Japan, 1400–1600 A.D.

  • Storage jar
  • Orchids and Rocks
  • Portrait of a Zen Master
  • Su Shi (Dongpo) in a Straw Hat and Sandals
  • Helmet (Suji-kabuto Akoda-nari)
  • Helmet (Zukinnari Kabuto)
  • Gibbons in a Landscape
  • Birds and Flowers of the Four Seasons
  • Whose Sleeves? (Tagasode)
  • Wine Ewer with Design of Chrysanthemums and Paulownia Crests in Alternating Fields


1400 A.D.

1450 A.D.

Muromachi period, 1392–1573

1450 A.D.

1500 A.D.

Muromachi period, 1392–1573

1500 A.D.

1550 A.D.

Muromachi period, 1392–1573

1550 A.D.

1600 A.D.

Muromachi period, 1392–1573
Momoyama period, 1573–1615


The fifteenth and sixteenth centuries are the most turbulent period in Japanese history, as military warlords clash violently and frequently in attempts to increase their own power and territory. The era when members of the Ashikaga family occupy the position of shōgun is known as the Muromachi period, named after the district in Kyoto where their headquarters are located. The Ashikaga government, or bakufu, never succeeds in extending wide political control, as had their predecessors of the Kamakura era. Rivalry between contending daimyo, or provincial warlords, causes increasing instability, which culminates in the Ōnin War (1467–77). With the resulting destruction of Kyoto and the collapse of the shōgunate’s power, the country is plunged into a century of warfare and social chaos known as the Sengoku, the Age of the Country at War.

The cultural legacy of the Ashikaga shōgunate is the pervasive influence of Zen Buddhism in Japanese culture. Without Zen, such ancillary arts as the tea ceremony (chanoyu), flower arranging (ikebana), the Nō dance-drama, and the code of conventions and formal etiquette that characterizes modern life in Japan either would not have come into existence or would have taken very different forms from those that prevail today.

During the sixteenth century, unity is gradually restored through the efforts of three warlords. The first, Oda Nobunaga (1534–1582), through military might and political acuity, takes control of Kyoto and deposes the last Ashikaga shōgun. He is followed by Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1536–1598), who continues the campaign to reunite Japan. The name of this period, Momoyama, derives from the place near Kyoto where Hideyoshi builds one of his castles. These imposing stone structures are abundantly decorated with bold and resplendent paintings and works of art that epitomize the might of their owners and the splendor of Momoyama culture.

Key Events

  • 1423

    Tenshō Shūbun (active 1414-before 1463), a Zen monk and one of the foremost painters of the Muromachi period, travels to Korea as part of a diplomatic mission charged by the shōgun with acquiring a copy of the Korean version of the complete Buddhist canon (Tripitaka Koreana). This trip exemplifies the active trade and communication between Muromachi Japan and the Asian continent, as well as the shōgunate’s enthusiastic support of interregional ties and Zen establishments. Shūbun’s atmospheric and expressionistic ink-monochrome landscapes, like those of his contemporaries, are inspired by continental examples, specifically Southern Song and Yuan landscape paintings. During this period, Zen temples in Japan actively import Chinese literature, philosophy, artistic styles, and religious ideas.

  • 1450

    The Zen temple Ryōanji is established in the northwestern hills of Kyoto. This temple complex contains one of the best known “dry landscape” gardens (kare sansui), which consists of fifteen rocks arranged on a bed of raked white sand inside a small walled enclosure. While verdant gardens formed an important part of secular residences since at least Heian times, austere dry landscape gardens are developed in Zen temples as aids to meditation.

  • 1466–1477

    The Ōnin War is fought, ostensibly over a succession dispute between the Ashikaga shōguns. Actually, most of the strife is generated by competition between regional warlords. As a result of this war, which ends inconclusively but devastates the capital Kyoto, central control of the shōgunate is severely weakened. Power then shifts to provincial military leaders (daimyo), who accrue greater strength and independence. The succeeding century of violent territorial competition between daimyo is known as the Sengoku period.

  • 1483

    Ashikaga shōgun Yoshimasa (1436–1490), one of the period’s most influential and insightful art patrons but a weak and indecisive leader, builds the Ginkakuji (Silver Pavilion) as his retirement retreat. This elegant complex of buildings set in a garden features what might be the first room built especially for conducting the tea ceremony. It also houses Yoshimasa’s extensive collection of Chinese paintings, ceramics, and other works of art. The location of Yoshimasa’s villa in Higashiyama, in the eastern hills of Kyoto, gives this politically troubled but culturally refined epoch its name.

  • 1488

    The poets Sōgi (1421–1502), Shōhaku (1443–1529), and Sōchō (1448–1532) meet in the village of Minase, south of Kyoto, and compose what is considered one of the finest compositions of linked verse (renga). This poetic form, which consists of short waka poems linked by related words and images and comprised of alternating verses of 5-7-5 and 7-7 syllables, reaches its highest level of accomplishment and popularity during the Higashiyama period.

  • 1495

    Sesshū Tōyō (1420–1506), one of the greatest ink-monochrome painters of the Muromachi period, paints his Splashed-Ink Landscape (Haboku sansui zu; now in the Tokyo National Museum). This highly expressionistic painting, which suggests a misty mountain landscape with only a few large and roughly applied brushstrokes, grows out of Zen Buddhism’s emphasis on intuitive understanding and sudden enlightenment. Although Sesshū was a Zen monk, he lived most of his life working as a professional painter and not affiliated with specific temples. The popularity of his Zen-inspired painting style, especially among his samurai patrons, exemplifies the expansion of this artistic development into secular art and throughout Japan.

