I’m teaching a survey course on premodern Japanese history this semester. It focuses on medieval and early modern Japan, and I wanted the first paper to deal with a big question in the secondary literature and the second paper to deal with a similarly big issue by looking at primary documents (in translation). After perusing a range of materials, I decided to assign Donald Keene’s recent book Yoshimasa and the Silver Pavilion: The Creation of the Soul of Japan (Columbia University Press, 2003). The book is readable in its narrative and straightforward in its method, such as it is. The central argument of the work is stimulating but impossibly large. The New Yorker, surprisingly, put it best in its brief capsule review:
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.
I asked my students to evaluate Keene’s proposition that the Silver Pavilion and its associated cultural practices represented the “soul of Japan.” Because we hadn’t yet studied late medieval or early modern Japan, I asked them to assess the argument in the context of fifteenth-century Japan, and the results were quite varied. Some were outraged that any scholar would claim that the cultural practices of the shogun and the capital’s aristocrats–even with their occasional plebeian origins and some signs of dissemination into the provinces–could be lifted up as the soul of anything other than elitism. Others dismissed all these cultural endeavors as Chinese imports that would only become Japanese with time. A few were regular Keene cheerleaders. One really stopped me in my tracks by noting that though Keene is happy to juxtapose Yoshimasa’s political failures with his cultural successes, he doesn’t ask the obvious question about the ramifications of this odd marriage of influence and abjection: does it matter that Keene’s soul of Japan is founded on staggering incompetence? Isn’t that worrisome?
Keene’s book is aimed at a popular readership and like most of his work avoids explicit theoretical questions, and in fact most engagement with secondary literature in English and Japanese, which is unfortunate. We do need a detailed, scholarly study of the Ashikaga shoguns and their cultural production in English. Still, I like the fact that the text is completely accessible to undergrads, unlike most publications on medieval Japan, with their panoply of specialized terminology and untranslated Japanese terms and titles. Keene has done us a favor by writing a book that opens some big questions about the nature of political failure and patronage in medieval Japan without really closing any doors. Maybe this book, with its lively depiction of a period that is less and less studied not just in undergraduate classrooms but in graduate seminars, will help bring more people back to the study of premodern Japan.