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Rating: 2 votes, 5.00 average.

Book Review: The Culture of Civil War in Kyoto

Posted January 11th, 2011 at 07:16 AM by leakbrewergator
Updated April 3rd, 2011 at 07:18 AM by leakbrewergator

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Mary Elizabeth Berry is absolutely one of my favorite historians. I know I’ve said that countless times on Historum before, but I just don’t know if I can stress that enough. I won’t lie, The Culture of Civil War in Kyoto is probably my least favorite Berry work. However, that’s still good enough to be listed among my favorites.

One word of advice for anyone reading this book: Have a highlighter ready. I was constantly highlighting different terms and concepts throughout this book. In fact, there was so much highlighting, it was hard to go back and pick out specific material that I wanted to write about for this review. This book is as good as any text book when it comes to terminology. However, unlike some historians, Berry does a tremendous job of providing a definition for any Japanese term that she introduces.

The maps in this book are outstanding. They are also very specific. Berry provides maps of certain estates, different roads, what areas were burned during the Onin War, etc. They really were a valuable contribution to the overall work.

At the very basic level, this book discusses what Kyoto was like during different power struggles from the Onin War until the arrival of Oda Nobunaga. Berry breaks down this time period into 7 different power transitions. It is within these categories that I will focus on for the rest of this review.

1.The Onin War, 1567-1477 – This is where Berry’s book really brought me in. I’ve never been a huge fan of studying the Onin War. However, Berry manages to overview the war briefly, while staying very detailed. (I know that doesn’t make much sense, but trust me, Berry is good at that sort of thing.) Then, once Berry grabs my attention and has me interested in the Onin War, she reminds me why I never really liked it in the first place. It was basically useless. Berry states:

The Onin War was inconclusive on a grand scale: it effected no settlement, identified no group of victors, established no durable alliances.
2.The coup of Hosokawa Masamoto, 1493-1494 – Born out of the Onin War, Masamoto rebelled against Ashikaga Yoshitane due to a succession dispute.

3.The battles of the Hosokawa heirs, 1507-1508 – What I found most interesting in this segment, was the fact that Kyoto became much more of a police state during this period. This was especially true in terms of religious tolerance. Among the many primary sources that Berry draws from, there was this directive issued in Kyoto during this particular period regarding Nichiren:

Item….Anyone who conceals a Nichiren priest is guilty of a crime.

Item….If there is any household that displays a Nichiren amulet or devotional oaths, that house, the two adjoining houses, and the three facing houses will be confiscated.
4.The rivalry of 2 Shogunates, the rise of the Lotus, 1527-1536 – The 2 Shogunates were the Hosokawa and the Ashikaga. The two sides reached an agreement in 1532. However, from 1532 until 1536, Kyoto was basically under control of the commoners who took part in the Hokke Lotus uprising. Perhaps showing why Kyoto officials were so strict on religious tolerance previously.

5.The challenge of Miyoshi Chokei, 1549-1553 – Chokei is generally considered to be one of Japan’s greatest politicians. He’s also sometimes painted as a villain. He ousted Ashikaga Yoshiteru, forcing him into exile and ruled Kyoto from 1553-1558.

6.Assassination and interregnum, 1565-1568 – This period marked the ascension to power of a man who was a much greater villain than Chokei could have ever been. Matsunaga Hisahide is almost unanimously vilified as a cunning, devious and untrustworthy politician. How that separates him from other politicians? I don’t know

7.The invasion of Oda Nobunaga, 1568 – Nobunaga marches on Kyoto and establishes Ashikaga Yoshiaki as his puppet Shogun. Open conflict between the two ensues shortly after….

While I have focused exclusively on these power transitions in this review, The Culture of Civil War in Kyoto provides a lot more depth on what it was like for the commoners in Kyoto throughout these periods. There are excellent chapters on how the townspeople entertained themselves, practiced religion, labored, earned money, paid respects, and just about anything else anyone does on a daily basis.


I really don’t want to be one of those people that gives any book he reads and enjoys a 5.0. It’s hard for me to find any errors with a Mary Berry work, and this is no exception. However, the subject matter just didn’t capture me as much as her other works. It’s really no fault of her own.

How it stacks up to past reviews:

Samurai, Warfare and The State – 5.0/5.0
The Culture of Civil War in Kyoto – 4.5/50
Japan’s Medieval Population – 3.5/5.0
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