Eminent Muromachi academy visited by Francis Xavier


Ashikaga Gakkō (足利学校, Ashikaga School) was a primary educational facility of the Muromachi Period (1333-1573) and is located in what is now the city of Ashikaga in Tochigi Prefecture. The exact date of its founding is unknown; there are several theories about the identity of the founder, but the most likely candidate is Ashikaga Yoshikane (足利義兼, 1154-1199), a warrior in the service of the Kamakura shogunate. At its inception, it was little more than a library for the use of family members. Only in 1439, when Uesugi Norizane (上杉憲実, 1410-1466), who held a number of high government posts during the Muromachi period, installed Kaigen (d 1469), a monk at the temple Engakuji (円覚寺) in Kamakura, as the first rector and drew up a set of regulations, was it formally established as a school. Norizane brought many books and commentaries from China and had the library restored.

Monks made up a large part of the student body, and the curriculum concentrated on Confucian learning, with particular emphasis given to divination studies based on the Yi jing (Chin. 易經 I ching; The Book of Changes). Military science was the other primary subject. In this age of turmoil, these were the most important fields of learning for the warrior class, and after graduation, many students became military advisers to regional warriors.

The school saw its heyday during the Sengoku period (1467-1568), especially in the years under the direction of the monk Kyūka (九華, d 1578), when it is said to have attracted as many as 3,000 students. In 1549, the Roman Catholic missionary Saint Francis Xavier reported that the Ashikaga School was the largest and the most prestigious academy in eastern Japan. The school continued under the patronage of the Uesugi, the Late Hōjō clan (後北条氏), and the Tokugawa families, but in the middle years of the Edo period (1600-1868), it went into decline, finally closing in 1872.

The Ashikaga Library (足利学校遺蹟図書館 Ashikaga Gakkō Iseki Toshokan) is one of Japan's oldest surviving libraries. Like the Ashikaga Gakkō, with which it was associated, it is believed to have been founded in the 12th century CE. By the Muromachi Period, it ranked with the Kanazawa Bunko as one of the two most highly regarded libraries in Japan and was particularly noted for its collection of Song (Sung, 960-1279) and Ming (1368-1644) block-printed books. However, during the Edo Period (1600-1868) it went into decline, and many of its best holdings were lost. It was closed after the Meiji Restoration of 1868 and, together with other Ashikaga Gakkō property, was preserved by a historic site committee until the end of World War II. Since the war, the collection has been housed in a small building on the school site, which also serves as the local public library. More than 2,200 of its old manuscripts and Chinese holdings have been officially designated as National Treasures or Important Cultural Assets. In 1990, some of the wooden annexe buildings of the library and the school were restored and renovated.

References:

  • Wai-ming Ng, The I Ching in Tokugawa Thought and Culture, University of Hawai'i 2000

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