Higashiyama Culture and Quintessential Japanese Aesthetics

The fifteenth century marked a rather low point in the history of Japanese politics, international relations, as well as peace and harmony in the country. The Ashikaga Shogunate was weak, local lords called daimyo (literally ‘great name’) held more real power, piracy was a major problem which inhibited trade with the continent at times, and for ten years (1467-1477) Kyoto was put to the torch as competing factions battled each other in the city streets. Yet, this was the period in which quintessential Japanese aesthetics really flowered. The fifteenth century was the age of the Zen garden and the tatami mat, the tea ceremony and ink monochrome paintings. This was a cultural golden age. The name Higashiyama culture derives from the location of the villa (in the eastern hills of Kyoto) where the major patron Ashikaga Yoshimasa lived.


The Ashikaga Shogunate had come to power in the 1330s after its founder Takauji overthrew the previous shogunate in the name of Emperor Go-Daigo. Go-Daigo was not interested in the establishment of a new shogunate and did not want Takauji getting too much power. In contrast, Takauji likely only used Go-Daigo to help legitimize his desire to overthrow the Kamakura government. Out of a struggle between a warlord and an emperor, a new shogunate was born. An imperial schism also developed and lasted for decades. By the mid-1400s, the Ashikaga held a limited grip on the reigns of power. The Ashikaga Shogunate was certainly the weakest to rule Japan.

The Setting

Kyoto was founded as Heian-kyō in 794 by Emperor Kammu and laid out on a grand grid pattern, modeled on the Chinese city of Chang’an (Xi’an). During the Heian period (794–1185), a portion of the city fell into disrepair. By the latter decades, the warriors from the countryside gradually gained power. The writer Kamo no Chomei (c.1155–1216) recorded the various natural disasters which befell the city during his lifetime in his Hojoki (‘Account of My Hut’)- fires, an earthquake, whirlwind, and famine. From 1467–1477, much of what was left from the Heian period was destroyed in a series pitched battles in the city of Kyoto itself. Members of the various factions set each other’s mansions on fire. The fighting led to the worst period of destruction Kyoto ever experienced with much of the city destroyed.

Historian Donald Keene (1922–2019) noted the ineptitude of shogun Ashikaga Yoshimasa during the Onin War:

“Yoshimasa continued to reside in his palace, even though it was situated no more than a few hundred yards from the worst of the fighting. He seems to have spent most of his time admiring his garden and his collection of Chinese paintings. His indifference to the fighting and the suffering it caused may have been exaggerated by chroniclers of the time, but there is no reason to doubt that Yoshimasa, having decided not to participate in the warfare (though, as shogun, the supreme commander, he should have led his troops), devoted himself almost exclusively to aesthetic pleasures” (Yoshimasa and the Silver Pavilion, p.6).


The Japanese aesthetic of ‘wabi-sabi’ really developed during the fifteenth century. The two terms ‘wabi’ and ‘sabi’ long predate the Ashikaga Shogunate. Their meanings have shifted and come together over the long term. Wabi originally referred to a loneliness associated with living in nature but came to be associated with ideas of beauty in imperfection. Sabi refers to the patina of ageing. The two together refer to an aesthetic associated with a Buddhist perspective on the world, particularly the three marks of existence (impermanence, the existence of suffering, and emptiness/voidness). Key characteristic of wabi-sabi include the use of natural materials, asymmetry, roughness, simplicity, the patina of aging, and modesty. This aesthetic was a major influence in the development of the Japanese tea ceremony, particularly the design of the tea house itself.

Ink and Wash Painting

Sesshū Tōyō (1420–1506) was a Japanese Old Master of the highest quality. His often minimalist paintings display a master of technique and suggestion, enough to render additional lines unnecessary. Born to a samurai family, Sesshū was brought up to become a Rinzai Zen priest. He studied painting techniques and even traveled to Ming China. Five centuries later, his masterpieces are listed as Japanese National Treasures, such as the one below.

Ashikaga Yoshimasa

Ashikaga Yoshimasa had little interest in political and military affairs. He abdicated as shogun and decided to focus full time on his aesthetic pursuits. In the 1480s, he oversaw the construction of a pavilion he had been planning since the 1460s — the Silver Pavilion (Ginkakuji).

Historian Donald Keene provided a fair account of the man Ashikaga Yoshimasa, not marginalizing his role in the outbreak of the Onin War, nor his incompetence in political and military affairs. He did focus, though, on Yoshimasa’s contributions to Japanese culture. Among the most important for posterity was his ability to recognize other people’s talents. “He is not known today as a master of painting, calligraphy, and poetry, though he was highly competent in the latter two arts. Rather, Yoshimasa’s greatest gift was his exceptional ability to detect talent in other people and his readiness to employ them, regardless of their social station” (Yoshimasa and the Silver Pavilion, p.72). Something similar could be said for the many of the greatest entrepreneurs of recent years. Apple’s early success depended, in large part, to Steve Jobs’ ability to recognize talented individuals and bring them together.

“Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it, they just saw something. It seemed obvious to them after a while. That’s because they were able to connect experiences they’ve had and synthesize new things.” -Steve Jobs

While Steve Jobs may not have known the specifics of Higashiyama Culture, he certainly knew many elements. His love of Kyoto is mentioned in Walter Isaacson’s biography.

The Higashiyama period was a cultural apex, one which emerged in the midst of political turmoil. Yoshimasa was a key patron. Despite his many personal failings, his patronage kept the arts and art appreciation alive at a time when the political order was crumbling. The Ashikaga Shogunate would continue on as a weak shadow of a government until the 1570s (overthrown by Oda Nobunaga). “The Highashiyama era was one of the most brilliant periods of Japanese cultural history, and the guiding spirit of was the same Yoshimasa who had been a failure in everything else he did. Of course, not every cultural development of the Higashiyama era can be credited to this one man, but Yoshimasa’s taste was reflected in many of the distinctive artistic developments of the time. His cultural legacy to the Japanese people has been immense” (Yoshimasa and the Silver Pavilion, p.98). When you think of traditional Japanese culture, see ink paintings or a sparsely decorated room of tatami mats, or perhaps a Zen rock garden — think of the Higashiyama period.

Artisan | Wordsmith | Bohemian | Independent Green | Anti-Authoritarian, Pro-Decentralization/Localism|. http://www.instagram.com/kevinshau/

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store