Ashikaga Takauji
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]

According to the Metropolitan Museum of Art: The era when members of the Ashikaga family occupied the position of shogun is known as the Muromachi period, named after the district in Kyoto where their headquarters was located. Although the Ashikaga clan occupied the shogunate for nearly 200 years, they never succeeded in extending their political control as far as did the Kamakura bakufu. Because provincial warlords, called daimyo, retained a large degree of power, they were able to strongly influence political events and cultural trends during this time. Rivalry between daimyo, whose power increased in relation to the central government as time passed, generated instability, and conflict soon erupted, culminating in the Onin War (1467–77). With the resulting destruction of Kyoto and the collapse of the shogunate’s power, the country was plunged into a century of warfare and social chaos known as the Sengoku, the Age of the Country at War, which extended from the last quarter of the fifteenth to the end of the sixteenth century. [Source: Metropolitan Museum of Art, Department of Asian Art. "Kamakura and Nanbokucho Periods (1185–1392)". Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History, October 2002, ]

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.

Kinkaku-ji in Kyoto


Websites and Sources: Essay on Kamakura and Muromachi Periods ; Wikipedia article on the Kamakura Period Wikipedia ; ; Wikipedia article on Muromachi Period Wikipedia ; Tale of Heike site ; Kamakura City Websites: Kamakura Today ; Wikipedia Wikipedia ; Samurai Era in Japan: Good Photos at Japan-Photo Archive ; Samurai Archives ; Artelino Article on Samurai ; Wikipedia article om Samurai Wikipedia Sengoku Daimyo ; Good Japanese History Websites: ; Wikipedia article on History of Japan Wikipedia ; Samurai Archives ; National Museum of Japanese History ; English Translations of Important Historical Documents ; Kusado Sengen, Excavated Medieval Town ; List of Emperors of Japan

Muromachi Period Imperial Rulers


Go-Komatsu (1382–1412).

Shoko (1412–1428).

Go-Hanazono (1428–1464). Go-Tsuchimikado (1464–1500).

Go-Kashiwabara (1500–1526).

Go-Nara (1526–1557).

Oogimachi (1557–1586).

[Source: Yoshinori Munemura, Independent Scholar, Metropolitan Museum of Art]

Social Upheaval After the Mongol Invasions

The Mongol Invasions proved to be the beginning of the end for the Kamakura bakufu. To begin with, the invasions exacerbated pre-existing social tensions: “Those dissatisfied with the status quo believed that the crisis provided an unprecedented opportunity for advancement. By serving generals and . . . [shugo], these men could ignore the commands of their family chieftains (soryo) . . . Takezaki Suenaga, for example, disobeyed the commands of his relatives in order to receive lands and rewards from ranking bakufu officials such as Adachi Yasumori. . . . Soryo generally resented the creeping autonomy of some family members, which they perceived to stem from encroaching bakufu authority. [Source: “In Little Need of Divine Intervention,” p. 269.)

The Kamakura government was able to keep the world’s greatest fighting force from conquering Japan but it emerged from the conflict broke and unable to pay its soldiers. Disenchantment among the warrior class greatly weakened the Kamakura shogun. The Hojo reacted to the ensuing chaos by trying to place more power among the various great family clans. To further weaken the Kyoto court, the Shogunate decided to allow two contending imperial lines — known as the Southern Court or junior line and the Northern Court or senior line--to alternate on the throne.

According to “Topics in Japanese Cultural History”: “Until the time of the invasions, all warfare had taken place within the Japanese islands between competing groups of local warriors. This situation meant that there were always spoils, typically land, taken from the losing side. The victorious general would reward his officers and key allies with grants of this land and other wealth taken in battle. The idea that sacrifice in military service should be rewarded had, by the thirteenth century, become deeply ingrained in Japanese warrior culture. In the case of the Mongol invasions, of course, there were no spoils to divide up as rewards. Sacrifices, on the other hand, had been high. Not only were the expenses for the first two invasions high, the bakufu regarded a third invasion as a distinct possibility. Costly patrols and defense preparations, therefore, continued for several years after 1281. The bakufu did all it could to equalize the burden and used what limited land it could spare to reward those individuals or groups who had made the greatest sacrifices in the defense effort; however, these measures were inadequate to prevent serious grumbling among many of the warriors. [Source: “Topics in Japanese Cultural History” by Gregory Smits, Penn State University ~]

