Medieval Japan

As the influence of the Fujiwara clan and the central government declined, two powerful provincial families, the Taira and Minamoto, warred against each other in what historians refer to as the Gempei War. In 1185, Yoritomo, the leader of the Minamoto family, defeated the Taira and Fujiwara clans and obtained military control of Japan. In 1192 the emperor ‘‘appointed’’ Yoritomo shogun, or ‘‘barbarian suppressing general,’’ making him the most powerful political and military leader in Japan.

Yoritomo chose not to live in Kyoto, the imperial capital, but remained in his headquarters in the seaside town of Kamakura, located near the modern city of Tokyo. Yoritomo’s headquarters in Kamakura, which came to be known as the bakafu, or ‘‘tent government,’’ was Japan’s major but not exclusive center of political power and its unofficial capital. At the same time, the imperial court and emperor continued to reside in Kyoto, the official capital.

The emperor and imperial court were much more culturally than politically influential. This pattern of rule from behind the scenes became even more pronounced in the power struggle following Yoritomo’s death in 1199. The family of Yoritomo’s widow, the Hojo, emerged victorious. By placing Hojo family members in key positions, the family exercised actual political power. The shogunate, first occupied by a Minamoto, then by Fujiwaras, and later by princes of royal blood, became a figurehead.

Political power was quite decentralized. Yoritomo established a system throughout Japan where his vassals, or gokenin, and their warrior-retainers, known as samurai, fulfilled many of the old imperial government functions. Even though there were differences in the two systems, medieval Japanese, as did their European counterparts, developed a feudal system where landowners were responsible to overlords, who, in turn, were often loyal to higher authorities. Japanese feudalism came later than in Europe but remained in place until the last half of the 19th century.

The warrior class was the backbone of Japanese feudalism. By the late 1100s, a general code of ethics for the samurai was already being observed, though it was not written down until much later. As in Europe, it was of vital importance that samurai learn such techniques of war as swordsmanship. As in Europe, heroism, honor, and loyalty were highly valued. The samurai, however, were particularly enamored with the last two characteristics. Honor of family name was something a samurai would die for, but loyalty to superiors was perhaps the most treasured of ideals.

Ideally, warriors did not question a superior’s commands, and a warrior’s obedience to a superior was expected regardless of family, all private interests, and even life itself. One samurai, who had a reputation for being especially brave, was in danger from a robber and evaded the assailant in what seemed to be a cowardly manner. This samurai could not risk his life to protect his own property because he needed to preserve himself to serve his lord. Yoritomo was once presented with the head of an opponent by a samurai who had sworn loyalty to the dead opponent. The founder of the Kamakura government eventually had the samurai executed for disloyalty.

Samurai also were taught not to fear death and, as mental training, to become comfortable with the notion that death is preferable to dishonor or failure. This attitude is illustrated by words from the very first page of Hagakure, or The Book of the Samurai. Although the author, Yamamoto Tsunetomo, wrote this classic much later than Japan’s Kamakura period, samurai were already practicing the following injunction: The way of the samurai is found in death. When it comes to either/or, there is only the quick choice of death. It is not particularly difficult. Be determined and advance. To say that dying without reaching one’s aim is a dog’s death is the frivolous way of sophisticates. When pressed with the choice of life or death it is not necessary to gain one’s aim. We all want to live. And in large part we make our logic according to what we like. But not having attained our aim and continuing to live is cowardice. (Yamamoto 1983, 17)

The ability of many samurai to focus the mind to exhibit self-discipline, as well as their appreciation for beauty, was in part stimulated by the popularity of Zen Buddhism among the warrior class. Though Zen was a sect that largely appealed to elites, Buddhism in general during the Kamakura years grew from a religion practiced by a few to a widespread belief system. Popular variants of Buddhism flourished, including the Pure Land sects, whose adherents worshipped Amida Buddha. Buddhism is discussed in more detail later in this book.

