable design from the 7th century onwards.[9]


The main building within the Chōdō-in was the Great Audience Hall (大極殿, Daigokuden) facing south at the northern end of the compound. This was a large (approximately 52 m (170 ft) east to west and 20 m (65 ft) north to south[7]) Chinese-style building with white walls, vermilion pillars and green tiled roofs, intended to host the most important state ceremonies and functions. The southern part of the Chōdō-in was occupied by the Twelve Halls where the bureaucracy was seated for ceremonies according to strict order of precedence. The Heian Jingū shrine in Kyoto includes an apparently faithful reconstruction of the Daigokuden in somewhat reduced scale.

It was in the Chōdō-in that Accession Audiences were held, the emperor was supposed to preside over early morning deliberations on major state affairs by the bureaucracy, receive monthly reports from officials, hold New Year Congratulations and receive foreign ambassadors.[10] However, the practice of the morning deliberations ceased to be followed by 810[11] as did the monthly reports. Foreign ambassadors were no longer received for most of the Heian period, and the New Year celebrations were abbreviated and moved into the Dairi by the end of the 10th century, leaving the Accession Audiences and certain Buddhist ceremonials as the only ones held in the Chōdō-in.[10]


The Buraku-in was another large rectangular Chinese-style compound, situated to the west of the Chōdō-in. It was built for official celebrations and banquets and used also for other types of entertainment such as archery contests.[7] Like the Chōdō-in, also the Buraku-in had a hall at the central northern end of the enclosure overseeing the court. This hall, the Burakuden (豊楽殿), was used by the emperor and courtiers presiding over activities in the Buraku-in. However, like the Chōdō-in, the Buraku-in also fell gradually into disuse as many functions were moved to the Dairi.[10] Its site is one of the few within the palace area that has been excavated.[7]

Other buildingsEdit

Apart from the Inner Palace, the remaining area of the Greater Palace was occupied by ministries, lesser offices, workshops, storage buildings and the large open space of the Banqueting Pine Grove (宴の松原, En no Matsubara) to the west of the Dairi. The buildings of the Council of State (太政官, Daijōkan) were situated in a walled enclosure immediately to the east of the Chōdō-in, laid out in the typical symmetrical plan of buildings opening to a courtyard in the south. The palace also housed the Shingon-in (真言院), apart from Tō-ji and Sai-ji, the only Buddhist establishment permitted within the capital.[12] Its placement right next to the Inner Palace shows the influence of the Shingon sect during the early Heian Period.

Inner Palace (Dairi)Edit

Schematic plan of the Inner Palace

The Inner Palace or Dairi was located to the north-east of the Chōdō-in somewhat to the east of the central north-south axis of the Greater Palace. Its central feature was the Throne Hall. The Dairi encompassed the emperor's quarters and the pavilions of the imperial consorts and ladies-in-waiting (collectively, the Kōkyū). The Dairi was enclosed within two sets of walls. In addition to the Dairi itself, the outer walls enclosed some household offices, storage areas, and the Chūwain (中和院), a walled area of Shinto buildings associated with the emperor's religious functions, situated to the west of the Dairi itself, at the geographic centre of the Greater Palace. The principal gate of the larger enclosure was the Kenreimon gate (建礼門, Kenreimon), located in the southern wall along the median north-south axis of the Dairi.[13]

The Dairi proper, the residential compound of the emperor, was enclosed within another set of walls to the east of Chūwain. It measured approximately 215 m (710 ft) north to south and 170 m (560 ft) east to west.[14] The main gate was the Shōmeimon gate (承明門, Shōmeimon) at the centre of the southern wall of the Dairi enclosure, immediately to the north of the Kenreimon gate. In contrast to the solemn official Chinese-style architecture of the Chōdō-in and the Buraku-in, the Dairi was built in more intimate Japanese architectural style — if still on a grand scale. The Inner Palace represented a variant of the shinden style architecture used in the aristocratic villas and houses of the period. The buildings, with unpainted surfaces and gabled and shingled cypress bark roofs, were raised on elevated wooden platforms and connected to each other with covered and uncovered slightly elevated passages. Between the buildings and passages were gravel yards and small gardens.


The largest building of the Dairi was the Throne Hall (紫宸殿, Shishinden), a building reserved for official functions. It was a rectangular hall measuring approximately 30 m (98 ft) east to west and 25 m (82 ft) north to south,[14] and situated along the median north-south axis of the Dairi, overseeing a rectangular courtyard and facing the Shōmeimon gate. A tachibana orange tree and a cherry blossom tree stood symmetrically on both sides of the front staircase of the building. The courtyard was flanked on both sides by smaller halls connected to the Shishinden, creating the same configuration of buildings (influenced by Chinese examples) that was found in the aristocratic shinden style villas of the period.

