‘The Creation of the Soul of Japan” is how Donald Keene, the eminent Japanologist, subtitled his 2003 biography of 15th-century shogun Ashikaga Yoshimasa. What is the soul of Japan? Tea, flowers, noh drama, simplicity, suggestiveness. War too — but Yoshimasa had no taste for war. No taste for power either. He wished he’d never been made shogun. As soon as he could — not soon enough — he abdicated.
“(Possibly) the worst shogun ever to rule Japan,” Keene calls him, in “Yoshimasa and the Silver Pavilion.” There were, to be fair, extenuating circumstances. Yoshimasa (1436-90) was born into a maelstrom. His father — Shogun Ashikaga Yoshinori — was murdered. That was in 1441; Yoshimasa was 5. Yoshinori was a monster of cruelty who deserved his fate if anyone did. Still, the child must have been deeply shaken.