Self-discipline and bravery were qualities very much in demand during Japan’s medieval period, which were marked by strife. One of the major crises in Japanese history occurred in the late 1200s as outside invaders threatened the archipelago. Mongol nomads from the steppe lands north of China conquered Central Asia, southern Russia, parts of the Middle East and Eastern Europe, Korea, and China. The Mongols tried twice to subdue Japan, sending a large seaborne force of almost 30,000 men in 1274 and a much larger contingent of 140,000 troops in 1281. In both cases, the Japanese fought fiercely with the Mongols but received enormous help from nature when typhoons, which the Japanese called kamikaze, or ‘‘divine winds,’’ destroyed the foreign fleets.

The Kamakura system lasted a little more than 50 years after the repulsion of the Mongol invaders. The Hojo family was overthrown in 1333 by Emperor Go-Daigo, who attempted to revive imperial rule in the Kemmu Restoration. In turn, Ashikaga Takauji, the leader of a powerful family who was an early imperial ally, later broke with Go-Daigo, seized Kyoto, and installed a rival puppet emperor. Shortly afterward, Go-Daigo escaped from Kyoto and established a second imperial court in Kyushu. From 1336 until 1392, when the Kyushu-based emperor was forced to return to Kyoto, Japan had two sets of emperors. However, Takauji became the major political power in Japan and in 1338 had his handpicked emperor appoint him shogun. Takauji and his Ashikaga successors ruled from Kyoto.

The political system became more hierarchical during the Ashikaga period (1333–1573), as warrior-retainers were responsible to more powerful provincial lords, or daimyo, who in turn were theoretically responsible to the shogun. The actual situation during most of the Ashikaga years, however, was that power was even more decentralized than in the Kamakura era. Ashikaga shoguns were relatively weak, and powerful families fought each other and the shogun for control of Japan.

The Ashikaga period was marked by constant strife, including the bloody Onin War, which lasted from 1467 until 1477 and was fought all over Japan. During these confused years while the Ashikaga shogunate was virtually powerless, emperors continued to reign but were often reduced to near poverty because they had no access to stable income. It is not surprising that the Ashikaga years are considered one of the darkest political times in Japan’s history.

Political problems notwithstanding, in other human endeavors the Ashikaga period was one of excitement and growth. The Ashikaga shoguns were quite interested in Zen Buddhism and the arts. They built in Kyoto the Golden and Silver Pavilions, two of the most beautiful temples in all Japan. Many world-famous aspects of Japanese culture, such as the tea ceremony and flower arranging, were fully developed during this period. Japanese art today often emphasizes the value of the natural over the artificial, irregularly shaped pottery over the symmetrical, the small over the large, and the simple over the complex. These values were a lasting result of the refined artistic taste of the Ashikaga shoguns.

Two classical forms of Japanese drama, noh and kyogen, also developed during the Ashikaga period. Although noh’s roots go back even earlier, a Shinto priest named Kan’ami (1333–1384) and his son Zeami (1363–1443) fully developed noh theater during the Ashikaga years. Noh, a musical dance drama where the characters wear masks, is still performed in contemporary Japan. Buddhist themes permeate noh plays. Noh drama usually features a meeting of a troubled spirit who is still attached to an earthly incident and either a priest or other mortal. Noh is danced more than acted, accompanied by a chorus as well as flute and drum music. The noh actor’s dance is controlled, slow, and intense. The unearthly voices (due in part to the effects of the masks), intensity of the dance, spare music, and grave themes create an air of great seriousness and mystery.

Shorter kyogen plays were performed between different noh dramas as changes of pace. Kyogen translates to ‘‘mad and wild words’’ and is completely opposite from noh. These comic plays featured provincial bumpkins in the capital, servants who were smarter than their masters, and other such light-hearted themes. Kyogen plays are also still part of modern Japanese theater.

