Prelude - the Onin War
The Ashikaga Shogunate had been the undisputed rulers or the Japanese isles for exactly 75 years when a trivial dispute regarding the succession escalated into a full blown civil war that eventually rendered the bakufu
Muromachi district in Kyoto reduced to a smoking pile of debris.
Itself founded by Ashikaga Takauji on the defeated remains of the first warrior government in Kamakura, the Ashikaga family had overcome both provincial insurrection and imperial restoration
on its quest to establish buke
control over the sacred isles of Japan.
Although referred to as a singular entity, the War of Onin and Bummei (named so on account of the period names of the 11 year long war ) was, for all intents and purposes, a succession of armed conflicts centred around the Ashikaga’s capital of Kyoto and fought between various loose coalitions of “eastern and western” military provincial governors known as shugo. Ostensibly fought over the right of succession following either the death or retirement of the 8th Shogun, Ashikaga Yoshimasa, the true cause of the 10 year long disturbance was precisely the exhausted power and authority of the Muromachi bakufu and the equivalent ascendance of the shugo clans to national prominence.
The first and eight shoguns Ashikaga Takauji and Ashikaga Yoshimasa shown side by side.
The Onin War involved nearly all major shugo houses and, as mentioned earlier, left Kyoto scorched and deserted by the provincial governors. Who in turn had been forced to the capital by the bakufu in the first place.
However, above the other great bushi families, two major houses rose to champion the opposing candidates for the title of Seii Taishogun
These were the great Hosokawa and Yamana families - and they were the ones who would spearhead the coming battles and rally the other clans to their sides in a conflict which would eventually descend into a display of primal, brute strength.
All in all, the successional dispute that ushered in the Sengoku Jidai was a tragic affair.
Ashikaga Yoshimasa had been childless his entire life and certain that he would sire no heir from his own seeds, he brought his younger brother Yoshimi out of his Buddhist convent and named him heir-presumptive to the reeling Muromachi bakufu.
However, the very next year, a son, Yoshihisa, was born to the shogun – causing serious friction between the two brothers whilst also prompting the Yamana and Hosokawa to declare their support for respectively the infant son of shogun Ashikaga Yoshimasa and his designated heir Yoshimi. With the two great houses maneuvered into such antagonistic positions, political tension escalated.
Provinces and regions (kuni and chino) at the end of the Onin War,
Although warnings from the bakufu had declared that the first shugo to initiate hostilities would be branded a traitor, Yoshimi’s Hosokawa stewards attacked and incinerated the mansion of a Yamana general within the capital’s boundaries.
Within the blink of an eye, the entire country was catapulted into civil war as the clans shed blood for their pretender’s claim to succession. And whilst Kyoto went up in flames and Yamashiro province was sacked by some 160,000 Hosokawa and Yamana troops, Ashikaga Yoshimasa retreated to his lavish palace and practiced poetry. A far cry from his ancestor’s bold deeds that won the house of Ashikaga the mantle of shogun.
The war dragged on as both parties swept through the capital, but a year later (1468), the Hosokawa triumphed politically by convincing both the retracted Shogun and the emperor to brand Yamana Sozen, known as the Red Monk on account of his complexion and former trade, the leader of the Yoshimasa clique, a traitor and enemy of the state. This denunciation was further strengthened by the Hosokawa alliance with the majority of shogunal officials. Yet the Yamana did not particularly seem to care about the catastrophically damaging edict. Yamana Sozen still held the loyalty of the fearsome Ouchi Masahiro of Nagato province as well as the support of the mighty Toki clan and with their support, he aimed to reduce the enemy’s denunciation to empty howls in the Kinai’s wind.
Western half of the Japanese Isles, showing the domains of the three major houses that partook in the Onin War.
With the backing of the Toki and Ouchi houses, Yamana Sozen reasoned that he, in the end, would just have the shogunal ban overturned at a later point when his coalition had driven the claimant Yoshimi from the throne. However, in the end, neither Sozen nor his counterpart Hosokawa Katsomutsu would live to see the end of the conflict – let alone force change in the line of succession.
Despite their deaths, the war dragged on, until in 1477 when Ouchi Masahiro – after having defied the Shogun time upon time - finally left the capital. Japan’s greatest city had by then already been abandoned by lesser shugo who realized that the scorched urban centre no longer held substantial political significance. This instead, they found in the country’s provinces.
In a sense, the Yamana had been victorious – since the son of Yoshimasa retained the throne – but their triumph rang hollow amongst the laze embers that covered the bakufu’s capital.
Legalised by the spineless indifference of the bakufu , the great buke houses of the country now strove to assert their influence and prestige across the fiefs and domains of the land in order to fill the growing void the Ashikaga had left behind.
The War of Onin and Bummei had been concluded. The Age of the Country at War was about to begin.
Literally, “tent government.” The government of the military caste headed by a shogun.
Referring, of course, to the so-called Kemmu Restoration.
The Japanese military estate/class/caste. Also known as bushi or samurai.
Generally translated as “barbarian-subduing generalissimo” and often abbreviated as shogun, the shogunal title was resurrected after the Gempei War and bestowed by the emperor on the military rulers of Japan, who acted independently from the civilian government.
At the time of the Onin War, it is estimated that the city had a populace of some 200.000