Japan's Medieval Age: The Kamakura & Muromachi Periods

Japan's Medieval Age: The Kamakura & Muromachi Periods

Editor's Note: This article was originally written for Japan Society's previous site for educators, "Journey through Japan," in 2003.


By the mid-12th century (A.D.) Japan’s imperial government in the Heian capital was clearly losing its grip on the country. The provinces were in disorder with warrior bands fighting among themselves, regional chieftains challenging the central government, the provincial-governor system failing, private estates being carved out of the public land system, taxes due to the state diverted into the coffers of nobles, temples, and local warriors. And at the center, most emperors were child-pawns in the hands of Fujiwara regents or, if they did reach maturity, had to abdicate in order to exercise some degree of power. The capital itself was subject to depredation by armed bands. And from the mid-twelfth century the Taira warrior family, led by Taira Kiyomori forced itself into the capital and into power over the court. This effectively marked the beginning of what has been described as warrior dominance, or warrior rule, in Japan. The Taira, like the Fujiwara before them, chose to rule by manipulating the court from within the capital. When, however, the Taira were crushed by their warrior rivals, the Minamoto in 1185, power moved to the eastern provinces and warrior domination was more clearly expressed in the formation of a garrison government, bakufu, headed by shoguns. The Kamakura regime was overthrown in 1333, replaced briefly by a restored imperial government headed by Emperor Go-Daigo, who was, in his turn, removed by the Ashikaga warrior leaders who had brought him to power. Ashikaga Takauji established his bakufu in the Muromachi district of Kyoto in 1336. The Muromachi bakufu, vigorous in the late fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries, proved unable to prevent a descent into civil war in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, Japan’s age of warring provinces, sengoku jidai .

The long, war-torn, four hundred-year period, from the mid-twelfth century through the Kamakura (1185-1333) and Muromachi (1336-1573), to the mid-sixteenth periods is often described as Japan’s medieval age, chûsei . Recently, some scholars have suggested that the Kamakura period should be seen as a continuation of the Heian period and that Japan’s medieval age only really develops in the fourteenth century. Here we will follow the older view and include the Kamakura period within the “medieval” centuries.

The Kamakura Period (1185-1333) is an era in Japanese history that takes its name from the garrison town of Kamakura on Sagami Bay in central Honshu, not far from modern Tokyo. Although the imperial court in Heian continued to claim authority, Kamakura was the seat of the warrior government known as the Kamakura bakufu, which dominated the political life of Japan during the period. The Kamakura bakufu was the first in a series of warrior regimes that governed Japan until the mid-nineteenth century. Thus, the Kamakura period is generally viewed as the formative phase in the development of warrior government in Japan. It is also commonly seen as the early phase of what is frequently described as a medieval society (chûsei) in Japan, although some historians prefer to view the Kamakura period as an extension of the ancient period. They tend to date the opening of Japan’s medieval age from the fourteenth century.

Political History

The Kamakura period saw a relative decline in the power and influence of the imperial court and religious institutions in Kyoto and a countervailing growth in the influence of the Kamakura bakufu and its provincial vassal warriors. The period also witnessed a loosening of the system of private estates, or shôen, that had sustained the court nobility. Related to this were improvements in agriculture and the beginnings of commercial development, market activity, and the use of money. Culturally, the period is characterized by the emergence of an incipient warrior ethic, dôri, and the blending of courtly and martial styles; creative new developments in art, literature, and thought; a powerful surge of popular reform in Buddhism; and the active introduction of the culture of Song - dynasty China by Zen monks. In the late thirteenth century the country was threatened by several attempted Mongol invasions. Although frustrated by Japanese defenders and bad weather, these invasions created strains in warrior society that contributed to the eventual destruction of the Kamakura bakufu in 1333.

The Kamakura bakufu was established by Minamoto Yoritomo (1147-1199). Yoritomo, the son of Minamoto Yoshitomo, (1123 1160), was exiled to Izu in eastern Japan by Taira Kiyomori after the failure of an uprising in which his father took up arms against the Taira. With the destruction of Yoshitomo and other Minamoto leaders and the exile of Yoritomo, Kiyomori consolidated his power over the imperial court. His ambition was to establish an enduring Taira family dynasty and to rule Japan in the name of the emperor through the organs of court government, just as the Fujiwara had done for centuries. As Yoritomo grew to manhood he built up his power in the east through a marriage alliance with the Hôjô clan, gathered Minamoto and other eastern warriors to his cause, and determined to avenge the death of his father by overthrowing the Taira. While Yoritomo directed the campaign from the east, Minamoto Yoshinaka (1154-1184) and Yoritomo’s younger brother, the brilliant general Minamoto Yoshitsune (1159-1189), drove the Taira from Kyoto to their eventual destruction in the sea battle at Dan-no-Ura in 1185.

While his generals were pressing the Taira in the west, Yoritomo was consolidating his warrior government in the east. In 1180 he established a warrior council, the samurai dokoro, to control his own direct vassals, the gokenin. In 1184 he set up two more councils, the kumonjo and monchûjo. The former was an administrative council headed by Oê Hiromoto (1147-1213), a lower ranking aristocrat-administrator brought from Kyoto especially to advise Yoritomo. The latter, also headed by a Kyoto noble, Miyoshi Yasunobu, handled the investigation of appeals and disputes brought by vassals. These councils, which began on the model of the chancelleries of the court and noble families, provided the administrative structure for warrior rule as victories over the Taira were achieved and political power and the loyalties of warriors flowed increasingly in the direction of Kamakura.

