Recently, I was re-reading an old book in my personal library about the life of the Shogun Ashikaga Yoshimasa (also mentioned here). The Ashikaga Shogunate, that is the military government in Japan from 14th to 16th centuries,1 started out fairly strong, but quickly ran into a series of succession crises and bad governance that culminated in a very disastrous Onin War. The Onin War was a 10-year urban battle in the heart of Kyoto over a succession crisis that basically flattened the city and caused unimaginable death and starvation there and in the provinces.
In Donald Keene’s book, he talks about the utterly ridiculous income disparity between the typical peasant and the aristocrats in Kyoto, as if they lived in two different worlds. Even as the war was raging, Shogun Ashikaga Yoshimasa’s exorbitant taxes to pay for this vanity projects further exacerbated this.
One chronicler at the time, a Zen priest residing in Kyoto named Unsen Taikyoku (雲泉大極, 1421 – ??), recounts in his personal diary:2
When the sun went down I set out for home, and as I was passing Rokujo I saw an old woman with a child in her arms. She called the child’s name repeatedly, then began to wail. I looked and saw that the child was already dead. The mother, still wailing, collapsed on the ground. People standing nearby asked her where she came from. She said, “I’ve come all the way from Kawachi. We’ve had a terrible drought for three years, and the rice plants didn’t so much as sprout. The district officials are cruel and greedy. They demand a lot of money in taxes and show no mercy. If you don’t pay, they kill you. That’s why I had to run away to another province. I was hoping to earn food by begging. But I couldn’t get anything to give my baby. I’m starving and I’m worn out, heart and soul. I can’t take any more.”
When she had finished speaking, she again choked with great sobs. I took from my wallet what spare money I had and gave it to her, saying, “Take this money and hire a man to bury the child. I’m going back to my cell where, with help from the Three Treasures [the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha] and the Five Commandments, I shall choose a Buddhist name for the child and offer prayers for his salvation.” The child’s mother was greatly comforted.
While I was still humbly mulling over her sad story, I encountered a group of noblemen out to admire the blossoms. They were escorted by several thousand mounted men, and servants and followers swarmed around them. These gentlemen acted as if they were so superior that nobody could compare with them. Some sneered at the people in the streets; others swore at the menials in the path of their horses; others laughingly stole blossoms; others, drunkenly singing, drew their swords; others still, having vomited food and drink and being unable to walk, lay on the roadside. There were many such sights, and whoever saw them was appalled. Anyone who happened to run into these people was terrified and ran away, intimidated by their high rank.Pages 51 and 52, translation by Donald Keene
It’s not hard to imagine such things happening in a place like Los Angeles, Silicon Valley, London, Paris and so on. It’s not a question of a particular political faction, it’s a tendency of any society to gradually concentrate wealth over time to a smaller and smaller group, further exacerbating the income disparity. Marx spoke of this in the context of capitalism…
But even as far back as the last days of the Roman Republic, we could see a similar pattern (jump to about 19:30 or so):
In any case, unless this trend is addressed in a sustainable way, it never portends anything good.
1 The Ashikaga military government is unrelated to the earlier Kamakura shogunate which I spoke about elsewhere. Since Japan had a succession of military-samurai governments after the Imperial aristocracy was sidelined, and you can think of them like Chinese imperial dynasties in a historical sense.
2 Criticizing such things openly would have incurred the wrath of the Shogunate of course.