The Muromachi shogunate (1338-1573), was the second of Japan's three military regimes (幕府 bakufu), between the Kamakura shogunate (1192-1333) and the Tokugawa shogunate (1603-1867). Established by Ashikaga Takauji (足利尊氏, 1305-1358), its name derives from the Muromachi district of Kyōto, where the shogunal palace and administrative headquarters were located after 1378. It is also referred to as the Ashikaga shogunate in reference to its ruling house. Under the Ashikaga, the shoguns and their government significantly expanded the scope of the military rule, asserting authority over most political and military affairs of the country, including foreign relations, and leaving to the Japanese emperor little more than marginal and primarily ritualised sovereignty. Contrary to the later Tokugawa rule, the Ashikaga shoguns failed to establish a balance of power between the shōgun and the local daimyō. Although it lasted for more than 200 years, the Muromachi shogunate rarely assumed the role of central authority.

To extend its influence beyond its headquarters at Kamakura, the first shogunate had relied on its network of military land stewards (地頭 jitō) and provincial commanders (守護 shugo) selected from among its vassals (御家人 gokenin). The Kamakura shogunate's authority, though limited, had been exercised within the still functioning structures of imperial provincial government. Under the Muromachi shogunate, the shugo united the military powers they already had with most of those previously held by the provincial civil governors (国司 kokushi), thus becoming in effect military governors. The combined powers of the shogun, shugo, and jitō constituted a system that resembled a national government. Even though the Muromachi bakufu dealt with a higher volume and a more complex range of administrative, legal, and military transactions than the Kamakura shogunate, neither shōgun nor shugo acquired the executive powers required to fully assert the authority they claimed. The balance of political-military power on which the Ashikaga house rested its rule was weakened by the fact that many shugo were as powerful as the Ashikaga house itself. The Ashikaga hegemony depended critically upon the support of vassal shugo houses and much less on its capacity to maintain a private force recruited from its numerous but individually weak jitō-rank vassals. The shoguns never commanded a private army that could hold its own against the strongest of their major vassals, let alone against a combination of shugo.

Towards the end of their rule, the Ashikaga family had emerged as one of the most powerful of the Kamakura vassals. It held the shugo territories of Mikawa and Kazusa and estates in the provinces of Shimotsuke (modern-day Tochigi Prefecture), Kazusa (now part of Chiba Prefecture), Sagami (present-day Kanagawa Prefecture), Mikawa (now part of Aichi Prefecture), and Tamba (now part of Kyōto and Hyōgo prefectures). For its military forces, it could count on a large number of branch families (collectively known as 一門 ichimon) from those provinces. In Takauji's generation, the ichimon included such names as the Hatakeyama (畠山), Niki (仁木), Hosokawa (細川), Kira (吉良), Imagawa (今川), Togashi (冨樫), Isshiki (一色), Shibukawa (渋川), and the Shiba (斯波). Countless warrior families allied themselves with the Ashikaga in their struggle for hegemony as tozama (外様, non-kin) vassals.

Once he had become shōgun, Takauji posted members of reliable branch families as shugo in as many provinces as possible. By the end of the 14th century, of the 67 provincial appointments recorded, 42 were held by Ashikaga kinsmen. Family connection, however, was never a reliable bond, as the many defections that occurred during the civil wars of the period of the Northern and Southern courts (1336-92) proved. Also, the shugo themselves were far from powerful in the provinces to which they were assigned.