With the Taira defeated, Yoritomo set about destroying other possible rivals to his power and extending his authority into provinces throughout Japan. Immediately following the defeat of the Taira in 1185, Yoritomo appointed his lieutenant Amano Tôkage supervisor of Kyushu vassals. In the same year, using as his justification the need to maintain local order and to secure assistance in arresting his brother Yoshitsune, whom he branded a traitor, Yoritomo secured an edict from the imperial court allowing him to appoint provincial constables, shugo, and estate stewards, jitô. Yoshitsune sought the protection of the northern Fujiwara. This provided Yoritomo with a pretext to invade northeastern Japan in 1189 and eliminate his brother and Fujiwara warrior power in one initiative. Kasai Yoshishige, who led Yoritomo’s victorious forces in the campaign against the Fujiwara, was appointed commander of all vassals in the northeast. Thus, by 1190 Yoritomo had acquired unchallenged military control over the country. In 1192 Yoritomo secured from the court his appointment as “Barbarian-quelling Great General,” sei-i tai-shôgun. This shogunal title provided the capstone and final legitimation for his bakufu.

The right to appoint shugo and jitô was an institutional innovation that gave Yoritomo considerable authority and had far reaching implications. Shugo were appointed province by province. They were powerful vassals designated by Yoritomo to supervise military affairs within their provinces. Their basic duties were threefold. Serving as the liaison between the bakufu and provincial society, they organized the military service of the provincial vassals, maintained local order, and arrested rebels. The origins of jitô have been traced to the Heian period. From 1185, when Yoritomo’s right to appoint his vassals as supervisors of the public domain and of the provincial estates of the court nobility was recognized, their numbers increased and their ties with Kamakura were strengthened. In return for a portion of the tax income of the land, jitô policed the estates, oversaw tax collection, and helped maintain local order. Not surprisingly, they often sought to enhance their personal power at the expense of the absentee proprietor of the holding.

In this period the local warrior vassals of the shôgun were known as gokenin, or “honorable housemen.” The honorific “go” indicated a close personal relationship with the shogun. A requirement for gokenin status was that the vassal’s family have held family domains, honryô, for at least three generations and that he be granted a document from the shogun confirming these holdings. Their duties included military service in war and guard duty in Kamakura and Kyoto in peacetime. Orders from the bakufu were conveyed to gokenin through the shugo. The gokenin provided the local base of the pyramid of political power and vassal loyalties upon which the authority of Yoritomo and the bakufu depended.

The economic base of the Kamakura bakufu was control over the eastern provinces, Kantô bunkoku, coupled with tax income from direct shogunal domain, Kantô goryô. Much of this latter was from holdings in estates confiscated from the defeated Taira and awarded as spoils to Yoritomo. Taken together, these provided the bakufu with firm control over the heartland of eastern Japan and a network of landed interests throughout the country.

Yoritomo had dreams of establishing a Minamoto warrior dynasty. Those dreams were frustrated within a few years of his death. He was succeeded by his young and ineffectual sons Yoriie (1182-1204) and Sanetomo (1192-1219), both of whom were appointed shogun but were assassinated in office. With their untimely deaths the Minamoto shogunal line ended. Power within the bakufu was steadily assumed by the Hôjô, a leading vassal family of Yoritomo. When Yoritomo had been sent in exile to the Kantô as a child he had been placed under the guardianship of Hôjô Tokimasa (1138-1215). He later married Tokimasa’s daughter Masako. After the death of Yoritomo, Masako helped her father and brother, Yoshitoki, assume greater power within the bakufu. Tokimasa had a hand in the assassination of Yoriie. With the death of Yoriie and Sanetomo and the elimination of other powerful rivals like the warrior families Hiki and Wada, the Hôjô were able to assume a dominant position in the bakufu. It became, in effect, a Hôjô bakufu to a degree that it had never been a Minamoto bakufu. The Hôjô controlled the bakufu until its demise in 1333. They chose to rule, however, not as shoguns, but as regents (shikken) to shoguns. With the Minamoto line extinct, they brought Fujiwara boys or imperial princes from Kyoto to serve as puppet shoguns. Hôjô rule has been described as conciliar. Certainly vassal interests were voiced in such executive warrior councils as the hyôjôshû. On the whole, however, the Hôjô dominated these councils and packed them with closely related vassals and loyal officials. Hôjô family control over the bakufu became much more pronounced after Tokiyori’s destruction of the rival Miura clan in 1247.