“There was a sharp rise in lawlessness and banditry after the second invasion. At first, most of these bandits were poorly armed civilians, sometimes called #akuto ("gangs of thugs")# ??. Despite repeated orders from the bakufu, local warriors were unable, or unwilling, to suppress these bandits. Toward the end of the thirteenth century, these bandits had become more numerous. Furthermore, it seems that impoverished warriors now made up the bulk of the bandits. The Kamakura bakufu was losing its grip on the warriors, particularly in outlying areas and in the western provinces.” ~

Go-Daigo and Demise of the Kamakura Shoganate


Allowing two contending imperial lines to coexist worked for several successions until a member of the Southern Court ascended to the throne as Emperor Go-Daigo (r. 1318- 39). Go-Daigo wanted to overthrow the Shogunate, and he openly defied Kamakura by naming his own son his heir. In 1331 the Shogunate exiled Go-Daigo, but loyalist forces rebelled. They were aided by Ashikaga Takauji (1305-58), a constable who turned against Kamakura when dispatched to put down Go-Daigo’s rebellion. At the same time, another eastern chieftain rebelled against the Shogunate, which quickly disintegrated, and the Hojo were defeated. [Source: Library of Congress *]

According to “Topics in Japanese Cultural History”: “In addition to problems with bandits, the bakufu faced renewed problems with the imperial court. The complex details need not detain us here, but the bakufu had gotten itself entangled in a bitter succession dispute between two branches of the imperial family. The bakufu decided that each branch should alternate emperors, which only prolonged the dispute from one reign to the next and also caused increasing resentment toward the bakufu in the court. Go-Daigo a strong-willed emperor (who liked wild parties), came to the throne in 1318. He soon became convinced of the need to change the imperial institution radically. Recognizing the almost total militarization of society, Go-Daigo sought to re-make the emperorship so that it would be at the head of both civilian and military governments. In 1331, he began a rebellion against the bakufu. It quickly ended in failure, and the bakufu exiled Go-Daigo to a remote island. Go-Daigo escaped, however, and became a magnet around which all the many dissatisfied groups in Japan rallied. [Source: “Topics in Japanese Cultural History” by Gregory Smits, Penn State University ~]

End of the Kamakura Period

The Kamakura period came to end in 1333 when thousands of warriors and civilians were killed when an Imperial forced led by Nitta Yoshisada defeated the shogun’s army and set fire to Kamakura. One regent for the shogun and 870 of his men were trapped in Toshoji. Rather than give up they took their own lives. Some jumped into the fires. Others committed suicide and killed their comrades. The blood reportedly flowed into the river.

According to “Topics in Japanese Cultural History”: “After Hojo Tokimune died in 1284, the bakufu suffered intermittent rounds of internal disputes, some of which resulted in bloodshed. By the time of Go-Daigo’s rebellion, it lacked sufficient internal unity to deal with the crisis effectively. As the opposition forces grew stronger, bakufu leaders assembled a vast army under the command of Ashikaga Takauji (1305-1358). In 1333, this army set out to attack Go-Daigo’s forces in Kyoto. Takauji had apparently made a deal with Go-Daigo, however, for midway to Kyoto he turned his army around and attacked Kamakura instead. The attack destroyed the bakufu. [Source: “Topics in Japanese Cultural History” by Gregory Smits, Penn State University ~]

After the Kamakura Shogunate

After Kamakura was destroyed, Go-Daigo made great strides toward re-positioning himself and those who might come after him. But there was a reaction against Go-Daigo’s moves by certain elements of the warrior class. By 1335, Ashikaga Takauji, Go-Daigo’s former ally had become the leader of the opposition forces. In other words, he launched a counter-revolution against Go-Daigo and his policies designed to create a strong central government headed by an emperor. [Source: “Topics in Japanese Cultural History” by Gregory Smits, Penn State University ~]

In the swell of victory, Go-Daigo endeavored to restore imperial authority and tenth-century Confucian practices. This period of reform, known as the Kemmu Restoration (1333-36), aimed at strengthening the position of the emperor and reasserting the primacy of the court nobles over the bushi. The reality, however, was that the forces who had arisen against Kamakura had been set on defeating the Hojo, not on supporting the emperor. Ashikaga Takauji finally sided with the Northern Court in a civil war against the Southern Court represented by Go-Daigo. The long War Between the Courts lasted from 1336 to 1392. Early in the conflict, Go-Daigo was driven from Kyoto, and the Northern Court contender was installed by Ashikaga, who became the new shogun. [Source: Library of Congress]

Nambuko Period

Ashiga Takauji

The period after the destruction of Kamakura is sometimes called the NambokuPeriod (Nanbokucho Period, Period of Southern and Northern Courts, 1333-1392). Overlapping with the early Muromachi Period, it was relatively brief time in history 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.

