The Onin War: Ancient Japan’s Biggest War

In 794 Kyoto became Japan’s capital for more than 1,000 years. However, if you compare Kyoto to Japan’s also very ancient capital, Nara, you will notice something odd; Nara has plenty of ancient buildings, many over 1,000 years old, but Kyoto has none, even though it didn’t suffer any damage in WWII. The reason for Kyoto’s absences to 1,000 year old buildings is the notorious war, Onin War. Though less popular than say the Siege of Osaka, the Onin War was responsible for reducing Kyoto to ashes and beginning the Sengoku Period. It was a fruitless war that nobody won, and nobody lost, and lasted more than 10 years.


Prelude to the Onin War

After Ashikaga Yoshimitsu, the founder of Kinkaku-ji died, his son Yoshimochi became a shogun for Muromachi government. However, in part because Yoshimitsu liked his second son, Yoshitsugu, more than Yoshimochi, Yoshimochi rejected whatever father did. After his father’s death, he destroyed most of the Kinkaku-ji, except the golden pavilion and suspended trades with China. Tensions between Yoshimochi and Yoshitsugu rose quickly and before long, both brothers were pointing swords at the other. In the end, Yoshimochi killed his brother Yoshitsugu in the Uesugi Zenshu Rebellion.

Golden kinkaku-ji in the fall with reflection in pond

Kinkaku-ji: It was much bigger than this at one time.

After this violent power struggle, the Ashikaga shogunate became plagued with succession problems. From a lack of heirs, to sudden death, to assassination, all helped to severely undermine the power and authority of the Muromachi government and put it on a crash course for destruction.

Suzen-ji Temple in Osaka Japan

Suzen-ji Temple: The grave of the assassinated shogun Ashikaga, Yoshinori lies in Suzen-ji, Osaka.


Ashiakaga Yoshimasa, the Founder of Ginkaku-ji

Finally, the position of shogun fell to Ashikaga Yoshimasa [足利義政], better known as the founder of Ginkaku-ji. There was only one slight problem; he was only 8 years old at the time. Because of his young age, trusted officials oversaw the government on his behalf. Still, from the very beginning of his reign Yoshimasa witnessed constant conflict among his subordinates, leaving him unenthusiastic about the role his in the future.

Phoenix of the silver pavilion of the Ginkaku-ji Temple.

Yoshimasa continued to lose interest in politics. When he married Hino Tomiko [日野富子], of the very wealthy and famous Hino clan things only got more politically complicated. By marrying her, Yoshimasa further upset the very delicate balance of political families who ran the government. As his owes compounded, Yoshimasa realized he was not good at politics and he devoted himself to enjoying his hobby, high culture and the fine arts.


Follow the Leader

His withdrawal from the political world could not have come at a worse time. The Hatakeyama clan, one of Japan’s most influential families, had the exact same issue that plagued the Ashikaga’s; they needed someone to serve as head of clan. In order to help settle the dispute Asahikaga Yoshimasa intervened and appointed Yoshinari to be the head of the Hatakeyama clan. However, Yoshimasa abruptly changed his mind and appointed his cousin Masanaga instead. Yoshimasa’s indecisiveness divvied the Hatakeyama clan. This power struggle lead to Yoshinari consulting Yamana Sozen for his support, while Masanaga sought the backing of Hosokawa Katsumoto.

Don’t know about you guys, but I need a chart to keep all this straight!However, the Hatakeyama clan wasn’t the only one with problems. Due to his complete lack of interest in politics, Ashikaga Yoshimasa wanted to retire as soon as possible. But first he needed to find his successor. Since he didn’t have any children he appointed his brother, Yoshimi, to be the next shogun and ordered Hosokawa Katsumoto to oversee him. However, soon after this Yoshimasa’s wife became pregnant and gave birth to a son, Yoshihisa. Because Tomiko wanted her child to be the next shogun, Tomiko contacted Yamana Sozen to ask for his support.


