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The Ashikaga Shoguns and Civil War, Rise of the Ashikaga

Ashikaga Takauji, Kamakura shogunate, imperial courts, Golden Pavilion, Daigo

In 1333 the retired emperor Go-Daigo, who had been exiled for having defied the shogunate, organized a rebellion against the Hojo. Known as the Kemmu Restoration, the uprising was spearheaded by Ashikaga Takauji, a powerful warrior leader in eastern Japan. Kamakura fell to the rebel forces and the Hojo were ousted from power, bringing the Kamakura shogunate to an end. For the next two years, Go-Daigo attempted to restore the authority of the imperial throne.

In 1336 Ashikaga Takauji turned against Go-Daigo and drove him from the capital at Kyoto. Takauji set up his own candidate for emperor, who in turn appointed Takauji as shogun. Go-Daigo and his supporters fled south to Yoshino, near Nara, to establish a rival court. For the next 56 years, civil war between the Northern Court (at Kyoto) and the Southern Court (at Yoshino) divided the country. The dispute was eventually resolved in 1392, when the third Ashikaga shogun, Ashikaga Yoshimitsu, persuaded the emperor at Yoshino to abdicate and worked out a compromise over the imperial succession.

During the civil war, the Ashikaga shoguns had established their political base in Kyoto, where they could keep an eye on the Northern Court. By the time the war ended, Ashikaga Yoshimitsu had built a splendid Palace of Flowers in the Muromachi section of Kyoto, near the imperial palace. Holding lavish gatherings for emperors, aristocrats, and high-ranking warrior leaders, Yoshimitsu tried to establish the shogunal court at the center of culture as well as of politics. Under his patronage, new art forms such as no drama and Chinese-style ink painting flourished. Yoshimitsu is also remembered as the builder of the Golden Pavilion at his elegant retreat in the Kitayama section of Kyoto.

Despite the splendor of the shogunal court, the Ashikaga shoguns were never able to assert as much control over the country as the Kamakura shogunate had. The long civil war between the Northern and Southern courts had contributed to a growing independence of the local warrior class. The dispute over dynastic succession was of little importance to the warriors who joined the armies of the two imperial courts. For them, civil war had provided an opportunity to expand their land holdings at the expense of their neighbors and the aristocratic owners of private estates. The cumulative effect of the civil war was therefore to accelerate the drift toward feudal anarchy.

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