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8.3: Muromachi and Momoyama Periods (1338-1615 CE)

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    The Muromachi period (1338-1573) (8.3.1) and the Momoyama period (1573-1615) (8.3.2) in Japan were marked by a persistent tension between the shogun and daimyo. Despite this, the Tokugawa Shogunate, which emerged during the Edo period (1615-1868), was able to successfully unite the country, resulting in a renewed sense of national identity. This time period was characterized by the creation of numerous art pieces that have since become iconic representations of Japan's visually stunning cultural heritage. During this time, Japanese art was heavily influenced by Zen Buddhism, which emphasized simplicity, tranquility, and natural beauty. As a result, ink-wash paintings, which feature bold black ink strokes on white paper, became popular. These paintings often depicted landscapes, animals, and calligraphy.

    Another type of painting that emerged during this time was Zen paintings, which were characterized by their simplicity and minimalism. These paintings often featured monochromatic colors and were intended to evoke a sense of calm and tranquility in the viewer. Screen paintings, which were large panels that could be folded and moved, were also popular during this time. These paintings often depicted scenes from nature, mythology, or daily life and were used to decorate the homes of wealthy patrons.  The art created during the Edo period was a reflection of the country's newfound sense of unity and national identity. These art pieces continue to be admired and celebrated today as an important part of Japan's cultural heritage.

    Map of Japan
    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): Muromachi Period Map (ArtanisenCC BY-SA 4.0)
    Map of Japan
    Figure \(\PageIndex{2}\): Momoyama Period Map (ZakuragiCC BY-SA 3.0)

    Muromachi period

    The Muromachi Jidai, or the Muromachi Period, was a significant era in Japan's history that lasted from 1333 to 1573 CE. During this time, the Ashikaga shoguns ruled over the country from the Muromachi region of Heiankyo (Kyoto). The Muromachi Shogunate succeeded the Kamakura Shogunate that had governed from 1192 to 1333 CE. However, the Muromachi Jidai was characterized by constant power struggles among warlords and rampant banditry in the countryside, leading to a somber and violent period. Despite the chaos, Kyoto experienced remarkable progress in commerce, art, and castle architecture. The establishment of the Kinkakuji and Ginkakuji temples added to the city's cultural richness. The period also witnessed the rise of notable Japanese artists like Sesshu Toyo and the development of the tea ceremony. Nonetheless, the era ended with the exile of the last Ashikaga shogun in 1573 CE after warlord Oda Nobunaga seized power.

    In a particular period of Japanese history, the shoguns held a tight grip on the country, prompting several emperors to attempt to regain power. One such emperor was Go-Daigo (8.3.3), who reigned from 1318-1339 CE. Despite facing multiple setbacks, he eventually succeeded in inciting a rebellion with the aid of his allies, rebel warlords Nitta Yoshisada (l. 1301-1337 CE) and Ashikaga Takauji (8.3.4). Together, they overthrew the weakened Kamakura shoguns, whose power had been diminished by the Mongol invasions of Kublai Khan (r. 1260-1294 CE) in 1274 and 1281 CE. Although both invasions were thwarted by typhoons that destroyed the invasion fleets, the preparation and conflict between them had a significant impact on the state's finances.

    painting of a seated man on a wooden crate
    Figure \(\PageIndex{3}\): Emperor Go-Daigo (Public Domain)
    seated man in black with a swordFigure \(\PageIndex{4}\): Ashikaga Takauji (Public Domain)

    In 1333 CE, the establishment of the government in the Muromachi district of Japan ushered in the Muromachi period. The shogunate held significant power over Japan's central regions, and the capital city's administrative system was highly effective. However, local warlords (daimyo) controlled the outer regions and ruled their lands without consequences, making it challenging for officials and estate managers like Jito to collect taxes from landlords. To make up for the shortfall, the state had to find alternative methods, which ultimately helped boost the economy. Landowners and temples began to lend money, small businesses like brewers and distillers flourished, and the government levied taxes. To generate revenue, tolls on roads and temple fees were introduced. Furthermore, Japan joined the Chinese Ming Dynasty's tribute system in 1401 CE, which enhanced international trade. In exchange, the Ming emperor recognized the shogun as the 'king of Japan,' and both states traded goods such as Ming porcelain, silk, and bronze coins for finely crafted swords, copper ore, and timber.