Yoritomo's victory did not eliminate the imperial court or deprive it of all its authority. In fact, Yoritomo’s authority as shogun and the Hôjô regency were sanctioned by the court. At the same time, while Yoritomo claimed to be an agent of the court, his establishment of a separate regime in Kamakura was regarded by Kyoto as a usurpation of power. Members of the imperial family and court nobles did not easily relinquish hopes of recovering their former authority. In 1221 the senior cloistered emperor Go-Toba (1180-1239) issued an edict calling for the overthrow of the Kamakura bakufu and the arrest of Hôjô Yoshitoki. He refused to send an “imperial” shogun to Kamakura and demanded that several jitô appointments be rescinded. Go-Toba anticipated division within the bakufu and the loss of support of gokenin for the bakufu. Some western warriors and monk-soldiers from the powerful monasteries rallied to the court but there was only a feeble challenge to the bakufu. Most gokenin saw their self-interest in supporting the Hôjô, and the campaign ended with a decisive bakufu victory. The Hôjô promptly exiled three cloistered emperors, executed nobles who were alleged to have been ringleaders, and established preeminent power vis-a-vis the court. After the uprising, the Hôjô intervened in the imperial succession and Hôjô Yasutoki and Tokifusa were stationed at Rokuhara in Kyoto to supervise the court and maintain order in the capital. From this time on the office of the Rokuhara tandai (Kamakura deputies) was monopolized by the Hôjô family. It became a supervisory authority for western Japan.

The bakufu also confiscated three hundred domain holdings from supporters of the court and awarded them to gokenin as prizes or appointed jitô to oversee them. The bakufu extended its authority considerably by the appointment of these new jitô. At the same time, the stage was set for increased friction between jitô and shôen proprietors, and disputes over holdings proliferated. The increasing flood of litigation was handled in bakufu courts, which acquired a reputation for providing fair and speedy justice. In addition to settling land disputes the Hôjô gave considerable attention to clarifying the laws and practices, or dôri, peculiar to warrior society. Many of these were codified in the Goseibai shikimoku, compiled in 1232. This provided a precedent for succeeding warrior legal codes and gave coherence to the warrior order in medieval society.

During the thirteenth century the Mongols were extending their conquests on the continent. Having conquered Song China and the Korean kingdoms, Kubilai, the Mongol khan, looked for an opportunity to bring Japan into submission. When diplomatic overtures were rejected by Hôjô Tokimune, a great invasion involving some thirty thousand Mongol warriors and Korean seamen was launched in the tenth month of 1274. Some Mongols landed on the beaches of northern Kyushu, and Japanese warriors had trouble holding the invaders at bay. Fortunately for the Japanese, a storm intervened, wrecking the Mongol armada. A second invasion was dispatched in 1281. Mongol fleets that had attacked the islands of Tsushima and Oki entered Hakata Bay in the sixth month. They were again dispersed by storms. These storms were known as “divine winds,” kamikaze. Shrines and temples claimed credit for calling them up through their prayers for the protection of the country. The intervention of nature at this critical juncture contributed to a belief, expressed then and later in times of crisis, that Japan was a divinely protected land, shinkoku.

Although the invasions failed and the Mongols took no territory, the impact on bakufu politics of the Mongol incursions was considerable. Tokimune and his bakufu advisers, and especially Kyushu warriors, were obliged to bear the costs of a permanent defense system. Kyushu gokenin were forbidden to come to Kamakura or Kyoto to make appeals for spoils. An appeals board was set up in Kyushu. This chinzei tandai, as it was known, incorporated military command in Kyushu with judicial functions. At the same time, in the name of strengthening policing powers in Kyushu, the bakufu tightened its exclusive authority in the region and monopolized Kyushu and western shugoships through the appointment of Hôjô administrators. The burdens of defense and lack of war spoils, combined with samurai indebtedness and fragmentation of main and branch families, created severe strains in warrior society. The exclusion of most vassals from the inner circles of power around the regent led to growing disaffection with Hôjô authority, increasingly seen as arbitrary and despotic. When a challenge to that authority was mounted by emperor Go-Daigo in the 1320s, the Hôjô were unable to hold the allegiance of some of their most powerful vassals. In 1333 they were overthrown by an alliance of Go-Daigo, members of the court, Buddhist clergy, and such powerful eastern warrior houses as the Ashikaga and Nitta.

Kamakura Period: Economy

The growing influence of warriors in society was reflected by their intrusion into the estates, shôen that had hitherto been the exclusive preserve of the court nobility. Jitô, who had been granted legal rights within shôen by the bakufu, sought to extend their influence within the holding. In some instances they withheld taxes from the proprietor and forced concessions, wayo, or actual division of the estate, shitaji chûbun. Shugo with supervisory rights in the provinces also sought to assert their influence over local shôen. It has been suggested that the institutional loosening of the shôen that was taking place in this period contributed to a freeing of some farmers’ energies for market production. More extensive use of double cropping and other small improvements in agricultural technology may also have contributed to the creation of an agricultural surplus. Certainly, local markets held on a regular basis were becoming more common. While rents were still largely paid in rice or other produce, copper cash was being imported from China by the end of the thirteenth century and was in use along the Pacific coast of Honshu and around Kamakura and Kyoto. Money-lending was practiced, and many warriors became so indebted that the bakufu felt obliged to issue a debt moratorium edict, a tokusei, for Kanto gokenin in 1297. While rural life in some areas was becoming more prosperous and diversified, it was also marked by sporadic violence and unrest. In many parts of the country bands of warriors and farmers known as akutô literally, “evil (or powerful) bands,” controlled local life and resisted the authority of the Kamakura bakufu.

