The Gempei War proved to be a great turning point in Japanese history. The victor, Minamoto Yoritomo, remained in his eastern headquarters at Kamakura, which came to be known as a bakufu, or military “tent government.” The imperial court remained far away to the west, in the old capital Kyoto (Heian). Yet Japan was not divided between them — at least, not into two separate parts, although the erosion of central government power continued. Yoritomo claimed direct authority only over his own network of vassal warriors, or “housemen.” He solidified his hold over these warriors by also claiming the right to reward them with appointments as estate stewards throughout Japan. But the emperor, in Kyoto, remained the font of legitimate government.
In 1192, Yoritomo received from the emperor the title Sei-i-tai-shogun, or “Great General Pacifying the Barbarians.” This is commonly shortened simply to shogun. ... It is clear that in the last decades of the twelfth century, Japan had crossed some important threshold, moving from the Heian age of centralized, civilian, aristocratic rule to a time of increasingly decentralized military rule in the age of the shoguns. As a sign of the radically changed times, between 1200 and 1840, no Japanese emperor appears to have actually held what we think of now as the standard imperial title, Tenno [天皇]. (HEA, 159)
The victory of the Minamoto clan, which established its capital at Kamakura in the east, did not cause the aristocratic society of the Heian capital to collapse immediately. Members of the emperor’s court led much the same lives as before, as we know from their diaries and the poetry they composed, whether on the conventionally admired sights of nature or bittersweet memories of love. But with the foundation of the new capital by the shogun Minamoto Yoritomo, warriors (bushi) now dominated the scene, and the literature of the medieval period came to be characterized by accounts of the warfare that the samurai waged rather than by the writings of the court.
Aesthetic attitudes soon changed in similar ways, and the new masters of Japan imposed their own criteria of taste. Nonetheless, these changes tended to be softened by the influence of miyabi [elegance, refinement, courtliness], and even the fiercest warlord was to be much more likely to compose poetry on the beauty of falling cherry blossoms than on the joys of victory in battle. ... The distinctive aesthetic standards in literature and art that eventually emerged did not represent a sharp break with the past so much as an intensifying and darkening of Heian ideals. The seemingly endless warfare gave new meaning to the uncertainty of life, which also was a frequent theme in the writings of the Heian courtiers, who saw death in the falling of blossoms or in a moment of parting, but still there was a difference. The court lady who in the past had brooded over a lover’s neglect was now likely to suffer more immediate grief on learning he had been killed in battle. In some diaries, women described their emotions on seeing their lover’s head on a pike being paraded through the streets.
The aesthetic ideals that pervaded the poetry, drama, painting, gardens, tea ceremony, and many other activities of the medieval period cannot be evoked by one single word, but yugen is perhaps the most characteristic. The term yugen was used to evoke the profound, remote, and mysterious, those things that cannot easily be grasped or expressed in words. ... The Japanese of the medieval period courted ambiguity, leaving empty spaces in their compositions for readers or spectators to fill in according to their intuitive understanding of the ultimate meaning of the poem or play. ...
Even though it may be impossible to explain yugen, we can intuitively sense it. “It is just as when we look at the sky of an autumn dusk. It has no sound or color, and yet, though we do not understand why, we somehow find ourselves moved to tears.” (Sources of Japanese Tradition, 364-366)
Wabi-sabi is the most conspicuous and characteristic feature of what we think of as traditional Japanese beauty. ... The closest English word to wabi-sabi is probably “rustic.” Webster’s defines “rustic” as “simple, artless, or unsophisticated ... [with] surfaces rough or irregular.” While “rustic” represents only a limited dimension of the wabi-sabi aesthetic, it is the initial impression many people have when they first see a wabi-sabi expression. ... Originally, the Japanese words “wabi” and “sabi” had quite different meanings. “Sabi” originally meant “chill,” “lean,” or “withered.” “Wabi” originally meant the misery of living alone in nature, away from society, and suggested a discouraged, dispirited, cheerless emotional state. Around the 14th century, the meanings of both words began to evolve in the direction of more positive aesthetic values. The self-imposed isolation and voluntary poverty of the hermit and ascetic came to be considered opportunities for spiritual richness. For the poetically inclined, this kind of live fostered an appreciation of the minor details of everyday life and insights into the beauty of the inconspicuous and overlooked aspects of nature. In turn, unprepossessing simplicity took on new meaning as the basis for a new, pure beauty. (Wabi-Sabi for Artists, Designers, Poets & Philosophers, 21-22)
Sen no Rikyu (1522-1591). ... Rikyu, along with nine other tea masters, helped [Toyotomi] Hideyoshi by procuring and appraising tea-related objects and by interpreting the complex protocol of tea and tea utensils used in formal situations. Although the late 16th century was a period of almost continuous warfare, it was also a time of creativity and invention in the arts. In tea there was considerable experimentation with objects, architectural space, and the ritual itself. It was in the midst of this cultural flux that Rikyu secured his most enduring aesthetic triumph: to unequivocally place crude, anonymous, indigenous Japanese and Korean folkcraft — things wabi-sabi — on the same artistic level, or even higher than, slick, perfect, Chinese treasures. Rikyu also created a new kind of tea room based on the prototype of a farmer’s hut of rough mud walls, thatched roof, and misshapen exposed wood structural elements. Rikyu then compressed this room down to an astounding two tatami mats, a mere thirty-nine square feet.
When tea is made with water drawn from the depths of Mind
Whose bottom is beyond measure,(Toyotomi Hideyoshi; Zen and Japanese Culture, 280)
We really have what is called cha-no-yu (i.e. tea ceremony).
Why were the samurai drawn to Zen ...
and how did this influence Japanese culture?