Ashikaga Takauji (1305 – 1358) was a Japanese warrior, general, and statesman whose life and career featured numerous twists and turns, during which Takauji switched sides multiple times. At the end, he rose to become shogun, or military dictator, and founded the Ashikaga Shogunate at age 33, which dominated Japan for nearly two and a half centuries.
Takauji began his career in service to the powerful Hojo clan, which ran Japan’s then-Kamakura Shogunate. In 1333, Takauji was tasked by the Hojos with ending a civil war against Japan’s figurehead emperor, but he came to dislike the Hojos and switched sides, joining the emperor, instead. With Takauji’s help, the Hojos were defeated and compelled to commit suicide, ending the Kamakura Shogunate.
The emperor was restored to power and established the first imperial government that wielded both military and political power since the 10th century. For his troubles, however, Takauji was rewarded with an accusation of having murdered an imperial prince while campaigning. He responded by switching sides once again, and turning on the emperor whom he had only recently restored to the throne. He defeated the emperor, reducing him once again to a figurehead, and assumed the military dictatorship of Japan, founding the Ashikaga Shogunate, which ruled the country from 1338 to 1573.
Contemporary Japanese intellectuals credited Takauji’s success to three factors. First, calm courage in battle, during which exhibited no fear of death. Second, mercy towards defeated foes and tolerance, which often meant that surrender was a viable option for his opponents. Third, an open handed generosity to subordinates, which earned and cemented their loyalty.