According to the Metropolitan Museum of Art: “In 1333, a coalition of supporters of Emperor Go-Daigo (1288–1339), who sought to restore political power to the throne, toppled the Kamakura regime. Unable to rule effectively, this new royal government was short-lived. In 1336, a member of a branch family of the Minamoto clan, Ashikaga Takauji (1305–1358), usurped control and drove Go-Daigo from Kyoto. Takauji then set a rival on the throne and established a new military government in Kyoto. Meanwhile, Go-Daigo traveled south and took refuge in Yoshino. There he established the Southern Court, in contrast to the rival Northern Court supported by Takauji. This time of constant strife that lasted from 1336 to 1392 is known as the Nanbokucho period. [Source: Metropolitan Museum of Art, Department of Asian Art. "Kamakura and Nanbokucho Periods (1185–1392)". Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History, 2000, \^/]

According to “Topics in Japanese Cultural History”: Go-Daigo did not give up his claim to the throne. He and his supporters fled south and set up a military base in the rugged mountains of Yoshino in present-day Nara Prefecture. There they waged war against the Ashikaga bakufu until 1392. Because there were two competing imperial courts, the period from roughly 1335 until reunification of the courts in 1392 is known as the period of the Northern and Southern Courts. During this half century plus, the tide of battle ebbed and flowed with victories for each side, until gradually, the fortunes of Go-Daigo’s southern court declined, and its supporters dwindled. The Ashikaga bakufu prevailed. (At least this is the "official" textbook version of these events. In reality, the opposition between the northern and southern courts lasted much longer, at least 130 years, and, to some small extent, it continues to this day. [Source: “Topics in Japanese Cultural History” by Gregory Smits, Penn State University ~]

“After considerable maneuvering, Takauji managed to drive Go-Daigo out of the capital and installed a different member of the imperial family as emperor. Go-Daigo set up his imperial court to the south of Kyoto. Takauji propped up a rival member of the imperial clan as emperor and for himself took the title shogun. He tried to establish a bakufu along the lines of the former government in Kamakura, and set himself up in the Muromachi district of Kyoto. It is for this reason that the period from 1334 to 1573 is known as either the Muromachi period or the Ashikaga period.” ~

Nanbokucho Period Imperial Rulers


Go-Daigo (1318–1339).

Kogen (Hokucho) (1331–1333).

Komyo (Hokucho) (1336–1348).

Go-Murakami (Nancho) (1339–1368).

Suko (Hokucho) (1348–1351).

Go-Kogon (Hokucho) (1352–1371).

Chokei (Nancho) (1368–1383).

Go-Enyu (Hokucho) (1371–1382).

Go-Kameyama (Nancho) (1383–1392).

[Source: Yoshinori Munemura, Independent Scholar, Metropolitan Museum of Art]

Kemmu Shikimoku (Kemmu Code)

According to Columbia University’s Asia for Educators: “When Ashikaga Takauji (1305-1358) was named shogun in 1336, he faced a divided polity: Although the “Northern Court” supported his rule, the rival “Southern Court” (under the Emperor Go-Daigo, who had led the short-lived Kenmu Restoration of 1333) insistently claimed the throne. In this time of widespread social disorder and political transition (Takauji ordered the shogun’s capital moved from Kamakura to Kyoto), the Kemmu “shikimoku “(Kemmu code) was issued as a foundational document in the creation of laws for the new Muromachi shogunate. The Code was drafted by a group of legal scholars headed by the monk Nikaido Ze’en. [Source: Asia for Educators Columbia University, Primary Sources with DBQs, ]

