Every school child knows that in 1492 Christopher Columbus discovered America. Every school child knows wrongly. When the Genovese explorer’s three ships sailed westward from Palo de la Frontera, Spain, on Aug. 2, 1492, he was bound, he thought, for “the noble island of Cipangu” — Japan.
Cipangu would be his gateway to “the Indies,” then the term for Asia — land of gold, spices, silks, perfumes, jewels. Columbus made four trans-Atlantic voyages, and died in 1506 certain he’d been on the fringes of Asia. That elusive land, with its riches, exotic civilizations and cities teeming with souls ripe for conversion to Christianity, would be just over the horizon, just a little farther ahead.
America? He never heard of it, never imagined it. The truth would have shattered him — a vast continent and a boundless unknown ocean, the Pacific, lying between Europe and its golden dreams!
What was “noble” about Japan? Wealth — fabulous wealth; or tales of it. No European in Columbus’ time had ever set foot there. Few knew it existed. Asia itself was scarcely known. Its luxuries were purveyed in Europe by Venetian traders who dealt with Arab middlemen in the lands of the eastern Mediterranean. That’s as far east as they got.
Europe’s prime source on Asia was Marco Polo’s “Travels,” published around 1300. Polo (1254-1324) was a Venetian trader, one of a handful of European missionaries and merchants who, in the 13th and 14th centuries, took advantage of a brief opening of overland trade routes before they closed when the immense Mongol empire in Asia crumbled.
Polo gained the trust of Kublai Khan (1215-94), the Mongol ruler in China, and remained 24 years as his adviser and emissary. He had never been to Cipangu (the name derives from “Jipen,” the Chinese reading of “Nihon”), but he had heard a great deal about it from Muslim traders in China — who hadn’t been there either.
In the absence of facts, rumor is king. “Cipangu,” Polo wrote, was “most fertile in gold, pearls and precious stones, and they cover the temples and royal residences with solid gold. People (there) have tremendous quantities of gold. The King’s palace is roofed with pure gold, and his floors are paved in gold two fingers thick.”
That’s where Columbus was bound in 1492, with results every school child knows.
How did Japan — Spartan, resource-poor Japan — acquire such a gilded reputation?
Ancient Japan did experience a modest gold rush. Gold discovered in 749 at Oshu — present-day Hiraizumi, Iwate Prefecture — was used to adorn the Nara Great Buddha, completed in 752. It was an impressive piece of statuary — 15.8 meters high and glittering with 440 kg of gold. Word got around, as it did concerning the 12th-century Chuson-ji Temple in Oshu, with its Golden Hall.
There was also Kyoto’s Kinkaku-ji, the Temple of the Golden Pavilion, built by Shogun Ashikaga Yoshimitsu in 1397 — too late for Polo’s book, so Columbus knew nothing of it. Three stories high and entirely covered in gold leaf, it dazzles tourists to this day.
That is about the extent of gold-encrusted Japan. Oshu gold was never much by world standards, and petered out in the 16th century.
Columbus, we know, got no closer to Cipangu than Cuba, the Caribbean Islands and the northeast coast of South America. But supposing he had made it to Japan?
Japan in 1492 was temporarily at peace, following the brutal and chaotic Onin War (1466-77); by 1500 it was descending into a century of the chaotic Sengoku Jidai civil war. Historians despair of making sense of it all; land-hungry warrior-baron fought land-hungry warrior-baron. From this distance it looks like carnage pure and simple.
Shogun as the Onin War began was Ashikaga Yoshimasa (1436-90) — “the worst shogun ever to rule Japan,” writes Donald Keene, his latest biographer, in “Yoshimasa and the Silver Pavilion” (2003).
A despairing letter Yoshimasa wrote to his son conveys pathetic helplessness: “The daimyo (feudal barons) do as they please and do not follow orders. That means there can be no government.” There was none.
In 1473, as the war raged, Yoshimasa abdicated and turned to what he loved and knew best: art. Japan’s most characteristic art forms — tea-ceremony, noh drama, 31-syllable poetry, linked verse, flower-arranging, moon-viewing, monochrome painting, calligraphy, landscape gardening — all bear Yoshimasa’s stamp.
“No man in the history of Japan,” writes Keene, “had a greater influence on the formation of Japanese taste. The worst of the shoguns was … the only one to leave a lasting heritage for the entire Japanese people.”
The Higashiyama culture he spawned draws its name from the Higashiyama Hills of Kyoto, where in retirement he built a palace he named Ginkaku-ji (Temple of the Silver Pavilion). Starkly, almost startlingly austere, its name is misleading — not a description (there is no silver) but a mocking rejection of the golden opulence his grandfather Yoshimitsu embodied in the Kinkaku-ji.
Raised in luxury himself, accused by contemporary chroniclers of callous indifference to the suffering of the poor, Yoshimasa went on to fashion at Ginkaku-ji an artistic legacy that sought beauty in simplicity, fulfillment in poverty, happiness in sadness. The Japanese word that expresses these qualities is wabi — the spiritual peace of material renunciation.
What would Columbus have made of this — or Yoshimasa of Columbus, and of Europe’s rapacious avarice, insatiable curiosity and globe-girdling restlessness?
Yoshimasa died in 1490, two years before Columbus’ first voyage to what he thought was Japan, land of gold. Would Columbus have appreciated the “silver” of wabi?