Ashikaga Yoshimasa Builds the Silver Pavilion

Ashikaga Yoshimasa, eighth shogun of the Ashikaga Dynasty, established himself as a significant patron of the arts despite his troubled reign, which climaxed in theŌnin War. His reign is remembered today for the unfinished Silver Pavilion.

Summary of Event

Ashikaga Yoshimasa was the grandson of the ruler regarded as the most effective and illustrious of the Ashikaga shoguns Ashikaga shogunate , the great Yoshimitsu (r. 1368-1394), builder of Kyōto’s famous Golden Pavilion (Kinkaku), whose reign dominated the second half of fourteenth century Japan. As the son of the evil-tempered shogun Yoshinori (r. 1429-1441), Yoshimasa assumed the office of shogun in 1449 following the assassination of his notorious father and the subsequent death of an older brother, another child heir named Yoshikatsu (b. 1434), whose brief reign lasted only two years (1442-1443). Such patterns of succession, following close on the murder of an elder lord and the sudden death of one or more elder brothers, were commonplace during this period of conflict. Silver Pavilion
Ashikaga Yoshimasa
Ashikaga Yoshimitsu
Oda Nobunaga
Ashikaga Yoshinori
Ashikaga Yoshikatsu
Hatakeyama Mochikuni
Hosokawa Katsu
Hino Tomiko
Ise Sadachika
Ashikaga Yoshimi
Ashikaga Yoshihisa
Yamana Mochitoyo
Oda Nobunaga
Ashikaga Yoshimasa

Having had the shogunate thrust on him prematurely when he was still a child, Yoshimasa was relegated to the role of a figurehead during his early reign while the actual power of government was exercised by the old governor-general Hatakeyama Mochikuni (1398-1455) and later Hatakeyama’s sixteen-year-old successor Hosokawa Katsu (1430-1473), neither of whom possessed the noble character traits or administrative talents needed to deal effectively with the awful complexities of those times. During the rule of Yoshimasa’s child predecessor, the Ashikaga clan’s control of the eastern territories had already begun to erode as strong local warlords (daimyo) Daimyos of the Kanto region asserted their autonomy. The arrogant daimyo passed their tax burdens to the already overburdened peasantry, priming them for a large-scale revolt.

It was in this dire situation that young Yoshimasa, at the age of fourteen, assumed his role as shogun. The answers to the virtually insurmountable problems of government that immediately faced him proved elusive. His treasury dwindled while the powerful warlords increasingly defied the court at Kyōto with virtual impunity.

As the years passed, with political conditions degenerating slowly into a stalemate, Yoshimasa retreated into intellectual and spiritual pursuits, including the metaphysical-aesthetic realm of Zen-inspired artforms such as the tea ceremony Tea ceremony (chadō), of which he became an acknowledged master. Preferring the pleasurable company of renowned artists and the occasional Zen Buddhist monk to that of his quarrelsome court ministers, Yoshimasa distanced himself from governance by leaving the day-to-day administration of his realm in the incapable hands of his indecisive wife, Tomiko, his meddling mother, Shigeko, and his ambitious father-in-law, Ise Sadachika—all of whom took full advantage of the opportunities afforded them and thereby exacerbated the general disorder of Yoshimasa’s court. As a result, Yoshimasa fell under the sway of the same powerful daimyo against whom his grandfather had so skillfully maneuvered during the previous century, with predictably disastrous results.

Prior to his retirement at age forty, Yoshimasa undertook construction of a pleasure villa, the so-called Silver Pavilion (Ginkaku-ji), which was intended to stand in glorious counterpoint to the great Golden Pavilion (Kinkaku-ji) built during the reign of his illustrious grandfather. In emulation of the Golden Pavilion, whose outer walls were covered with sheets of hammered gold, mirroring the solar aspect revered in Shintō rites since ancient times, the Silver Pavilion was to have been sheathed in polished silver, representing the subtler light of the lunar aspect. The implicit symbolism of the ethos, or governing spirit, of each man’s respective reign is not out of step with historical fact. The Silver Pavilion is smaller, but it aims at a higher state of perfection than its glorious predecessor, mirroring in the subtlety of its comingled Sino-Japanese forms the inward-turning vision of the later Ashikaga shogun. Art patronage;Japan

At the time of the Silver Pavilion’s completion, however, Yoshimasa’s treasury had become so depleted that it was impossible to complete the building’s full architectural program. Therefore, the Silver Pavilion was left to stand, as it does today, an unadorned structure of wood and paper, its two-story frame blackened by the passing of the centuries. It was there, at the foot of the Eastern Hills in the city of Kyōto’s Muromachi district, that Yoshimasa spent the last sixteen years of his life after abdicating from the shogunate in 1473. Relieved of the tedium of administrative life and the constant political oppressions of the unruly daimyo—who largely ignored the ineffectual, and sometimes contradictory, proclamations issued from his court at Kyōto—Yoshimasa devoted himself completely to the solitary consolations of the artistic connoisseur. He especially prized his collection of Chinese Song Dynasty painting and pottery, while, outside the gates of his personal sanctuary, a civil war raged.

