The bow and the saber – Imaginary warrior of Japan

Visit-conference by Sylvie Ahmadian, lecturer at MNAA-Guimet.

The term samurai is mentioned for the first time in a text of the 10nd s., but is only used in its current sense from the 17nd s. The image of the samurai took over the kabuki theater and, from the 19nd s., literature with the great epics, the figurative arts, before being taken up in the cinema.

It was during the Heian period (794-1185) that armed groups appeared in the service of provincial notables, themselves in the service of the imperial court of Kyōtō. This class of warriors (bushi) will develop gradually over the course of 10nd-12nd centuries, setting up a web of loyalties and dependencies. These professional warriors are originally archers mounted on stallions. The troubled end of the Heian period favored a growing autonomy of the provincial lords and the military class which was done to the detriment of the court nobility. In 1185, the Taira and Minamoto clans clashed in the bay of Dan-no-ura and, after the victory of the Minamotos, they would establish a new political regime, the shogunate, with Kamakura as their residence. The shogun is solely responsible for military and police order. In 1336, the shogunate moved to Kyōtō, symbolizing the reunion of eastern and western Japan.

This period sees the alliance between the court nobility, the great Buddhist monasteries and the great warrior vassals of the shogun. The Kamakura (1185-1333) and Muromachi (1336-1573) eras establish the omnipotence of the military aristocracy and the establishment of political regimes totally under its control with the bakufu (tent government). It is during this period that the bushido (the way of the warrior), strict code which required loyalty and honor until death. Defeated or condemned samurai had the right to commit suicide by performing disembowelment (seppukku) with the help of their sword, this, in order to regain their honor. Seven great virtues are associated with bushido: uprightness, courage, benevolence, politeness, sincerity, honor and loyalty; the influence of the three ideological currents (Shintoism, Buddhism and neo-Confucianism) has something to do with it. Within the warrior elite there was a hierarchy: the samurai who were direct vassals of the shogun, those who were attached to a daimyo (feudal lord), and those who had no attachment to a clan or a lord, the latter were named ronin.

Japanese Ambassador. End of the 19th century. Print on albumen paper. Nadar workshop.

Senju-Series Representation of nō theater (Detail). Tsukioka Kogyo (1869-1927). Polychrome print (nishiki-e).

Satsuma Stronghold Officers (Detail). Felice Beato (1832-1909). Photograph taken from the album Views & Costumes of Japan by Stillfried&Andersen. Late 19th century.

In 1603, the Tokugawa clan seized power and Tokugawa Ieyasu (1543-1616), who had become shogun, moved the capital to Edo (Tokyo) to distance himself from the imperial court of Kyōtō.

In the Edo period (1603-1868), Japanese society was divided into four classes: warriors (shi), farmers (no), craftsmen (ko) and traders (shō). The government of the Tokugawa led to a confinement of Japan on itself but also to an era of relative peace. The warlike function diminishing, the samurai become "civil servants" and turn to the arts, mainly poetry and calligraphy. With the institution of sankin-kōtai (service rotation), the daimyo were forced by the shogunate to have two residences where they lived alternately, every other year: one in their fief and one in Edo. The trips back and forth were veritable convoys of hundreds of people, including the samurai. Maintaining a dual residence and expensive travel impoverished the daimyo and allowed the shogun to weaken them while controlling them.

A colorized photo, by Felice Beato (1832-1909), shows samurai from the stronghold of Satsuma. This clan, which had rebelled against the emperor, was defeated in 1877. The status of samurai was then abolished with the ban on wearing swords, wearing the typical hairstyle and they were no longer the only ones to have the privilege of riding a horse. However, the disappearance of this elite will be gradual.

The exhibition begins with a haniwa depicting a figure carrying a sword from the Kofun period (350-550). Originally simple terracotta cylinders, the haniwa were placed around the tumuli which housed the tomb. From 5nd s., the cylinders will serve as a support for human or animal figures. The diversity of costumes highlights the hierarchy of society and it seems that a high ruling military aristocracy developed. Its riders wear iron armor and weapons, including swords. Here, the man, dressed in a tunic, baggy trousers tightened at the knees, wearing a helmet, is adorned with a necklace and carries a short sword. The arrival of Buddhism in Japan will lead to the disappearance, at the end of the 6nd s., of this form of statuary by bringing new modes of burial.

