The Muromachi Period (1338-1573), also known as the Ashikaga Period, began when Ashikaga Takauji became shogun in 1338 and was characterized by chaos, violence and civil war. The Southern and Northern Courts were reunified in 1392. The period was called Muromachi for the district in which its headquarters were in Kyoto after 1378. What distinguished the Ashikaga Shogunate from that of Kamakura was that, whereas Kamakura had existed in equilibrium with the Kyoto court, Ashikaga took over the remnants of the imperial government. Nevertheless, the Ashikaga Shogunate was not as strong as the Kamakura had been and was greatly preoccupied by the civil war. Not until the rule of Ashikaga Yoshimitsu (as third shogun, 1368-94, and chancellor, 1394-1408) did a semblance of order emerge. [Source: Library of Congress]

There was almost constant warfare. Central authority had dissolved and about 20 clans fought for supremacy during a 100-year period called the “Age of the Country at War.”Ashikage Takauji, the first emperor of the Muromachi period, was regarded as a rebel against the Imperial system. Zen monks acted as advisors to shogunate and became involved in politics and political affairs. This period of Japanese history also saw the emergence of the influence of wealthy merchants who were able to create close relationships with daimyo at the expense of the samurai.

The Namboku Period (1334-1392) was relatively brief period that began with the restoration of Emperor Godaigo in 1334 after his army defeated Kamakura army during its second try. The Emperor Godaigo favored the priesthood and aristocracy at the expense of the warrior class, which rose in revolt under the leadership of Takauji Ashikaga. Ashikaga defeated Godaigo at Kyoto. He then installed a new emperor and named himself as shogun. Godaigo set up a rival court in Yoshino in 1336. The conflict between Northern Court of Ashikaga and Southern Court of Godaigo lasted for more than 60 years.

One noteworthy figure from period is Yoshimitsu, a leader who became shogun when he was 10, subdued rebellious feudal lords, helped unify southern and northern Japan, and built the Golden Temple in Kyoto. Yoshimitsu allowed the constables, who had had limited powers during the Kamakura period, to become strong regional rulers, later called daimyo (from dai, meaning great, and myoden, meanng named lands). In time, a balance of power evolved between the shogun and the daimyo; the three most prominent daimyo families rotated as deputies to the shogun at Kyoto. Yoshimitsu was finally successful in reunifying the Northern Court and the Southern Court in 1392, but, despite his promise of greater balance between the imperial lines, the Northern Court maintained control over the throne thereafter. The line of shoguns gradually weakened after Yoshimitsu and increasingly lost power to the daimyo and other regional strongmen. The shogun's decisions about imperial succession became meaningless, and the daimyo backed their own candidates. In time, the Ashikaga family had its own succession problems, resulting finally in the Onin War (1467-77), which left Kyoto devastated and effectively ended the national authority of the Shogunate. The power vacuum that ensued launched a century of anarchy. [Source: Library of Congress]

Websites and Resources


Good Websites and Sources: Essay on Kamakura and Muromachi Periods ; Middlebury College article ; Wikipedia article on the Kamakura Period Wikipedia ; Minamoto Yoritomo ; Samurai Archives article on Minamoto Yoritomo ; Wikipedia article on Muromachi Period Wikipedia ; Tale of Heike site ;

Kamakura City Websites: Kamakura Today ; Wikipedia Wikipedia ; Kamakura City site Map: Japan National Tourism Organization JNTO Kamakura Today ,aps ; Good Photos at Japan-Photo Archive

Good Japanese History Websites: History of Japan by William Gilmore-Lehne ; Wikipedia article on History of Japan Wikipedia ; Outline Chronology of Japanese Cultural History ; Samurai Archives ; National Museum of Japanese History ; Famous Personages in Japan ; Monumenta Nipponica, Respected Journal on Japanese History and Culture Links and Sources Japanese History Documentation Project ; Cambridge University Bibliography of Japanese History to 1912 ; Sengoku Daimyo ; English Translations of Important Historical Documents ; WWW-VL: History: Japan (semi good but dated source ) ; History Links ; Forums Delphi Forums, Good Discussion Group on Japanese History ; Tousando ;

