The Onin War

Shinnyodō engi, vol.3 (part)


While re-reading a book about the failed Shogun, Ashikaga Yoshimasa (足利義政), I learned a lot about the Onin War, or ōnin no ran (応仁の乱) that I wanted to share.

The Onin War is something most Westerners would not be familiar with, but it had a devastating impact to Japan that can still be felt today in Kyoto. The war spanned 10 years, and was almost entirely fought within the old capitol of Kyoto, but by the end the city was destroyed and almost all of its culture was lost.

The war began after the Shogun of Japan, adopted this younger brother to be his heir. Yoshimasa had no male heirs, and so this was a common practice. Unfortunately, his wife had a son soon after, which put Yoshimasa in a very awkward spot.

Two of the most powerful samurai families supporting Yoshimasa were divided about which person to support: Yoshimasa’s younger brother, or his infant son. The Hosokawa (細川) and Yamana (山名) clans were already feuding with one another, but this gave them another reason. The two main generals under Yoshimasa were:

  • Hosokawa Katsumoto (細川勝元) – He supported Yoshimasa’s younger brother’s claim to be the heir.
  • Yamana Sōzen (山名宗全) – He supported Yoshimasa’s infant son, intentionally to further oppose the Hosokawa.

Eventually, both sides secretly built up armies within the city of Kyoto to attack the other. Neither side had a clear advantage, and neither side could score a decisive victory. The Hosokawa had the support of the Shogunate, but the Yamana clan had 6 out of 7 gates to the city. Each side had 100,000+ soldiers in the city. Even after they brought in more allies and reinforcements, they fought over and over again in the neighborhoods of Kyoto, destroying homes, temples, etc. Battles were fought street-by-street, neighborhood by neighborhood. They even fought at Buddhist temples just to gain some advantage over their opponent.

But after 10 years, both sides were exhausted, weakened and finally gave up.

Old Kyoto was completely destroyed.

According to Professor Donald Keene, the famous Zen master Ikkyū Sōjun (一休宗純) described the destruction in a poem titled “On the Warfare of the Bunmei Era”:1

One burst of flame and the capital—gilt palaces and how many mansions—
Turns before one’s eyes into a wasteland.
The ruins, more desolate by the day, are autumnal.
Spring breezes, peach and plum blossoms, soon become dark.

Part of the reason for such destruction was that old Kyoto was a city made almost entirely out of wood. Further, houses were very close to one another. Even the Yamana and Hosokawa compounds were within walking distance from one another.

During this time, the Shogun (将軍), the generalissimo of Japan and so-called “general of generals”, did nothing.

Yoshimasa lacked any real authority or force of personality to compel both sides to stop fighting, and although he came from a warrior family, he was much more inclined toward the arts. He did not take sides, and did not lead troops into combat during the 10 years of fighting, though some of his relatives briefly did. Finally, Yoshimasa tried to approach the war from the perspective of an aristocrat: remain aloof even in times of conflict.

Thus, Yoshimasa held lavish drinking parties and poetry contests even while fighting raged in the city and Kyoto was burning.

However, one redeeming things about Yoshimasa was that after the War, when he retired as a Shogun, he devoted all his time, money and efforts to culture and arts, and this helped start a new culture in Kyoto: the Higashiyama culture (東山文化). The Higashiyama Culture was short-lived, and war resumed in Japan soon after, but many of the traditional arts that exist in Japan today were from this small period of time, and promoted and elevated by Yoshimasa.

Togudo at Gingakuji

The Onin War was a terrible disaster on a human-scale, and “Old Kyoto” was wiped out as a city and a culture. But out of the ashes arose a new Kyoto culture, that helped define Japanese culture we know and love today.

P.S. More on Yoshimasa’s contributions to art and architecture.

1 I tried finding this in Japanese, but I couldn’t. It was translated from a 1966 book called 五山文学集/江戸漢詩集 apparently.


Author: Doug

A fellow who dwells upon the Pale Blue Dot who spends his days obsessing over things like Buddhism, KPop music, foreign languages, BSD UNIX and science fiction.