The term shōgun, which means “general who quells barbarians,” is an ancient military term that was adopted in the twelfth century for the dominant warlord who held political and martial power in Japan while the emperor in Kyoto maintained his position as figural head of state and cultural leader. The members of the Minamoto, Ashikaga, and Tokugawa families who held the position of shōgun successively from the twelfth to nineteenth centuries varied greatly in the extent and security of their authority and the stability and prosperity of the realm under their command.
While always remaining cognizant of their status as warriors and need to maintain their military prowess (bu), the first shōgun, Minamoto Yoritomo (r. 1192–99), recognized the necessity for the new military government (bakufu) to develop new administrative and cultural talents (known as bun) in order to rule the country effectively and to demonstrate their own legitimacy. Yoritomo, who was known in particular for his interest in poetry, was assisted in this endeavor by his own experience as a descendant of the imperial family in Kyoto, as well as by the minor courtiers and erudite Zen monks that acted as bureaucrats and advisors in the bakufu’s new capital of Kamakura. Thus, from the beginning, the shōgunate promoted a culture that combined aspects of samurai culture and the arts of the imperial court, with the balance between the two shifting in accordance with the interests of individual shōguns and their advisors. With the ascendancy of Zen Buddhism and the interest of many prominent monks in Chinese culture, the shōgunate absorbed the arts of Chinese literature, Confucian studies, the ritualized consumption of tea, ink monochrome paintings, garden design, and calligraphy.
Although many shōgun were active patrons of Zen and the related arts, it was by no means the only religion patronized by them. Pure Land Buddhism’s promise of immediate salvation through devotion to Amida Buddha was comforting to warriors, who frequently faced the possibility of violent death. This faith was expressed by the first Minamoto shōguns in the numerous reconstruction projects of Buddhist temples that were made necessary by decades of devastating warfare. Shōguns also embraced the native belief system of Shinto. For example, the most important shrine constructed in Kamakura was dedicated to the god Hachiman, who combined aspects of Shinto and Buddhist practice.
The tradition of active cultural involvement begun by the Minamoto and their influential regents from the Hōjō family was continued by the Ashikaga shōguns, especially the third and eighth shōguns of the Muromachi period, Yoshimitsu (r. 1369–95) and Yoshimasa (r. 1449–74). Their private villas, Rokuonji (popularly known as Kinkakuji, or the Golden Pavilion), built in 1397 by Yoshimitsu, and Jishōji (Ginkakuji, or the Silver Pavilion), completed in 1489 by Yoshimasa, served as elegant settings for the pursuit of art and culture. Both shōguns were enthusiastic and extravagant patrons of the arts and spent enormous sums on building projects. Inspired by Zen monk advisors and supported by renewed contacts with China, the Ashikaga shōguns amassed impressive collections of Song and Yuan dynasty paintings, encouraged Japanese painters to develop an indigenous ink painting tradition (notably among the Kano School artists they favored), actively participated in the tea ceremony (chanoyu) and collected tea utensils, sponsored the construction of gardens, and supported the practice of flower arrangement as a refined art form (ikebana). The Ashikaga shōguns also exerted an important influence on the dramatic arts as enthusiastic patrons of Nō dance-drama.
The Momoyama period of intensive political and martial competition gave rise to the construction of imposing, fortified stone castles. While a fondness for ink monochrome paintings continued, occupants of these massive structures decorated many rooms with bold, sumptuous, and highly colored paintings that could convey a potent visual impression of wealth and power. This luxurious aesthetic was also mirrored in the decorative arts, notably the sumptuous lacquerware interior architecture and utensils made for the shrine at Kōdaiji, in Kyoto, created by order of the widow of Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1536–1598) as a mausoleum for her husband and herself. Paradoxically, around the same time, these same warrior leaders also adopted a new aesthetic of natural simplicity first developed in association with the tea ceremony and its attendant utensils and decorations. This highly sophisticated concept of “artful poverty” is best exemplified in the ideals of wabicha, the rustic tea ceremony, which developed around the great tea master Sen no Rikyū (1522–1591), cultural advisor to Toyotomi Hideyoshi.
The succeeding Tokugawa shōguns, based in Edo, continued their predecessor’s patronage of the arts, including the tea ceremony, the collection of tea wares, Nō theater, and paintings by Kano School artists. In keeping with the conservative nature of their regime and its emphasis on Confucian restraint, the early Tokugawa rulers in particular focused their attention on more scholarly arts, such as calligraphy and poetry, and discouraged their samurai vassals from the frivolous pursuits of the urban pleasure quarters. In all eras, the political status of the shōguns gave them influence as cultural leaders, so that members of lower military ranks adopted many of the same fashions and preferences. Evidence of this can be seen in the popularity of Kano School paintings, wabicha-style tea parties, and Kōdaiji-style lacquerware, to name a few examples, beyond the ranks of the military leaders. This trend was enhanced by the sankin kōtai system instituted by the Tokugawa bakufu, whereby provincial warlords (daimyo) were required to maintain residences in Edo and spend specified amounts of time living there. The bakufu‘s desire to thwart the build-up of powerful rivals in the provinces by encouraging their vassals to expend their time and financial resources on cultural pursuits served to effectively spread the shōgun’s aesthetic influence.