Rise of the Ashikaga Shogunate

The Ashikaga Shogunate ruled in the years 1336 to 1573, as feudal government run by the Ashikaga clan. The Shoguns were considered as the de facto rulers of the country, making the Emperor’s authority quite insignificant. He was within imperial isolation as an admired figure, but all governance was delegated to the military dynasties.

The period was also referred to as the Muromachi era where its name was derived from the Muromachi area of Kyoto. This was where Yoshimitsu, the 3rd shogun, established his residence. The Daimyo and other local nobles were able to exercise considerable power while the shogun could only rule with the co-op and assistance of these individuals.

Consequently, a number of skills and knowledge were necessary so the Shogun was forced to consider his interests, as well as those of the regional nobles. The Shogunate started to open contact and commerce with neighboring countries such as China. This led to the first contact with Europeans including the Christian missionaries.

The Ashikaga Shogunate lasted from the year 1336 to 1588 officially. However, the last member of the clan was ousted from position in the year 1573. The time when the Ashikaga family dominated the country’s politics was when Ashikaga Yoshimasa held the title of shogun from 1449 to 1473. Interestingly, the last few years of his rule were filled with a succession of issues that led to the Onin War.

The Beginning of the Rule of Ashikaga

The very first century of the rule of the Ashikaga was determined by the flourishing arts and culture of Japan. This included Noh and the popularizing of Zen Buddhism. During the later Ashikaga era, the country engaged in the chaos and turmoil of the Sengoku era. This was the time when a large number of Daimyo were battling for territory and power which caused the century-long civil war.

The Ashikaga power roots all the way back even before the years 1185 to 1334 of the Kamakura period which foreshadowed the Ashikaga shogunate. During the Kamakura period, the country was ruled by a branch of the powerful Taira clan who eventually lost the Genpei War to the Minamoto family. Despite this, the Taira managed to seize power either way. The Ashikaga, in turn, was known as a branch of the Minamoto.

In the year 1336, Ashikaga Takauji was able to overthrow the Kamakura shogunate. This also led to the defeat of the Taira once more, thus, returning the power back to the Minamoto family.

Ashikaga Takauji

Ashikaga Takauji was a statesman and warrior who founded the Ashikaga shogunate. He was able to dominate the country from the years 1338 to 1573. However, in the year 1335, he was known for infamously taking up arms against Emperor Go Daigo. Takauji drove the emperor out of Kyoto and was able to set Emperor Komyo on the throne.
During the modern times, Takauji was condemned due to his mistreatment of Emperor Go Daigo. The aspersion goes all the way back to the middle of the Tokugawa era. Scholars coming from the School of National Studies were reviving and acquiring the importance of the emperors, so a dictator like Takauji was greatly criticized. The influence of these scholars can be seen in the illustrations of Takayama Hikokuro – an individual who was known to have whipped the grave of Takauji at the Tojiin temple in Kyoto.

Ashikaga Takauji

Governmental Construction

Due to Ashikaga Takauji siding with the emperor, the Ashikaga clan was able to acquire more governmental control than the Kamakura. Despite this, the Ashikaga is considered the weakest shogunate between the Tokugawa and Kamakura. However, most of the regional power stayed with the provincial Daimyo, and the Shogunate’s military power depended almost entirely on their loyalty to the Ashikaga.

The bureaucracy of the Shogunate was classified into four offices. These included an office that should oversee the matters of the police and the military, one specifically for financial affairs, an office for judicial affairs, and one that maintained and managed records that were especially related to taxation and land.

The Ashikaga assigned the Shugo or military governors to rule over the provinces. The most trusted vassals were given certain positions in the bureaucracy. They also held held Shugo positions in immediate areas around Kyoto. As the Daimyo continued their rivalry for power and control, loyalty began to drop. This went on until warfare surfaced during the late Muromachi period. This was known as the beginning of the Sengoku period.

Northern and Southern Court

After Ashikaga Takauji successfully established himself as the country’s Shogun, there was a dispute about how to govern the country with Emperor Go Daigo. This dispute eventually led Takauji to have Emperor Go Fushimi’s second son, Prince Yutahito, installed as Emperor Komyo.

