The Ashikaga Shogunate

Screen depicting the imperial palace in Kyoto.


Between 1336 and 1573, the Ashikaga Shogunate ruled Japan. However, it was not a strong central governing force, and in fact, the Ashikaga Bakufu witnessed the rise of powerful daimyo all around the country. These regional lords reigned over their domains with very little interference or influence from the shogun in Kyoto. 

The Beginning of Ashikaga Rule

The first century of Ashikaga rule is distinguished by a flowering of culture and the arts, including Noh drama, as well as the popularization of Zen Buddhism. By the later Ashikaga period, Japan had descended into the chaos of the Sengoku period, with different daimyo battling one another for territory and power in a century-long civil war.

The roots of Ashikaga power go back even before the Kamakura period (1185 - 1334), which preceded the Ashikaga shogunate. During the Kamakura era, Japan was ruled by a branch of the ancient Taira clan, which lost the Genpei War (1180 - 1185) to the Minamoto clan, but managed to seize power anyway. The Ashikaga, in turn, was a branch of the Minamoto clan. In 1336, Ashikaga Takauji overthrew the Kamakura shogunate, in effect defeating the Taira once more and returning the Minamoto to power.

Ashikaga got his chance in large part thanks to Kublai Khan, the Mongol emperor who founded the Yuan Dynasty in China. Kublai Khan's two invasions of Japan, in 1274 and 1281, did not succeed thanks to the miracle of the kamikaze, but they did significantly weaken the Kamakura shogunate. Public dissatisfaction with Kamakura rule gave the Ashikaga clan its chance to overthrow the shogun and seize power.

 In 1336, Ashikaga Takauji established his own shogunate in Kyoto. The Ashikaga Shogunate is also sometimes known as the Muromachi shogunate because the shogun's palace was in the Muromachi district of Kyoto. From the start, Ashikaga rule was bedeviled by controversy. A disagreement with the Emperor, Go-Daigo, about who would actually have power, led to the emperor being deposed in favor of the Emperor Komyo. Go-Daigo fled south and set up his own rival imperial court. The period between 1336 and 1392 is known as the Northern and Southern Courts era because Japan had two emperors at the same time.

In terms of international relations, the Ashikaga shoguns sent frequent diplomatic and trade missions to Joseon Korea, and also used the daimyo of Tsushima Island as an intermediary. Ashikaga letters were addressed to the "king of Korea" from the "king of Japan," indicating an equal relationship. Japan also carried on an active trade relationship with Ming China, once the Mongol Yuan Dynasty was overthrown in 1368. China's Confucian distaste for trade dictated that they disguise the trade as "tribute" coming from Japan, in exchange for "gifts" from the Chinese emperor. Both Ashikaga Japan and Joseon Korea established this tributary relationship with Ming China. Japan also traded with Southeast Asia, sending copper, swords, and furs in exchange for exotic woods and spices.

The Ashikaga Dynasty Overthrown

At home, however, the Ashikaga shoguns were weak. The clan did not have a large home domain of its own, so it lacked the wealth and power of the Kamakura or the later Tokugawa shoguns. The lasting influence of the Ashikaga era is in the arts and culture of Japan. 

During this period, the samurai class enthusiastically embraced Zen Buddhism, which had been imported from China as early as the seventh century. The military elites developed an entire aesthetic based on Zen ideas about beauty, nature, simplicity, and utility. Arts including the tea ceremony, painting, garden design, architecture and interior design, floral arranging, poetry, and Noh theater all developed along Zen lines. 

In 1467, the decade-long Onin War broke out. It soon escalated into a nation-wide civil war, with various daimyo fighting for the privilege of naming the next heir to the Ashikaga shogunal throne. Japan erupted into factional fighting; the imperial and shogunal capital of Kyoto burned. The Onin War marked the beginning of the Sengoku, a 100-year period of continual civil war and turmoil. The Ashikaga nominally held onto power until 1573, when warlord Oda Nobunaga overthrew the last shogun, Ashikaga Yoshiaki. However, Ashikaga power really ended with the start of the Onin War.

mla apa chicago
Your Citation
Szczepanski, Kallie. "The Ashikaga Shogunate." ThoughtCo, Aug. 25, 2020, Szczepanski, Kallie. (2020, August 25). The Ashikaga Shogunate. Retrieved from Szczepanski, Kallie. "The Ashikaga Shogunate." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 22, 2023).