Shugo were appointed to one or more provinces (国 kuni) in which they were to maintain order, administer justice, and ensure tax collection. Although military lords with considerable landholdings and personal following, their lands were not necessarily located in their provinces of assignment. Most of the area of any given province was occupied by the estates of court nobles, religious organisations, and local military proprietors (国人 kokujin), some of whom were direct vassals (gokenin) of the shogun. Shugo, especially those brought in from outside by the Ashikaga shōgun, had to compete with these local proprietors for land and workforce. Being associated with the shogunate, the shugo had an edge in this contest: they could retain lands vacated as a result of judicial or military action for themselves or other warrior houses, thus enlarging their holdings or bands of retainers. They had the authority to levy certain provincial imposts (tansen and tammai) for particular purposes, and they could award half-tax (hanzei) rights to local warrior families (a practice that permitted the local use of half the estate taxes due to absentee proprietors for wartime commissariat expenses). Resorting to such techniques as well as to the direct military action to acquire more lands and vassals, the shugo managed to expand their strength locally, but increasingly at the expense of the shogun's interests.

During the 15th century, as some shugo and kokujin became more powerful and locally entrenched, they were able to assemble unitary domains which, though at first not as large as whole provinces, were more compact and militarily viable. These shugo were referred to as shugo daimyō. As this happened, the shogunal connection became increasingly less useful in the local power struggle. The shogunate, for its part, tried to keep the shugo dependent on the shōgun by juggling shugo appointments, by using its provincial gokenin to protect its local interests, and by interfering in the household affairs of its shugo houses. Such manoeuvres were common in Muromachi politics.

The Kamakura and the Tokugawa shogunates were based in the Kantō region, far removed from Kyōto. The Kamakura shōgun had been able to rely on an existing system of provincial government to maintain the basic structure of the country while it exerted its influence through specific limited administrative channels. The Tokugawa shōguns had the power in hand to control Kyōto and the western provinces from the Kantō. Ashikaga Takauji, despite the fact that his family's base of power was in the Kantō, was obliged to move to Kyōto, as his hold over the capital area was precarious. For the Muromachi shogunate, this relocation of power created a "Kantō issue".

To maintain a presence in the Kantō region, Takauji created at Kamakura a "branch shogunate", known as the Kamakura-fu (鎌倉府), to which he posted his second son with the title kantō kanrei (関東管領 Kantō deputy). The Kantō headquarters, though controlled from Kyōto, was given considerable freedom in local affairs. Its jurisdiction extended to the eight Kantō provinces plus Izu (now part of Shizuoka Prefecture) and Kai (present-day Yamanashi Prefecture), and later to Mutsu (now Aomori, Iwate, Miyagi, and Fukushima prefectures) and Dewa (now Akita and Yamagata prefectures). Before long the head of the Kantō Ashikaga house adopted the style of kubō (公方, a title reserved for the shōgun), and passed the office of kanrei to the Uesugi family, who had served as the chief managers of the Kamakura-fu. The tendency toward separatism became so intense that ultimately the Kyōto government was obliged to take military action. In 1439, the Ashikaga Kantō line was extinguished by an army assembled by the sixth shōgun, Ashikaga Yoshinori. After that, the Uesugi family, serving as kanrei, became the highest officials at Kamakura.

Kyūshū presented the Ashikaga in Kyōto with similar problems of control. In the southern island, most of the provinces had long been subordinated to entrenched military houses like the Shimazu, Otomo, Shoni, and Ouchi. Takauji had little choice but to leave these houses in place as shugo. As a regional representative of the shogunate in Kyōto, however, the Ashikaga shōgun kept in northern Kyūshū, usually at Hakata, the head of an influential branch family with the title of Kyūshū tandai (九州探題, Kyushu deputy). Of these Imagawa Sadayo, who served in the post from 1371 to 1395, was outstanding for his ability to bring the Kyūshū shugo to the support of the Muromachi shogunate. But Kyōto's ability to control the Western end of the Inland Sea and the Northern coast of Kyūshū, so critical to the then-flourishing tally trade with Korea and China, was never direct or complete, even under the strongest of tandai.

Thus, the power of the Muromachi shogunate extended directly only to the central region of Japan, some 45 out of a total of 68 provincial units (66 kuni and 2 shima, or islands). It was within this area that the Ashikaga stronghold was secure. In these provinces, there were some 20 active shugo houses, since many held more than one province at the same time. As of the end of the 14th century, about ten Ashikaga branch families held 31 of the 45 shugoships in the central region. All shugo in this area were required to build residences in Kyōto to be available for shogunate service.

