Yet he made a contribution to Japanese culture that has far outlasted the conquests of his triumphant predecessors. So argues Donald Keene, the distinguished American scholar and leading interpreter of Japanese civilization, in his elegant, incisive new biography, Yoshimasa and the Silver Pavilion: The Creation of the Soul of Japan. The arts in 15th century Japan were (with a few exceptions such as Noh drama) self-conscious imitations of the cultural achievements of China. Keene painstakingly builds the case that much of the aesthetic sensibility that modern Japanese people now think of as being especially Japanese can be traced to the exquisite refinement of taste that evolved under Yoshimasa.
After retiring from public life and entering the Zen Buddhist order as a monk, Yoshimasa freely indulged his passions for architecture, gardening, literature and fine art. Early in his reign, he gained notoriety for building lavish palaces, even during times of terrible hardship for most of his people; in retirement, he turned to a more discreet, muted style. The highest expression of this restrained aesthetic was the Silver Pavilion, a superbly balanced temple made entirely of wood and paper at Yoshimasa's place of retreat in the Higashiyama district of Kyoto. Architectural historians consider the Ginkaku-ji, as it is popularly known, one of Japan's greatest artistic achievements.
One of the key innovations of the Silver Pavilion was the central importance of its gardens, a design approach that became basic to Japanese architecture. Gardens had always held an important place in the nation's soul, as we know from The Tale of Genji and other early court fiction of the Heian period. At that time, however, gardens were seasonal, emphasizing spring and autumn to illustrate the perishability of beauty, the concept of the "pity of things." In Yoshimasa's era, however, gardens moved toward a Zen aesthetic, becoming more serene places of contemplation that favored the use of symbols of eternity such as rocks and sand over the transient beauty of flowers.
The rooms of the Silver Pavilion were designed to frame views of the gardens as much as to be beautiful in their own right. Here, Yoshimasa and a group of like-minded aesthetes would meet to compose poetry and perform that most quintessentially Japanese of arts, the tea ceremony. (Today, any object of the tea ritual from that time, even the humblest bamboo ladle, fetches a fabulous sum at auction if an association with Yoshimasa can be established.) An accomplished poet and great patron of Noh theater, Yoshimasa explored every artistic field known in his day and even created a few: he played a crucial role in the emerging art of flower arrangement and dabbled in the blending of perfumes.
Yoshimasa and the Silver Pavilion is a dense little book, packed almost to overflowing with information, and one that richly rewards the careful reader. Keene is a graceful, entertaining companion, writing with a refreshing lack of pomposity. "The alliances and disputes of the warrior families at this time are hard to remember," he confesses, "because the sides changed so often and the names of the participants were so similar." (Just what I was thinking, says the reader.) Yet the book is always authoritative and lucid. Anyone curious about the development of the legendary style of Japan will find it an invaluable and charming guide.