The Shishinden of the present-day Kyoto Imperial Palace, built according to Heian period models

The Shishinden was used for official functions and ceremonies that were not held at the Daigokuden of the Chōdō-in complex. It took over much of the intended use of the larger and more formal building from an early date, as the daily business of government ceased to be conducted in the presence of the emperor in the Daigokuden already at the beginning of the ninth century.[11] Connected to this diminishing reliance on the official government procedures described in the Ritsuryō code was the establishment of a personal secretariat to the emperor, the Chamberlain's Office (蔵人所, Kurōdodokoro). This office, which increasingly took over the role of coordinating the work of government organs, was set up in the Kyōshōden (校書殿), the hall to the south-west of the Shishinden.[15]


To the north of the Shishinden stood the Jijūden (仁寿殿), a similarly constructed hall of somewhat smaller size that was intended to function as the emperor's living quarters. However, beginning already in the ninth century, the emperors often chose to reside in other buildings of the Dairi. A third still smaller hall, the Shōkyōden (承香殿) was located next to the north along the main axis of the Dairi. After the Dairi was rebuilt following a fire in 960, the regular residence of the emperors moved to the smaller Seiryōden (清涼殿),[3] an east-facing building located immediately to the north-west from Shishinden. Gradually the Seiryōden began to be used increasingly for meetings as well, with emperors spending much of their time in this part of the palace. The busiest part of the building was the Courtiers Hall (殿上間, Tenjōnoma), where high-ranking nobles came to meet in the presence of the emperor.

Other buildingsEdit

The empress, as well as the official and unofficial imperial consorts, was also housed in the Dairi, occupying buildings in the northern part of the enclosure. The most prestigious buildings, housing the empress and the official consorts, were the ones that had appropriate locations for such use according to the originally Chinese design principles (the Kokiden (弘徽殿), the Reikeiden (麗景殿) and the Jōneiden (常寧殿), as well as the ones closest to the imperial residence in Seiryōden (the Kōryōden (後涼殿) and the Fujitsubo (藤壷)).[16] The lesser consorts and ladies-in-waiting occupied other buildings in the northern half of the Dairi.

One of the Imperial Regalia of Japan, the emperor's replica of the sacred mirror, was also housed in the Unmeiden hall (温明殿, Unmeiden) of the Dairi.[17]

The present-day Kyoto Imperial Palace, located in what was the north-eastern corner of Heian-kyō, reproduces much of the Heian-period Dairi, in particular the Shishinden and the Seiryōden.

See alsoEdit

The modern reconstruction of the Heian Palace Daigokuden in Heian Jingū, Kyoto


  1. ^ Hall (1974) p. 7
  2. ^ McCullough & McCullough (1980) pp. 849–850
  3. ^ a b c McCullough (1999) pp. 174–175
  4. ^ Hall (1974) p. 27
  5. ^ McCullough (1999) p. 175
  6. ^ Farris (1998) p. 188
  7. ^ a b c d McCullough (1999) p. 111
  8. ^ Maps of the city and Daidairi McCullough and McCullough (1980) pp. 834–835; dimensions McCullough (1999) p. 103
  9. ^ Hall (1974) pp. 11–12
  10. ^ a b c McCullough and McCullough (1980) pp. 836–837
  11. ^ a b McCullough (1999) p. 40
  12. ^ Hall (1974) p. 13
  13. ^ Plan of the Inner Palace in McCullough and McCullough (1980) p. 840
  14. ^ a b McCullough (1999) pp. 115–116
  15. ^ McCullough and McCullough (1980) pp. 817–818
  16. ^ McCullough and McCullough (1980) pp. 845–847
  17. ^ McCullough and McCullough (1980) p. 848


  • Farris, William Wayne (1998), Sacred Texts and Buried Treasures: Issues on the Historical Archaeology of Ancient Japan, Honolulu, HW: University of Hawai'i Press, ISBN 0-8248-2030-4
  • Hall, John W. (1974), "Kyoto as Historical Background", in Hall, John W.; Mass, Jeffrey (eds.), Medieval Japan – Essays in Institutional History, Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, ISBN 0-8047-1511-4
  • McCullough, William H. (1999), "The Heian court 794–1070; The capital and its society", in Shively, Donald H.; McCullough, William H. (eds.), The Cambridge History of Japan: Heian Japan, vol. 2, Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, ISBN 0-521-22353-9
  • McCullough, William H.; McCullough, Helen Craig (1980), "Appendix B: The Greater Imperial Palace", A Tale of Flowering Fortunes, vol. 2, Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, pp. 833–854, ISBN 0-8047-1039-2

Further readingEdit

  • Imaizumi Atsuo (今泉篤男); al. (1970), Kyōto no rekishi (京都の歴史), vol. 1, Tōkyō: Gakugei Shorin (学芸書林). The main Japanese reference work on the Palace according to McCullough (1999). First volume of a ten-volume general history of Kyoto.
  • Morris, Ivan (1994), The World of the Shining Prince: Court Life in Ancient Japan, New York, NY: Kodansha, ISBN 1-56836-029-0. Originally published in 1964.
  • Ponsonby-Fane, Richard Arthur Brabazon (1925), "The Capital and Palace of Heian", Transactions and Proceedings of the Japan Society, London, 22: 107
  • Ponsonby-Fane, Richard Arthur Brabazon (1956), Kyoto: The Old Capital of Japan, 794–1869, Kyoto: The Ponsonby Memorial Society. A reissue of the 1931 ed. published in Hong Kong, with some new illus. and minor changes, under title: Kyoto: its history and vicissitudes since its foundation in 792 to 1868. First published in article form 1925–28.

External linksEdit