  • 1513

    At about this time, Kano Motonobu (ca. 1476–1559) paints a six-panel depiction of Zen patriarchs for a subtemple of Daitokuji in Kyoto. These engaging scenes of Chinese monks show Motonobu’s distinctive style, which transforms Zen-inspired ink painting based on Chinese brushwork and conventions into a decorative style by incorporating native yamato-e artistic preferences and methods. Motonobu is the second in a long line of painters known as the Kano School of Painting, which gained great success and exerted far-reaching influence as the official painters of the Ashikaga shōguns and later the preferred artists of numerous military leaders, court nobles, Zen monasteries, and wealthy merchants.

  • 1525

    The oldest surviving painting of scenes of daily life in Kyoto (rakuchū-rakugai zu, or “paintings of inside and outside the capital”), known as the Machida screens (now in the National Museum of Japanese History, Chiba), is executed by an unknown professional artist. This colorful, richly detailed panorama of a variety of people, sites, and activities mounted on a pair of six-fold screens marks the beginning of an interest in genre painting in the Muromachi period. Although genre images had been painted in the Heian period, typically as illustrations of narratives, rakuchū-rakugai zu take the life of the entire city—commoners as well as the elite in their daily comings and goings—as their primary subject, and dispense with a storyline. As interest grows in depicting pleasurable indoor pursuits and artists’ focus on their subjects narrows, the painting style known as ukiyo-e emerges.

  • 1543

    A group of Portuguese sailors accidentally lands on Tanegashima island in a Chinese boat, marking the first time that Europeans set foot on Japanese soil. Initially, the Japanese respond with interest to these new arrivals and begin to import, primarily through the port city of Nagasaki, such Western commodities as firearms, glassware, eyeglasses, tobacco, and clocks. As European goods become fashionable, the Japanese adopt some European customs and produce their own muskets, bake and enjoy bread (pan), fry foods in batter (tempura), and wear pantaloons.

  • 1549

    The Jesuit priest Francis Xavier (1506–1552) arrives in Kagashima and introduces Christianity to Japan. At least partially motivated by a desire for Western firearms and goods, some provincial warlords (daimyo) convert to the new religion. For the next century, Christianity is accepted and achieves some success in attracting converts. Christian images painted in oil and engraved on copper plates introduce Western art techniques to Japan.

  • 1568

    The military leader Oda Nobunaga (1534–1582), the first daimyo to achieve a dominant position among his rivals, takes control of Kyoto and installs Ashikaga Yoshiaki as the reigning but powerless shōgun. The latter abdicates his position in 1573, ending the Ashikaga shōgunate.

  • 1576

    Oda Nobunaga begins construction on Azuchi Castle, which will serve as his residence and seat of government, on the shores of Lake Biwa outside Kyoto. This imposing stone fortress (no longer extant) is decorated with sliding doors and folding screens painted by Kano Eitoku (1534–1590), who had been employed by the Ashikaga shōguns. The bright colors, bold brushwork, and glittering gold leaf of these paintings exemplify the magnificent artistic style characteristic of this period, known as Azuchi-Momoyama.

  • 1582

    Oda Nobunaga is assassinated. One of his generals, Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1536–1598), seizes power and continues the process of subduing rival warlords through military or political means. Hideyoshi establishes his headquarters outside Kyoto in Momoyama.

  • 1587

    Declaring Japan “the land of the kami,” Toyotomi Hideyoshi suddenly orders the expulsion of Jesuit missionaries from Japan and takes control of Nagasaki. Although this edict is not enforced, it exemplifies the growing anti-Christian sentiment of the period and anticipates more forceful suppressions in later decades.

  • 1587

    Toyotomi Hideyoshi hosts an extravagant ten-day tea ceremony. Held outdoors at the Kitano Shrine, the guests are from all social classes, including Emperor Go-Yōzei (r. 1586–1611). The entertainment includes concerts, plays, dances, and art exhibitions such as displays of the finest works in Hideyoshi’s personal collection. Tea master Sen no Rikyū (1522–1591), who is instrumental in the adoption of rustic-looking teawares and small tea huts that evoke connections to simple, daily life, officiates at this event. The occasion, which is interrupted by an uprising in the recently subjugated island of Kyūshū, provides an opportunity for Hideyoshi to display his wealth, social influence, and cultural acumen.

  • 1591

    Toyotomi Hideyoshi conquers the northern part of Honshū island, effectively unifying Japan. To stabilize the country and consolidate his control, he orders men to follow the professions of their fathers, binds the peasants to the land they farm, disarms all non-samurai, mints new coins, standardizes weights and measures, and exerts control over foreign trade.

  • 1592–1593

    With the ultimate goal of expanding into China, Toyotomi Hideyoshi invades Korea. Although he is forced to retreat by Korean naval successes and effective guerrilla fighting, as well as intervention by Chinese troops, the invasion devastates the peninsula.

  • 1596

    Toyotomi Hideyoshi invades Korea for the second time. In addition to brutal killing and widespread destruction, large numbers of Korean craftsmen are abducted and transported to Japan. Skillful Korean potters play a crucial role in establishing such new pottery types as Satsuma, Arita, and Hagi ware in Japan. The invasion ends with the sudden death of Hideyoshi.


“Japan, 1400–1600 A.D.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/ht/?period=08&region=eaj (October 2002)