Economic and Cultural Developments in the Muromachi Period

Contact with Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) China was renewed during the Muromachi period after the Chinese sought support in suppressing Japanese pirates, or wako, who controlled the seas and pillaged coastal areas of China. Wanting to improve relations with China and to rid Japan of the wako threat, Yoshimitsu accepted a relationship with the Chinese that was to last for half a century. Japanese wood, sulfur, copper ore, swords, and folding fans were traded for Chinese silk, porcelain, books, and coins, in what the Chinese considered tribute but the Japanese saw as profitable trade. [Source: Library of Congress]

During the time of the Ashikaga Shogunate, a new national culture, called Muromachi culture, emerged from the Shogunate headquarters in Kyoto to reach all levels of society. Zen Buddhism played a large role in spreading not only religious but also artistic influences, especially those derived from Chinese painting of the Chinese Song (960-1279), Yuan, and Ming dynasties. The proximity of the imperial court and the Shogunate resulted in a commingling of imperial family members, courtiers, daimyo, samurai, and Zen priests. Art of all kinds--architecture, literature, No drama, comedy, poetry, the tea ceremony, landscape gardening, and flower arranging--all flourished during Muromachi times. [Ibid]

There also was renewed interest in Shinto, which had quietly coexisted with Buddhism during the centuries of the latter's predominance. In fact, Shinto, which lacked its own scriptures and had few prayers, as a result of syncretic practices begun in the Nara period, had widely adopted Shingon Buddhist rituals. Between the eighth and fourteenth centuries, was nearly totally absorbed by Buddhism and became known as Ryobu Shinto (Dual Shinto). The Mongol invasions in the late thirteenth century, however, had evoked a national consciousness of the role of the kamikaze in defeating the enemy. Less than fifty years later (1339-43), Kitabatake Chikafusa (1293-1354), the chief commander of the Southern Court forces, wrote the Jinno sh t ki (Chronicle of the Direct Descent of the Divine Sovereigns). This chronicle emphasized the importance of maintaining the divine descent of the imperial line from Amaterasu to the current emperor, a condition that gave Japan a special national polity (kokutai). Besides reenforcing the concept of the emperor as a deity, the Jinno sh t ki provided a Shinto view of history, which stressed the divine nature of all Japanese and the country's spiritual supremacy over China and India. As a result, a change gradually occurred in the balance between the dual Buddhist-Shinto religious practice. Between the fourteenth and seventeenth centuries, Shinto reemerged as the primary belief system, developed its own philosophy and scripture (based on Confucian and Buddhist canons), and became a powerful nationalistic force. [Ibid]

Culture in the Muromachi Period

performing the tea ceremony
Under the Ashikaga shogunate, samurai warrior culture and Zen Buddhism reached its peak. Daimyos and samurai grew more powerful and promoted a martial ideology. Samurai became involved in the arts and, under the influence of Zen Buddhism, samurai artists created great works that emphasized restrain and simplicity. Landscape painting, classical noh drama, flower arranging, tea ceremony and gardening all blossomed.

Partition painting and folding screen painting were developed during Ashikaga Period (1338-1573) as a way for feudal lords to decorate their castles. This style of art featured bold India-ink lines and rich colors.

The Ashikaga Period also saw the development and popularization of hanging pictures (kakemono) and sliding panels (fusuma). These often featured images on a gilt background.

The true tea ceremony was devised by Murata Juko (died 1490), an advisor to the Shogun Ashikaga. Juko believed one of the greatest pleasures in life was to live like a hermit in harmony with nature, and he created the tea ceremony to evoke this pleasure.

The art of flower arranging developed during the Ashikaga Period along with the tea ceremony although its origins can be traced to ritual flower offerings in Buddhist temples, which began in the 6th century. Shogun Ashikaga Yoshimasa developed a sophisticated form of flower arrangement. His palaces and small tea houses contained a small alcove where a flower arrangement or work of art was placed. During this period a simple form of flower arrangement was devised for this alcove (the tokonoma) that all classes of people could enjoy.

