xxxxxAs we have seen, it was in 1392 (R2) that Yoshimitsu brought an end to the imperial division during which Japan had been ruled by two shoguns. He presided over a period of stability and cultural development. At his death in 1394, however, rival factions emerged once again. In 1467 the Onin War broke out, a bitter power struggle lasting eleven years, and this was followed by a century of fighting throughout Japan, the so-called "Epoch of the Warring Country". Eventually, in the 1560s the feudal lord Nobunaga managed to unify the land but, as we shall see, it was not until 1603 (J1), with the coming to power of Tokugawa Ieyasu, that Japan entered into a period of peace, stability and economic expansion.

xxxxxAs we have seen, during his long reign, Yoshimitsu (1368-1394) had slowly overcome the power of the local warlords and by 1392 (R2) had brought an end to the imperial division during which Japan had been ruled by two shoguns, one at the court of Yoshun and the other at the court of Kyoto. Having secured peace and unity, he did much to stabilise the country, and he presided over a period of marked cultural development. At his death, however, the authority of the shogun was once again in danger. Local warrior families began to increase their powers, whilst at court, rival factions emerged, each waiting for the opportunity to seize the ultimate prize.

xxxxxThis opportunity came in 1467 when a dispute arose over the succession of the next shogun. The peace which had been uneasily maintained between the shogun and his military leaders, known as the shugo, now came to an abrupt end. The bitter power struggle that followed was known as the Onin War and lasted for eleven years. At first the fighting was confined to the area in and around Kyoto as various local leaders fought for possession of the city (illustrated). Enormous damage was done to the ancient capital, many of its treasured buildings were destroyed, and a large number of citizens fled from the city, but it was just the start of a wider and more devastating conflict. With the central authority of the Ashikaga Shogunate virtually at an end, the civil war quickly spread to the provinces where much of the land fell under the control of the daimyo, local samurai who established themselves as “domain lords”.


xxxxxThus the Onin War, which in itself was a violent enough conflict, proved but the beginning of what came to be known as the “Epoch of the Warring Country”, a century, no less, of fighting throughout Japan in which local feudal lords or daimyo, believing that might was right, battled with each other to gain control of their self-appointed domains. In this conflict, towns were turned into fortresses and became military, industrial and market centres, ushering in an urban style of living which developed alongside that of village life, for centuries the mainstay of Japanese civilisation.

xxxxxEventually, in the 1560s, one of these daimyos, Oda Nobunaga (1534-1582) managed to capture Kyoto and then prove powerful enough to begin the unification of the country. By 1582, the year of his death, most of central Japan was under his rule, and his successor, the military leader Toyotomi Hideyoshi (c1536-1598) virtually united the whole country. But, as we shall see, it was not until 1603 (J1), with the coming to power of Tokugawa Ieyasu, the founder of the powerful Tokugawa shogunate, that Japan entered into a period of internal peace, political stability and economic expansion.

xxxxxDespite the chaos into which the country was plunged during the long period of civil war, in 1473 one of the reigning shoguns, Yoshimasa (1436-90), simply retired to his estate outside Kyoto. Here he built the famous Silver Palace and became patron to a remarkable period of artistic development. Potters and artists were encouraged, and time was given over to Noh drama and the refinement of the tea ceremony. Today, this “Higashiyama” period is regarded as one of the finest in the history of Japanese art and craft.

xxxxxStrange to relate, the period that witnessed the Onin conflict and the beginning of a countrywide civil war is renowned for the advancement of Japanese culture. Soon after the troubles began, Ashikaga Yoshimasa (1436-90), the reigning shogun and the one responsible for the dispute over the succession, took the least line of resistance. In 1473 he simply turned his back on the bloody fighting and retired to his estate just outside Kyoto. Here, with his country in turmoil, he built the famous Silver Pavilion (Ginkaku-ji) (illustrated), in an area known as Higashiyama or eastern hills, and became the patron of a remarkable period of artistic development. Amid the serene surroundings of his Silver Pavilion - which, in fact, was never covered with silver - he practised the Japanese tea ceremony (Sado), encouraged flower arrangement, and sponsored numerous potters, artists and various performers in Noh drama. Today, the Higashiyama period, as this cultural era came to be known, is regarded as one of the most productive in the history of Japanese art and craft.

xxxxxIncidentally, it was Yoshimasa who developed the Japanese tea ceremony into a fine art and gave it a strict pattern. It was held in a small room or pavilion, usually in the midst of a formal garden, and entry was by a low doorway. The restricted entrance was probably because at one time the ceremony was used as a means of settling disputes and this was a way of ensuring that no one taking part was carrying a sword under his robes! The tea was made by the tea master, who heated the water over a charcoal brazier. After the tea drinking it was customary to spend a little time discussing the utensils used - such as the bowls, caddy, plates and kettle - and commenting upon their aesthetic as well as their practical qualities. Needless to say, such comments gave a boost to the manufacture of such items, particularly the production of pottery.


Onin War: date and artist unknown. Yoshimasa: by the Japanese painter Tosa Mitsunobo (1454-1525), 15th century – National Museum, Tokyo. Ginkaku-ji: triptych, woodblock print by the Japanese artist Yoshu Chikanobu (1838-1912), 1893. Tea Ceremony: from