Muromachi period

From New World Encyclopedia
The Kinkaku-ji or "temple of the Golden Pavillion" in Kyoto

The Muromachi period (Japanese: 室町時代, Muromachi-jidai, also known as the Muromachi era, the Muromachi bakufu, the Ashikaga era, the Ashikaga period, or the Ashikaga bakufu) is an era of Japanese history from approximately 1336 to 1573. The period marks the governance of the Muromachi shogunate, known also as the Ashikaga shogunate, which was officially established in 1336 by the first Muromachi shogun Ashikaga Takauji (足利 尊氏). It received its name from the Muromachi district of Kyoto, where Ashikaga established his administrative headquarters (bakufu). The period ended in 1573 when the fifteenth and last shogun, Ashikaga Yoshiaki (足利 義昭) was driven out of the capital in Kyoto by Oda Nobunaga (織田 信長).

The Ashikaga shogunate renewed the relationship between Japan and China, and a new Muromachi culture emerged in Kyoto and spread through Japanese society. Zen (禅) Buddhism played a large role in spreading not only religious but also artistic influences, as Zen monks traveled to China and brought back works of art. The arts, including architecture, painting, literature, Noh (能) drama, comedy, poetry, the tea ceremony, landscape gardening, and flower arranging, flourished. Both the Golden Pavilion (Kinkakuji temple) and the Silver Pavilion (Ginkakuji temple) were built during this period. During the Muromachi period, 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. Portuguese, Spanish and Dutch traders arrived in Japan during the end of the Muromachi period, and were soon followed by Christian missionaries.


In November 1274, the Mongols, having successfully conquered Korea, sent 23,000 soldiers to invade Japan. They landed at Hakata Bay and made some initial advances, but a combination of bad weather, heavy casualties, lack of supplies and internal dissension caused them to withdraw. In the spring of 1281, a second attempted Mongol invasion landed at numerous points along the coast of Kyushu, but the invaders were driven back to their ships, which were then destroyed by the famous two-day kamikaze typhoon. It was a great military triumph for the Kamakura shogunate, but there were no conquered lands or military spoils with which to reward the troops. Warriors from all over Japan demanded payment for their services, and even temples and shrines wanted compensation for their prayers, which they claimed had invoked the kamikaze winds. The battles had devastated agricultural land, creating a shortage of resources with which to reward the dissatisfied warriors, who became disgruntled and began to demand a change of government.

In 1318, a new emperor, Go-Daigo, ascended the throne. His predecessors had been puppets of the shogunate, but Go-Daigo was determined to rule Japan himself and to restore the full power of the emperor. In 1331, he rose in revolt against the Kamakura bakufu, but within a year he was captured and exiled. When Go-Daigo defied the Kamakura bakufu and returned from exile with his supporters, the Kamakura sent a trusted general, Ashikaga Takauji, to confront him. Takauji decided to use the situation to his advantage and turned against the bakufu, capturing Kyoto in the name of the Emperor Go-Daigo, while another general, Nitta Yoshisada, stormed Kamakura and destroyed the bakufu.

Restored to his throne, Emperor Go-Daigo attempted to diminish the power of the samurai families and assert himself as the ruler of Japan. Ashikaga Takauji, however, had ambitions to restore the power of the shogun and make himself the ruler. He received military support from warlords who sought a return to a government controlled by the samurai. After a decisive victory at the Battle of Minatogawa, Ashikaga Takauji entered Kyoto and installed a new line of emperors, under the control of his shogunate. He established a new bakufu in the Muromachi district of Kyoto, known as the Muromachi Bakufu. Go-Daigo fled to Yoshino, where he set up a new imperial court. From 1337 to 1392, both the Yamato and Kyoto courts claimed imperial power.

Ashikaga Bakufu

Ginkakuji-temple in a snowy day, Kyoto, Japan

The ensuing period of Ashikaga rule (1336–1573) was called Muromachi, after the Muromachi district of Kyoto, where the third shogun, Ashikaga Yoshimitsu (足利 義満) established his residence in 1378. While the Kamakura bakufu (幕府) had existed in a cooperative relationship with the Kyōto court, the Ashikaga took over the remnants of the imperial government. Nevertheless, the Ashikaga bakufu was not as strong as the Kamakura had been, and was greatly preoccupied with civil war. Not until the rule of Ashikaga Yoshimitsu (as third shogun, 1368–1394, and chancellor, 1394–1408) did a semblance of order emerge.

