Of all the images of Japan, the samurai may be the best known in the rest of the world, only rivaled by the images of the geisha and Mt. Fuji. The title samurai translates to "one who serves", and their masters were the daimyo, analogous to the nobles of European history. The history of one clan of daimyo, the Hosokawa family who ruled the Higo Region on the island of Kyushu, can be seen on display at the Asian Art Museum this summer in a show entitled Lords of the Samurai.
The samurai had a code similar to the concept of chivalry in medieval Europe. The samurai was committed of course to the study of arms and battle, known as bu, but also to the appreciation and creation of arts and culture, known as bun.
While Japanese history contains many fractious periods of civil war, the land knew about 250 years of relative peace when ruled by the shogunate from the early 1600's through to the mid 1800's. During this time, a samurai might live his entire life without seeing battle, and much of the armor on display at the Lords of the Samurai exhibit is clearly more ornamental than functional.
The samurai were expected to be excellent swordsmen and skilled horsemen. The exhibition includes several examples of ornate saddles and decorative stirrups, like the ones pictured here.
Of course, no exhibit dealing with samurai would be complete without examples of their amazing swords, encased for special ceremonies in magnificent scabbards like this.
For centuries, the only contact with Europe the Japanese allowed was a small Portuguese colony, which brought in many Western concepts, including guns and Catholicism. There were converts to the faith in Japan, including a Catholic wife of one the Hosokawa daimyo, who committed suicide to end her value as a hostage taken in battle. In general, the Japanese took to the guns more readily than to a new faith, since they already had religions to choose from, including shinto and Zen buddhism.
The Book of Five Rings (Gorin no sho) by Terao Katsunobu, Japan. 17th century. Set of five handscrolls; ink on paper. EiseiBunko Museum, 774. © Eisei Bunko, Japan.
A samurai pledged his allegiance to the daimyo, and that bond could only be broken by death. A samurai whose daimyo died might swear loyalty to a new master or become ronin, a masterless samurai. There is a romantic view of the ronin today, but in reality it meant a bleak unemployment and no small dishonor if your daimyo had died in battle. Part of the romantic appeal of the ronin comes from the story of Miyamoto Musashi, considered the finest swordsman in the history of Japan. Musashi's daimyo died when Musashi was still in his teens, and he wandered the land for decades, a servant without a master. He was challenged to many sword fights and he never lost. In his old age, he took a position with the Hosokawa clan where he became the sword instructor for the clan. During this time, Musashi also worked on his technique as a painter, which he used to illustrate his masterwork The Book of Five Rings, a treatise on swordsmanship and warfare often cited as Japan's version of Sunzi's The Art of War. While the original does not exist, a faithful reproduction commissioned by the Hosokawa clan is on display.All photos by Mike Strickland, except where otherwise indicated