Building Kingship in Medieval Japan: The Urban Legacy of Ashikaga Yoshimitsu

A book proposal on the urban and architectural legacy of Ashikaga Yoshimitsu (1358-1408)


The architectural and urban legacy of Ashikaga Yoshimitsu (1358-1408) is well known and widely celebrated. His Golden Pavilion, a UNESCO World Heritage site, attracts the attention of scholars and tourists the world over. It looms large in our imaginations of medieval culture and stands as a monument to its patron’s breathtaking wealth and his deft capacity to negotiate court, warrior, and Zen societies. Yoshimitsu’s Muromachi Palace gave the shogunate its toponym—its name is synonymous with the entire era of Ashikaga rule. Its courtly architecture, exquisite gardens, and prime location in Kyoto’s elite district are frequently cited as tangible emblems of the Ashikaga regime’s gentrification, cultural achievements, and attainment of unrivalled political influence. Finally, the sprawling monastery of Shōkokuji catalyzed a fundamental reorganization of the Zen establishment and became a salon of cultural production that continues to thrive today.

As impressive as these several sites are, Yoshimitsu’s material legacy is much, much greater. Indeed, over the course of his career, he established no less than three massive temple-palace complexes, built two pagodas that towered a staggering 110 meters over the city, and completely reimagined Kyoto’s fundamental urban plan. Yoshimitsu’s contributions to the medieval capital were so sweeping and fundamental that they both signaled and facilitated a profound challenge to the contemporary status quo.

This book explores that legacy with two core aims. The first is to pull from the shadows a splendidly diverse repertoire of palaces, temples, and monuments that were either built or rebuilt by Yoshimitsu during the late fourteenth century. My goal is to de-romanticizing some of those sites—such as the Golden Pavilion—while highlighting the significance of others, such as the massive “Hall of the Sutra King” (経王堂) at Kitano Shrine. The styles, locations, and embedded symbolism of Yoshimitsu’s architecture reveal much about the political and religious history of the era and opens up new vistas for interpreting the nexus of pageantry and power.

The second aim is more theoretical, ambitious, and provocative: I seek to argue that Yoshimitsu leveraged the symbolic power of architecture and monumentalism to assert an anthropocosmic connection between himself and the divine. Taking cues from ex-sovereigns who had ruled from cloistered retirement four centuries earlier, he drew on the language and symbolism of Hindu-Buddhist kingship to sacralize his rule and assert a status synonymous with dharma king (J. hōō 法皇, Sk. dharmaraja). The fact that the most powerful rulers of the insei period called themselves dharma king is frequently overlooked due to the tendency for modern scholars to habitually conflate hōō with “retired emperor,” often using the term interchangeably with in 院 and jōkō 上皇. This kind of rhetorical slippage has profound implications on interpretation. In the first instance, it perpetuates a Meiji-era fallacy that the imperial institution was the perpetual trunk and pivot of premodern Japanese politics. In the second, it ignores compelling parallels between the political discourses of medieval Japan and other parts of Asia.

To be sure, the term “hōō” (dharmaraja) should not be automatically domesticated and then subsumed into a political hierarchy that revolves ultimately around the position of the emperor. A scholar of premodern South or Southeast Asia would certainly not make such a mistake. Instead, they would likely recognize the original Sanskrit term as a discrete title indicative of an idealized form of kingship in which the ruler unifies sacred and secular authority, the governance of the realm (Sk. artha) with the Buddhist law (Dharma).

Imagining Yoshimitsu as dharma king requires an acknowledgment of political plurality in medieval Japan and a currency of kingship idioms outside the imperial lineage. Neither, however, should be problematic. He was born, after all, during the Nanbokuchō 南北朝 era (1335–1392), a time when a divided imperial lineage gave rise to heated and sometimes violent debates over what constituted legitimacy. Medieval writings are characterized by their variety when it comes to such questions. Some emphasize the centrality of the kami and their symbols while others focus almost exclusively on heredity or Buddhist notions of enlightened kingship. Rulers such as Michinaga, Shirakawa, and Goshirakawa drew liberally on numerous idioms, engaging in rites, rituals, and pilgrimages that sanctified their legitimacy in flexible and combinative terms. Yoshimitsu was no exception.

