The Japanese warrior chieftain Ashikaga Takauji (1305-1358) rose to a position of military hegemony during the civil wars of the 14th century and founded the second shogunate, or warrior government, of medieval Japan.
The Ashikaga shogunate (known also as the Muromachi shogunate because of the location of its central offices in the Muromachi section of Kyoto), although it underwent many vicissitudes, retained at least titular military overlordship of Japan from 1336 until 1573.
The first shogunate of the medieval age had been founded at Kamakura in the eastern provinces in 1185 by Minamoto Yoritomo. Yoritomo, as shogun or "generalissimo" appointed by the imperial court of Kyoto, had exercised strong personal rule over his vassal followers. When he died in 1199, his two young sons who succeeded him as the second and third shoguns were unable to maintain Minamoto control over the shogunate, and during the early 13th century, leaders of the Hojo family (who were related to Yoritomo by marriage) became the real rulers at Kamakura as shogunate regents.
The Ashikaga were one of the main branch families of the Minamoto clan. During the Kamakura period (1185-1333) they faithfully served the Hojo regents; but, as later events were to prove, they cherished the hope of one day reasserting the primacy of Minamoto authority among the military of the land.
Although the Hojo regents were viewed by some as usurpers of the rights of the Minamoto, they administered the government of the Kamakura shogunate on a basis of feudal justice and with marked efficiency during much of the 13th century. The effort and expense required to repulse two attempts by the Mongols in 1274 and 1281 to invade Japan and the need to maintain defenses against a possible third attempt placed a great strain on the Hojo administration and contributed to the family's decline.
By the early years of the 14th century the quality of Hojo rule had deteriorated to the point where voices of discontent were being raised throughout the country. From early in their rise to power in Kamakura the Hojo regents had managed to keep the imperial court at Kyoto, the former seat of central government in Japan, in a state of almost total political impotence. As Hojo control weakened, however, an increasing number of people among both Kyoto courtiers and provincial warriors came to look to the Emperor for new leadership.
In 1324 and again in 1331 the Hojo uncovered plots against them in Kyoto and even went so far as to exile Emperor Daigo II from the imperial capital for his role in the second one. The anti-Hojo movement continued to grow in intensity, and in 1333 the Hojo were obliged to send armies from Kamakura in an attempt to control the fighting that had erupted in the region of Kyoto. One of the commanding generals of the Hojo forces was Takauji, already the head of the Ashikaga family at 28. As he approached the imperial capital, Takauji suddenly announced his support of the exiled Daigo II and attacked and destroyed the branch offices of the shogunate in Kyoto. Almost simultaneously, another military force in the east entered Kamakura and decisively defeated the Hojo leaders and their immediate followers, thus bringing about the collapse of the Kamakura shogunate. The general who led this attack was Nitta Yoshisada, who, like Takauji, was the head of an important branch family (the Nitta) of the Minamoto clan.
Upon his return to Kyoto from exile, Daigo II attempted to take advantage of the destruction of the Kamakura shogunate to reassert or "restore" the long-dormant authority of the throne. Although there had been powerful sovereigns earlier in Japanese history, the tendency since at least the 9th century had been for other families and groups to arrogate central ruling powers. The courtier family of Fujiwara, by installing themselves as regents to the throne, had, for example, been almost all-powerful at Kyoto during most of the 10th and 11th centuries. And in the 12th century the military of the eastern provinces became the new rulers of Japan through the establishment of the Kamakura shogunate.
Daigo II, an extraordinarily determined and headstrong person, attempted to exercise imperial rule directly and personally from his court in Kyoto. But he and his advisers were markedly unsuccessful in dealing with the needs of the most critical sector of Japanese society of the medieval age, the provincial warrior class. Before long, much of the discontent that had previously been directed at the Hojo regime in Kamakura was turned against Daigo II's court.
Probably the most important determinant of the fate of the brief Restoration government of 1333-1336, however, was the fierce rivalry for leadership of the warrior class that arose between Takauji and Nitta Yoshisada. Yoshisada managed to ingratiate himself with the court and to turn Daigo II and his chief advisers against Takauji. In the eighth month of 1335 Takauji went to the eastern provinces to quell a rising of remnants of the Hojo and their former followers. Three months later the Emperor, charging that Takauji intended to establish an independent territorial base in the east, commissioned Yoshisada to lead a punitive force against him. Thus began a protracted period of battling between the Ashikaga and Yoshisada, who was allied with other supporters of Daigo II. In an attempt to avoid being branded as a rebel, Takauji secured the backing of a rival branch of the imperial family that also aspired to the throne. In name at least, the struggle was thereby elevated to a dynastic dispute over imperial succession.
