Isaac Meyer

Historian, teacher, podcaster

Category: History of Japan Podcast Page 3 of 25

Episode 276 – The House of Cards, Part 4

This week, we do a deep dive on the life of Ashikaga Yoshimasa and the lead up to the Onin War, the conflict that traditionally marks the end of Ashikaga rule over Japan. But how fair is it to point to Onin as a break with the past?


Berry, Mary Elizabeth. The Culture of Civil War in Kyoto.

Keene, Donald. Yoshimasa and the Silver Pavillion: The Creation of the Soul of Japan. 

Sansom, George B. A History of Japan, 1334-1615.

Grossberg, Kenneth A. Japan’s Renaissance: The Politics of the Muromachi Bakufu.


Ashikaga Yoshimasa, the shogun who presided over the Onin conflict.

For long after the Onin War, the power politics surrounding it were a popular subject. Here, a kabuki play dramatizes the political cunning of Hosokawa Katsumoto, as he has a rival killed.

Hatakeyama Masanaga; his succession dispute with his adoptive brother will help spark the Onin War.

A marker showing the site of the first conflict between the two Hatakeyama brothers, which sparked the Onin war.

A rough breakdown of the sides of the Onin conflict as of 1467. Blue represents the Yamana-allied families, Yellow Hosokawa-allied ones, and Green families that switched sides. You can see that while not all of Japan got involved, the central third of the country was embroiled int he conflict.

One scene from the Onin War.

Another Onin War scene; note the foot soldiers (ashigaru), who were blamed for much of the destructive looting by kuge chroniclers.

Episode 275 – The House of Cards, Part 3

This week we turn away from politics to discuss religion, art, and the economy during the age of the Ashikaga. Why is this era such a moment of societal flourishing despite the constant warfare and instability of Ashikaga rule?


Collcutt, Martin. Five Mountains: The Rinzai Zen Monastic Institution in Medieval Japan. 

Adolphson, Michael S. The Teeth and Claws of the Buddha: Monastic Warriors and Sohei in Japan.

Sansom, George B. A History of Japan, 1334-1615.

Parker, Joseph D. Zen Buddhist Landscape Arts of Early Muromachi Japan.

Lu, David J. Japan: A Documentary History, vol. 1. 

Grossberg, Kenneth A. Japan’s Renaissance: The Politics of the Muromachi Bakufu.


A Noh performance. Note the mask, the musical performers behind the actor, and the fan in the actor’s hand — all hallmarks of Noh.

The gardens of Tenryuji.

A Noh stage; this should help you get a sense of the unusual layout of Noh performances.

Autumn landscape by Sesshu Toyo, c. 15th century.

Images of warrior monks were popularized during the Edo period, with depictions of historical figures like Musashibo Benkei (shown here with his friend Minamoto no Yoshitsune) becoming extremely common. In practice, few monks were actual warriors — instead, monastic armies consisted mostly of lay people hired to defend monasteries.

A mon (a type of coin) from the Muromachi period. The expansion of coinage helped grow the economy of the Muromachi era substantially.

Plum Tree Screen door by Kano Sanraku, c. 18th c. The Kano school emerged in the Muromachi period, and dominated the painting scene in Japan for the next several centuries.


Episode 274 – The House of Cards, Part 2

This week: war in the Ashikaga age. Plus; the reign of Ashikaga Yoshimitsu is generally considered the zenith of Ashikaga prestige, but why was his power built on such shaky foundations? Once the Ashikaga had seized control of Japan, how did they go about actually governing it?


Sansom, George B. A History of Japan, 1334-1615. 

Conlan, Thomas. State of War: The Violent Order of Fourteenth Century Japan

Conlan, Thomas. The Culture of Force and Farce: Fourteenth Century Japanese Warfare.

Grossberg, Kenneth. Japan’s Renaissance: The Politics of the Muromachi Bakufu.

Mass, Jeffrey. The Bakufu in Japanese History.


Nasu no Yoichi from the Heike Monogatari. Attempts to live up to feats of heroes like Yoichi were the driving force behind Muromachi period battles.

A scene from the Taiheiki; note that each warrior is individually labeled. This print is from the Edo era, but the Taiheiki text it is lifted from mimics the Heike Monogatari in prizing individual accomplishment as the hallmark of the samurai.

Kinkakuji, the “retirement home” of Ashikaga Yoshimitsu. Built as a Buddhist temple in the style popular on the Chinese mainland.

Ashikaga Yoshinori; chosen by lot to be shogun, he was probably the last person of real competence to hold the post.