Although government under the Ashikaga shōgun took shape as a balance of forces between the shōgun and his shugo, it is natural that the shōgun should have sought to occupy a status well above that of the coalition that supported him. From its own estates (御領 go-ryō), the Ashikaga house derived some income and military service. One important source of income and military support came from placing the entire province of Yamashiro (now part of Kyōto Prefecture) under shogunate control by having the head of the Board of Retainers (侍所 samurai-dokoro) serve as shugo. Aside from this, the shōgun's lands were scattered over many provinces. These holdings were used as sources of income but more importantly as fiefs to support the household retainers who served as shogunate administrators and guardsmen. The shōgun's palace guards, the hōkōshū (奉公衆), were recruited both from shogunal estates and from lesser branches of shugo houses. But these units, while sufficient to maintain order in the capital city, never numbered more than a few hundred mounted men. Military action on behalf of the shogunate was always undertaken by troops under shogunal order from loyal shugo houses. Therefore, the ability of a shōgun to exert force depended greatly on his capacity to motivate a sufficient number of shugo to follow his direction. The one who managed this best was the third shōgun, Ashikaga Yoshimitsu, who had great success in sending out coalition armies against threats to the shogunate posed by aggressive shugo houses. The eighth shōgun, Ashikaga Yoshimasa, however, proved unable to maintain the balance of power. The result was the Ōnin War (1467-77), which put all shugo houses on one side or the other of a military struggle that lasted eleven years and brought to an end the shogunate's ability to influence affairs beyond the capital city.

The shōgun's powers were not limited to the use of military force alone. Vested in the office of shōgun were certain legal and customary prerogatives and a charisma derived from the possession of high court rank and an aristocratic style of life. The post of shogun was itself an imperial appointment, and with it went the expectation of high court status. Takauji achieved the second rank, senior grade. Yoshimitsu moved a step higher to first rank, junior grade; his successors up through Yoshimasa did likewise. Such ranks assimilated the Ashikaga house into the high court nobility, far above other military lords in prestige and proximity to the emperor, who was still revered as the official sovereign. A further dimension was added to the shōgun's public image when, in 1403, the emperor of Ming China conferred the designation "King of Japan" onto Yoshimitsu. This, however, did not become a regular practice.

Part of the Ashikaga shōguns' demonstration of their new aristocratic status was their magnanimous patronage of the arts. Beginning with the shogunal residences, the so-called Hana no Gosho (花の御所, Palace of Flowers), the Kinkakuji (Golden Pavilion), and the Ginkakuji (Silver Pavilion), the Ashikaga house gave expression to the values of a new elite culture, a fusion of the traditional style of the civil nobility and the dynamic culture of the warrior aristocracy. The rising religious as well as artistic influence of Zen Buddhism and the proximity of the imperial court and the shogunate resulted in the flourishing of the arts: architecture, literature, Noh drama, kyōgen ((狂言, lit. "mad words" or "wild speech"; comedy), poetry, sarugaku (猿楽, folk entertainment), the tea ceremony, landscape gardening, and flower arranging, all prospered. It is significant that this style of life was urban and cosmopolitan and that the Ashikaga were able to continue it, even after their loss of effective power in the provinces, through control of Kyōto and its commercial wealth and by participation in the China trade. The Chinese Ming Dynasty had been seeking Japanese support in suppressing the wakō (倭寇), Japanese pirates plaguing the Chinese coastal waters, resulting in half a century of closer ties between both countries. Yoshimitsu restarted the Chinese tribute system; the export of Japanese goods (wood, copper ore, sulfur, swords, fans) and the import of Chinese products (porcelain, silk, books, and coins) resulted in a profitable trade for both sides.

