Worst. Shogun. Ever.

No, not this guy:

I am talking about the famous (or infamous) Shogun named Ashikaga Yoshimasa:

Yoshimasa Ashikaga on Wikipedia

You see, recently, using a little store credit I got at Amazon.com,1 I picked up a book by Professor Donald Keene about the life of this very brilliant and controversial Shogun.

Yoshimasa’s life as a Shogun was a wreck. As Keene explains, he was incompetent as a military overlord, and was dominated by the women in his life. He spent money like crazy on palaces and gardens, starving the country of resources (even during widespread famine), and his short-sighted thinking with regard to an heir led to the disastrous Ōnin War which basically burned Kyoto to the ground. Meanwhile, the Shogun did nothing to stop the war between both factions, other than send a couple letters. As Keene explains, even as Kyoto was burning, he was holding tea parties and acting as if nothing happened.

But Keene also writes how after Yoshimasa abdicated the role of Shogun to his son, Yoshihisa, he lived a retired life at the Silver Pavilion outside Kyoto, and sponsored and cultivated art and culture to such a high degree that this led to the very famous Higashiyama Period that lasted 10 years until he died. In that short 10 years, things like the Tea Ceremony, Rock Gardens, Nō Drama, Flower Arrangement, Japanese architecture, and so many other things that are uniquely “Japanese” reached a high-point in perfection. Keene makes a strong argument that much of the heart and “soul” of Japanese art is due to Yoshimasa.

The book, while short and very readable, does a nice job contrasting Yoshimasa’s life as Shogun and his artistic obsession. He was so clearly the wrong man for the job of military generallisimo, because his entire life was devoted to art and he accomplished it so well. It’s a nice reminder I think why the hereditary system isn’t such a great idea. Once in the right position, away from wars and political scheming by the people around him, he flourished in his element and Japan and world culture owe so much to him and those whom he patronized.

There’s a famous story that some of the rock gardens he sponsored were designed and built by a man named Zen’ami, who was part of the kawaramono people, or “people of the riverbed”. These seem to be the forerunners to the later Burakumin/Eta who still suffer discrimination today. Somehow Yoshimasa became aware of his talents for gardening and hired him, but Zen’ami faced discrimination from the Zen temples in Kyoto because the priests did not want to associated with such a man. Yoshimasa strongly chastised them, and took very good care of Zen’ami, even calling upon him when Zen’ami was ill. Yoshimasa had a strong eye for talent, and was less concerned with social caste.

Speaking of religion, the book covers Yoshimasa’s Buddhist faith and Buddhism in general at the time. Much Yoshimasa’s artistic taste at the time was deeply influenced by the Rinzai Zen temples he associated with in Kyoto, known collectively as the “Five Mountains“:

But as Keene demonstrates, monks at these temples spent more time drinking and engaging in poetry games, than actual meditation (Yoshimasa wasn’t much of a meditator himself):

The monks led privileged lives. Even during periods of warfare and other disasters, the patronage of shoguns, military governors, and the high-ranking nobility shielded the monks of the Five Mountains from the hardships that people elsewhere suffered. Lesser Zen temples that did not have such generous patrons might experience economic hardship, but their priests probably had the satisfaction of telling themselves that they, unlike the priests of the Five Mountains, lived in faithful obedience to the orthodox Zen prescription of “honest poverty”.

The priests of the Five Mountains led lives that differed very little from those of the laity. We know from their diaries that they enjoyed gatherings at which they composed Chinese poems, attended drinking parties more often than lectures on religious and secular works, and indulged in gossip about politics and other priests. The diaries almost never mention sitting in Zen meditation or performing Buddhist rites. (pg 62-63)

It seems more austere monks practiced Zen elsewhere either in protest or simply due to a more conducive environment, including the famous monk Ikkyū,2 who wrote less than flattering things about the Shogun and the Five Mountains community.

Meanwhile, Yoshimasa took a deep interest in Pure Land Buddhism. Keene shows that the recitation of Amitabha Buddha’s name, the nembutsu was a very common practice among the elite circles in Kyoto (including the Imperial Family who were technically Tendai Buddhists), and Yoshimasa had a special altar setup in his retirement for Amitabha Buddha. So, as Keene argues, Yoshimasa was deeply inspired by Zen culture and its austerity, but his faith was more inline with Pure Land Buddhism.

Anyway, the book was a fun read, and I hope to back-fill a lot of the useful information into Wikipedia one of these days. It’s hard to imagine so much of Japanese culture is owed to someone who was such a careless leader, but history is funny that way. :-/

1 A combination of two things. First, I save up my change redeem it at a local Coinstar kiosk that gives me an Amazon voucher. Second readers have been generous in supporting the blog through sponsored links over the Holidays. THANK YOU! This helps keep the blog going through additional book purchases and research. :)

2 I am actually not a big fan of Ikkyu though, as I think his solution to the problem was just as hypocritical. I am hoping to find more information about other contemporaries in the Buddhist world who took things more seriously, but I am still looking for more information. Rennyo was a pretty interesting figure himself in those days, but controversial as well.

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