The Fujiwara clan (藤原氏, Fujiwara-shi) is a Japanese noble family that gave many regents to Japanese emperors during the Nara (奈良時代, Nara jidai) and Heian (平安時代, Heian jidai) periods, i.e., from the 7th to the 11th centuries of the Gregorian calendar.
The clan existed from the Kodai period (古代) to the Kinsei period (近世), but branches of the clan continued to play an important role in the Japanese aristocracy until the contemporary period.
In the Heian period, the official family name was Fujiwara, but after the Kamakura period (鎌倉時代, Kamakura jidai?), each family kept its original name, with Fujiwara being used only for official purposes. The name Fujiwara means the "wisteria enclosure".
The political influence of the Fujiwara clan increased during the Asuka period. Nakatomi no Kamatari, a member of the Nakatomi family (of the lower nobility) led a coup against the Soga clan in 645 and quickly initiated a series of reforms (Taika reform).
In 669, Emperor Tenji, who ruled from 661 to 671, granted the kabane "Fujiwara no Ason" to Kamatari. Then the name passed to the descendants of Fujiwara no Fuhito (659-720), the second son and heir of Kamatari, who was prominent in the court of several emperors and empresses of the Nara period.
Fujiwara no Fuhito made his daughter Miyako a concubine of emperor Mommu. And when Prince Obito became Emperor Shōmu, Fuhito had him marry one of his other daughters, Kōmyō.
She was the first empress of Japan not to be from the imperial family itself. Fuhito had four sons and each of them founded a clan. Of these, Hokke (the northern family) became the head of the Fujiwara clan.
During the Heian period, the Hokke branch of the Fujiwara family managed to establish a position of hereditary regency to the emperors, both for the minor emperors (sesshō) and for the adults (kanpaku).
Many members of the Fujiwara clan then held key positions with many emperors. Other more modest members included court nobles, provincial governors, vice-governors, members of the provincial aristocracy or samurai.
The Fujiwara clan was the most powerful of the four great families that dominated Japanese politics during the Heian period (794-1185). The other families were the Tachibana, Taira and Minamoto.
The Fujiwara clan wielded enormous power, especially during the period of regency governments in the tenth and tenth centuries, a period that saw puppet emperors.
The Fujiwara clan dominated the government of Japan from 794 until the reign of Emperor Go-Sanjō (1068). There is no clearly established starting point for their dominance.
The Fujiwara princes initially served as the highest ministers in the imperial court (kanpaku) and as regents (sesshō) for the minor monarchs.
The Fujiwara clan was thus the real "power behind the throne" for centuries. They apparently never aspired to supplant the imperial dynasty. Instead, the clan's influence proceeded through marriages with the imperial family.
The wives of princes and emperors were often women from the Fujiwara clan. Thus, the heads of the Fujiwara house were usually the father-in-law, brother-in-law, uncle, or maternal grandfather of the emperor.
The family reached the height of its power under Fujiwara no Michinaga (966-1027), a kanpaku who was the grandfather of three emperors, the father of six empresses, and the grandfather of seven other imperial wives.
It is therefore clear that it was Michinaga who ruled Japan during this period and not the ruling emperors.
The Fujiwara clan ruled Japan until the reign of Emperor Go-Sanjō, who was the first emperor since Emperor Uda (in the ninth century) whose mother was not a Fujiwara.
Emperor Go-Sanjō restored imperial power through his strong personality and reforms to diminish the influence of the Fujiwara.
The Fujiwara unsuccessfully sought to regain their former power in 1156 during the Hōgen Rebellion and again in 1160 during the Heiji Rebellion.
However, the Genpei War definitively destroyed their power and saw the rise of the Minamoto clan and the first bakufu.
In the xiii century, the northern Fujiwara clan (Hokke) split into five families: the Konoe, Takatsukasa, Kujō, Nijō and Ichijō families. These families continued to share in turn the titles of regents (sesshō and kanpaku), which had become largely honorary in the new bakufu system in which the court nobility had lost any political role. Members of the Fujiwara clan continued to serve as regents, advisors, and ministers to the emperor until the 20th century.
Fumimaro Konoe, a famous descendant of the lineage, became prime minister for three terms during the Shōwa era.