Kamakura Period Culture

The cultural life of the Kamakura period blended courtly, warrior, and popular elements. It was marked by the continued cultural predominance of the court and by the creation of a distinct warrior cultural style that expressed warrior values of dôri or musha no narai, the “customs of the warriors”, while drawing heavily on the learning and culture of the court nobility. Buddhist monks and monasteries, especially Zen monasteries, were active contributors to the culture and, from the Kamakura period, there was popular participation in religion and culture. The age witnessed a popular upsurge of Buddhist devotion, and such popular musical and dancing entertainments as dengaku, sarugaku, and taue uta flourished in the countryside.

Although the imperial court was being eclipsed politically during the thirteenth century, courtiers maintained their literary and cultural leadership. The composition of Japanese poetry, waka, enjoyed renewed vitality and the age saw the compilation of a number of anthologies, of which the most influential was the Shin kokin waka shû (1205), containing the poetry of cloistered emperor Go-Toba and his circle. Courtiers also recited, compiled, and read military tales, gunkimono. Of these the finest was the Tale of the Heike (Heike monogatari), which expressed the pathos of the rise and destruction of the Taira family at the hands of the Minamoto. History and belles lettres were also courtly avocations. The aristocratic monk Jien (1155-1225) offered a Buddhist view of historical change in his Gukanshô while arguing in favor of a union of court and bakufu. Kamo no Chômei (1153 1215), a poet and literary associate of Go-Toba, established a hermitage outside the capital and in his Hôjôki (An Account of My Hut) gave expression to the ideal of the recluse. In addition to its leadership in literary and scholarly activities, the court continued to set styles in art, music, architecture, dress, and manners.

Warrior culture was a blend of martial and literary elements, bu and bun. Yoritomo and his successors all exhorted their warriors to maintain martial skills and live frugal, outdoor lives. Virtues of loyalty, bravery, family honor, and willingness to give or take one’s life for one's honor or one’s lord were stressed as the essence of the ideal of the warriors. At the same time, Yoritomo and his successors who headed the bakufu were all, to some degree, forced to deal with the court and thus remained subject to its influence. The third Minamoto shogun, Sanetomo, was criticized within the bakufu for his excessive devotion to the composition of waka and the styles of the imperial court, but there were many warriors who enjoyed such literary pursuits and a few who took brides from the court in Kyoto. The use of lower ranking courtiers as bakufu officials, and the bringing of Fujiwara infants and imperial princes to Kamakura as shoguns, also brought infusions of court culture to Kamakura. With time, the Hôjô regents and their leading retainers became practitioners and sponsors of scholarship and the arts. In painting, portraiture, and sculpture there was in the Kamakura period what Japanese scholars frequently refer to as a “realistic tendency.” The vigorous, muscular sculpture of Unkei and Kaikei in particular is said to have been expressive of the directness of the warrior spirit of the age.

Kamakura Period: Religious Life

Warriors and courtiers patronized Buddhism. Through the newly imported Zen school, especially the Rinzai gozan monasteries in Kyoto and Kamakura, they were put in direct contact with the learning and cultural styles of China in poetry, painting, and architecture. Zen, however, was not the only new development in Buddhism in the Kamakura period. One of the most vigorous and creative movements was the articulation and spread of what has been called the “new Buddhism” of the Kamakura age. Looking for surer paths to salvation in an age of spiritual deterioration (mappô) and disheartened by the laxity and formalization of traditional monastic Buddhism, reformers broke with older schools such as Tendai to establish new and popular teachings. The most powerful popular current was undoubtedly the Pure Land movement, based on faith in the compassion of the Buddha Amida. Hônen, who broke with Tendai in advocating the supreme efficacy of the invocation of Amida’s name (the nembutsu), Shinran, his radical disciple, and the wandering mendicant Ippen all stressed the supreme importance of devotion to Amida and of reliance on the nembutsu as a means of triggering Amida’s vow to save sentient beings. They found followers at all social levels and throughout the country and originated respectively the Pure Land (Jôdo), True Pure land (Jôdo Shin), and Timely(Ji), schools of Japanese Buddhism. Shinran, in particular, rejected the monastic ideal and offered a path to salvation for the lowliest of men and women.

The Kamakura period also witnessed a revival of devotion to the Lotus Sutra. This was carried furthest by Nichiren who argued that the teaching of the Lotus Sutra offered all that the country needed for spiritual salvation and protection, and that other teachings should be suppressed. The vitality and success of the newer schools of Buddhism did not go unnoticed by monks of the older schools. Their initial reaction was to try to have advocates exiled and the teaching proscribed. When that failed to quell the upsurge, the followers of the new teachings were excluded from the older schools and forced to establish their independence. At the same time, the vitality of the popular movement stimulated a surge of reform within the older Buddhist schools. With the revival of the Ritsu, or Vinaya, school there was renewed emphasis on the maintenance of monastic discipline.

