The Emperor of Japan, hallowed as a direct descendant of the Sun Goddess Amaterasu, was little more than a prisoner of the state.
Since the fall of the Fujiwara and the rise of the samurai in the year 1185 (according to the Christian calendar), the emperor’s only real duty was to anoint as Sei’i Tai Shogun the warrior who had defeated all contenders, and then each of his chosen descendants as long as the clan held onto power.
Aside from the occasional holiday to a provincial castle town, he might spend the entirety of his life within the walls of the Imperial Palace in Kyoto. As first defined by Prince Shôtoku, his “occupation” amounted to studying the Confucian classics and patronizing performances of traditional court music and Noh. And fathering heirs.
An emperor who wished for more freedom could always abdicate. But whatever his status, he depended on the financial support of the shogun to make ends meet.
The first shogun, Minamoto no Yoritomo, moved the political capital to Kamakura, far from Kyoto and the waning influence of the court. The Kamakura shogunate lasted until 1333, when a triumvirate of warlords led by Ashikaga Takauji overthrew the regime and briefly reinstituted imperial rule in the person of Emperor Go-Daigo.
Almost from the start, disenfranchised samurai campaigned to reinstate the status quo. Tasked to put down the festering revolts, Takauji instead captured Kamakura and declared himself shogun. In less than a year, he eliminated his two co-conspirators, seized Kyoto, and installed Go-Daigo’s cousin on the Chrysanthemum Throne.
Emperor Go-Daigo refused to surrender. He fled south and established the “Southern Court” on Mount Yoshino. For the next sixty years, he and his three successors reigned (though only nominally ruled) in defiance of the “Northern Court” pretenders.
Finally in 1392, Ashikaga Takauji’s grandson forcibly reunited the two imperial houses, eliminating this ongoing challenge to the legitimacy of the Ashikaga shogunate.
No sooner had that fire been quenched but a long-simmering feud between the Ôuchi and Ashikaga clans erupted into open hostilities. From his stronghold in the port city of Sakai, Ôuchi Yoshihiro raised his battle standards and reached out to past supporters of the Southern Court.
The year was 1399 and Ashikaga Yoshimitsu was not about to let history repeat itself.