The Sh(5kokuji Pagoda was destroyed by a lightning strike in the summer of 1403 and was never rebuilt at the original site.1 Yoshimitsu died suddenly and suspiciously in 1408, and his successor, Yoshimochi, choreographed a triumphant return to Sanjo-bomon followed by a dramatic and public demolition of Muromachi. In sum, within a few short years of Yoshimitsu’s death, the neat alignment of disparate complexes that the former shogun had engineered over a lifetime had almost completely disappeared.
The physical breakdown reflected a parallel political disintegration caused in part by Yoshimochi’s preoccupation with repudiating his father’s legacy, not least of which included decoupling warrior and imperial institutions while distancing his administration from temple engagement.2 In hindsight, Yoshimochi was a deeply flawed and distracted leader, haunted by the towering image of his father and harassed by growing challenges from the shogunate’s regional officers. His successor, Yoshinori, was much more effective, governing in a style reminiscent of Yoshimitsu, although with a more autocratic penchant. He too, however, was beleaguered by growing problems in the provinces caused by struggles within and among vassal clans as well as peasant uprisings. The former weakened the solidarity of warrior government while the latter jeopardized a critical source of tax revenue. Yoshinori, in what is a supreme example of how fragmented shogunal rule had become (and in particular how disgruntled some were by his autocratic style), was assassinated by one of his own vassals in 1441. His seven-year-old son, Yoshikatsu (1434-1443) succeeded him, but
He too died ignominiously after a fall from a horse only eight months later. Following that, the post of shogun remained vacant until 1447 when Yoshimasa, Yoshinori’s second son, was chosen by secret ballot. Plagued by domestic strife and an apparent lack of political ambition, Yoshimasa was a weak leader whose lack of interest in public affairs— save those related to the gentle arts—had earned him the contempt of many prominent military houses. Yoshimasa was a politically detached aesthete, a role for which he was scorned in his own time and exalted in ours.3
A shogunal succession dispute that emerged in the twilight of Yoshimasa’s career served as a pretext for rival warrior families to settle their differences through armed engagement. In the winter of 1467, armies aligned with the houses of Hosokawa and Yamana respectively clashed in the wooded area north of Shokokuji, near Goryo Shrine. The ensuing conflict, which came to be called the Onin War after the imperial era name during which it started, raged in and around Kyoto for eleven years, devastating the capital and its political institutions. When organized fighting ended in stalemate in 1477, the shogunate and imperial court were both badly weakened. Continued unrest was inevitable. Besides the state of general lawlessness, conditions in Kyoto were exacerbated by two successive waves of large-scale violence: first during a period of debtors’ uprisings around 1487 and then in the decade after 1527 when the city was embroiled in the wars between two rival shogunates and then a popular religious uprising lead by the Hokke or “Lotus” sect. The century following Onin was a time of such widespread political unrest and sustained conflict that historians refer to it as the Age of Warring States (1467-1580s). The Ashikaga shogunate, although surviving in name and titles until 1573, never regained its influence after Onin and the real-world efficacy of the emperor and imperial court dropped to an all-time low.
The dramatic physical and social changes that took place in Kyoto during the Age of Warring States have been studied extensively.4 While the findings of earlier research are echoed strongly in this chapter, the discussion here glosses over the narrative of social and political rupture to focus instead on how the violence, fires, and lawlessness of the age conspired to decisively sever the tendrils—tenuous and sometimes imaginary—that anchored Kyoto to its classical past. Onin and the conflicts that followed destroyed the urban grid and key venues of aristocratic pageantry. Shinden style and the activities it facilitated be-
Came unsustainable, while an influx of warriors and temples erased all traditional notions about capital exclusivity. Commoners began buying, selling, and controlling land within a city whose boundaries became defined by walls and moats instead of laws and customs. Even burial within Kyoto, which had been considered taboo for its polluting effects, became accepted. Heian-kyo and all that the city was meant to represent—political centralization, public authority, functional purity, rationality, sacral and ritualized rule—was finally and utterly wiped away during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.
Urban changes reflected the disintegration of the bonds that had long tied public authority to private power. Political instability robbed the elite of their access to landed wealth and other forms of real-world influence. At the same time, the destruction of Kyoto deprived them of the infrastructure that had, until then, enabled them to engage in the prescribed repertoire of formal processions, annual observances, and religious ceremonies. The disappearance of shinden-style palaces and a cityscape that had been capable of facilitating Ritsuryo rituals left the traditional elite bereft of the infrastructure needed to nourish the idea that the statutory state still mattered. Under the circumstances, it was the old guard that was most adversely affected, those for whom rituals, ranks, and hereditary rights remained their primary, if not only, source of status and negotiable influence. The emperor and most members of the civil aristocracy had been in this category for centuries. After Onin, however, so too were the Ashikaga shoguns. With the final and irrevocable evisceration of classical ideas, the old order was all but finished. It is no coincidence that the individual who eventually began the process of national unification in the mid-sixteenth century, Oda Nobunaga (1532-1582), famously (and uniquely in premodern Japan) spurned public ranks and posts. To him, they no longer served as a meaningful pathway to orthodox legitimacy. And tellingly, when Nobunaga began the process of rebuilding Kyoto in the 1560s, his most important project, a castle fortress, in no way reflected the city’s architectural heritage.