Muromachi Period

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  • Japanese: 室町時代 (Muromachi jidai)

The Muromachi Period, also known as the Ashikaga Period, covers the years during which the Ashikaga Bakufu controlled Japan. It runs from around 1333 (some say 1336) until 1573. The era began with turmoil, as the country divided itself between support of the Northern and Southern Imperial courts, while the Ashikaga shôguns consolidated their power, ruling from the Muromachi district of Kyôto. Eventually, the two lineages were reconciled, ending the civil war.

Eventually, the Bakufu began to lose authority in the provinces, becoming more insular. Regional powers grew up in the countryside, with daimyô taking de facto control as local lords. The countryside devolved into chaos, culminating in the Ônin War, opening the Sengoku Period.

The Ashikaga shôguns continued to rule in Kyôto, but had very little actual authority. The era eventually came to a close when Oda Nobunaga deposed the final shôgun, Ashikaga Yoshiaki.




The Kamakura Period came to a close with the end of the Kamakura Bakufu and the re-establishment of Emperor Go-Daigo. Go-Daigo instituted the Kemmu Restoration to revive Imperial power.

However, the military and civil government soon came to a head. Ashikaga Takauji, one of the generals who had placed Go-Daigo back on the throne, disobeyed an Imperial command, and eventually marched on Kyôto. Emperor Go-Daigo fled, supported by Nitta Yoshisada and others. War raged across the country. Eventually, Go-Daigo submitted to Takauji, in 1336, but he would continue to oppose the Ashikaga Bakufu. He eventually fled with his supporters to Yoshino, in the south, while Takauji, had another Emperor installed in Kyôto. Thus began the Nanbokucho Period, or era of Southern and Northern Courts.

As the shogunate was based in Kyoto, and was relatively politically weak, and thus reliant on the imperial court and court nobility in certain respects, much political interactions took place over banquets, or otherwise within cultural social situations. Noh theater and various forms of poetry, among other arts, benefited considerably from this situation, developing into more mature, defined forms.[1]


Decline and Fall


Political Structures

Economy and Trade

The use of currency became more widespread than ever before during this period, with much taxes being paid in coin, and a majority of documented sales contracts involving the exchange of coin, rather than such deals being made purely through the barter of goods and services.[1]

While not as extensive or intensive as in later developments in the Tokugawa period, the Muromachi period saw considerable expansion of the specialization of labor, with the greater development of various crafts and other professions, as well as the expansion of domestic and overseas trade networks, greater flow of commodities, and so forth, as well as a certain degree of urbanization, especially in Kyoto. Za and other guild structures also emerged in this period as merchants and craftsmen organized into associations with one another for mutual protection, and other sorts of benefits. Self-governing organizations within Kyoto neighborhoods emerged, too, out of these developments.[1]

As for overseas trade, the Muromachi period saw the only formal diplomatic relations and tribute trade between any Japanese state and the Chinese Imperial court since the Nara period. The Ashikaga shogunate, certain powerful temples, and a few powerful samurai clans (including the Ôuchi, Ôtomo, and Hosokawa clans) engaged in official authorized trade in Chinese ports, through a tally trade system. Much smuggling, piracy, and other trade also took place, and so exchanges across the region were quite active, even outside of official trade.

Popular & Elite Culture

A number of officially patronized and popular arts developed in the Muromachi period, particularly in Kyoto, and particularly in conjunction with samurai patronage or simply with the shogunate's presence amplifying Kyoto's position as a cultural center.

Kyoto was a city of meeting places (kaisho) - Buddhist temples, Shinto shrines, and samurai and court nobles' mansions, among other locations, contained meeting rooms where arts such as poetry gatherings, ikebana, and music, dance, and theater, could be engaged in. Though these spaces were certainly not open to everyone, it is easy to imagine a city filled on any given day with elites of various sorts, engaging in various arts, in each of dozens of different meeting rooms, all at the same time, and then on another day, each samurai or court noble in a different meeting space, engaging in a different art, with different companions, intermingling and moving about, and thus forming a citywide network of cultural activity.

It was also at this time that attitudes towards the arts, particularly performing arts such as dengaku and sarugaku, began to shift in a significant way away from their dangerous associations with magical effectiveness, towards an appreciation of them in a more refined, cultural category, albeit while retaining (as Noh in particular does) associations with the spiritual and otherworldly. The magical or otherworldly association caused performers of these arts to be considered marginal peoples, muen or kugai mono; though this was a negative and dangerous thing, conceptually, socially, or spiritually in certain respects, in the end it contributed to the further development of the idea of engagement in the refined arts as something separated from formal hierarchies, in a good way. This set the stage for further developments in the Tokugawa period in which artistic circles could come to function as egalitarian spaces outside of one's normal identity & status, and as constituting a Japanese "public sphere."

In addition to official samurai patronage of Noh, tea ceremony, various forms of poetry, calligraphy, and painting, and martial arts, Kyoto began to see the expansion of popular spectatorship of certain arts, as performance troupes organized into za, and took part in paid performances (kanjin) held in the riverbanks or other marginal areas, made less marginal by these officially authorized events. Though officially sanctioned, however, these performances, and the marginal spaces where they were held, continued to be associated with spiritual pollution and marginality. When, in a famous incident in 1349, the stands collapsed under an excited crowd, killing over one hundred people at a dengaku performance attended by the shogun & kanpaku, there was much criticism that the shogun was perhaps too infatuated with such petty entertainments.[2]

Though Zen Buddhism was introduced to Japan in the Kamakura period, arts associated with it saw considerable development and prominence in the Muromachi period, with the Zen painting of Sesshû, Shûbun, and Josetsu, all Muromachi era painter-monks associated with the Kyoto temple of Shôkoku-ji, becoming some of the most famous and treasured ink paintings in the Japanese canon today.

Zen, tea ceremony, and other factors also influenced architecture dramatically in this period, with a number of forms, such as the tearoom itself and shoin-zukuri architecture, along with specific developments such as the chigaidana shelf and tokonoma alcove, developing into standard "traditional" forms.

The destruction of Kyoto in the Ônin War caused many artists, performers, and poets, as well as patrons/enthusiasts to leave the city for elsewhere. Though this represented the decline of Kyoto as a cultural center, it also led to the dissemination of its arts to the provinces, and in the late 15th to early 16th centuries, much of the elite arts developed and refined over the course of the Muromachi period within Kyoto social circles were more fully adopted by daimyô and other prominent patrons across the realm.[3]


The total population of the archipelago in 1400 may have been around 12.5 million, up from 9.75 million in 1300.[4]


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 Eiko Ikegami, Bonds of Civility, Cambridge University Press (2005), 106.
  2. Ikegami, 107-108.
  3. Ikegami, 112.
  4. Robert Tignor, Benjamin Elman, et al, Worlds Together, Worlds Apart, vol B, Fourth Edition, W.W. Norton & Co (2014), 410.


  • Sansom, George. A History of Japan 1334-1615. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1963.
  • Hall, John Whitney. Government and Local Power in Japan 500 to 1700: A Study Based on Bizen Province". Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1966.
  • Hall, John Whitney and Toyota, Takeshi. Japan in the Muromachi Age. Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1977.
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