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The Ashikaga Shoguns and Civil War, Descent into Civil War

Onin War, estate system, shogunate, vassals, peasantry

The shogunate delegated increasing power to the constables responsible for maintaining order in the provinces, but instead of protecting landholders’ rights, the constables gradually acquired large, nearly autonomous domains for themselves. By the early 15th century, central political authority was in rapid decline. Local warrior families, many headed by constables, were fiercely attached to their land and concerned only with their local power. They paid little heed to orders from above that did not serve their interests. As a result of their steady inroads on the estate system, local warriors undermined the remaining economic base of the Kyoto aristocracy.

A major turning point came with the outbreak of a new civil disorder, the Onin War of 1467-1477. The war began with a dispute between two candidates for the shogunal succession, each backed by a coalition of warrior leaders. Most of the fighting took place in Kyoto, which was left in ruins after being fought over, looted, and burned time after time. Many court aristocrats, already impoverished by the collapse of the estate system, took refuge in the provinces, and the authority of the Ashikaga shoguns completely collapsed.

The century following the Onin War is usually known as the era of warring states, when the country was plunged into more or less constant internal warfare. During this period, a new breed of feudal lords, known as daimyo, rose to power. Some were former constables, while many more were their vassals or independent warrior leaders who fought both the constables and each other to build regional domains under their complete and absolute control. As these upstart warlords expanded their territories, they overran weaker neighbors or bullied them into alliances.

The daimyo abandoned any semblance of loyalty to central authority. Instead they built territorial regimes that were centered on castles and relied on the support of local warrior followers. Administration was likewise local: the daimyo raised their own feudal armies; levied taxes directly on the peasantry; issued their own legal codes; and promoted local economic development through land reclamation, new irrigation systems, and other public works.

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