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Muromachi and Ashikaga:
Flourishing Culture and Political Disintegration

By E. Wallace

            The Ashikaga period began with betrayal and ended with betrayal. In between these intrigues, Japan experienced an era of high culture not seen again until the late 17th century during the height of the Edo period. The literary arts, painting, sculpture, architecture, Zen Buddhism, and the new No Drama style all flourished while the political situation remained unsure and eventually collapsed into the chaos of the Sengoku era. The Ashikaga definitely promoted the cultural renaissance in order to increase their authority but this failed, since the shoguns lacked the political and military acumen to back up their grand show [I] and throughout the period there was support for the Emperor (tacitly or via criticism of the new ruling class) which therefore brought the legitimacy of the shogunate itself into question.

In 1333, a coalition of supporters of the Emperor, Go-Daigo (1288 - 1339), who sought to restore political power to the throne, toppled the Kamakura bakufu. Unable to rule effectively, this new royal government [II] was short-lived. In 1336, a member of a branch family of the old Minamoto clan and former ally of Go-Daigo, Ashikaga Takauji (1305 -1358), usurped control and drove the Emperor 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 came to be known as the Nanbokucho period (Period of Southern and Northern Courts).

“Essays in Idleness” by Yoshida Kenko and “The Exile of Go-Daigo” are both from this Nanbokucho period. While the first work expresses the author’s discontent with lack of manners in the new warrior-dominated society, the second work (by an unknown author) is written as propaganda supporting the Southern Imperial Court. Kenko, a poet and court official turned monk, writes a book that is more a collection of random musings than a flowing work. “The Exile” retells the tale of the first exile of Go-Daigo in grand detail, including verses written by the Emperor as he was being taken away from his rightful throne.  

Kenko begins his “Essays” by saying, “To while away the idle hours, seated the livelong day before the inkslab, by jotting down without order or purpose whatever trifling thoughts pass through my mind, verily this a queer and crazy thing to so! (p. 231)” This is a strange thing for a celebrated poet to say about writing. By the time this was written (14th century), writing both prose and poetry was no longer something kept to the nobles and their retinues, but this “queer and crazy thing” was accessible to all who chose to try their hand at the literary art, including the members of the new upstart samurai bakufu. Yet, this is not the only instance where he lectures the warrior class, though not by name. In the next selection, he praises all who have knowledge of true literature, composing, wind and string instruments, and are well versed in precedent and court ceremony while he tells certain others not to write unskillfully, be able to sing in a pleasant voice and keep good time in music, and never to refuse wine when it is offered (p. 231). Courtiers from Kyoto who had been raised in the Imperial Court would know these things by heart, but the fact that Kenko must point out these matters of etiquette shows that new people who have no previous experience with the formalities of life in the capital are now in charge. Next, Kenko tells the reader, “However gifted and accomplished a young man may be, if he has no fondness for women, one has a feeling of something lacking, as of a precious wine cup without a bottom…” This yet another lecture to the samurai class, whose members were renowned for their homosexual tendencies (especially later during the Edo period, with the advent of all-male kabuki). He then assaults one of the main legacies of the Muromachi, its outstanding architecture and landscaping:

The man is to be envied who lives in a house, not of the modern, garish kind, but set among venerable trees, with a garden where plants grow wild and yet seem to have been disposed with care, verandas and fences tastefully arranged, and all its furnishings simple but antique.

A house which multitudes of workmen have devoted all their ingenuity to decorate, where rare and strange things from home and abroad are set out in array, and where even the trees and shrubs are trained unnaturally – such is an unpleasant sight, depressing to look at, to say nothing of spending one’s day therein… (p. 233) [III]  

Kenko is saying that this luxury was in bad taste [IV] , especially since it would not be something that could last, but instead “vanish in a moment in time.” The appearance of a house shows the character of the occupant, he writes in the last line of the selection. Is this a slight against the shogun and his followers building pavilions and palaces for themselves and not for the deserving Emperor? It appears so. Later on, Kenko lectures on proper conversational etiquette, “One should never make a show of having a deep knowledge of any subject. Well-bred people do not talk in a superior way even about things they have a good knowledge of. It is the people who come from the country [my emphasis] who offer opinions unasked, as though versed in all manner of accomplishments… (p. 239)” The country people comment finally fully reveals who he is talking about, the Ashikaga daimyo and samurai from the provinces [V] . Few of these men had ever been to Kyoto and had no idea of what was proper etiquette, so Kenko must write from his monastic retreat to these men, who he does not hate, but says do have enviable knowledge with only their “air of self-conceit” making them look stupid. He repeats this message when he writes, “A well-bred man does not show strong likings. His enjoyment appears careless. It is rustic boors who take all pleasures grossly… there is nothing they do not regard as their own. (p. 240)” In a way, Kenko is fighting a lost cause; the rule of the warrior was here to stay. Yet, his comments would be remembered and by the middle years of the Tokugawa, the samurai, or “rustic boors” will have reformed themselves into perfect noble gentlemen, almost [VI] .