The Muromachi government was mainly shaped by Ashikaga Takauji, the military organiser and strategist, who was concerned primarily with the balance of power, and his younger brother Ashikaga Tadayoshi who devoted himself to establishing the administrative organs of government. The promulgation of the Kemmu shikimoku (建武式目, Kemmu Code or Ashikaga Code) in 1336 demonstrated the Ashikaga's intent to follow the Kamakura model of military rule. They also recognised the need to bring peace to Kyōto and to protect their commercial interests. The early Ashikaga shōguns took over a great deal, in both administrative organisation and personnel, from the Kamakura shogunate. Unlike the Minamoto line in Kamakura, the Ashikaga house was able to retain its control over the office of shōgun from beginning to end, and the first eight shōguns, at least, played significant roles in the Muromachi government.

For the first few years after its founding, the Muromachi shogunate was run by the shōgun with the aid of a steward (執事 shitsuji), a post held by a succession of kin and quasi-kin vassals. In 1362, the office was renamed kanrei and upgraded to what can be translated as "deputy shogun". In 1367, just as Hosokawa Yoriyuki (1329-92) was named kanrei, Yoshimitsu succeeded as head of the Ashikaga house. He was then a minor, and so the office of kanrei was briefly something of a regency. But the post was not permitted to become the possession of any one family; instead it was passed around in succession between three ichimon families, the Shiba, Hosokawa, and Hatakeyama. These three houses, rather than compete with the Ashikaga house, served as a sort of inner bloc of powerful shugo committed to its support. Under the mature Yoshimitsu, the office of kanrei became a bridge between the shōgun and the provincial shugo. Evidence of this is seen in the establishment of a council of shugo (寄合 yoriai) consisting of the heads of the three kanrei houses and other powerful shugo houses like the Yamana, Isshiki, and the Imagawa.

The kanrei-yoriai system worked well up to the time of the sixth shōgun, Yoshinori, who tried to bypass the kanrei and yoriai and to exert a direct personal rule through his inner staff of hereditary administrators (奉行人 bugyōnin). This action put the shugo at odds with the shōgun. Yoshinori's assassination in 1441 by a disgruntled shugo put an end to firm shogunal rule. Gradually, the office of kanrei turned into a means of manipulation through which provincial military lords sought to influence the shōgun for their ends.

The functional organs of the Muromachi shogunate were at first closely modelled on the Kamakura model. Assisting in this process were some specialists in legal and administrative matters who had had previous experience in Kamakura. In the Kamakura shogunate, the hyojoshu (評定衆, Council of State) established in 1226 had developed into the primary deliberative council under the Hōjō rule. Ashikaga Takauji set up a hyojoshu in Kyōto, staffing it with professional administrators like the Nakahara, Miyoshi, and Nikaido and the heads of several Ashikaga branch families like the Kira, Yamana, Ishibashi, and Isshiki. The development of the kanrei system inevitably affected this arrangement, and ultimately the kanrei's yoriai took over the functions of the hyojoshu.

Another essential office adopted from Kamakura was the Samurai-dokoro (侍所, Board of Retainers), used by Takauji as his war council. Its head, known as the shoshi (所司), was selected from among a group of four important shugo houses, the Yamana, Akamatsu, Isshiki, and Kyōgoku. These families, two kin and two not, served as a secondary bloc of support for the Ashikaga house. The head of the Samurai-dokoro came to have two principal functions: to serve as shugo of Yamashiro, the "home province," on behalf of the shogunate as well as to maintain law and order in the capital district. The second function was taken over from the imperial police (検非違使 kebiishi) and was carried out quite effectively until after the Ōnin War when the Samurai-dokoro disappeared as a functioning organ of shogunal government.

