Muromachi period

Muromachi period
   The late medieval period of Japanese history (1336–1572) is generally called the Muromachi age, named after the district of Kyoto where the seat of power lay. The political center of Japan shifted from Kamakura back to Kyoto as a new military government, the Ashikaga shogunate, gained power and ruled Japan for more than 200 years. Unlike their predecessors during the KAMAKURA PERIOD, the Ashikaga shoguns were never able to extend their power to the whole country. But the period saw significant aesthetic accomplishments, the most important of which was the development of Nō DRAMA.
   The era began in turmoil. The emperor Go-Daigo was briefly successful in restoring the old imperial power by overthrowing the Kamakura government in 1334 in a period called the Kemmu restoration. But he was not able to gain the support of the wealthy landowners, and the administrative machinery of the imperial government was not capable of maintaining him in power. The warrior Ashikaga Takauji, who at first supported the new emperor, turned against Go-Daigo and drove him from the capital in 1336. A new emperor was appointed, clearly subordinate to Takauji, who made himself shogun in 1338, while Go-Daigo set up a rival imperial court at Yoshino in the south. For more that 50 years, the two imperial courts were at odds, the northern court generally having the upper hand, though on several occasions the southern emperor was able to retake Kyoto for brief periods. Under the third shogun, Ashikaga Yoshimutsu (r. 1363–94), the southern court was finally eliminated and a single imperial succession restored. Yoshimutsu solidified the power of the shogunate, and was able to establish power over all the central provinces, though the outer regions remained outside his control. Yoshimutsu established trade with China, made improvements in agriculture that increased domestic production, and improved the economy. He also became a powerful and generous patron of the arts. In the outer provinces, however, local warlords known as daimyo held sway. Their power increased over the years while the shogunate’s power waned, and rivalries between the warlords eventually culminated in the Ōnin War (1467–77), during which Kyoto was destroyed, the shogunate defeated, and the nation forced into a century and a half of civil war called the Sengoku (Age of the country at war), which lasted until the second half of the 16th century. Portuguese traders arrived in 1542, and the Jesuit missionary Francis Xavier in 1549. Over the objections of the Buddhist establishment, many of the warlords welcomed the visitors, anticipating an economic trade boom with the West. Meanwhile Oda Nobunaga, most powerful of the warlords, captured Kyoto in 1568 and overthrew what was left of the Muromachi government.
   Despite the turbulence of the times, Japanese literature flourished during the Muromachi period. One important form of literature was the war chronicle, the most influential of which was The Taiheiki (Record of great peace), a 40-book chronicle narrating the events of the Kemmu Restoration and its aftermath, a 50-year period.Written in a combination of Japanese and Chinese, it is famous for its depiction of heroes who supported the imperial cause. The text seems to have been influenced significantly by The TALE OF THE HEIKE. Another significant war tale from this period is the Meitokuki, telling of the rebellion of the powerful Yamana family against the Ashikaga shogunate in 1391. Though the author, most likely a priest, is clearly a partisan of the shogun, the most memorable parts of the text are those that describe the deaths of the Yamana warriors.
   More important than the war chronicles, drama flourished during the Muromachi period. Through the direct patronage of the Ashikaga shoguns, the Nō drama reached its period of maturity under its most important and innovative playwright and actor, ZEAMI (1363–1443). Applying the aesthetic principles first formulated in HEIAN court poetry to the creation of drama, Zeami also changed the subject matter of plays from stories of the gods associated with local shrines around Kyoto to stories drawn from classical literature of Heian Japan, like the TALE OF GENJI. He also drew heavily on the more recent Tale of the Heike, a story of warriors that appealed to the new samurai culture of the Ashikaga military elite. Zeami developed the warrior play, whose protagonist was the spirit of a warrior whose resentment at his traumatic death prevented him from detaching himself from this world. The most popular of Zeami’s warrior plays was Atsumori, concerning the young Heike warrior killed in the ninth chapter of the Tale of the Heike. Another form of drama, the kyōgen, or comic drama, also became popular in the Muromachi period. With the turmoil in the capital, cultured aristocrats fled to the provinces, and as a result, later medieval literature shows a new interest in life among common people. This may explain the relationship of Nō drama with kyōgen, whose plays were performed alongside the Nō drama and in the same venue. In kyōgen plays, the common people, such as servants, are able to overcome obstacles for happy endings.