Warfare during the period was also an inspiration for artists. Paul Theroux wrote in The Daily Beast: The Last Stand of the Kusunoki Clan, a battle fought at Shijo Nawate in 1348, is one of the enduring images in Japanese iconography, occurring in many woodblock prints (by, among others, Utagawa Kuniyoshi in the 19th century and Ogata Gekko in the early 20th), the doomed warriors defying an immense shower of arrows. These samurai who were defeated---their wounded leader committed suicide rather than be captured---are inspirational to the Japanese, representing courage and defiance, and the samurai spirit.[Source: Paul Theroux, The Daily Beast, March 20, 2011]

Warfare in the Muromachi Period

Civil wars and feudal battles occurred off and on during the unstable and chaotic 15th and 16th centuries. In the 1500s the situation got so out of out hand that bandits overthrew established leaders, and Japan almost descended into Somalia-like anarchy. During the White Sparrow Revolt in 1571 young (sparrow) monks were forced to fall to their deaths over a waterfall in the Unzen area of Kyushu.

Battles often embraced tens of thousands of samurai, supported by farmers enlisted as foot soldiers. They armies employed mass attacks with long spears. Victories were often determined by castle sieges. >Early Japanese castles were usually built on flat land in the middle of the town they protected. Later, multi-storied pagoda-like castles called donjons, were built on top of raised stone platforms.

Many important battles were fought in the mountains, difficult terrain suited for foot soldiers, not open plains where, horses and cavalries could be used to their best advantage. Fierce hand to hand battles with armor-clad Mongols showed the limitations of bows and arrows and elevated the sword and the lance as the preferred killing weapons Speed and surprise were important. Often the first group to attack the other’s encampment won.

Warfare changed when guns were introduced. "Cowardly" firearms reduced the necessity of being the strongest man. Battles became bloodier and more decisive. Not long after guns were banned warfare itself ended.

Onin War Period of Civil Wars (1467-1560)

The Onin Rebellion (Ronin Rebellion) of 1467 escalated into the 11-year Onin civil war, which was regarded as a "brush with the void." The war essentially destroyed the country. Afterwards, Japan entered the Period of Civil Wars, in which the shoguns were weak or non-existent and daimyo established fiefs as separate political entities (rather than vassals states within a shogunate) and castles were built to protect them.

The Onin War led to serious political fragmentation and obliteration of domains: a great struggle for land and power ensued among bushi chieftains until the mid-sixteenth century. Peasants rose against their landlords and samurai against their overlords as central control virtually ceased. The imperial house was left impoverished, and the Shogunate was controlled by contending chieftains in Kyoto. The provincial domains that emerged after the Onin War were smaller and easier to control. Many new small daimyo arose from among the samurai who had overthrown their great overlords. Border defenses were improved, and wellfortified castle towns were built to protect the newly opened domains, for which land surveys were made, roads built, and mines opened. New house laws provided practical means of administration, stressing duties and rules of behavior. Emphasis was put on success in war, estate management, and finance. Threatening alliances were guarded against through strict marriage rules. Aristocratic society was overwhelmingly military in character. The rest of society was controlled in a system of vassalage. The shoen were obliterated, and court nobles and absentee landlords were dispossessed. The new daimyo directly controlled the land, keeping the peasantry in permanent serfdom in exchange for protection. [Source: Library of Congress]

Most wars of the period were short and localized, although they occurred throughout Japan. By 1500 the entire country was engulfed in civil wars. Rather than disrupting the local economies, however, the frequent movement of armies stimulated the growth of transportation and communications, which in turn provided additional revenues from customs and tolls. To avoid such fees, commerce shifted to the central region, which no daimyo had been able to control, and to the Inland Sea. Economic developments and the desire to protect trade achievements brought about the establishment of merchant and artisan guilds. [Ibid]

Image Sources: 1) Samurai websites, MIT visualizing history

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Daily Yomiuri, Times of London, Japan National Tourist Organization (JNTO), National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

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© 2009 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated March 2012

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