Focusing on the material record makes possible compelling comparisons between Japan and Southeast Asia. Although it is widely recognized that Hindu-Buddhist ideas inspired the religious monuments of Borobudur, Angkor, Luang Prabang, and Pagan, precisely the same discourse can explain the construction in Japan of Ninnaji 仁和寺, Hosshōji 法勝寺, Toba 鳥羽, and Hōjūji 法住寺 between the 9th and 12th centuries. In both Southeast Asia and Japan—and at about the same time—dharma kings were building temple-palace complexes that symbolized sacred status and facilitated political supremacy. If Yoshimitsu is included in the list of Japanese dharma kings, his own architectural legacy can be read as an extension of a building lineage that dates back to the ninth century. Subsequently linking that lineage to the monuments of Southeast Asia is not difficult when we remember that Ninnaji, the first of a Japanese temple-palace prototype, was built not long after Kūkai 空海 (774–835) imported the first fully articulated discourse on Buddhist kingship. Having studied the rituals, symbols, and cosmologies in Tang China alongside monks from the great centers of Buddhist learning in Khmer, Java, and Sumatra, would it be unreasonable to imagine Kūkai also brought to Japan ideas of monumentalism that were flourishing at that time in Southeast Asia? I do not think so.

Architecture and urban planning are not merely reifications of ambitions. Yoshimitsu’s temples, towers, and palaces played active roles in the execution of his political aims. They provided the material context to engage in rituals and pageantry that underscored his legitimacy. Monuments inspire awe; they send messages. They also signify a reaching for immortality. They are inscriptions on the stones of a civilization meant to be read for generations.


The Sanjō-bomon Temple-Palace Complex

This was the first headquarters of Ashikaga shogunate and familial ritual in Kyoto. It was here were Yoshimitsu was born and served the first 10 years of his career as shogun. Located in the commoner district of Shimogyō, Yoshimitsu's move away from this complex in 1378 can be read as a rejection of the shogunate's plebeian origins. More detail.

The Muromachi Palace

When Yoshimitsu built the Muromachi palace in 1378, he might not have known that he was creating the toponym that came to be used to describe the entire period of Ashikaga rule (1336-1572). Indeed, he and all the shoguns who came after him, came to be known as the 'Lord of Muromachi'. Perhaps what's most significant about this site—besides its grandeur—is that it included a dedicated venue for protector monks to carry out rituals that legitimised Yoshimitsu's rule in overtly sacred terms.

The Shōkokuji Monastery

This sprawling Zen monastery, built in the heart of Kyoto's elite district, came to be headquarters of the Gozan establishment and a great center of cultural production. The subtemple of Rokuon'in (meaning 'deer park') on the property was Yoshimitsu's private temple and the source of his posthumous name. New findings show that the monastery was connected directly to the Muromachi-palace, making the whole a 'temple-palace' complex very much like Shirakawa's Hosshōji.

The Shōkokuji Pagoda

The Shōkokuji pagoda was a breathtaking statement about the capacity of Yoshimitsu to leverage the symbolic power of architecture and ritual pageantry to advance his political aims. It towered a staggering 110 meters above Kyoto's urban landscape and was decorated to represent a stacked mandala of the two realms (ryōkai mandara 両界 曼荼羅). By building the structure, Yoshimitsu sought to create a context within which the symbols and rituals of Hindu-Buddhist kingship could be deployed to assert a status synonymous with dharma king (hoō 法皇).

A Mandalized Urban Landscape

It appears Yoshimitsu carefully arranged his most important structures to align according to a highly contrived urban matrix. When considered in context, it seems conceivable that he was re-imagining medieval Kyoto and organising its bodies of influence according to a mandalic model. Doing so helped assert his status as a transcendent and sacred monarch.

The Kitano 'Hall of the Sutra King'

Yoshimitsu's patronage of Kitano 北野 shrine has been largely overlook, despite his granting massive financial gifts and staying overnight on many occasions. He even built at the site a 'hall of the sutra king' (教王堂) that rivaled Todaiji's great Buddha hall in size. It was one of the greatest architectural achievements of the premodern era, and yet almost no one knows about it. The spatial relationship between Kitano and Muromachi is just as striking.

The Kitayama Temple-Palace Complex

Originally, the Kinkaku golden pavilion was merely one of dozens of grand structures that together comprised the Kitayama temple-palace complex. Yoshimitsu moved to this site after retiring from public office and taking the tonsure. There, he ruled the realm in explicitly sacred terms, even undergoing rituals that consecrated him as a 'universal monarch'.