As noted, most Ashikaga shoguns were not effective political leaders. Ashikaga Yoshimasa (1443–1473), who was by all accounts a totally inept shogun, has gone down in Japanese history as one of the strongest patrons of virtually every traditional Japanese cultural form that was flowering during this period. Yoshimasa’s name is associated with the Silver Pavilion (Ginkakuji), which he had constructed in the then outskirts of Kyoto as a retirement villa. It was converted into a Buddhist temple after his death and today is a cultural landmark and tourist attraction. However, Yoshimasa’s cultural legacy runs much deeper in Japanese society. Japan scholar Donald Keene credits Yoshimasa in playing a seminal role in helping to create what is considered today to be much of traditional Japanese culture.

Yoshimasa practiced Pure Land Buddhism but was heavily influenced by Zen aesthetics, where the focus is on subtle, simple, and understated art forms. He favored the rikkya (‘‘standing’’) style of carefully arranging a few flowers in the floral displays in his palace. Yoshimasa played a major part in elevating flower arranging to the same status as other art forms such as calligraphy or painting. The development of Zen-influenced gardens that often made maximum use of carefully arranged rocks accelerated during the 15th century. Many of the builders of gardens actually responsible for moving and placing rocks were kawaramono, or ‘‘people of the riverbed,’’ who were the lowest class in Japanese society. Yoshimasa took the quite unconventional step of placing many kawaramono, including Zen’ami, who would become one of the most famous garden designers in Japanese history, under his personal protection. Yoshimasa also patronized and participated in the chanoyu, or tea ceremonies, that often took place in modest tea houses that were part of larger Zen rock gardens and temple complexes.

Of all the art forms he promoted, Yoshimasa may have been most devoted to the noh theater, and he was involved as a spectator, as well as promoter and patron of noh, his entire life. Although at least one other shogun of this period had been a strong patron of noh, when Yoshimasa was shogun he issued a proclamation identifying noh to be ‘‘the music of the state.’’ According to Confucian tradition, rites and music were essential to the well-ordered and harmonious state. Yoshimasa believed that noh both fulfilled a societal need for the ordered continuity that rites and music create and that a person’s participation as a spectator in a noh performance helped evoke an individual sense of the existence of a world beyond the visible one.

Ashikaga Yoshimasa’s reliance on Confucian beliefs to bolster noh, a Japanese creation, is an example of how Japanese valued elements of a mother culture yet extensively immersed themselves in their own practices. Zen Buddhism originated in China but took new Japanese forms and was more influential in Japan than its country of origin. Zen monks of the Ashikaga period, especially those who resided in five great protected Kyoto temples, were the intellectual elite of the time. They were skilled in classical Chinese and worldly in that many had visited the mainland. These monks, who were protected by the state during these often turbulent times, managed to preserve classical Chinese learning in a similar way to what occurred with Christian monastic preservation of Greco-Roman heritage in medieval Europe. The monks even developed a genre of prose and poetry written in classical Chinese that included works of distinction.

Technological and economic progress also occurred during medieval Japan in part because other Japanese met and learned from foreigners. Although after 894 there had been no official government contact between Japan and China, during the mid-1100s the Japanese government began sending ‘‘tribute’’ to China’s Song dynasty and receiving gifts in return from the Chinese court. By the Kamakura years, Japan and China engaged in an officially condoned and quite lively trade. Japanese society was enriched by Chinese imports, including silk, perfumes, sandalwood, porcelain, and copper coins, and Japanese swords, fans, and lacquerware were highly prized in China.

When Portuguese traders landed off southern Kyushu in 1543, Japan was exposed to both technology and ideas significantly different from anything ever introduced from Asia. Japanese immediately became interested in European guns and in less than 25 years were manufacturing enough guns that in one battle between rival families, the winning side had several thousand riflemen. Also, the Portuguese and other Europeans who followed included Catholic priests and protestant clergy who viewed the Japanese as excellent candidates for Christian conversion. The Europeans proceeded immediately to win converts.