XX. THE ASHIKAGA PERIOD.
THE internal history of Japan during the périod of time covered by the actual or nominal rule of the thirteen shōguns of the Ashikaga family, from 1336 until 1573, except that portion after the year 1542, is not very attractive to a foreign reader. It is a confused picture of intestine war.
Ashikaga Takauji, the founder of the line, was a descendant of the Minamoto Yoshikuni, who had settled at Ashikaga, a village in Shimotsuké, in the eleventh century. He died in 1356. His grandson Yoshimitsu, called the Great Ashikaga, was made shōgun when ten years old, and became a famous warrior in the South and West. After the union of the two dynasties, he built a luxurious palace at Kiōto, and was made Dai Jō Dai Jin. He enjoyed his honors for one year. He then retired from the world to become a shaven monk in a Buddhist monastery.
Under the Hōjō,' the office of shōgun was filled by appointment of the imperial court; but under the Ashikaga the office became hereditary in this family. As usual, the man with the title was, in nearly every case, but a mere figure-head, wielding little more personal power than that of the painted and gilded simulacrum of the admiral that formerly adorned the prow of our old seventy-four-gun ships. During this period the term Kubō sama, applied to the shōguns, and used so frequently by the Jesuit fathers, came into use. The actual work of government was done by able men of inferior rank. The most noted of these was Hosokawa Yoriynki, who was a fine scholar as well as a warrior. It was through his ordering that the young shōgun Yoshimitsu was well trained, and had for his companions noble youths who excelled in literary and military skill. This was vastly different from Hōjō Tokimasa's treatment of the sons of Yoritomo. He attempted the reform of manners and adminisiration. He issued five mottoes for the conduct of the military and civil officers. They were: I. Thou shalt not be partial in amity or enmity. 2. Thou shalt return neither favor nor vemeance. 3. Thou shalt not deceive, either with a right or a wrong [motive]. 4. Thou shalt not hope, dishonestly [for a bribe]. 5. Thou shalt not deceive thyself.
The pendulum of power during this period oscillated between Kiō- to and Kamakura; a tai (or "great") shōgun ruling at the former, and a shōgun at the latter place. An officer called the shikken was the real ruler of the capital and the central provinces; and another called the kuan-rei (Governor of the Kuantō), of Kamakura and the East. War was the rule, peace the exception. Feudal fights; border the seizure of lands; the rise of great clans; the building, the siege, and the destruction of castles, were the staple events. Every monastery was now a stronghold, an arsenal, or a camp. The issue of a combat or a campaign was often decided by the support which the bonzes gave to one or the other party. The most horrible excesses were committed, the ground aboat Kiōto and Kamakura, both of which were captured and recaptured many times, became like the chitama (blood-pits) of the execution-ground. Viliages, cities, temples, monasteries, and libraries were burned. The fertile fields lay waste, blackened by fire, or covered front sight, as with a cloth, by dense thickets of tall weeds, which, even in one summer's time, spring with astonishing fecundity from the plethoric soil of Japan. The people driven from their homes by war returned to find a new wilderness, resounding with the din of devouring insects. The people of gentle birth fled to mountain eaves. Education was neglected. The common herd grew up in ignorance and misery. Reading and writing, except among the priests and nobles, were unknown arts which the warriors scorned. War was the only lucrative trade, except that of the armorers or sword-makers. Famine followed oil the footsteps of war, and with pestilence stew her tens of thousands. Pirates on the seas ravaged not only the coasts of Japan, but those of China and Corea, adding, pitllage and rapine to the destruction of commerce. The Chinese mothers at Ningpo even now are heard to frighten their children by mentioning the names of the Japanese pirates. On land the peasantry were impressed in military service to build castles or intrenched camps; or, the most daring, becoming robbers, made their nests in the mountains and plundered the traveler, or descended upon the merchant's store-house. Japan was then the paradise of thieves. To all these local terrors were added those gendered in the mind of man by the convulsions of nature. Earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, floods, tidal waves, typhoons, and storms seem to have been abnormal ly frequent during this period. The public morals became frightfully corrupted, religion debased. All kinds of strange and uncouth doctrines came into vogue. Prostitution was never more rampant. It was the Golden Age of crime and anarchy.
The condition of the emperors was deplorable. With no revenues, and dwelling in a capital alternately in the possession of one or the other hostile army; in frequent danger from thieves, fire, or starvation; exposed to the weather or the dangers of war, the narrative of their sufferings excites pity in the mind of even a foreign reader, and from the native draws the tribute of tears. One was so poor that he depended upon the bounty of a noble for his food and clothing; another died in such poverty that his body lay unburied for several days, for lack of money to have him interred. The remembrance of the wrongs and sufferings of these poor emperors fired the hearts and nerved the arms of the men who in 1868 fought to sweep away forever the hated system by which such treatment of their sovereign became possible.
So utterly demoralized is the national, political, and social life of this period believed to have been, that the Japanese people make it the limbo of all vanities. Dramatists and romancers use it as the convenient ground whereon to locate every novel or play, the plot of which violates all present probability. The chosen time of the bulk of Japanese dramas and novels written during the last century or two is that of the late Ashikagas. The satirist or writer aiming at contemporary folly, or at blunders and oppression of the Government, yet wishing to avoid punishment and elude the censor, clothes his characters in the garb and manners of this period. It is the potter's field where all the outcasts and Judases of moralists are buried. By common consent, it has become the limbo of playwright and romancer, and the scape-goat of chronology.
The act by which, more than any other, the Ashikagas have earned the curses of posterity was the sending of an embassy to China in 1401, bearing presents acknowledging, in a measure, the authority of China, and accepting in return the title of Nippon Ō or King of Japan. This, which was done by Ashikaga Yoshimitsu, the third of the line, was an insult to the national dignity for which he has never been forgiven. It was a needless humiliation of Japan to her arrogant neighbor, and done only to exalt the vanity and glory of the usurper Ashikaga, who, not content with adopting the style and equipage of the mikado, wished to be made or called a king, and yet dared not usurp the imperial throne. The punishment of Ashikaga is the curse of posterity. In 1853, when the treaty with the United States was made, a similar insult to the sovereign and the nation, as well as a contemptible deception of the American envoy and foreigners, was practiced by the sheōgun calling himself "Tycoon" (Great Kitg, or Sovereign of Japan). In this latter instance, as we know, came not the distant anathema of future generations, but the swift vengeance of war, the permanent humiliation, the exile to obscurity, of the Tokugawa family, and the abolition of the sbōgunate and the dual system forever.
It was during the first of the last three decades of the Ashikaga period that Japan became known to the nations of Europe; while fire-arms, gunpowder, and a new and mighty faith were made known to the Japanese nation.