From Sovereign to Symbol: An Age of Ritual Determinism in Fourteenth Century Japan

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4 Scopus citations


The fourteenth century witnessed a fundamental political and intellectual conflict about the nature of power and society that was expressed through the rituals and institutions of two rival courts. Rather than understanding the collapse of Japan?s first warrior government, the Kamakura bakufu, and the onset of a chaotic period of civil war as the manipulation of rival courts by powerful warrior factions, this study argues that the crucial ideological and intellectual conflict of the fourteenth century was between conservative forces of ritual precedent and ritual determinists steeped in Shingon Buddhism. Members of the monastic nobility who came to dominate the court used the language of Buddhist ritual, including incantations (mantras), gestures (mudras), and "cosmograms" (mandalas projected onto the geography of Japan) to prosecute their bids for power. Sacred places that were ritual centers became the targets of military capture precisely because they were ritual centers. Ritual was not simply symbolic; rather ritual become the orchestration, or actual dynamic of power in itself. This study undermines the conventional wisdom that Zen ideals linked to the samurai were responsible for the manner in which power was conceptualized in medieval Japan, and instead argues that Shingon ritual specialists prolonged the civil war of Japan's fourteenth century, and enforced the new notion that loyal service trumped the merit of those who simply requested compensation for their acts. Ultimately, Shingon mimetic ideals enhanced warrior power, and enabled Ashikaga Yoshimitsu, rather than the reigning emperor, to assert sovereign authority in Japan.

Original languageEnglish (US)
PublisherOxford University Press
Number of pages256
ISBN (Electronic)9780199919079
ISBN (Print)9780199778102
StatePublished - Jan 19 2012
Externally publishedYes

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • General Arts and Humanities


  • Ashikaga
  • Bakufu (Warrior Government)
  • Court Chronicles
  • Japan
  • Kamakura
  • Mandala
  • Mantra
  • Mudra
  • Ritual Mimesis
  • Sovereignty
  • Temple Documents
  • Yoshimitsu


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