Excerpts from The Kemmu Shikimoku [Kemmu Code], 1336: “The way of government, … according to the classics, is that virtue resides in good government. And the art of governing is to make the people content. We must therefore set the people’s hearts at rest as expeditiously as possible. These are to be decreed immediately, but its rough outline is given below: 1) Frugality must be universally practiced. 2) Drinking and wild frolicking in groups must be suppressed. 3) Crimes of violence and outrage must be stopped. [Source: “Japan: A Documentary History: The Dawn of History to the Late Tokugawa Period”, edited by David J. Lu (Armonk, New York: M. E. Sharpe, 1997), 155-156]

4) Private houses which are owned by former enemies of the Ashikaga are no longer subject to confiscation. 5) The vacant lots existing in the capital city must be returned to their original owners. 6) Pawnshops and other financial institutions may be re.opened for business with protection from the government.

7) In selecting “shugo” (protectors) for different provinces, men with special talents in administrative matters shall be chosen. 8) The government must put an end to interference by men of power and by nobility, as well as by women, Zen monks, and monks holding no official ranks. 9) Men in public offices must be told not to be derelict in their duties. Furthermore they must be carefully selected. 10) Under no circumstances can bribery be tolerated.

Ashikaga Yoshimitsu

Ashikaga Yoshimitsu

One noteworthy figure from period is Ashikaga Yoshimitsu (1386-1428), 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]

According to “Topics in Japanese Cultural History”: Both Takauji and Go-Daigo died before the matter of the two courts had been settled. The man who brought about that settlement was the third shogun, Ashikaga Yoshimitsu. Under Yoshimitsu’s reign, the bakufu attained the peak of its power, though even then its ability to control the remote areas of Japan was marginal. Yoshimitsu negotiated with the southern court to return to Kyoto, promising the southern emperor that his branch of the imperial family could alternate with the rival branch currently on the throne in the capital. Yoshimitsu broke this promise. Indeed, he treated the emperors quite poorly, not even allowing them their former ceremonial dignity. There is even evidence that Yoshimitsu planned to supplant the imperial family with his own, although it never happened. The power and prestige of the emperors reached its nadir in the fifteenth century. But neither was the bakufu particularly powerful, unlike its Kamakura predecessor. As Go-Daigo well knew, times had changed. During most of the Muromachi period, power drained out of the "central" government(s) into the hands of local warlords. [Source: “Topics in Japanese Cultural History” by Gregory Smits, Penn State University ~]

Ashikaga Timeline

“Yoshimitsu is noted for a number of accomplishments. In the realm of foreign relations, he initiated formal diplomatic ties between Japan and Ming China in 1401. Doing so required that the bakufu agree to participate in China’s tributary system, which it did so reluctantly. Yoshimitsu even accepted the title "King of Japan" from the Ming emperor--an act that later Japanese historians often severely criticized as a disgrace to the "national" dignity. In the cultural realm, Yoshimitsu created a number of magnificent buildings, the most famous of which is the #Golden Pavilion,# which he built as a retirement residence. The building’s name derives from the walls of its second and third stories, which were plated with gold leaf. It is one of Kyoto’s major tourist attractions today, although the current structure is not the original one. These construction projects established a precedent for shogunal patronage of high culture.It was in patronage of high culture that the later Ashikaga shoguns excelled.” ~

Upheaval After Ashikaga Yoshimitsu

According to “Topics in Japanese Cultural History”: The bakufu steadily lost political power after Yoshimitsu’s day. In 1467, open warfare between two rival warrior families broke out in the streets of Kyoto itself, laying waste to large areas of the city. The bakufu was powerless to prevent or suppress the fighting, which eventually touched off civil wars throughout Japan. These civil wars continued for over a century, a period known as the Age of Warfare. Japan had entered an era of turmoil, and the Ashikaga bakufu, which continued to exist until 1573, lost nearly all its political power. The post-1467 Ashikaga shoguns spent their remaining political and financial resources on cultural matters, and the bakufu now replaced the imperial court as the center of cultural activity. Meanwhile, the imperial court had sunk into poverty and obscurity, and no emperor like Go-Daigo ever appeared on the scene to revive its fortunes. It was not until the 1580s that a succession of three generals managed to reunify all of Japan. [Source: “Topics in Japanese Cultural History” by Gregory Smits, Penn State University ~]

“The power that the bakufu lost throughout the Muromachi period, and especially after the Onin War, became concentrated in the hands of local warlords, called daimyo (literally "big names"). These daimyo constantly fought one another in an effort to enhance the size of their territories, commonly called "domains." The daimyo also struggled with problems within their domains. The domain of a typical daimyo was comprised of the smaller territories of local warrior families. These subordinate families frequently overthrew their daimyo in an attempt to seize his lands and power. Daimyo at this time, in other words, were never secure in their holdings. All of Japan, it seemed, had entered a topsy-turvy age of "gekokujo", a term meaning "those below conquer those above." During the late Muromachi period, social and political hierarchies were unstable. More than ever, the world seemed transient, impermanent and unstable.” ~

Shinnyodo, Onin War battle

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.