    Muromachi Period

    Art history of Japan's Muromachi Period.


    The art of Sumi-e, also known as suibokuga, has its roots in China and was later brought to Japan by Zen monks in the 14th century. This beautiful black and white ink wash style of painting is typically showcased in a vertical, hanging scroll format and gained popularity during the Muromachi period, when it was practiced by Zen priest-artists. The subject matter of Sumi-e paintings is incredibly varied, featuring everything from depictions of Buddhist deities and unconventional Zen masters to striking landscapes. These paintings are highly revered as tools for meditation and expression and are even seen as a means of achieving enlightenment.

    Muromachi Period Ink Wash Paintings

    Sesshū Tōyō 

    Sesshū Tōyō, a renowned Zen priest-artist of the late 15th century, showcased his mastery of brushwork and ink manipulation in his two ink wash paintings. In Autumn Landscape (8.3.5), Sesshū skillfully controlled his brushstrokes to create a variety of lines. He used thick, jagged lines to outline the rocks and rooftops in the foreground and shorter, softer strokes to depict the vegetation in the midground, under the recessed mountains. By employing black concentrated ink, Sesshū highlighted the rock formations and mountains and filled their shapes with broader brushstrokes of greys. In the distance, the faint outline of mountains can be seen beyond the trees, represented by sheer diluted ink arcs in the far horizon.

    Haboku Landscape (8.3.6), his precise outlines have given way to a more expressive painting style. Although "Haboku" translates to "splashed ink," the artist does not simply throw ink onto the surface. Instead, brushes with varying ink washes are used to replace distinct outlines and create abstract shapes. The surface of Haboku Landscape displays spontaneous impressions of mountains, rock outcroppings, vegetation, and rivers, blurring the line between reality and dreams. Sesshū anchored these suggestions with delineations of rooftops and a pole peeking out behind fences, and towards the bottom right, we can see two people floating on a boat. These concrete representations complement the more abstract shapes and allow viewers to connect with the painting through recognizable objects. The wide range of brushstrokes and Sesshū's mastery of ink in these two contrasting paintings exemplify him as the foremost artist of the Muromachi period.

    Black and white print of mountains, trees, sea and houses
    Figure \(\PageIndex{5}\): Autumn Landscape (1470s, ink on paper, 121.1 x 76.7 cm) (Public Domain)
    Very foggy scene of mountains and trees in black and ink
    Figure \(\PageIndex{6}\): Haboku Landscape (1495, ink on paper, 377.1 x 83.0 cm)  (Public Domain)

    Temple of the Golden Pavilion

    Kinkaku-ji, or the Temple of the Golden Pavilion (8.3.7), is a stunning pagoda located in Kyoto, Japan. It was built in the 14th century to enshrine sacred relics of Buddha and is considered one of the most important Zen temples in Japan. Kinkaku-ji serves as a branch temple of the influential Rinzai-sect Zen temple of Shokoku-ji and is officially known as Rokuon-ji. The temple's main structure is a three-story pavilion, which is covered in gold leaf and sits on the edge of a tranquil pond. The surrounding gardens are equally awe-inspiring, featuring meticulously manicured landscapes, winding paths, and serene streams. In recognition of its cultural and historical significance, Kinkaku-ji was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1994 and continues to attract visitors from around the world.

    During the Kamakura period, spanning from 1185 to 1333, the land where the Golden Pavilion stands today was home to a villa owned by aristocrat Saionji Kintsune. Later on, in the Muromachi period (1392-1573), the third Ashikaga shogun, Yoshimitsu, acquired the land from the Saionji family and built his own villa on it, naming it Kitayamadono. The estate was built with stunning architecture and gardens, centered around a Golden Pavilion that was said to be reminiscent of paradise on earth. It was visited by notable guests such as Emperor Gokomatsu, who was the father of Zen priest Ikkyû. The estate was also significant in promoting Kitayama culture, which played a pivotal role in introducing aspects of Ming-dynasty Chinese culture to Japanese society, thanks in part to increased trade relations between Japan and its continental neighbor. Upon the demise of Yoshimitsu, his villa underwent a transformation into a temple in accordance with his testamentary wishes. Musô Sôseki (also referred to as Musô Kokushi, 1275-1351) was appointed as the first abbot of the establishment. The appellation Rokuon-ji was derived from the first two characters of Yoshimitsu's posthumous name.

