Once upon a time — the fairy tale opening is apt, though it’s history we’re dealing with — peace lay so thick upon the land that war was inconceivable. The capital was a city named “Peace and Tranquility” — Hei-An (modern-day Kyoto). There was a ministry of war, but the war minister was no fighter; nor was anyone else who mattered. A war minister has a major role in the classic 11th-century novel “The Tale of Genji” — his name is Kaoru (fragrance). He is described as being as beautiful as a woman and in a state of unabashed terror on journeys along deserted paths to a remote village. Imagine him on the field of battle! But there was no field of battle to imagine him on.

The Heian Period (794-1185) was not totally demilitarized. In contemporary literature soldiers are objects of pity and derision. “The more elegantly he tried to arrange things,” we read of one in “Genji,” “the more blatantly was his vulgar, boorish, countrified nature exposed. … He knew nothing of music and the other pleasant sides of life, but he was an excellent shot with the bow.” It’s a skill that demeans rather than dignifies.

Four centuries of almost unbroken peace are an odd prelude to a martial tradition as fierce and courageous as any in the world. But so it was. The Heian aristocrat was not bred for war. He was — none more so than the fictional Genji, the “shining prince” — soft, refined, indolent, elegant, artistic, exquisitely sensitive; a poet, a calligrapher, a perfume-blender, a musician. He knew the beauty of things and he knew the sadness of things — knew, in short, that beauty, however beautiful, fades; that life, however fleetingly satisfying, is doomed. Why fight? What was there to fight for, in a world that was a mere “dream of a dream”?

Heian nobles were embarrassed by power. They despised crudity, and power is crude. They wanted to rule and they wanted the perks of office — insisted on them, indeed. But naked power was not their chosen means to their chosen end. They had other tricks up their wide and flowing sleeves.

Not everything about them or their time is appealing. Those who deplore today’s widening gap between rich and poor should consider Heian, whose nobility — the only people who counted — numbered perhaps 1,000 in a city of 100,000 and a country of 5 million. To the nobles, the common folk were scarcely human. The literary court lady Sei Shonagon (966 to circa 1017), in her “Pillow Book” of random jottings, mentions some carpenters at work on palace repairs. She happened upon them at lunchtime: “The way carpenters eat is really odd. … The moment the food was brought, they fell on the soup bowls and gulped down the contents. Then they pushed the bowls aside and polished off the vegetables. … I suppose this must be the nature of carpenters. I should not call a very charming one.”

Later, more egalitarian ages found Heian snobbishness insufferable. They found its erotic laxity repellent. They were not amused, for example, by Genji’s cuckolding of his own father, a reigning emperor; the resulting child, assumed to be imperial offspring, ascends in due course to the throne, the awful secret known only to Genji.

Disapprove by all means of what invites disapproval, but let’s give credit where it’s due. History is a wretched business — brutally violent, sadistically cruel. The proud boasts of ancient warriors (“And they utterly destroyed all that was in the city, both man and woman, young and old, and ox and sheep and ass,” we read in the biblical Book of Joshua) finds its amplified echoes in our own time — in the 20th-century hells of world war, concentration camps and gulags, merging into the present century of random terrorism and heightened militarization with no end in sight.

Perhaps it’s despair of the present that turns some of us back to Heian. For Heian has none of this. Its power politics are unsavory enough, but no insatiable cruelty darkens its memory.

Power politics. A classic example dates to the close of the ninth century, roughly a century before Genji’s and Sei Shonagon’s time. “Even now in the 1970s,” wrote historian Ivan Morris, “every schoolchild in Japan is familiar with the name of Sugawara no Michizane.” So much the better, for he is the hero of our story — and what society in world history other than Heian would have made a hero of such a wan, cringing pawn as this scholarly court poet who wrote of his pathetic self as defeat closed in: “I have become mere scum that floats upon the water’s face”?

Power at the time, and throughout Heian, was wielded by a branch of the great Fujiwara family. Emperors, mere children, were almost always Fujiwara grandsons or sons-in-law; their abdication before coming of age was a matter of course; a Fujiwara “regent” ruled behind the scenes. The system was rocked by Emperor Uda, a rare adult and non-Fujiwara claimant to the throne who, determined to rule as well as reign, appointed Sugawara, the leading scholar of the day, a poet prodigiously learned in the Chinese classics, as his chief counselor.

The Fujiwaras were undone! Well, not quite. They could have murdered Sugawara; a vicious civil war could have erupted — but this is Heian, and nothing of the sort even threatened. Sugawara instead was falsely charged with treason and, tears his only resistance, packed off to exile in remote Kyushu, where he died of “a broken heart.”

The end? No. A series of disasters in the capital terrorized the Fujiwara into striving to placate the supposedly furious spirit of this docile, feckless man who in life had been putty in their hands. Promoted above mortality itself, Sugawara was made a deity — the god of literature and calligraphy, worshiped, Morris tells us, by more devotees down the ages than any other Japanese god except Hachiman — the god of war.

Michael Hoffman’s new book, “In the Land of the Kami: A Journey into the Hearts of Japan,” is currently on sale.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.