The early years of 1336 to 1392 of the Muromachi period are also known as the Nanboku-chō or Northern and Southern court period (南北朝時代, Nanbokuchō-jidai) because of the existence of the two imperial courts. The later years from 1467 to the end of the Muromachi period are known as the Sengoku period (戦国時代, Sengoku-jidai).

Yoshimitsu allowed the constables, who had had limited powers during the Kamakura period, to become strong regional rulers, later called daimyo (大名). 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. In 1392, Yoshimitsu was finally successful in reunifying the Northern court and the Southern court in 1392, but, despite his promise of an equal balance of power between the two imperial lines, the Northern court maintained control over the throne thereafter. After Yoshimitsu’s rule, the line of shoguns weakened 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 problems of succession, resulting finally in the Ōnin War (応仁の乱, Ōnin no Ran, 1467–1477), which left Kyoto devastated and effectively ended the national authority of the bakufu. The power vacuum that ensued launched a century of anarchy.

Economic and Cultural Developments

By Sesshu Toyo (1420-1506), Zen-monk

Contact with Ming Dynasty (明, 1368-1644) China was renewed during the Muromachi period, after the Chinese sought support in suppressing Japanese pirates, known as wokou by the Chinese (Japanese wakō, 倭寇), in coastal areas of China. Wishing to improve relations with China and to rid Japan of the wokou threat, Yoshimitsu accepted a relationship with the Chinese that was to last for half a century. In 1401 he restarted the tribute system, describing himself in a letter to the Chinese emperor as "Your subject, the king of Japan." 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.

During the time of the Ashikaga, bakufu, a new national culture, called Muromachi culture, emerged from the bakufu headquarters in Kyoto and reached all levels of society. Zen (禅) Buddhism played a large role in spreading not only religious but also artistic influences, especially those derived from painting of the Chinese Song (960-1279), Yuan, and Ming dynasties. The proximity of the imperial court to the bakufu resulted in a commingling of imperial family members, courtiers, daimyo, samurai, and Zen priests. The arts, including architecture, painting, literature, Noh (能) drama, comedy, poetry, the tea ceremony, landscape gardening, and flower arranging, flourished during the Muromachi period.

The Muromachi period saw a revival of Chinese-style ink painting. Zen Buddhism, which had grown in popularity during the Kamakura period, received the continued support of the Ashikaga shogunate. Ink painting was accepted as a means of teaching Zen doctrine, and priest-painters such as Josetsu, Shubun, and Sesshu produced works which are still revered. Their landscapes were characterized by economy of execution, forceful brushstrokes, and asymmetrical composition, with emphasis on unfilled space. Zen monks also introduced the Chinese custom of drinking powdered green tea, and developed the Japanese tea ceremony. Zen monks who traveled to China as envoys brought back Chinese art and religious objects, and the great Zen monasteries developed into intellectual and cultural centers.


White-robed Kannon, Bodhisattva of Compassion by Kano Motonobu (c. early sixteenth century)

There also was renewed interest in Shinto (神道), which had quietly coexisted with the predominant Buddhism (仏教 Bukkyo) for centuries. Shinto, which lacked its own scriptures and had few prayers, had, as a result of syncretic practices begun in the Nara period, widely adopted Buddhist rituals, and had been nearly totally absorbed by Buddhism between the eighth and fourteenth centuries, becoming known as Ryōbu Shinto (Dual Shinto). In the late thirteenth century, however, the role of the kamikaze in defeating the Mongol invasions evoked a national consciousness. Less than fifty years later (1339-1343), Kitabatake Chikafusa (北畠 親房, 1293-1354), the chief commander of the Southern Court forces, wrote the Jinnōshōtōki (神皇正統記, “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 reinforcing the concept of the emperor as a deity, the Jinnōshōtōki 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 dual religious practice of Shinto and Buddhism. 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.

Provincial Wars and Foreign Contacts

Reading in the Bamboo Studio by Sesshu Toyo, Shubun (early fifteenth century)

The Ōnin War (応仁の乱, Ōnin no Ran; 1467–1477) led to serious political fragmentation and obliteration of domains; the ensuing struggle for land and power among bushi chieftains lasted until the mid-sixteenth century. Peasants rose against their landlords, and samurai against their overlords, as central control virtually disappeared. The imperial house was left impoverished, and the bakufu was controlled by contending chieftains in Kyoto. The provincial domains that emerged after the Ōnin War were smaller and easier to control. Many new small daimyo (大名) arose from among the samurai who had overthrown their great overlords. Border defenses were improved, and well-fortified 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 a practical means of administration, stressing duties and rules of behavior. Emphasis was placed on success in war, estate management, and finance. Threatening alliances were guarded against through strict marriage rules. Aristocratic society became overwhelmingly military in character, and 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.