Perhaps the most far-reaching aspect of Yoshimasa’s reign, at least in the political sphere, was the dispute over who was to become his successor. This dispute ignited the disastrousŌnin War (1467-1477) Ōnin War (1467-1477)[Onin War (1467-1477)] . Yoshimasa had married Tomiko, of the Hino clan, in 1455, but their union did not provide Yoshimasa with a male successor. As was customary in such circumstances, Yoshimasa summoned his younger brother Yoshimi, now a monk, to forsake the monastic life and return to Kyōto to serve as the shogun’s successor. Hardly a year had passed since Yoshimi’s return, however, when Tomiko gave birth to a boy who would be called Yoshihisa (1465-1489). Tomiko desired that her son Yoshihisa assume the role of shogun instead of Yoshimasa’s brother and pressed her cause, supported by the military assistance of Yamana Mochitoyo (1404-1473), an old rival of one of Yoshimasa’s former advisers.

In the end Tomiko prevailed. Upon his father’s abdication, Yoshihisa became the ninth Ashikaga shogun (r. 1474-1489)—but the matter did not end there. Yoshimasa’s brother Yoshimi, the former monk, disputed the succession. Military conflicts erupted, precipitating the bloody and inconclusive conflict of ten years’ duration now known as theŌnin War. This conflict all but decimated the city of Kyōto. After Yoshimasa, the remaining Ashikaga shoguns functioned as little more than royal facades until their shogunate was finally unseated by Oda Nobunaga in the 1570’.


Commentators have compared Ashikaga Yoshimasa and his predecessors to the great patrons of Italian Renaissance art Cosimo and Lorenzo de’ Medici. Unlike the Medicis, however, Yoshimasa ended his reign in a disastrous civil conflagration, fostered to no small degree by his own indifference and inability. Still, to characterize him merely as an ineffectual ruler would unfairly denigrate the cultural legacy of the Muromachi era in Japanese art and life, to which Yoshimasa contributed significantly. His taste for the austere simplicity of Chinese Song brush-and-ink painting, for example—with its restrained symbolism, extreme economy, and sublime understatement of aesthetic principles—became a template for much of what is valued in later Japanese art and culture.

Further Reading

  • Dolan, Ronald E., and Robert L. Worden, eds. Japan: A Country Study. Washington, D.C.: Federal Research Division, Library of Congress, 1992. Especially useful for its concise historical survey, presented in chapter 1, and for additional valuable material in subsequent chapters pertaining to topography, climate, social and cultural trends, and other general information about Japan. Includes regional maps.
  • Henshall, Kenneth G. A History of Japan: From Stone Age to Superpower. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1999. A remarkably readable history of Japan that emphasizes the human dimensions of conflict and historical change. Includes chapter summaries in concise table format for each era’s key developments, values, and practices.
  • Maraini, Fosco. Meeting with Japan. New York: Viking Press, 1960. A poignant memoir of the author’s visit (as a former prisoner of war) to Japan in the years immediately following World War II. Mingles historical background information with the author’s own sympathetic observations on Japanese life and culture.
  • Turnbull, Stephen. The Samurai Sourcebook. London: Cassell, 2000. Treats fully all particulars of the subject through capsulized biographies of the principal samurai and daimyo, detailed data on weaponry, heraldry, strategy and tactics, significant battles, and so on. Well illustrated.

1457-1480’s: Spread of Jōdo Shinshū Buddhism

1467-1477: Ōnin War

1477-1600: Japan’s “Age of the Country at War”

Mar. 5, 1488: Composition of the Renga Masterpiece Minase sangin hyakuin

Beginning 1513: Kanō School Flourishes

1532-1536: Temmon Hokke Rebellion

1550’s-1567: Japanese Pirates Pillage the Chinese Coast

1550-1593: Japanese Wars of Unification

June 12, 1560: Battle of Okehazama

1568: Oda Nobunaga Seizes Kyōto