Also please note that I am absolutely not an expert on Japanese history or culture. If I've made any mistakes, please feel free to point them out. If anyone has anything to add, please do so using the "comments" option.
The Ashikaga was a Japanese family that occupied the office of shogun ("great general") from 1338 to 1573. This time is called the Muromachi period because the shogun's palace was in the Muromachi district of Kyoto. The dynasty's founder, Takauji, rebelled against the emperor, setting up a rival government in Kyoto. Civil war continued until 1392, when the legitimate emperor Daigo II renounced his claim to the throne.
The Ashikaga then tried to unify the country, but were unable to control the local feudal lords. Wars between these feudal lords became common through the 16th century.
In general, the Muromachi period was one of great refinements in art and literature, and of the development of Buddhism as a major Japanese political force. For centuries Buddhist monasteries had grown in wealth and power. Buddhist monks, dressed in armor and carrying weapons, often turned the tide of battles with their strong organization and fortified monasteries.
Flowers became connected to the religion of Japan. "Flower masters" grew, who taught how flowers should be grown in the garden and placed in the home.
The Japanese watch for the blossoms associated with each season, and for a week or two in April, the cherry blooms. All Japan seems to leave work to appreciate it, and even make pilgrimages to places where the miracle is most abundant. Nowhere has another people shown as much love of nature as one finds in Japan, or shown such care in cultivating gardens and nourishing plants.
Another result of the shogun's domination was the imposed isolation of Japan from the rest of the world. The first Europeans to visit the country were Portuguese traders who landed on the island in 1542.
St. Francis Xavier, a Jesuit missionary, brought Christianity to Japan in 1549; and by the end of the century about 300,000 Japanese had converted to Roman Catholicism. Portuguese, Spanish, and Dutch traders began visiting the island with increasing regularity. The shoguns became convinced that Christianity was designed to pave the way for European conquest and colonialism. In 1612, persecution of Christians began and several massacres followed. Europeans were refused permission to land, and a series of laws forbade travel abroad, prohibiting even the building of large ships. Japan had entered its "Enclosed period".
For the next few centuries, Japanese culture remained static. During the 18th century, however, new economic and social conditions began to indicate the collapse of feudalism. A large merchant class grew in strength, and peasant revolts grew more frequent because of the poverty of the lower classes.
Japan's awakening consciousness of the outside world began in 1720, when shogun Yoshimune repealed the ban of European books and study. The US was particularly anxious to make a treaty and open commerce with the Japanese. In 1853, the American government sent a formal mission to the emperor headed by Commodore Matthew Calbraith Perry, leading a squadron of four war ships and 560 men.
To be continued...
There are a lot of great books on Japan, of course. One that's been especially helpful to me in writing these posts is Japan: Its History and Culture, by W. Scott Morton and J. Kenneth Olenik. There's also a very enjoyable travel memoir called A Year in Japan, by Kate T. Williamson. Both are available in the Hansisgreat Bookstore, or online at Barnes & Noble.
For my posts on other Nations of the World, click here.