The body that proved most influential and durable in the Muromachi shogunate was the mandokoro (政所) or Administrative Board. Established first as the main office for managing the shōgun's household administration and finances, including the collection of taxes, its heads were at first drawn from the Nikaido, one of the families of administrative specialists that had served the previous shogunate. Later it was headed by the Ise, a family that had long served as Ashikaga household administrators. The rise in importance of the Mandokoro came in two stages. First, under the sixth shōgun, Yoshinori, it was used as a means of circumventing the kanrei-yoriai system and of concentrating power in his hands. Yoshinori's assassination put an end to this effort, after that, and second, as the shōgun lost power and withdrew from participation in government affairs, the shōgun became increasingly the puppet of quasi-hereditary civil officers (bugyōnin) of the Mandokoro and military service families (hōkōshū) who made up the palace guard. It was these groups of lower-level service officers that managed to carry the by now powerless Ashikaga house into the 16th century.

By the start of the 16th century, the provinces were in the hands not of centrally appointed shugo but of self-made Sengoku daimyō - powerful military lords of shugo and kokujin origin who were rapidly extending both their territorial grasp and their autonomy from the central authority. In response to this development, the Ashikaga house could have moved in either of two directions, toward military self-strengthening that would make it competitive with the daimyō or toward retreat into merely ceremonial suzerainty. It chose the latter. As already noted, the eighth shōgun, Yoshimasa, unable to control his shugo, sat by helplessly as the Ōnin War devastated his capital. Thereafter the shogunate as a government declined rapidly, and only the status of shōgun remained. But it was kept alive, as much by the interests that depended on that status as by any sign of vigour in the Ashikaga house. Support came from three sources: the above-mentioned hereditary shogunate staff, various religious institutions that had been patronized by the Ashikaga house, and military houses that sought to legitimize their de facto local power by gaining recognition from the symbolic head of the warrior class. For instance, the occupation of Kyōto by Oda Yoshiaki, who was destined to be the last of the Ashikaga shōguns. When Nobunaga ousted Yoshiaki from Kyōto in 1573, the Muromachi shogunate was finished as a functioning institution. The exiled Yoshiaki, however, continued to behave as shōgun, and his pretensions were supported by powerful daimyō; so that, strictly speaking, the Muromachi shogunate retained a shadowy legal existence until Yoshiaki's resignation in 1588.

The Ashikaga shōgun

Ashikaga Takauji (足利尊氏, 1305-1358)1338–1358
Ashikaga Yoshiakira (足利義詮, 1330-1367)1358–1367
Ashikaga Yoshimitsu (足利義満, 1358-1408)1368–1394
Ashikaga Yoshimochi (足利義持, 1386-1428)1394-1423
Ashikaga Yoshikazu (足利義量, 1407-1425)1423–1425
Ashikaga Yoshinori (足利義教, 1394-1441)1429–1441
Ashikaga Yoshikatsu (足利義勝, 1434-1443)1442–1443
Ashikaga Yoshimasa (足利義政, 1436-1490)1449–1473
Ashikaga Yoshihisa (足利義尚, 1465-1489)1473-1489
Ashikaga Yoshitane (足利義稙, 1466-1523) aka Ashikaga Yoshiki (足利 義材)1490-1493, 1508-1521
Ashikaga Yoshizumi (足利義澄, 1481-1511)1494-1508
Ashikaga Yoshiharu (足利義晴, 1511-1550)1521-1546
Ashikaga Yoshiteru (足利義輝, 1536-1565)1546-1565
Ashikaga Yoshihide (足利義栄, 1538-1568)1568
Ashikaga Yoshiaki (足利義昭, 1537-1597)1568-1573 (1588)

In some instances, a successor was not named until several years after the death or the resignation of the former shōgun. Yoshitane was forced to resign in 1493 but was restored in 1508. Yoshiaki resigned legally in 1588, though the Ashikaga shogunate effectively ended in 1573.

Organisation of the Muromachi shogunate


Muromachi shogunate in the late 14th century (Kodansha Encyclopedia of Japan). Click to enlarge.

  • Totman, Conrad; A History of Japan, Wiley-Blackwell; second edition 2005
  • Nussbaum, Louis-Frédéric, Japan Encyclopedia, Harvard University Press 2005