Japanese traditional furry

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. *

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. *

Frolicking Animals

Culture in the Muromachi Period

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]

Muromachi Period Art

According to the Metropolitan Museum of Art: “Despite the social and political upheaval, the Muromachi period was economically and artistically innovative. This epoch saw the first steps in the establishment of modern commercial, transportation, and urban developments. Contact with China, which had been resumed in the Kamakura period, once again enriched and transformed Japanese thought and aesthetics. One of the imports that was to have a far-reaching impact was Zen Buddhism. Although known in Japan since the seventh century, Zen was enthusiastically embraced by the military class beginning in the thirteenth century and went on to have a profound effect on all aspects of national life, from government and commerce to the arts and education. [Source: Metropolitan Museum of Art, Department of Asian Art. "Kamakura and Nanbokucho Periods (1185–1392)". Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History, October 2002, \^/]

“Kyoto, which, as the imperial capital, had never ceased to exert an enormous influence on the country’s culture, once again became the seat of political power under the Ashikaga shoguns. The private villas that the Ashikaga shoguns built there served as elegant settings for the pursuit of art and culture. While tea drinking had been brought to Japan from China in earlier centuries, in the fifteenth century, a small coterie of highly cultivated men, influenced by Zen ideals, developed the basic principles of the tea (chanoyu) aesthetic. At its highest level, chanoyu involves an appreciation of garden design, architecture, interior design, calligraphy, painting, flower arranging, the decorative arts, and the preparation and service of food. These same enthusiastic patrons of the tea ceremony also lavished support on renga (linked-verse poetry) and Nohdance-drama, a subtle, slow-moving stage performance featuring masked and elaborately costumed actors.” \^/

There was also an undercurrent of upheaval and anxiety that befit the period. According to “Topics in Japanese Cultural History”: In an age when many worried about mappo, revenues from estates (or the lack of those revenues), and the instability of frequent warfare, some Japanese sought purity and idealism in art where none was to be found in ordinary human society. [Source: “Topics in Japanese Cultural History” by Gregory Smits, Penn State University ~]

Origin of Kumano Shrine

Zen Buddhism and Muromachi Period Painting

According to “Topics in Japanese Cultural History”: Zen Buddhsim was undoubtedly the single greatest influence on Japanese painting during the Kamakura and Muromachi periods. We do not study Zen in this course, but, in the realm of the visual arts, one manifestation of Zen influence was an emphasis on simplicity and an economy of brush strokes. There were other influences on the art of Muromachi Japan. One was Chinese-style painting, which often reflected Daoist-inspired aesthetic values. The ideal of reclusion (i.e., living a pure, simple life removed from human affairs) is also clearly evident in much Muromachi art. [Source: “Topics in Japanese Cultural History” by Gregory Smits, Penn State University]

“One feature of Muromachi painting is that most of it was done in black ink or subdued colors. There is a studied simplicity to many works of this era. Most historians attribute this simplicity to Zen influence, and they are undoubtedly correct. The simplicity, however, may also have been a reaction against the complexity and confusion of the day’s social and political world. The many Daoist-like scenes of nature in Muromachi painting suggest a desire to abandon, perhaps only temporarily, human society and its wars in favor of a life of quiet simplicity. ~

“Landscapes are common in painting from the Muromachi period. Perhaps the most famous of these landscapes is Sesshu’s (1420-1506) “Winter Landscape.” The most striking feature of this work is the thick, jagged "crack" or "tear" running down the middle of the upper portion of the painting. To the left of the crack is a temple, to the right, what appears to be a jagged rock face. ~

