During Yoshimasa's reign, the aesthetic taste of the Japanese was shaped: the nõ theater flourished, Japanese gardens were developed, and the tea ceremony had its origins in a small room at the Silver Pavilion. Flower arrangement, ink painting, and shoin-zukuri architecture began or became of major importance under Yoshimasa. Poets introduced their often barely literate warlord-hosts to the literary masterpieces of the past and taught them how to compose poetry. Even the most barbarous warlord came to want the trappings of culture that would enable him to feel like a civilized man. This long-neglected but critical period in Japanese history at last has the thorough treatment it deserves.
This enterprising account by the doyen of Japan studies demonstrates that the quintessential Japanese aesthetic—which characterizes Noh drama, sand gardens, monochrome ink painting, shoji panels, tatami floors, and the tea ceremony—was the creation of a staggeringly incompetent fifteenth-century shogun, Ashikaga Yoshimasa. His military record was dismal and his domestic life a shambles: his domineering wife abandoned him, his nanny (who probably doubled as his mistress) may have intrigued against him, and a favorite concubine took up with his dissolute son. While warfare destroyed Kyoto and the corpses of famine victims clogged the Kamo River, Yoshimasa squandered his treasury, bringing obsessive perfectionism to such matters as perfume blending. He ultimately abdicated to become a Buddhist priest, devoting himself to the development of the restrained, Zen-influenced style exemplified in his famous Silver Pavilion. Keene’s multifarious learning and engaging manner illuminate the improbable story of the fastidious aesthete whose taste has been so important in forming the look of the modern world.