National / History | THE LIVING PAST

Culture bred in the midst of famine and war

by Michael Hoffman

“The daimyo do as they please,” wrote the ex-shogun to his son in 1482, “and do not follow orders. That means there can be no government.”

There was no government. Donald Keene, the late eminent Japanologist, cites the letter, and surveys the wreckage, in “Yoshimasa and the Silver Pavilion: The Creation of the Soul of Japan.”

It was chaos. It was hell. Kyoto, the ancient capital, was a smoldering ruin. From there, the conflagration spread, warlord fighting warlord, warrior slaughtering warrior. They fought for territory, for glory, for supremacy, for nothing, out of habit for over 130 years, a span known as Sengoku Jidai (Warring States c. 1467-1603), the age of the country at war. In its fires was forged the unified Japan that would at last become visible around 1590 — but that was a long way off when ex-shogun Ashikaga Yoshimasa wrote to his son in 1482.

Yoshimasa (1436-90, ruled 1449-73) symbolizes in his enigmatic and bizarre person the most glaring perils of inherited power. He was 13 when it descended upon him. The trauma seems to have left him a child for life. An outstanding artist and patron of the arts, he was as indifferent to politics and war as he was inept at them. He abdicated in 1473 not under compulsion but with the relief of an aesthete free at last to pursue his true course in life.

In 1468, the second year of the era known as Onin, the shogun-poet wrote, in a formal 31-syllable waka verse, “Forlorn though the hope, / still I believe that somehow / peace will be restored. / Although it is so confused, / I don’t despair of the world” — this while the Onin War (1467-77) raged unchecked around his palace, reducing Kyoto to rubble.

He built beautiful palaces, designed magnificent gardens, sponsored the most accomplished poets, tea men, noh artists, painters — men whose names are revered to this day. From his palace retreat in the Higashiyama district of the gutted capital, he guided and shaped the course of all the arts that the world today celebrates as uniquely and beautifully “Japanese.”

“We may even be tempted to conclude,” Keene wrote of him, “that no man in the history of Japan had a greater influence on the formation of Japanese taste.”

All the same, “Yoshimasa,” says Keene, may have been the worst shogun ever to rule Japan. He was a total failure as a soldier” — which a shogun could hardly afford to be. Soldiers were the ruin of Japan because the one soldier who might have saved it was busy with poetry, tea and flowers.

His Palace of Flowers in Kyoto’s Muromachi district is famous and infamous — the former for beauty, the latter for lavish expenditure in times of famine. The famine, beginning in 1459 and lasting three years, was appalling. Keene quotes the diary of a Zen monk who encountered a woman in the street cradling a dead child. “I was hoping,” she said, “to earn food by begging. But I couldn’t get anything to give my baby. I’m starving and I’m worn out, heart and soul. I can’t take any more.”

Dead bodies clogged Kyoto’s Kamo River. Their stench filled the streets. And yet, says a slightly later chronicle cited by Keene, “… the shogun at the time, Ashikaga Yoshimasa, had built the Palace of Flowers … 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.”

“Was it perhaps a portent,” muses the contemporary Onin chronicle, “that a great disturbance was about to break out?” Very likely it was, for the disturbance that did break out was very great indeed.

A remote time is like a remote place. It’s hard to get your bearings. The Sengoku Jidai is so radically different from our own time that moral judgment seems scarcely possible. It was an age in which it was good to kill and good to die. Its good is our evil, its evil our good. Imagine 16th-century Japanese warriors regarding us today. How would we strike them? Would they admire our progress, or turn aside in disgust from the trivial thing we have made of life, whose only worthy setting, to them, was the battlefield?

The Onin War was sparked by a succession dispute within the shogun’s family. Who would succeed Yoshimasa — his younger brother and designated heir, or his son, born at last though his wife had been supposed barren? Some warriors rallied round one, others round the other; they clashed and Kyoto convulsed. “Hardly a building in the capital escaped destruction,” Keene writes. After 10 years the fighting didn’t so much end as move on, engulfing before it was over most of the country.

Technological backwardness was the saving grace of the early phase of the wars. Japan’s first weapons of mass destruction — European firearms — turned swordfights into gunfights, beginning around 1570. Limited carnage became carnage en masse. The great names associated with that latter phase are well-known today: Oda Nobunaga, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, Tokugawa Ieyasu. The heroes who immediately preceded them are less so: Takeda Shingen and Uesugi Kenshin. Takeda (1521-73) ruled Kai Province, roughly today’s Yamanashi Prefecture; Uesugi (1530-78), Echigo and Shinano provinces, roughly today’s Niigata and Nagano prefectures. Bitter rivals, the two clashed repeatedly, most dramatically, though inconclusively, at the Battle of Kawanakajima in 1561. Historians regard it as the most destructive Japanese battle of premodern times, costing some 8,000 lives in a single day.

They are fascinating men — implacable in their enmity, yet ungrudging in mutual respect and admiration. Each felt the other a worthy enemy.

Both were keen students of Zen. Zen master Daisetz T. Suzuki (1870-1966), in “Zen and Japanese Culture,” tells a story he admits is probably apocryphal. At Kawanakajima, Kenshin rode alone into the enemy camp, confronted Shingen, drew his sword and cried, “What would you say at this moment?” Unperturbed, Shingen parried the blow with his fan and said, “A snowflake on the blazing stove.”

Such was life in the age of the country at war.

This is the final part of a series focusing on Toyotomi Hideyoshi and the Sengoku period. Michael Hoffman’s new book, “Fuji, Sinai, Olympos,” is now on sale.

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