Economic Effect of Wars between States

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.

Western Influence

Nanban ships arriving for trade in Japan (c. sixteenth century)

By the end of the Muromachi period, the first Europeans had arrived in Japan. In 1543 a Chinese vessel containing three Portuguese traders was been blown off course by a typhoon and landed on a small island just south of Kyushu (九州). Within two years Portuguese traders were making regular port calls, initiating the century-long Nanban trade period (南蛮貿易時代). The Spanish arrived in 1587, followed by the Dutch in 1609. The Japanese began to attempt studies of European civilization, and new opportunities were presented for the economy, along with serious political challenges. European firearms, fabrics, glassware, clocks, tobacco, and other Western innovations were traded for Japanese gold and silver. Significant wealth was accumulated through trade, and lesser daimyo, especially in Kyūshū, greatly increased their power. Provincial wars became more deadly with the introduction of firearms, such as muskets and cannons, and greater use of infantry.


A Japanese votive altar, Nanban style (late sixteenth century, Guimet Museum)

Soon after the European traders, Christian missionaries arrived and began winning converts to their new religion. Christianity had an impact on Japan, largely through the efforts of the Jesuits, led first by Saint Francis Xavier (1506–1552), who arrived in Kagoshima in southern Kyūshū in 1549. Both peasants and daimyo and merchants seeking better trade arrangements with the Portuguese were among the converts. Xavier wrote of the Japanese that they were "the best who have as yet been discovered, and it seems to me that we shall never find among the heathens another race to equal the Japanese."

By 1560 Kyoto had become another major area of missionary activity in Japan. In 1568 the port of Nagasaki, in northwestern Kyūshū, was established by a Christian daimyo and was turned over to Jesuit administration in 1579. By 1582 there were as many as 150,000 converts (two percent of the population) and two hundred churches. But bakufu tolerance for this alien influence diminished as the country became more unified and openness decreased. Proscriptions against Christianity began in 1587 and outright persecutions in 1597. Although foreign trade was still encouraged, it was closely regulated, and by 1640 the exclusion and suppression of Christianity had become national policy.


  • 1336: Ashikaga Takauji captures Kyoto and forces Go-Daigo to move to a southern court (Yoshino, south of Kyoto)
  • 1338: Ashikaga Takauji declares himself shogun, moves his capital into the Muromachi district of Kyoto and declares the northern court
  • 1392: The southern court surrenders to the Shogun Ashikaga Yoshimitsu and the empire is unified again
  • 1397: Kinkaku-ji Built by Ashikaga Yoshimitsu.
  • 1467: The Ōnin War is split among feudal lords (daimyo)
  • 1542: Firearms are introduced by a shipwrecked Portuguese
  • 1549: The Catholic missionary Francis Xavier arrives in Japan
  • 1568: The daimyo Oda Nobunaga enters Kyoto and ends the civil war
  • 1570: The Archbishopric of Edo is established and the first Japanese Jesuits are ordained
  • 1573: The daimyo Oda Nobunaga overthrows the Muromachi bakufu and extends his control over all of Japan

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Butler, Lee. 2002. Emperor and Aristocracy in Japan, 1467-1680: Resilience and Renewal. Harvard East Asian Monographs, 209. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Asia Center. ISBN 0674008510
  • Grossberg, Kenneth A. 1981. Japan's Renaissance: The Politics of the Muromachi Bakufu. Harvard East Asian Monographs, 99. Cambridge, MA: Council on East Asian Studies, Harvard University. ISBN 0674472519
  • Keene, Donald. 1989. Travelers of a Hundred Ages. New York: Holt. ISBN 0805007512
  • Watanabe, Akiyoshi, Hiroshi Kanazawa, H. Paul Varley, Julia P. Henshaw, and Cynthia Jo Fogliatti. 1986. Of Water and Ink: Muromachi-period Paintings from Japan, 1392-1568. Detroit, MI: Founders Society, Detroit Institute of Arts. ISBN 0895581221
  • Harrington, Lorraine F. 1983. Regional Administration Under the Ashikaga Bakufu Power and Politics Outside the Central Provinces. Thesis (Ph. D.), Stanford University.
  • Hall, John Whitney, Takeshi Toyoda, and H. Paul Varley. 1977. Japan in the Muromachi Age. Cornell East Asia Series, 109. Ithaca, NY: East Asia Program, Cornell University. ISBN 1885445091


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