While it would, of course, be misleading to distinguish the Kamakura period too sharply from the Heian and Muromachi ages that preceded and followed it, it should be clear from the above discussion that the age had certain clear cut characteristics that allow us to think of it, without exaggeration, as a new phase in the development of Japanese society and culture. Although the Kamakura bakufu was eventually overthrown, basic institutions and laws of warrior government had been firmly established and tested during the thirteenth century. The model of an emperor (tennô) acting as sovereign with a shogun serving as military hegemon and effective ruler of the country would recur in succeeding centuries. In the process of consolidation of warrior rule, political and economic influence of the imperial court waned. The change was not sudden, but had clearly gone far by the end of the thirteenth century. Go-Daigo’s attack on the bakufu, culminating in the Kemmu Restoration of 1333 to 1336, was intended to reverse the dilution of imperial authority, but the collapse of the short-lived restoration set the process in motion again. Socially, the advent of warrior power brought changes in the balance of local power in the provinces and in shôen, where the power of the court nobility and their agents was undercut or replaced by that of shugo, jitô, or akutô. The changes in shôen management were part of a larger set of economic developments in which market activity and the use of money began to play a more significant role in medieval commerce. The arrival of warriors on the center stage of history was also reflected in art, literature, and architecture. In religion, too, even if the new schools of Buddhism derived much of their doctrine and practice from older Buddhism, they aroused a new and popular fervor as they carried their message to newly emerging groups in society: warriors and farmers in the provinces. In the performing arts, it is in the Kamakura period that we see the beginnings of popular participation. Here, too, the patronage of warriors was evident.

Muromachi Period (1336-1573) takes its name from the Muromachi district of Kyoto, the seat of shogunal government during the period. It is also known as the Ashikaga period, after the Ashikaga warrior family, whose members held the office of shogun from 1338 to 1573. Most historians date the Muromachi period from 1336, when the warrior Ashikaga Takauji (1305-1338) ended the Kemmu Restoration (a short lived attempt by, the imperial court to reassert political power) by ousting emperor Go-Daigo from Kyoto; he then set up Kômyô as a puppet emperor and laid the basis for a new military regime. Others date the period from 1338, when Takauji assumed the title of shogun and formally established his shogunate, or bakufu, in Kyoto. The end of the Muromachi period is marked by the expulsion of the fifteenth Ashikaga shogun, Yoshiaki, from Kyoto by Oda Nobunaga in 1573. Some might argue, however, that for all practical purposes it had come to an end when Nobunaga marched into Kyoto in 1568.

Political History

Contrasted with its predecessor, the Kamakura bakufu, or with the later Edo bakufu, the Muromachi bakufu was a fundamentally unstable warrior government. The Muromachi regime has been described as a coalition of shogun and shugo. The shugo were powerful branch family members and vassals of the Ashikaga with military authority over one or more provinces. Some shugo enrolled local warriors as their vassals and expanded their control over neighboring provinces. The success of the central authority of the shoguns depended on their ability, to dominate the coalition. Except during the reigns of the third through sixth shoguns (1370-1441), the Muromachi bakufu was weakened by factionalism and civil war, and there was difficulty in imposing shogunal authority over provincial agents, the shugo.

The Ashikaga were a warrior family from eastern Japan. In 1333 Ashikaga Takauji had helped emperor Go-Daigo topple the Kamakura bakufu and restore direct imperial rule. Dissatisfied with the meager political rewards granted to him by the restored imperial government, Takauji set up a puppet emperor, Kômyô, and took the title of shogun after forcing Go-Daigo into exile, Go-Daigo set up a rival line in Yoshino. This set in motion the sporadic, debilitating, civil war between supporters of Go-Daigo and his Southern Court and those who supported the Ashikaga and the Northern Court.

Thus, the inherent weaknesses of the Ashikaga were clearly exposed in its early decades. Unlike Minamoto Yoritomo in 1185 or Tokugawa Ieyasu in 1600, Takauji had not established his bakufu on the basis of a decisive military victory. Rather, he had shared power with Go-Daigo and when he turned against Go-Daigo he was plagued with fratricidal strife and civil war. Because he had not won an overwhelming military victory, he had not acquired the military and political stature necessary to impose his authority over his chief vassals, the shugo. Nor had he gained control over enough land to provide an adequate economic base from which to draw tax income and provide spoils.

Ashikaga Yoshimitsu (1358-1408), the third shogun, was more successful than Takauji in asserting his authority over the country. Politically adept and aided by loyal vassals in the office of shogunal advisor, kanrei, he imposed his will on the provincial shugo. Yoshimitsu isolated shugo who resisted his authority and mobilized rival shugo against them. He gained influence over the imperial court by healing the breach between the northern and southern lines and then used court titles to embellish his feudal authority. He further enhanced his stature through lavish cultural patronage and the initiation of active trading and diplomatic relations with China. He took for himself the title “King of Japan.” His successor, Yoshimochi, a less flamboyant shogun, was cool toward Yoshimitsu’s policies, especially trade with China, but the shogunate again found an active, autocratic leader in Yoshinori, the sixth shogun. Yoshinori’s assassination in 1441 by a disgruntled shugo was a serious blow to shogunal authority. The bakufu’s authority was further, and disastrously, weakened during the reign of Ashikaga Yoshimasa, the eighth shogun. Yoshimasa, a generous patron of the arts, was politically maladroit, and he allowed rivalries and succession disputes between powerful shugo, courtiers, and members of his family to break into open war in 1467.