            “The Exile of Go-Daigo” is just one of the many pro-Imperial works written during the Nanbokucho. Chikafusa wrote The Records of the Legitimate Succession of the Divine Sovereigns, arguing for the correct imperial succession (i.e. for Go-Daigo and not the puppet Ashikaga Emperor in Kyoto) which made Japan special and divine, unlike other lands. The Taiheiki, a military romance, gave splendid accounts of the valor of those loyal to the true Emperor. These men became popular heroes and prestige of the Imperial court was to be increased by it. “The Exile” is in a similar vein except it focuses on Go-Daigo himself and his thoughts as recorded in poems. From the beginning, the Emperor is portrayed as a young and handsome man of great sensitivities, very human in comparison of what one would see in the injustice actions of his captors. Upon reading a note from his wife, “tears coursed down his face like raindrops.” When he realizes that he will be taken to the island of Oki, he thinks about the fate of the Emperor Go-Toba, understanding that it will be unlikely that he will ever rule again, he laments his misfortune. Still he doesn’t blame his enemies but instead his own transgression in a past life. Now, the Emperor is shown in a most benevolent position, mourning his lost of power to wisely rule the people but yet not demanding vengeance upon his captors. He writes:

If it is my fate
To terminate thus my days,
In the depths of ruin,
Why was I ever born
Sovereign supreme of men?

While one is in the midst of mourning the fate of the poor Emperor, one misses the direct attack on the shogun system that was made in that simple poem. Why is the “Sovereign supreme of men” being sent into exile in the first place? Who has the power to depose him? In a few simple verses, the foundation for the Kemmu Restoration and the 60 year Southern Court is laid. Go-Daigo, even in exile, is not going to give up what is his by divine succession from the Sun Goddess. Later on, by reference to The Tale of the Genji, Go-Daigo’s exile linked with Genji’s and the callousness of the Emperor’s captors is shown in full forces when he is not allowed to see his son who was passing nearby. “What unbearable agitation must he have experienced then... there is no man but would feel unspeakable bitterness and rancor toward a world where even so small a thing could not be granted.” Soon after while at temporary lodge, being at close quarters with the soldiers on duty, the still majestic Go-Daigo says, “My miserable state/Is apparent even to you-/Know that my concern/For my beloved people/Even now remains unchanged.” This artful piece of propaganda strikes the right cord again, showing that even in his melancholy; the Emperor knows his duty is to his people as their loyalty is to him. Throughout the rest of selection, the cruelty of the Kamakura regime to the adherents of the Emperor is illustrated in detail while Go-Daigo meditates at Oki on what sin he may have committed in a past life and prays often at the temple there. The last line is another Parthian shot at the shogun system; “The Emperor was beset by countless thoughts as he prayed that somehow once again he might rule the country, this time with a better understanding of the true natures of men.” Go-Daigo was to have his chance the following year only to be betrayed by his one time ally, Ashikaga Takauji. Still, Go-Daigo escaped this time to found the Southern Court, in defense of which this work and the others mentioned above were written. The fact that such subversive material could be published and widely read reveals that the Ashikaga had very little control in the first 60 years of the shogunate, either politically or socially outside of Kyoto and the domains of their allies.

            Under the Ashikaga, 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. 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 ceremony. At its highest level, the tea ceremony 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 poetry and No dance-drama as created by Seami Motokiyo (1363 – 1443), a subtle, slow-moving stage performance featuring masked and elaborately costumed actors. The plots drew heavy on the literary tradition, recreating scenes from The Tales of the Genji, The Tale of the Heike, etc whiles others were clearly written to please the patron, such as the third Ashikaga shogun, Yoshitsune. Others had a clearly religious moral, such as “Birds of Sorrow” in a bird hunter pays the ultimate price of eternal torment for having killed innocent birds. This can be taken, perhaps, as a word of warning to the samurai in the audience.

Although the Ashikaga clan occupied the shogunate for nearly 200 years, they never succeeded in extending their political or social control as far as did the Kamakura bakufu. Because the 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, the Sengoku. But also, one must remember that the cultural effects of the Muromachi by far outlasted the shogunate and the political and social lesson of the era were learned well by the next shogunate, the Tokugawa.

[I] Muromachi (so called after the district in Kyoto where the Ashikaga clan headquarters was located) and Ashikaga are being distinguished here for the purpose of separating the cultural aspects of the period more clearly from the political aspects of the shogunate.

[II] The Kemmu Restoration (1333 – 1336).

[III] Gardens had become rather ornate during the Heian, followed by a transformation from a place of recreation to one of contemplation (under the influence of Zen) during the Kamakura.

[IV] Kenko never got to see the gaudiness of the Momoyama era (1569-1603) when houses were lathered in gold leaf and gardens became even more elaborate, with cut stone in pathways and bridges. This excess led to a backlash at the beginning of the Edo period, returning to simplicity in design as Kenko described in the first paragraph of the quoted selection.

[V] One can assume this easily because peasants never usually get to converse with court officials, and if they even did, would never dare boast of anything before such a person. This is comment directed at the samurai class, who were almost totally men from the provinces and not the cities.

[VI] The final selection from Kenko concerning the natural order, including death, is ironic since he has been lecturing the samurai throughout the work. “The Hour of Death waits for no order. Death does not even come from the front… All men know of death, but they do not expect it of a sudden…” The one exception to this would be the samurai, who spent his life expecting death, not only in battle, but by poison and ninja (more so in the Sengoku).