With that, Go Daigo fled which left Japan divided between the Northern Imperial Court and the Southern Imperial Court. The North were those in favor of Komyo, while the South were those in favor of Go Daigo. This period continued for a total of 56 years until the year 1392 A.D, when the Southern Court gave up during Ashikaga Yoshimitsu’s reign.

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Ashikaga Yoshimitsu

Ashikaga Yoshimitsu was the third shogun of the Ashikaga Shogunate. He was in power from the years 1368 to 1394 A.D which was during the Muromachi period in Japan. Yoshimitsu was known as Ashikaga Yoshiakira’s third son yet was the oldest son to survive.

In the year 1386 A.D, at the age of ten, Yoshimitsu was appointed as shogun. At the age of twenty, he was already admitted into the imperial court as the Gon Dainagon or Acting Grand Counselor. In 1379, he was able to reorganize the institutional foundation of the Gozan Zen establishment. Two years later, he became the very first individual of the warrior class to host a powerful emperor in his private residence.

In 1392, Yoshimitsu was also successful in resolving the gap between the Northern Court and Southern Court. He was able to do so when he convinced Go Kameyama of the South to hand over and release the Imperial Regalia to the Northern Court’s Emperor, Go Komatsu. His greatest political achievement was being able to end the Nanbokucho battles.

This event had the positive effect of establishing the Muromachi shogunate authority and controlling the power of regional age daimyos who might threaten this central authority.

Decline of the Ashikaga Shogunate

As the feud between the Daimyo grew because of power and position, they found themselves battling in the Onin War. This event caused loyalties and trust to fall until the entire situation erupted into an open warfare during the late Muromachi era.

In 1565, when Ashikaga Yoshiteru was assassinated, an ambitious yet powerful Daimyo named Oda Nobunaga took advantage of the situation. He seized the opportunity and eventually installed Yoshiteru’s brother, Yoshiaki, as the 15th Ashikaga shogun of the country. However, Yoshiaki was merely Nobunaga’s puppet during that time. In 1573, the Ashikaga Shogunate finally crumbled. This was when Nobunaga drove Yoshiaki out of Kyoto. Initially, Ashikaga Yoshiaki escaped to Shikoku. He received protection from the Miori family located in the western portion of Japan.

After some time, Toyotomi Hideyoshi asked Yoshiaki to accept him as an adopted child. He also requested to be the 16th shogun of the Ashikaga. Yet due to certain reasons and circumstances, Yoshiaki refused. The Ashikaga family was able to survive throughout the 16th century. A branch of theirs became the Daimyo family under the Kitsuregawa domain.

Culture and Religion

At the time of the Ashikaga Shogunate, Zen Buddhism, Noh, and Sumi-e (a kind of Chinese-style painting) flourished in Japan. During this period, Buddhism and Shintoism were combined, and in the year 1549, the Jesuit missionary, Francis Xavier, arrived in Japan where he began establishing a Christian foothold.

Still, there was a rivalry between the Daimyo and it grew more violent with the introduction of firearms. This was towards the end of the Ashikaga era. However, culture was able to help unite the Japanese while increased trade resulted in a better and greater prosperity.

During the reign of the 8th shogun, art and culture greatly flourished during the reign of the eighth Shogun. Some studies show how Ashikaga Yoshimasa reigned over an artistic renaissance while he almost single-handedly concluded the effective power of the shogun. Yoshimasa also drained the treasury. This was to fund his great interest in blending perfumes.

Incompetent as a military leader, Yoshimasa devoted his time to cultural pursuits and eventually relinquished his position to become a Buddhist monk. Though this was the case, the cultural legacy of Yoshimasa’s reign continues to influence Japanese architecture and art until today. These focus on maintaining the balance between the natural environment and built.

Zen Buddhism in the Ashikaga Shogunate

Zen Buddhism, a religion that stressed discipline and simplicity, greatly influenced the development and progress of the distinct Zen arts. Sado, which is also referred to as Cha No Yu or Chado, is the classic tea ceremony. This was known to be popular with the very first Ashikaga Shogun and was brought to excellence in the year 1521 to 1591 by Sen no Rikyu during the 16th century.