After several shifts in the tide of battle, the Ashikaga succeeded in occupying Kyoto in 1336 and in forcing Daigo II to abdicate in favor of their candidate. A few months later Daigo II escaped from the capital and fled south to Yoshino, where some of his leading supporters awaited him. Daigo II insisted that his "abdication" had been invalid and that he was still the legitimate sovereign of Japan.
From 1336 until 1392 there were two courts in Japan: the Southern court of Daigo II and his successors at Yoshino and the Northern court of Kyoto maintained by the Ashikaga. There was considerable fighting during the first few decades of the war between the courts, and the forces of the Southern court even recaptured Kyoto several times. However, the Ashikaga gradually reduced the opposition, and in 1392 they succeeded in reuniting the courts by persuading the Southern emperor to return to Kyoto and relinquish his claim to sovereignty to the Northern emperor.
At the beginning of the war between the courts, Takauji had instituted a new shogunate in Kyoto. As a chieftain from the eastern provinces, Takauji would have preferred to locate his shogunate in Kamakura. But the need to do battle with the Southern court chiefly in the central region of Honshu dictated the advisability of choosing Kyoto as the site for the shogunate's headquarters. Nevertheless, Takauji and his advisers plainly conceived of themselves as the successors to the Kamakura shogunate, which they had helped destroy, and attempted to structure their government along the same lines as the latter.
In comparison with the Kamakura shogunate and the later Edo or Tokugawa shogunate (1603-1867), the Ashikaga shogunate was a weak ruling institution. Although it thoroughly dominated the Northern court and steadily reduced the fighting strength of the rival Southern court, the Ashikaga shogunate was hampered from the outset by a strong tendency toward regional separatism. Takauji and his immediate successors as shogun were obliged to give away much land and relinquish extensive governing rights to their leading generals in order to secure even a loose military hegemony over the land. Yet the Ashikaga hegemony was virtually nonexistent in areas distant from Kyoto, and by the end of the 15th century it had fallen apart completely. During the last hundred years or so of its existence, the shogunate founded by Takauji survived as a national governing body in name only.
Nitta Yoshisada was killed in battle in 1338, and Emperor Daigo II died in 1339. Within a few years of the deaths of these great adversaries, Takauji nearly eliminated the offensive fighting power of the Southern court and was in a good position to seek a settlement with it. But in the early 1350s discord arose within the shogunate—involving several prominent vassal chieftains of the Ashikaga as well as Takauji and his brother, Tadayoshi—that precluded such a move.
Tadayoshi had performed important services in the rise of the Ashikaga family to national prominence in the early 14th century and had shared some of the ruling powers of the shogunate with his brother. Yet in the course of reestablishing order within the shogunate, Takauji was driven to kill Tadayoshi, an act that darkened the final years of his life.
When Takauji died in 1358 at the age of 53, he was succeeded as shogun by his son, Yoshiakira. Takauji's life had been devoted almost entirely to fighting, and it remained for Yoshiakira and the third Ashikaga shogun, Yoshimitsu, to stabilize the Ashikaga hegemony and bring to an end the war between the courts.
The 14th century witnessed the only major dynastic schism in Japanese history, and many later nationalists have felt impelled to deal with what they regard as the major interpretational problem it presents: which of the two courts, the Northern or the Southern, should be regarded as "legitimate"? By the late 19th century the most widely held contention was that, since Daigo II had never freely abdicated, the Southern court was legitimate during its existence from 1336 until 1392. A corollary to this was that those who had fought for the losing cause of the Southern court were loyalist heroes, and the Ashikaga and their allies were viewed as veritable "traitors."
In the period of ultranationalism and military aggression that led to World War II, Takauji in particular came to be vilified as the most heinous person in Japanese history. In 1934 a Cabinet minister, who was also a history buff and who had published an article that showed Takauji in a favorable light, was forced to resign his position. And during the war a noted scholar who many years earlier had tried sympathetically to analyze Takauji's "faith" was severely criticized.
Since the end of World War II Japanese scholars have been able to deal with the dynastic issue and the civil strife of the 14th century without fear of official censure. Their recent studies have evaluated Takauji more dispassionately and appropriately within the context of his times.
The best general treatment of Takauji and the period of the founding of the Ashikaga shogunate is in the early chapters of Sir George B. Sansom, A History of Japan, 1334-1615, vol. 2 (1961). A more detailed analysis of the dynastic issue in which Takauji became involved is presented by H. Paul Varley in Imperial Restoration in Medieval Japan (1971). This book also traces the course of the historical debate over which of the courts was "legitimate" and the process by which the opprobrium of the Japanese people came to be heaped on the memory of Takauji during the period before World War II.
Ashikaga Takauji, Taokyao: Fukutake Shoten, Shaowa 59, 1984.