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Headed by the shoguns (military dictators) of the Ashikaga family, the Ashikaga shogunate was the second shogunate to rule Japan, ruling the country from 1338 to 1573. The Ashikaga shogunate was the weakest of Japan's three shogunates, but for a brief period in the late 14th and early 15th centuries, oversaw a flourishing of culture and the arts matched only by the Heian Era and the mid Edo Era. The period of Ashikaga rule is known as the Muromachi Era, after Muromachi street in Kyoto where the shogunal offices were located.

The Ashikaga shogunate was founded by the warlord Ashikaga Takauchi, the scion of a branch line of the legendary Minamoto clan who rose up against the Hojo shogunate in 1333 in support of the attempt by Emperor Go-Daigo to return the reins of power to the imperial house. In part thanks to the aid of Takauchi, Go-Daigo was able to topple the Hojo and temporarily become the first emperor to hold actual power in more than five centuries.

Takauchi soon became disgruntled at Go-Daigo's refusal to grant him the rewards he felt his efforts had been worth. Cast out from the court, he fled to Kyushu and raised an army of disaffected Kyushu lords. He then marched on Kyoto, crushing the two loyalist generals Kusunoki Masashige and Nitta Yoshisada at the Battle of Minatogawa near modern day Kobe, and triumphantly entering Kyoto. Go-Daigo fled with the imperial regalia to the wilds of distant Mount Yoshino, where he set up a "Southern Court," but Takauchi simply installed a puppet "Northern" emperor from a rival imperial line, produced what he claimed was the "true" regalia, and had himself proclaimed shogun anyway, in 1338.

The Ashikaga shoguns that succeeded Takauchi were not nearly as capable as their crafty progenitor. On the whole they tended to be soft and weak, preferring to throw lavish parties, build opulent palaces, and patronize the arts while leaving actual rule to their underlings and the regional governors, known as shugo. Kyoto's famous Kinkakuji golden pavilion was built as a summer palace by the third shogun, Yoshimitsu, and the nearly as famous Ginkakuji silver pavilion was built by the eighth shogun, Yoshimasa.

Much of the early years of Ashikaga rule were spent consolidating Ashikaga authority and battling the loyalist forces of the Southern Court. This time of sporadic warfare was known as the Nambokucho Era, "the era of the southern and northern courts." At last in 1392 the bedraggled Southern Court was tricked into surrendering on the false promise that the two lines would alternate holding the throne.

The Ashikaga then enjoyed a brief period of peace, in which the shoguns became even softer, even weaker, and even more dependent on their lackeys. But politics, like nature, abhors a vacuum, and soon the regional governors began sparring with each other for influence with the shogun. Finally in 1467, all-out war erupted as leagues of shugo literally burned Kyoto to the ground fighting for control of infant shoguns. This conflict, known as the Onin War, lasted ten brutal years and launched nearly a century and a half of chaos and endemic warfare known as the Sengoku Era, the "age of the country at war," which would only be ended by Tokugawa Ieyasu's victory at the Battle of Sekigahara in 1600. The Ashikaga did not even last that long, however, as a minor regional warlord, Oda Nobunaga, captured Kyoto in 1568, and exiled the last Ashikaga shogun in 1573.

Ashikaga Shoguns

Ashikaga Takauji     (13381358)
Ashikaga Yoriakira   (1358–1367)
Ashikaga Yoshimitsu  (1368–1394)
Ashikaga Yoshimochi  (1394–1423)
Ashikaga Yoshikazu   (1423–1425)
Ashikaga Yoshinori   (1429–1441)
Ashikaga Yoshikatsu  (1442–1443)
Ashikaga Yoshimasa   (1443–1473)
Ashikaga Yoshihisa   (1473–1489)
Ashikaga Yoshitane   (1490–1494)
Ashikaga Yoshizumi   (1494–1508)
Ashikaga Yoshitane   (1508–1521)
Ashikaga Yoshiharu   (1521–1546)
Ashikaga Yoshiteru   (1546–1565)
Ashikaga Yoshiaki    (1568–1573)

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