‘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.
He became shogun at 13, in 1449, immediately falling into the clutches of the predictable palace cabal — ambitious retainers, scheming women. “Instead of entrusting the affairs of the country to his worthy ministers,” says the contemporary “Chronicle of Onin,” “Yoshimasa governed solely by the wishes of inexperienced wives and nuns” — chiefly his mother, his wife and his former nurse. “Yet these women did not know the difference between right and wrong and were ignorant of public affairs and the ways of government.”
“Onin” is the name of an era (1467-69) and a war (1467-77) — as senseless a swath of destruction as Japanese history records, and it records many. The war itself seems almost beneath discussion. The spark was a dispute over who would succeed Yoshimasa — his younger brother or his infant son? Feudal lords took sides as an excuse to decimate rivals and elevate themselves. Ten years of pointless carnage reduced Kyoto, the capital, to charred rubble.
Yoshimasa — very sensibly, it could be said, had he not been shogun — turned his back on it all. He was impotent to prevent its outbreak, or settle it once it had broken out, or bring the anarchic barons to even a semblance of order.
Impotent — or indifferent? A ruler more loftily aloof than Yoshimasa from the harsh realities of the world around him would be hard to imagine.
“In (1461),” reads an anonymous near-contemporary memoir cited by Keene, “there was a great famine throughout the land. … An epidemic of many diseases was also prevalent. Two-thirds of the people died of starvation, and skeletons filled the streets. Nobody passed but was moved to pity. But the shogun at the time, Ashikaga Yoshimasa, had built the Palace of Flowers in the second month of 1459 and doted on the place. Every day he employed people to create (gardens with) mountains, water, plants and trees, laying out streams and stones. Showing no pity for those who suffered from hunger, he made plans to build still another new palace.”
He was a great builder of palaces. The one by which he is remembered survives today as Ginkakuji — the Temple of the Silver Pavilion. Construction began in 1482 — nine years after his abdication, five years after the war. Its location in the Higashiyama Hills in the Kyoto suburbs gave its name to a cultural flowering the more astonishing for its sordid context. For Yoshimasa, cold, callous and incompetent as a ruler, was an artistic connoisseur of rare sensitivity. “Under (his) guidance,” writes Keene, “the Higashiyama era represented a kind of cultural renaissance in the wake of the worst destruction Japan had ever experienced.”
The palace’s name is revealing, as is its outward unimpressiveness. “Ginkakuji” invites comparison with Kinkakuji — the Temple of the Golden Pavilion, built two generations earlier by Yoshimasa’s grandfather, shogun Ashikaga Yoshimitsu (ruled 1368-94). Silver versus gold. Kinkakuji’s dazzling glitter reveals the man for whom it was built. Yoshimitsu was boldness, dynamism and extravagance personified. “I,” Yoshimasa seemed to be declaring, “am not my grandfather.”
The traditional Japanese arts we know today, and the characteristic Japanese view of beauty as something subdued, restrained, even poor and somewhat tattered, were nurtured, if not born, in Ginkakuji. Life had defeated Yoshimasa and he turned to art for solace. What is art? Beauty. What is beauty? Yūgen.
It’s a term too vague to admit of a definition. “Mystery,” “mist,” “thin clouds veiling the moon” — these are the effects, say the masters of yūgen, that artists must strive for. The gleaming Kinkakuji is utterly devoid of yūgen. The muted Ginkakuji has it, embodies it and, as much as a palace can, symbolizes it.
To it Yoshimasa summoned the leading poets, painters, tea masters, landscape artists and noh dramatists of his day. Among them was the teaman Murata Shuko (1432-1502), who elevated “cold, withered and shrunken” to terms of artistic transcendence. You don’t understand? Too bad, said Shuko: “No art worthy of the name is intelligible to persons of shallow understanding.”
Noh drama, perhaps the most characteristically Japanese of all the arts, is also the most mysterious. Think, said its greatest early innovator, Zeami Motokiyo (1363-1443), of “a swan with a flower in its bill.” That’s the kind of beauty noh should strive for. Realism? There’s reality and reality. If “this world” is real, noh is simply weird. But Zeami’s play “Atsumori,” for example, opens with a priest intoning a recurring theme: “Life is a lying dream. He wakes only who casts the world aside.”
Yoshimasa “woke.” To him this world was worse than a dream — it was a nightmare. How to make it better? Fill it with beauty? But beauty is not of this world. One must choose: Beauty, or this world? Yoshimasa chose. For an aesthete of his sensitivity, he chose wisely. For a shogun, he chose disastrously.
“If there were loyal subjects at the time, why did they not come forth with remonstrance?” the Onin Chronicle records a nobleman as lamenting privately. Why did the nobleman himself not “come forth”?
One “loyal subject” did — in a sardonic poem. He was Shuko’s teacher, the iconoclast Zen poet-priest Ikkyu (1394-1481): “Cold ashes pile high in the streets of the capital. … But the lovely palaces stand, untouched by events.”
Michael Hoffman’s new book, “Other Worlds,” is out now.