In the Ônin War, 1467-1477, much of Kyoto was put to the torch. Monks and nobles fled to the provinces, and shogunal authority ebbed. After the warfare in the capital had subsided it continued as a desultory civil war in the provinces that ushered in what has been called the “age of warring provinces,” sengoku jidai, or the time of “the lowly overturning the mighty,” gekokujo. Although the shogunate survived, real power was held by those shugo who controlled the office of kanrei. Many of the former shugo, most of whose ties with their provinces had weakened through their residence in Kyoto, were overthrown by their deputies, or by local warrior families, kokujin, who established leaner, more tightly governed domains better suited for survival in an age of war. These were known as the sengoku daimyo, or “warring states barons.”

By the mid-sixteenth century Japan was thus headed by an impotent shogunate and fragmented into some 250 domains whose leaders scoffed at the authority of the bakufu and did all in their power to strengthen their own military forces and exploit the resources of land and manpower under their control. At an extreme of decentralization, the country was ripe for reunification. The process of reunification was set in motion by Oda Nobunaga, (1534-1582). Nobunaga, a restless and ruthless warrior, was a brilliant military tactician who used the new Western technology of the musket to offset his numerical weakness. He applied his energies to the conquest of rival daimyo and the armed religious communities in central Japan. Marching into Kyoto in 1568 to aid Yoshiaki, he soon fell out with the shogun and, in 1573, expelled him. Neither Nobunaga nor his brilliant successor Toyotomi Hideyoshi assumed the discredited title of shogun. They preferred to base their authority on their own force of arms and court titles. The shogunal title was assumed again by the third of the unifiers, Tokugawa Ieyasu, after his sweeping victory over supporters of Hideyoshi in 1600. Ieyasu looked back not to the Ashikaga shoguns but to Minamoto Yoritomo as his model. His bakufu, based upon a solid preponderance of military and economic power, was carefully structured to avoid the instabilities that had become so evident in Ashikaga rule.

Economic Life

If the Muromachi period was one of political instability and warfare, it was at the same time a period of economic and commercial growth. Warfare and political fragmentation broke down old institutions and loosened social bonds, created new patrons, and stimulated new needs, all of which provided opportunities for growth and change in society. Two older institutions that felt the forces of change were the estate holdings, shôen, held by the nobility and the larger temples, and the older guilds, za, which the nobility and temples had also sponsored and drawn upon for service and income.

Shôen had been subjected to erosion and division in the Kamakura period as jitô and other local warriors sought to entrench and expand their influence in the provinces. The process of shôen erosion quickened during the civil warfare of the fourteenth and late fifteenth centuries. Shugo and sengoku daimyô cut into the absentee rights of Kyoto proprietors. Sengoku daimyô, in particular, resented any outside influence within their domains and simply rejected the claims of central proprietors to income from local estates. They adopted a similar attitude to the privileges and exemptions of the older za, seeking to replace their influence with that of new groups of local merchants who would be more beholden to the daimyo. Nobunaga’s policy of freeing markets and guilds, rakuichi rakuza, marked the maturation of this attitude of hostility to the commercial privileges of the old central institutions.

The erosion of shôen and the decline of the older guilds were related to other economic changes. Farmers, freed from the closed economic worlds of the shôen, were able to divert more of their produce into markets. There is some evidence of an agricultural surplus during these centuries. Technological innovations, such as cropping, greater use of draft animals, and improved farming implements, may also have contributed to increased production. Markets became more widespread and regular. They stimulated the commercial activities of peddlers, merchants, and transport agents. By the late Muromachi period the produce of distant provinces was finding its way through commercial channels to wholesale markets in Kyoto and Kamakura. The military and building activities of the sengoku daimyô created a huge demand for building materials, arms and armor, and military supplies of all kinds.

Yoshimitsu’s more active trading policies opened up a commercial tally trade as well as diplomatic contact with Ming China. Goods from China, karamono, including art objects, silks, and medicines, were prized in Japan. This trade brought wealth to the merchants of Hakata, Sakai, and Kyoto. Unlike the Kamakura bakufu, the Muromachi bakufu did not have extensive lands under their control. To make up for this they seem to have resorted to a more active trading and commercial policy. In addition to their forays in foreign trade, the Ashikaga shoguns generated tax revenues by encouraging the commercial activities of the Kyoto guilds and sake brewers and wholesalers, dosô. In addition to the official tally trade there was active freebooting and piracy by vessels sailing out of small ports along the coasts of western Honshû and Kyushu. These freebooters came to be known as “Japanese pirates,” wakô, and their raiding was a scourge around the coasts of Korea and China in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Some of these private traders sailed as far as southeast Asia where the established small trading communities. From the 1540s, Portuguese and Spanish “black ships” brought merchants (as well as missionaries), and Japan found itself benefiting from, and drawn into, a commercial network that covered East Asia and had links with Western Europe.