Episode 273 – The House of Cards, Part 1

This week we start a multipart series on the Muromachi period and the reign of the Ashikaga family. How did they come to power? Why is their government generally described as so weak? And how, despite that weak government, did they win a 60 year war for control of Japan?


Conlan, Thomas. State of War: The Violent Order of Fourteenth Century Japan

Conlan, Thomas. The Culture of Force and Farce: Fourteenth Century Japanese Warfare.

Sansom, George B. A History of Japan, 1333-1615.

Grossberg, Kenneth. Japan’s Renaissance: The Politics of the Muromachi Bakufu.

Mass, Jeffrey. The Bakufu in Japanese History.


Ashikaga Takauji dressed in the style of his class for battle.

This map gives you an idea of the relative proximity of the two courts. Despite this, Yoshino’s mountainous location made it hard for the Ashikaga to take militarily.

The Yoshino palace. Even this photo gives you an idea of the difficulty of the terrain.

The Hana no Gosho, or palace of flowers on Muromachi Ave in Kyoto. This was the center of Ashikaga power, and the place from which we get the name “Muromachi Period.”

Kusunoki Masatsura (son of Masashige) defeating the armies of Ashikaga Takauji. Woodcut from the Edo period by Kuniyoshi.

The death of Kusunoki Masatsura at the Battle of Shijo Nawate. After decades of war, fewer and fewer samurai were willing to keep fighting for the south, and eventually Masatsura’s own brother would become a leading advocate for peace.

Ashikaga Yoshimitsu, the third Ashikaga shogun and the one to end the war. Note the shaved head and Buddhist prayer beads; we’ll have more to say about his religion later.

Go Kameyama, the final emperor of the Southern Court. Today, the Imperial Household Agency and the Japanese government recognize the southern line as legitimate even though the current emperors are descendants of the northern branch.

Episode 272 – I am the Law!

This week we cover the life and career of the legendary judge Oka Tadasuke, who rose from minor samurai to the rank of daimyo and a major position in the bakufu — only to become a legendary figure. Who is he? How did he rise so high? And what can he tell us about the role of judges and bureaucrats in Japanese society more generally?


Dening, Walter. Japan in Days of Yore. 

Mansfield, Stephen. Tokyo: A Biography.

Nice, Richard W. Treasury of Law. 

Angles, Jeffrey, trans. “The Execution of Ten’ichibo.” Critical Asian Studies 37, no 2 (2005), 305-321.


Ooka Tadasuke, from a woodcut illustrated version of the Ooka Seidan.

Ooka Tadasuke’s grave in Kanagawa.

A monument to the former site of the Minami Machibugyosho (the place of business for the Minami Machi bugyo). It’s located outside Yurakucho Station in Tokyo.

Tokugawa Yoshimune, Ooka Tadasuke’s patron.

Toyohara Kunisada print from the illustrated Ooka Seidan. This particular case is the story of a murder solved by Ooka.

Episode 271 – You’re Going on the List

This week, we cover the fascinating tale of Sei Shonagon and the Makura no Soushi, or Pillow Book. Why is a collection of anecdotes considered to be one of Japan’s greatest literary classics? What makes the Pillow Book so famous? And why does Isaac love it so very much?


Henitiuk, Valerie. Worlding Sei Shonagon: The Pillow Book in Translation.

Sato, Hiroaki. Legends of the Samurai.

Ivanova, Gergana. Unbinding the Pillow Book: The Many Lives of a Japanese Classic.


Sei Shonagon views the snow in Yamato province, by Utagawa. A Tokugawa era woodblock print.

Sei Shonagon as depicted in a mid-Edo woodblock print.

Sei Shonagon, from the late Edo woodblock print series “Six Fashionable Female Poetic Immortals.” I think she would have adored being described with all those words.

Sei Shonagon with her poem from the Hyakunin Isshu (no. 62) above.

Sei Shonagon became one of the most famous women in Japanese history, justifying her inclusion in this series of woodblocks by Utagawa Kunisada I: A Mirror of the Renowned Exemplary Women of Japan.

Episode 270 – A Brief and Fleeting Dream

This week, we cover the life and work of one of Japan’s most famous authors: the 11th century courtier Murasaki Shikibu. Why do we know so little about who she was? What inspired her to write Genji? Why do I dislike her work so viscerally? And how did it become so famous?


Shriane, Haruo, editor. Envisioning the Tale of Genji: Media, Gender, and Cultural Production.

Shirane, Haruo. A Bridge of Dreams: The Poetics of the Tale of Genji.

Bowring, Richard, trans. The Diary of Lady Murasaki.