   The warrior elite also sponsored a new type of poetry called renga, or “linked poetry,” made up of sequences of stanzas in the form of the 31-syllable tanka poems. The sequences were of varying length, and might be composed by one, two, or three poets or more. Various complex rules governed the composition of such poems, including conventions of language and rhythm, and the classification of stanzas by topics. The most famous renga poet was Sōgi (1421–1502), who came from an obscure background and who lived through the Ōnin War to achieve great reputation and influence as the greatest poet of his times. Another type of literature characteristic of Muromachi Japan was what has been called “outsiders’ literature.”Members of the establishment, whether aristocrats or Buddhist priests, might leave the court or the capital (either by choice or necessity) for a more isolated place, and may ultimately write their own observations as “outsiders.” One of the earliest of these is Yoshida KENKō (ca. 1283–ca. 1350), whose Essays in Idleness include 243 fragments on various subjects, pertaining to, as he says “trivial things that came into my head.” Another “outsider” was the Zen Buddhist priest Ikkyū (1394–1481), whose Kyōunshū (Mad cloud collection) consists of more than 1,000 poems written in Chinese. His poems are composed in four lines, with seven words per line, and are of three types: poems of Zen philosophy; poems decrying the depravity of contemporary times; and love poems, apparently addressed to Ikkyū’s blind female attendant.
   Another literary trend in Chinese-language poetry during the Muromachi age was the rise of Gozan literature. Gozan means “Five Temples” (there were five Buddhist temples each in Kyoto and in Kamakura), and literature written by Zen priests or monks associated with those temples became common late in the Kamakura period and continued into the Muromachi age. This literature might be in Japanese, Chinese, or a combination. By the later Muromachi period, Gozan poetry began to include the theme of love.No women were allowed in the Zen temples of Muromachi Japan, and some recent scholars have been interested in the theme of homosexual love in poets like Shinden Shōban (1380–1452), Tōshō Shūgen (fl. ca. 1460), and San’eki Eiin (fl. ca. 1520)—a theme that seems to have influenced the later Japanese warrior culture. The Muromachi period produced a great deal of artistic innovation in poetry, drama, and prose. There was still a strong Buddhist influence on the literature, and a courtly influence as well, with Heian aesthetics clearly governing such developments as Nō drama. At the same time, the tastes and influence of the military elite as well as those outside the establishment, including influences from popular entertainment, began to have some impact during this era.
   ■ Chance, Linda H. Formless in Form: Kenko, “Tsurezuregusaand the Rhetoric of Japanese Fragmentary Prose. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1997.
   ■ Japanese Nō Dramas. Edited and translated by Royall Tyler. London: Penguin, 1992.
   ■ Kato, Shuicho. A History of Japanese Literature: From the Man-yōshu to Modern Times. New abridged edition. Translated and edited by Don Sanderson. Richmond, U.K.: Curzon Press, 1997.
   ■ Keene, Donald. Seeds in the Heart: Japanese Literature from Earliest Times to the Late Sixteenth Century. Vol. 1 of History of Japanese Literature. New York: Columbia University Press, 1999.
   ■ Miner, Earl, Hiroko Odagiri, and Robert E. Morrell. The Princeton Companion to Classical Japanese Literature. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1985.
   ■ Rimer, J. Thomas, and Yamazaki Masakazu, trans. On the Art of Nō Drama: The Major Treatises of Zeami. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1984.

Encyclopedia of medieval literature. 2013.

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