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YOSHIMASA AND THE SILVER PAVILION: The Creation of the Soul of Japan, by Donald Keene. New York: Columbia University Press, 2003, 10 illustrations, 224 pp., $29.95 (paper).

In the appropriate volume of his monumental history of Japanese literature, Donald Keene only once mentions the eighth Ashikaga Shogun Yoshimasa (1443-1490). This is in connection with the craze for composing renga poetry, a fad that “extended to every part of the country; and even in the capital where the emperor and the shogun Ashikaga Yoshimasa did their best to forget that people were being killed and houses destroyed a few steps away, the craze raging unabated during the worst of the fighting.”

One senses disapproval. Indeed, one learns in this new history of Yoshimasa and his times that this disapproval was well deserved. Diaries of the period describe the destruction of Kyoto, the death of its citizens. One writer described how the stench from the corpses clogging the Kamo River pervaded the entire capital. When another stood on the Shijo Bridge and looked down into the water, the river looked to him like a hilly landscape of bodies.

The Shogun barely even looked out of the window, so occupied was he with renga, tea ceremonies, expensive gardens and even more expensive palaces. Yoshimasa, says Keene, “may have been the worst shogun ever to rule Japan. He was a total failure as a soldier.”

But there was a limit to this incompetence. It continued only up until his retirement when he took up residence at the Silver Pavilion, yet another new structure he had built for himself. Yoshimasa had until then contributed almost nothing to the welfare of the Japanese people of his time or to the culture of future generations, but now, in Keene’s opinion, he was instrumental in “the creation of the soul of Japan.

“When one speaks today of Nihon no kokoro (Spirit of Japan) one is likely to be referring to elements of Japanese cultural preferences that were encouraged by Yoshimasa.” This makes a pleasing paradox. Yoshimasa, seemingly indifferent to the course of the war, devoted himself to cultivating the arts. In so doing he was “by no means a failure. We may even be tempted to conclude that no man in the history of Japan had a greater influence on the formation of Japanese taste. This was his sole, but very important, redeeming feature.”

“Redeeming” is, I believe, the operative word. “The worst of the shoguns was the best, the only one to leave a lasting heritage for the entire Japanese people.” This means everything including shoin-zukuri architecture, perfume blending, flower arranging, ink painting, the Noh theater, the Japanese garden, and the tea ceremony which had its origins in a small room in the Silver Pavilion.

Yoshimasa is to be redeemed for something he did not know he was doing but which proved to be of major cultural importance. We are to weigh the corpse-clogged Kamo and the fire-devastated Kyoto against the samurai-class pastimes of the years to come, and vindicate the Shogun responsible for both.

Keene’s case is very skillfully made. He maintains that the Ashikaga Shogun Yoshimitsu’s most famous building, the Gold Pavilion, is in vulgar taste, whereas Yoshimasa preferred something more austere and in much better taste. Indeed, “the unadorned beauty of Yoshimasa’s pavilion is closer to the hearts of the Japanese today than is Yoshimitsu’s palatial temple.”

The fact that the tour guides might disagree, since they send far more tourists to the Gold than to the Silver pavilion, does not affect Keene’s argument, which is that Yoshimasa created almost everything we now know as “Japanese culture” and that he did it with an informed enthusiasm that spared politics. “One can imagine Yoshimasa, after a particularly brilliant performance of Noh, removing his jacket and offering it to the principal actor, rather as a Spaniard throws an article of clothing into a bull ring by way of homage to a superlative matador.” Yoshimasa also performed with surprising dedication. “Although he had been ineffectual in performing his duties as shogun, Yoshimasa was resolute in carrying out the plans for [the Silver Pavilion].”

With such admirable industry did then Yoshimasa create “the soul of Japan.” And his assiduity has been matched by that of Keene, who in this short and elegant book contributes a popular account of the man and his times.

I say “popular” because there is not all that much scholarly paraphernalia. The text is simply written, the major theme is sounded a number of times and there has been some effort made to simplify for the lay reader. For example, since it is hard to remember the alliances and disputes of a warrior family, “it may be more rewarding to consider [something else.]” And since it is “extremely difficult to remember the events and the names of all involved, the most important fact is that the [two families] had grown apart.” The novice reader of Yoshimasa is reassured and, with gratitude and pleasure, reads on.

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