    pagoda made from gold paint
    Figure \(\PageIndex{7}\): Kinkaku-ji, Temple of the Golden Pavilion (Marco CrupiCC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

    Momoyama Period (1573-1615)

    The sedate religious themes in monochromatic ink wash paintings of the Muromachi period gave way to secular themes in the large-scale opulence of Momoyama paintings. This painting style -- developed by the Kano School in the 16th century -- became the primary mode of castle interior decorations and continued to be heavily patronized by samurai elites in the next few centuries. The Momoyama period is a short transitional period full of violent confrontations; daimyo vied for territory and power; the ultimate goal was to rule the country as a shogun. When a daimyo successfully dominated a region, an imposing castle was constructed as his residence. Part testament to daimyo military prowess and part stronghold, a castle was a sprawling complex with many steep walls and moats to protect the central keep. As the last defensible haven, the central keep towered high over the complex. Himeji Castle (8.3.8) is located in Himeji, a town in the Hyogo Prefecture of Japan. The castle was constructed between 1581 and 1609 CE atop a natural hill. The compound features a labyrinthine arrangement of fortified structures, walls, and gates, with a six-story tower kept at its heart. The castle is enclosed by protective walls and a dual moat. It is Japan's most extensive and well-preserved samurai stronghold, and it is recognized as both a UNESCO World Heritage Site and an official National Treasure of Japan.

    white stone castle on a hillFigure \(\PageIndex{3}\): Himeji Castle (QuasipalmCC BY-SA 3.0)

    From Castle to Palace

    Japan's warlords built fortresses during the constant civil warfare from 1300 to 1600. These castles housed the local government, had many defensive devices, and impressed rivals with their scale and their lord's ability to have them built and maintained.Video text/introduction.



    Most paintings in the Momoyama period existed to decorate the interiors of castles. In concert with the imposing nature of a castle, the paintings were equally flamboyant. The subject matters of these paintings ranged from landscapes, vegetation, animals to genre scenes of life in the cities. These were painted on the large-scale surfaces prevalent in the castle interior: fusuma (sliding door panels) and byobu (free-standing folding screens). The other Japanese convention Motonobu brought and developed in the Kano school repertoire was using delineated negative space – often in the shape of clouds – to cover and divide the composition. In Flowers and Birds of the Four Seasons (8.3.8) the sea dominates the painting's top and left-hand side and the tree branches tower above the rock outcrop. While Motonobu used very subtle, minimal shading to outline them, the sea generally remains as unpainted shapes.

    sea with rock outcrop and large branch with birds Figure \(\PageIndex{6}\): Flowers and Birds of the Four Seasons, (Public Domain)

    Rich History of Japanese Tea

    The tea service was an important part of the Shogun ceremonial events and the room for the ceremony demonstrated the value and prestige of the shogun as the ruling regent. One of the first elaborate tea rooms was constructed for Toyotomi Hideyoshi when he was named Imperial Regent. The tearoom was portable, ready to be assembled inside of a larger room and transported with the regent wherever he traveled. Although the original tearoom was destroyed over time, replicas based on documentation were reconstructed in different castles. The gold room (8.3.8) was small, only 2.7 meters by 2.55 meters, and made from cypress wood covered with thousands of sheets of gold leaf on every surface; the walls, ceiling and shoji (sliding doors). On the floor sat crimson tatami mats made from the lush, expensive fabric. The shimmering tea service (8.3.9) was also made from gold or gilded in gold, all meant to impress others and display the regent's power to all who came to visit him.

    Gold Tea Room
    Figure \(\PageIndex{8}\): Gold tea room (Public Domain)
    Gold Tea Set
    Figure \(\PageIndex{9}\): Gold tea set (CC BY-SA 3.0)
    The Way of Tea

    Discover the rich history of the Japanese tea gathering.