In 1401, barely a century after the Mongols’ aborted invasions of Japan, and 600-odd years before Japan and China fell out over the Senkaku islets, a Chinese emperor conferred upon a Japanese shogun the title “King of Japan.”

Ashikaga Yoshimitsu (1358-1408) was overjoyed at this mark of distinction. In a letter he sent via a trading delegation to Emperor Hung Wu, founder of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), Shogun Yoshimitsu willingly struck the pose expected of him: “In fear and dread, kneeling again and again, I respectfully state … ”

The Chinese reply rewarded flattery with flattery, noting: “Japan has always been known as a country of poems and books.” In the lively correspondence that followed, Yoshimitsu signed himself, “King of Japan, Your Subject.”

Future generations were appalled. How low had Japan sunk? In accepting vassalage, Yoshimitsu had betrayed his country; in accepting a royal title he had betrayed his Emperor, Japan’s true (if politically impotent) “king.”

Sino-Japanese relations lose much of their savor if we view them only in the present. The current confrontation — dramatic and ominous enough, by modern standards — has a deep, deep background.

China was Japan’s primary school teacher in the arts of civilization — religion (Buddhism), government (Confucianism) and so on. In the ninth century, after 400 years of intense discipleship, Japan turned inward. It stopped sending missions to China’s court and its monasteries. It needed to digest, to “Japanize” its acquisitions.

The Heian Period (794-1185) is often called Japan’s first “Japanese” culture. China continued to loom large, an influence and a point of reference, but classical Heian literature constitutes in effect a declaration of cultural independence.

Barbarian hordes from Mongolia conquered China in the 13th century. From their new capital at Peking they subjugated Russia and penetrated Poland and Hungary. The Mongol Empire at its peak was twice the size of the Roman Empire at its peak. When Kublai Khan, who ruled from 1259 to 1294, turned his hungry gaze on the remote islands of Japan, they must have looked like sitting ducks.

The two invasions he launched, in 1274 and 1281, came to grief, casualties of fierce Japanese resistance and storms at sea that the Japanese mythologized as kamikaze — divine winds.

Yoshimitsu, age 9, became shogun in 1367. The following year, the Chinese overthrew the Mongols. Then, in 1369, an envoy from Ming China arrived in Kyushu to discuss a persistent irritation — Japanese pirates. For centuries these marauders were the scourge of eastern Asia. China seemed helpless against their relentless attacks on its coast.

Why Kyushu? The situation in Japan was confused. The country was divided. Two Imperial lines vied for supremacy — the Northern Court based in Kyoto and the Southern Court based in the mountains of Yoshino, some 100 km south. The Northern Court had the support of the shogunate, but the Southern Court controlled Kyushu, whose western coast was a veritable pirates’ nest — and Chinese information had it that the potentate in those parts, one Prince Kanenaga, was “King of Japan.”

The “king” gave the envoy short shrift — in fact he put him under arrest. But the domestic tide was turning against him, and he changed his mind. A Chinese ally would be useful. He agreed to curb the pirates in return for Chinese support.

It all came to naught. Yoshimitsu’s armies toppled Kanenaga, seized Kyushu, and at last brought the two courts together.

That was in 1392. Now Yoshimitsu could turn to what he liked best. He was an effervescent, extravagant man, a great builder and a great spender. He sponsored noh theater, then in its infancy, and supported Zen Buddhism, to which he was deeply devoted. The project for which posterity best remembers him is Kyoto’s Kinkakuji — the Temple of the Golden Pavilion, built as a private retreat in 1394. No expense was spared.

Where was the money to come from?

From trade with China, he hoped.

Ming China had a curious attitude to foreign trade. China was an ancient civilization, and a haughty one. China (in its own mind) was the “middle kingdom,” the center of the world. China had everything; it needed nothing. Trade, in the traditional Chinese view, meant China loftily accepting humbly presented “tribute.” The gifts it offered in return were not by way of commerce but symbols of China’s overflowing generosity.

The master-disciple, lord-vassal relationship was implicit — taken for granted by China, swallowed with grace or resentment by “tributary” states. The Mongol interlude had been a deep humiliation which the early Ming emperors were determined to efface. Doing business with them meant kowtowing. Yoshimitsu could take it or leave it.

He took it. He accepted the “King of Japan” title, despite the implied vassalage, and even brandished it against those Kyushu nobles who retained a menacing independence of spirit. As part of the agreement, he suppressed the rapacious pirates — boiling alive is one punishment mentioned in grateful Chinese records.

The trade, under a licensing system whose limits were largely ignored, was lucrative. Japan sent laquerware, bronze vessels, fans, sulfur (used in papermaking) and — perhaps its most famous export — swords. In return it imported silk, drugs, books, porcelain and (most significantly) copper coins, representing the birth of a money economy.

The story has a surprising sequel. In 1863, 455 years after Yoshimitsu’s death, a band of imperial loyalists burst into the Toji-in Temple in Kyoto and furiously “beheaded” three statues — Yoshimitsu’s and those of his two Ashikaga shogun predecessors. The wooden heads were displayed on a Kyoto riverbank, over a placard reading: “These three traitors having done the worst evil, their vile statues have been visited with the vengeance of heaven.”

What would Yoshimitsu, “King of Japan,” have made of that?

Michael Hoffman’s latest book is “The Naked Ear” (2012).

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