Japan in the 16th Century: Life, Culture & Politics

Instructor: James Moeller
16th century Japan was an era of civil strife between warlords for control of the nation, but the most significant event came in 1543 when Europeans (Portuguese) arrived for the first time. Their arrival would have unforeseen consequences.

Leading up to the Muromachi Period

To understand the history of Japan is to delve into a morass of conflict and civil war. During the 16th century, powerful warlords known as Daimyo fought one another for political power and control. Often, these Daimyo were samurai, a legendary class of warriors who were skilled with the sword and the bow & arrow. In 1192, a new Daimyo came to power known as the Kamakura Shogunate. It held power until 1333 when one of its vassals (a Daimyo who served the Shogun) rebelled. His name was Takauji, from the Ashikaga family, whose forces subdued those of the Kamakura. A new Shogunate was born, known in history as the Ashikaga Shogunate. The Ashikaga government moved their headquarters to Kyoto, where the imperial family was already residing. The new government set up shop in the Muromachi District of Kyoto, which is why this period is also known as the Muromachi Period of Japanese history.

The Capitol of the Ashikagi Government in central Kyoto
The Seat of Government of the Ashikagi Shgounate: Kyoto

Life & Culture Under the Ashikaga Shogunate

Governing Japan proved difficult for the Ashikaga government, and their rule oversaw an almost perpetual state of civil war. Yet in spite of that precarious reality, the era gave birth to a rich and diverse culture. Zen Buddhism grew during their rule, and many temples and gardens were built. Several of these Zen gardens still exist and are considered some of the most beautiful in the world. In addition, drama and theater also became widely popular. In the year 1374, a dramatist by the name of Motokiyo gave a performance at the Imakumano Shrine in Kyoto to the current Shogun, Yoshimitsu. The Shogun was enthralled with Motokiyo's innovative style of theater, which was taken from a Chinese form known as, 'sarugaku-noh'. It later became simply known as 'noh' theater, and was the court appointed theater-style for the next 500 years (in the 17th century, 'noh' theater was change to 'Kabuki', which is Japan's mainstream theater style to the present day).

Arrival of the First Europeans, 1543

In the year 1543, a Portuguese ship that was headed for China was blown off-course and landed at the southern-most tip of the island of Kyushu. Some of the officers and crew of the merchant vessel were brought before the local Daimyo, who were fascinated with the muskets the Europeans had. Eventually, these were copied and warfare in Japan was forever changed. Another nearly equal momentous change was the opening of trade between the two regions. Christianity was also brought to Japan in 1549 by a Jesuit cleric known as Xavier. Together with his initial Japanese convert Anjiro, they had great success in converting many to Christianity. This was aided in no small measure by the rise of a new warlord named Oda Nobunaga. Nobunaga was resentful of the Buddhist monks in Japan at the time, primarily because he did not want to engage in a power-sharing arrangement with them. He embraced the Jesuits as a counter to the Buddhist hierarchy.

The Rise of the Tokugawa Shogunate - 1573-1603

Whereas the Ashikaga government was in embroiled in a seemingly never-ending period of strife, it did give rise to what many historians & Japanese believe to be the most stable and powerful government in all of Japan's history: The Tokugawa Shogunate. Beginning in the late 16th century, it would last all the way to 1867. That is longer than the United States has been a nation.

Tokugawa Ieyasu, Founder of the Tokugawa Shogunate

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