The illustration of Caroline Parkinson

Illustration, caricatures, sketches, and comics

Beneath The Clouds- An introduction to Heian Japan



A Introduction to Heian Japan

I’ve been blogging about my new online comic for a while. The characters and the plot have been established, and our protagonists have started an important journey. 

But what’s Heian Japan? 

Everyone knows what historical Japan looks like, right- samurai, katanas, geisha and sushi.

Well, not exactly. Most of those tropes are from the Sengoku period or the Edo period, much later than the eleventh century. Samurai…well, they were around, but they weren’t called samurai yet, and most didn’t use katanas.

The Heian era of Japan (780 to 1160) is seen as a golden age of Japanese culture. 

It produced arguably the first novel, Murasaki Shikibu’s TheTale of Genji, and one of the most famous ancient diaries, Sei Shonagon’s The Pillow Book.

The authors worked for rival empresses, which may explain Murasaki’s critique of Sei’s writing as “presumptuous” and “full of imperfections”

The Heian period is also known for the art of writing poetry, the founding of the modern city of Kyoto (Heian Kyo) and the beautiful costumes worn by high ranking court ladies.


The Comic


I was introduced to eleventh century Japan as a teenager by Liza Dalby’s novel The Tale of Murasaki, and read every book about it that I could get my hands on

Several years later, on the bullet train from Tokyo to Kyoto, I wondered what it would be like to make the same journey a thousand years before. Eventually that idea became a comic book.

I’m unsure what attracts me to Heian culture. The majority of the surviving writing from that time is an odd mix of high culture, ennui, social drama, and glimpses of a world where life contained far worse things than boredom (many of the diaries relate the horror of seeing corpses piled in the streets during a carriage journey).

Perhaps, as an artist, it’s a glimpse into a world where art was central to people’s lives. Or at least, the rich, literate 1% whose thoughts survived to the present day.


(Disclaimer: This was edited on 20 August in response to feedback from my beta reader!)



  1. Personally, I find that a human society once existed that made its military the lowest ranking group within its governmental hierarchy a spectacularly weird one. Not to mention alien to the rest of us.

    Weird in a good way, though. Shame it fell, and that the social structures that replaced it reversed that placement.

    Incidentally, the pointers on the Extras page pointing to this and the entry on researching appear to be reversed. Might be worth checking out why, and fixing.

    Just discovered this and it looks interesting enough to follow. Hope you keep up the standard.

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