Game Set

At this point the Muromachi government split in two factions: those who sided with Yamana Sozen side and those who sided with Hosokawa Katsumoto side. To make things even more complicated and another powerful family, the Shiba clan, also lacking a head of clan, joined this conflict. Once the Shiba’s joined, every major clan in Japan and all the clans under them, was on one side or another. At last, in 1467 samurai from all over the county gathered in Kyoto and the Onin War finally began.

marker for the first battle of the onin war in Kamigoryo shrine in kyoto

Kamigoryo Shrine: the very first battle of Onin War started at this exact spot in Kamigoryo  Shrine.


The Onin War

The Onin War was massive. The number of soldiers led by Yamana Sozen (West) and Yoshimasa’s son Ashikaga Yoshihisa was 110,000, while Hosokawa Kastumoto and Ashikaga Yoshimi (East) was 170,00–a grand total of 280,0o0 soldiers! This war was without question the biggest war in Japan’s history– bigger than even the Sekigahara War.

Sokoku-ji Temple in Kyoto

Sokoku-ji Temple: Sokoku-ji was the main battle field during the Onin War.


Since the East outnumbered the West, at first the West had the upper hand. However, the tables turned after new troops lead by Ouchi Masahiro of the Sanin region joined in the West. The East’s defeat led Yoshimi to believe that he was more likely to be shogun if he fought with the West. So, Yoshimi betrayed the West and switched sides. Meanwhile and unbeknownst to the Ashikaga family, Yoshihisa suddenly joined the forces in the East. As more and more people continued to join the war, they would quickly turn around and betray one another leading to total chaos.


Raids in Kyoto

If things weren’t already complicated and vicious enough low rank bushi, called ashigaru, made this war even more chaotic than it was already. During the Muromachi Period, these low rank bushi were often farmers only becoming fighters when it was necessary. They had no specially training or education. In short, all they did was loot and burn Kyoto and their actions are the main reason why there are no shrines or temples in Kyoto over 1,000 years old standing today.

hondo of Senbon Shakado in kyoto Japan

Senbon Shakado: one of the few temple in Kyoto survived the Onin War.


Needless Actions

There was only one person who could stop this war: Ashikaga Yoshimasa. After all, one of the reasons why the war began who would become his successor: Yoshimi or Yoshihisa. Instead, Yoshimasa simply enjoyed his time writing poetry. In addition, rather than trying to stop the war his wife, Hino Tomiko, earned a fortune by loaning money for the war.

commemorative marker of the residence of Yamana Sozen, military leader during the Onin War

Former camp site and residence of Yamana Sozen, Nishijin, Kyoto.

The Onin War gained so much momentum, it seemed to have no end in sight. Even when Hosokawa Katsumoto and Yamana Sozen both died almost at the same time from illness the fighting just kept right on going. Even after Yoshihisa was appointed to be the next shogun the war didn’t stop.


After the Onin War

The Onin War lasted a total of 11 long years. There was no victor and nobody acquired anything. The war destroyed Kyoto, forcing many to leave for smaller prosperous cities like Sakai and Matsue.

Matsue Castle

Though Yoshimasa certainly was not good politician, his passions toward the traditional arts was extraordinary. Especially, Japanese wabi-sabi culture was created by Ashikaga Yoshimasa, and this created the basic of tea ceremony and ink painting. After the Onin war, Yoshimasa moved to Ginkaku-ji and enjoyed his life there gardening, writing poetry and watching Noh.


The ginkaku-ji with tourists and the famous rock garden in front

The Ginkaku-ji Temple

Among other things, the most important change after Onin War was that Japan became a place for more ambitious and power-hungry people. While their warlords were fighting in Kyoto and ignored the country’s politics, lower rank generals or officials took control of things and ran the government. Each on their own found way to protect themselves or acquire their neighbors; basically they acted like an independent country. The rise of these new powerful people also lead to even more wars with people constantly fighting for the country. Though horrible and draw out, this one war single-handedly started an era of even more war and human suffering; the Sengoku Period.

Coming next time,
Emperor Yoshimasa’s greatest accomplishment, the Ginkaku-ji Temple!

The adventure continues…

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