For Edo period Japanese who did not want to slog through the original classical Japanese, there were emaki — illustrated versions — of the story of Genji. This scene is from Azumaya,, chapter 50 of the tale.

Another emaki of Genji, this one from the Takekawa chapter. A male courtier (bottom right) steals a glimpse of some lovely ladies.

Cover piece from Nise Murasaki Inaka Genji.

A cover from the manga edition of Genji Monogatari.

Murasaki Shikibu gazes at the moon, being inspired to write the tale of Genji.

In addition to writing Genji, Murasaki Shikibu was also an accomplished poet. One of her poems is included in the Ogura Hyakunin Isshu, probably the most famous poetry collection in Japan. Her poem (no. 57), as translated by LingWiki: “Meeting on the path / but I cannot clearly know / if it was he / because the midnight moon / in a cloud had disappeared.
This illustrated version shows Murasaki, along with her poem written in phonetic kana above. No contemporary pictures of her exist; she’s labeled as Murasaki, and is wearing purple (the color Murasaki), and that’s how you can tell it’s her.

Episode 269 – The Revolution Will Not Be Live

This week, we cover the little-known “Chichibu Incident,” an uprising against the Meiji government in 1884 that saw several thousand people take up arms against the state. Where did it come from? How did the rebellion fare? And what is its connection to the broader trends of Japanese history?


Bowen, Roger W. Rebellion and Democracy in Meiji Japan.

Siniawer, Eiko. Ruffians, Yakuza, Nationalists: The Violent Politics of Modern Japan.

Steele, M. William. Alternative Narratives in Modern Japanese History.


Tashiro Eisuke, party secretary of the Poor People’s Party (Konminto)

A monument to the Chichibu Incident. At the time decried as treason, the event is now more often viewed as a genuine popular uprising against a government that was not considerate regarding the hardships its policies inflicted.

Another monument to the incident. Note the leaders to the right (Tashiro is the one standing).

Kinsenji, a Buddhist temple in Chichibu, holds the grave of Tashiro Eisuke. He was captured by the government and executed for treason.

A Japanese-language map of the incident, from a local museum.

Episode 268 – The Right thing for the Wrong Reasons

Today, we cover one of the most unusual stories of WWII: the policy of saving and protecting Jews pursued by some among Japan’s military leadership. How did anti-semitic ideas about a global conspiracy convince some in Japan that the Jews could be their allies? How many were saved? And what does it all mean?


Goodman, David and Masanori Miyazawa. Jews in the Japanese Mind: The History and Uses of a Cultural Stereotype.

Shillony, Ben-Ami. Jews & The Japanese

Gao, Bei. Shanghai Sanctuary: Chinese and Japanese Policy Toward European Jews


The synagogue in Harbin, Manchuria
children in Shanghai during the Second World War

One of the main streets of the Shanghai Ghetto in 1943.
This image gives you some idea of how cramped living space was in the Shanghai Ghetto. 
Polish refugees arriving in Shanghai
Yasue Norihiro, one of the two leading men behind the initiative to protect Jews within Japan
Inuzuka Koreshige, also a leader in the initiative to protect Jews within the empire
Despite having been proven a forgery back in the 1920s, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion remains a go-to for anti-semites in Japan and around the world. This edition was edited by Japanese anti-semite Ota Ryu in the 1990s. 

Episode 267 – Do Not Give Up Your Life

This week, we cover poet and political activist Yosano Akiko in her drift from icon of the political left to polemicist for the ultranationalist right. What kind of life trajectory drives a person that way? Why did she follow that path? And why did she write so many poems about breasts?


Garon, Sheldon. Molding Japanese Minds: The State in Everyday Life

Dollase, Hiromi Tsuchiya. “Awakening Female Sexuality in Yosano Akiko’s Midaregami.Simply Haiku: Autumn, 2005.

Rabson, Steve. “Yosano Akiko on War: To Give One’s Life or Not: A Question of Which War.” The Journal of the Association of Teachers of Japanese 25, No. 1., Special Issue: Yosano Akiko.

Larson, Phyllis Hyland. “Yosano Akiko and the Re-Creation of the Female Self: An Autogynography.” From the same edition of the above journal.


Yosano Akiko as a younger woman.

Yosano Tekkan in his prime. To be fair, he’s quite a looker, though I’m not sure he’s 400 poems-worth of good looking.

Yosano Akiko later in life.

Though one of Yosano Akiko’s missions was to push for women to not just be valued for motherhood, she herself was quite the mother — to 13 children!

Yosano Akiko and Yosano Tekkan together early in their marriage.

Though like so much else of old Tokyo, the Yosano home is no longer standing, there is a nice little monument on its former site.

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