“Sesshu was heavily influenced by Chinese ideas and painting techniques. His work often features the primordial creative forces of nature (paintings in a style called tenkai). In Winter Landscape, the fissure dwarfs the human structure and suggests the tremendous power of nature. There are numerous interpretations of this ominous fissure in the landscape. Another holds that it is the turmoil of the outside world intruding into the painting. If so, then the fissure in Sesshu’s landscape may represent the fissures and dislocations tearing apart the social and political fabric of Japan during the late Muromachi period. ~

Chinese Influences, Japanese Characteristics and Muromachi Painting

According to “Topics in Japanese Cultural History”: Many works of late Muromachi art highlight the theme of reclusion, withdrawal from the world of human affairs. One example is the work of Eitoku (1543-1590), famous for his paintings of ancient Chinese hermits and Daoist immortals. “Chao Fu and His Ox” illustrates part of a tale of two ancient (legendary) Chinese hermits. As the story goes, the sagely King Yao offered to turn the empire over to the hermit Xu You. Horrified at the thought of becoming the ruler, the hermit washed out his ears, by which he had heard Yao’s offer, in a nearby river. Thereupon, the river became so polluted that another hermit, Chao Fu, would not cross it. He turned away from the river and returned home with his ox. No doubt stories like this appealed to many world-weary Japanese at the time, including generals and daimyo. Other depictions of (usually) Chinese recluses and hermits were common in the art of this period. [Source: “Topics in Japanese Cultural History” by Gregory Smits, Penn State University ~]

Jukion by Eitoku

“In addition to reclusion, Eitoku’s painting illustrates another common theme in late Muromachi painting: celebration of ideal virtue. Most typically this theme took the form of depictions of ancient Chinese quasi-legendary figures. Boyi and Shuqi, for example, were ancient Chinese paragons of virtue, who, to make a long story short, chose to starve themselves to death rather than make even the slightest compromise with ideal moral values. Naturally, such selfless moral behavior would have contrasted sharply with the actual behavior of most Muromachi-era politicians and military figures. ~

“Another theme of late Muromachi art is the celebration of that which is sturdy, strong, and long-lived. Needless to say, such characteristics were precisely opposite the conditions then prevailing in Japanese society. In the "real world," even the most powerful daimyo rarely lasted long before being defeated in battle by a rival or betrayed by a subordinate. In painting, as in poetry, the pine and plum served as symbols of stability and longevity. So too, did bamboo, which is extremely sturdy despite its hollow core. A good, relatively early example is Shubun’s Studio of the Three Worthies from the early fifteenth century. In the painting we see a small hermitage in winter surrounded by pines, plum, and bamboo. These three trees--the most obvious set of "three worthies"--dwarf the human-built structure. ~

“The painting conveys at least two themes at the same time: 1) a celebration of stability and longevity, which 2) tends to accentuate human fragility and short life by contrast. Such a painting could serve both to reflect the world around it (theme two) and present an alternative vision of that world (theme one). Furthermore, this painting is yet another example of the longing for reclusion. Well educated viewers of the painting might also have noticed that the term "three worthies" comes from the Analects of Confucius. In one passage, Confucius stated the importance of befriending three kinds of people: "the straight," "the trustworthy in word," and "the well-informed." So at a deeper level of meaning this painting also celebrates ideal virtue, with bamboo symbolizing "the straight" (= steadfastness), the plum symbolizing trustworthiness, and the pine symbolizing the "well-informed." ~

“All of the paintings we have seen thus far reflect Chinese influence, both in terms of style and content. It was during the Muromachi period that Chinese influence on Japanese painting was strongest. There is much more to Muromachi art than we have seen here, and there is more that could be said about each of the works mentioned above. Here we simply suggest some tentative links between art and social, political and religious conditions. Also, keep these representative samples of late Muromachi art in mind when we examine the vastly different ukiyo-e prints of the Tokugawa period, which we examine in a later chapter. ~

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Samurai Archives; Topics in Japanese Cultural History” by Gregory Smits, Penn State University ~; Asia for Educators Columbia University, Primary Sources with DBQs, ; Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Japan; Library of Congress; Japan National Tourist Organization (JNTO); New York Times; Washington Post; Los Angeles Times; Daily Yomiuri; Japan News; Times of London; National Geographic; The New Yorker; Time; Newsweek, Reuters; Associated Press; Lonely Planet Guides; Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications. Many sources are cited at the end of the facts for which they are used.

Last updated September 2016

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