One important spur to economic activity was the growing use of money. Copper coins, minted in Song China, were imported in the thirteenth century. In some areas annual taxes began to be paid in cash rather than rice. From the Muromachi period, Ming coins were a major import item and were widely used in markets and shops. The Ashikaga shoguns did not attempt to mint coins, and their dependence on coinage from China led to problems of supply and quality. Hoarding of good coins was only partially curtailed by “coin selection edicts” that forbade the damaging or hoarding of good coins. The growing availability of coinage and commercial wealth fostered money lending by temples, merchants, and pawnbrokers. High rates of interest and problems of repayment created periodic demands for debt moratoria, tokusei. At times, as in 1428, 1441, and 1454, violent popular uprisings, ikki, were directed at pawnbrokers, or at the bakufu for its failure to redress financial hardships. The bakufu’s passage of debt moratoria in response to the more threatening of these ikki offered only temporary relief to debtors and tended to add confusion to the marketplace by reducing the inducement for merchants to make loans.

Overall, the economic gains made during the Muromachi period probably outweighed the losses and dislocations. The disintegration of shôen created new opportunities for some merchants and farmers. Local merchants benefited from the relaxation of guild privileges and greater access to markets. A nascent merchant class emerged. Although coinage was not being minted in Japan, the use of money, bills of exchange, and pledges, were all accepted. Although the Muromachi bakufu did not develop a successful mercantile policy, it was more involved in trade and commerce than its predecessor had been. Japan was opened to foreign trade. When the Ashikaga shoguns lost active interest in the China trade in the late fifteenth century it was taken up by western daimyo like the Ôuchi and Hosokawa. Other sengoku daimyô recognized the important role played by, commerce and provision merchants in the strengthening of their domains. Products from remote areas were feeding into central markets and maritime networks were being extended along the coasts of Japan. Sengoku daimyô fought for the new wealth being dug from gold and silver mines. Nobunaga and Hideyoshi were consolidating a richer and more powerful country than the Ashikaga shogun had ever ruled.


Although the Muromachi period was doctrinally less creative than the preceding Kamakura era, it witnessed a vigorous diffusion and popularization of Buddhism. Shintô also experienced a revival, one that focused on the Ise Shrine and asserted the primacy of Shintô kami over the Buddhas. But there was also an inter-penetration of Buddhism and Shintô at many temple complexes and shrines. By the end of the period, Christian missionaries from Portugal and Spain had established a presence in the country and had already converted many, western daimyo and commoners. Until the proscription of the Christian missionary effort by Hideyoshi, it looked as if Christianity would come to rival Buddhism and Shintô for influence in Japan.

Within the Buddhist world the older monastic centers like Enryakuji, Kôyasan, Kôfukuji, and Negoro maintained their influence. They protected their religious, political, and land privileges through court connections and with powerful monastic armies. The power and influence of the older monasteries were not greatly reduced until Nobunaga attacked and burned Enryakuji in 1571 and Hideyoshi reduced the landholdings and military forces of Kôyasan and Negoro in the 1580s. Growth in Buddhism during this period came, however, not in the older schools, but in the diffusion of the so-called “new schools” of Buddhism that had been established by Hônen, Shinran, Ippen, Nichiren, Eisai, and Dôgen in the late Heian and Kamakura periods. All the Pure Land lineages -- the Pure Land, or Jôdo, teachings of Hônen, the Timely, or Ji, school of Ippen, and the True Pure Land, or Jôdo Shin, tradition of Shinran -- with their promise of universal salvation in Amida’s Pure Land, flourished and found devotees and patrons at all levels of society. [See Pure Land and Amidism.]

The True Pure Land tradition established itself in this period as the most widely based school of Japanese Buddhism. Until the fifteenth century the local groups, montô, of True Pure Land followers were divided by local rivalries and accusations of doctrinal heterodoxy. They were united under the leadership of the powerful monastic center of Honganji by the priest Rennyo (1415-1499). Because of their single-minded religious devotion and strong local bonds, these groups of warriors and farmers were known as the ikkôshû or “single-minded school.” In many provinces the montô refused to acknowledge the authority of local shugo, and in Kaga in 1488 they actually took over the whole province in an ikkô uprising, or ikkô ikki, and controlled it for a century. These militant ikkô supporters were thorns in the flesh of daimyo struggling to win local territorial control. In order to gain control over central Japan, Nobunaga had to devote ten years of sporadic but bitter campaigning to the eradication of Jôdo Shin militancy.

Nichren’s teachings, based on the Lotus Sutra, also won a nationwide following during this period, especially among lesser samurai and farmers. One branch was particularly strong among townspeople in Kyoto. Like Jôdo Shin montô, Nichiren devotees were militant in their determination to carry the teachings of the Lotus Sutra to non-believers. Nichiren’s followers were regarded with caution or suspicion by many daimyo. In Kyoto there was friction between Nichiren followers in the city and the monks of Enryakuji, who exercised influence on the economic and political life of the capital. In 1532, in Nichiren-school uprisings, known as “Lotus Rebellions,” Hokke ikki, followers seized control of parts of the city. In 1536 their temples were burned and they were expelled by soldier monks from Enryakuji. This was not a permanent setback, however. They were permitted to return and continued to proselytize aggressively in Kyoto and the provinces.

Of the two principal branches of Zen, the Rinzai transmission attracted more adherents from the upper levels of warrior and court society. Under shogunal and daimyo patronage the gozan (five mountains) system was extended by the building of Rinzai temples in every province. By 1600 there were several thousand provincial monasteries, large and small, in the gozan network. The non-gozan lineages of Daitokuji and Myôshinji found patrons among the merchants of Sakai and newly emerging sengoku daimyô. Dôgen’s Sôtô Zen, made more accessible by the incorporation of popular prayer ceremonies, began to spread widely among farmers and local samurai families in northern and central Japan.

The period from 1540 to 1640 has been called the “Christian century” in Japan. Although Japan was still far from becoming a Christian country when the policy of persecution and eradication of Christianity was set in motion in by Hideyoshi, the Jesuit mission effort had been impressive. Nobunaga used Christianity to offset the power of militant Buddhism. With his tacit acceptance, many daimyo, samurai, farmers, and townspeople accepted Christianity. Tens of thousands of converts were made. Churches, seminaries, and schools were built. A Japanese Christian priesthood was being trained, religious texts were printed and distributed, and Christian art was introduced. In the closing years of the Muromachi period, while Nobunaga was alive, the Christian mission effort looked promising. In 1573, when the fifteenth and last Ashikaga shogun was driven out of office, it must have seemed to many Japanese that Buddhism was on the defensive while Christianity was sweeping all before it.

Cultural Life

Muromachi culture is commonly divided into two major cultural epochs, Kitayama and Higashiyama. Kitayama (northern mountains) refers to the early Muromachi cultural phase, around 1400, centering on Ashikaga Yoshmitsu and his Golden Pavilion in the northern hills of Kyoto. Higashiyama (eastern mountains) refers to the eighth shogun Yoshimasa and his retreat, the Silver Pavilion, in the eastern hills. These terms are at once convenient and misleading. They are convenient because they point up the importance of shogunal patronage to Zen and the arts. They are misleading because they downplay the importance of the cultural contribution of other social groups as well as the continuum and diversity of Muromachi culture. And to these two major divisions we can add at least two more: Sengoku and Nanban culture. The warfare of the Sengoku period did not quench cultural activity. Rather it tempered it into new forms. And the “southern barbarians,” nanbanjin, who came to Japan in the sixteenth century, brought with them cultural forms new and intriguing to the Japanese.

The contributions made to Japanese culture during the Muromachi period were rich and complex. The period witnessed the development of linked verse, renga, the maturation of the nô and kyôgen dramatic forms, and the elaboration of tea drinking, cha-no-yu, from a simple Zen monastic custom into a complex and refined aesthetic experience. Muromachi culture was also heavily influenced by Zen aesthetics in the arts of ink painting, which was brought to a high level of perfection by Sesshû Tôyô and the early masters of the Kanô school, and domestic architecture and garden design. In the later decades of the Muromachi period the monochromatic Zen-inspired artistic styles began to give way to a more grandiose, gilded style that derived its energy from the conquests of powerful daimyo and was displayed in their new castles.

Whereas the culture of the Nara and Heian periods had been largely shaped by emperors, courtiers, and monks, and that of the Kamakura period by the interaction between an old nobility and a new warrior elite, the culture of the Muromachi period drew on the intelligence, vision, experience, and patronage of all sectors of society. At the highest level, the decision to locate the Muromachi bakufu in Kyoto brought shoguns and shugo, many of whom were required to spend long periods of attendance in the capital, into close contact with the old court nobility. In a process that had already begun in the Kamakura period, warriors came to share courtly interests in the civilian arts, bun, including classical literature and the study of courtly etiquette. Courtiers and warriors alike consorted with Zen monks, especially the learned priests of the gozan monasteries, and from them acquired a deeper appreciation of all the Chinese cultural interests conveyed to Japan through Zen monastic channels: Buddhist and Confucian thought, Chinese poetry, ink painting, garden design, the preparation of tea, domestic architecture, and the arts of flower arranging and interior design.

Townspeople of Kyoto, Hakata and Sakai, some of them lowly actors, wandering jongleurs, and “riverbank dwellers,” kawaramono, became active participants in urban cultural activities. Some men of modest social origins, many of them taking the Pure Land title ami as part of their names, rose to become cultural advisors, doboshû, to shoguns and daimyo. Among the most influential of these doboshû were Noami, in painting and renga, Kan’ami and Zeami for nô, and Zen’ami, for garden design. Wealthy townsmen of Kyoto and Sakai consorted with Zen monks like Ikkyû Sôjun and developed a passion for the cult of tea. Out of this milieu came the great tea masters of the age who were to set their mark on the tea ceremony, especially Murata Jukô, Takeno Jôô, and Sen no Rikyû, who brought to perfection the restrained beauty of tea in the wabicha style.

For the early part of the period cultural life tended to focus on Kyoto. Later, with the growth of Sakai, Hakata, Yamaguchi, and other “little Kyotos,” helped by the dispersion of nobles and monks that accompanied the Ônin war, cultural interaction reached across provincial and regional boundaries. The arrival of Christian missionaries and traders put Japan in direct contact with cultural influences from Southeast Asia and Western Europe.