Haniwa representing a character with a sword. Terracotta. Kofun period (350-550).

Helmet (suji bachi kabuto) with Wakizawa clan coat of arms and half-mask (menpo). Late 18th century. Black lacquered iron, natural iron, lacquered wood, silk, bear hair, horse hair.

Jimbaori. 1858. Lacquered leather scales assembled by white silk lacing, silk brocade lining.

Katana tsuba decorated with dragonflies. 19th c. Iron-based alloy, inlaid with metals of different colors: gold-based alloy, shibuichi (alloy of copper and silver).

The all-powerful warrior aristocracy places a fundamental importance on letters and culture, influencing artistic production, as evidenced by the fashion for spectacular and exuberant helmets, the practice of literature and poetry by the shoguns, daimyos and samurai. Most daimyos consider it their duty and their rank to maintain theatrical troupes; the nō theater stages episodes inspired by the great battles of the past where famous warriors such as Minamoto no Yoshitsune or the monk Benkei, model of the brave warrior, distinguished themselves. The sumptuous costumes and masks sculpted by the greatest artists were offered by their protector.

The samurai's relationship to aesthetics is also reflected in a number of aristocratic practices and entertainments that they share quite widely with Buddhist monks: the way of tea (chado), the way of fragrant woods (kōdō) and the way of flowers (ikebana). Weapons and arts are the two wings of a bird, without one it cannot fly.

The samurai's outfit is made up of a set, sometimes very luxurious: the armor made up of numerous metal parts held by trimmings, the helmet, the saber and the dagger, the ceremonial vest, worn over the armor. All these elements were the result of the collective work of many specialized craftsmen and certain armors are works of art in their own right. Although the Edo period was of great political stability, the samurai had to maintain their equipment which became an instrument of prestige and ceremony, more than really military and had, if possible, to own a horse.

Helmet (Kabuto) is an important element of samurai weaponry. It consists of a "bomb" composed of various forged metal plates riveted together, protecting the top of the skull as well as a series of flexible lamellae (shikoro) protecting the neck. These helmets could be adorned with a frontal ornament (maedat) and display the coat of arms (mon) of the clan to which the samurai belongs. A spectacular helmet (suji-bachi kabuto) completed with a half-mask (mempo) is the coat of arms of the Wakizawa clan. Masks often feature large mustaches (bear hair, horsehair, etc.) to enhance their creepy appearance.
A sleeveless vest (jimbaori), to be worn over armor is a good example of the ostentation of some samurai. It is made of lacquered leather scales, assembled by white silk lacing and lined with a luxurious silk brocade.

Ceremonial sword (tachi). 1750. Chiseled steel and brass, braided silk.

Tanto sword mounted in aikuchi and its scabbard. Mid 19th century. Dagger (aikuchi) and its sheath decorated with monkeys. Late 1569th century blade (19), hilt and scabbard. Metal and lacquered wood.

Warrior. Workshop of Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849). Colored ink and India ink on paper. 19th c.

Kabuki actor Bando Mitsugoro II. Katsukawa Shun’ei (1762-1819). Polychrome print (nishiki-e). 1789.

The samurai were the only ones authorized to wear the great saber (katana) often associated with a knife or small saber (kogatana). These weapons were also the subject of great aesthetic research and could be transmitted from generation to generation. The steel blades were crafted by famous craftsmen as was the hilt of the Katana, le tsuba, which is often a real work of art, being able to combine various metals including gold or silver. the katana such as kogatana were worn tucked into the belt. The handles and sheaths protecting the blades were also made of luxurious materials. Some tsuba on display evoke warlike episodes or are adorned with symbols such as the dragonfly which embodies, for the samurai, strength and courage, the dragon, also symbolizing strength and power, the rabbit which never goes back or the snake, symbol of longevity and regeneration with its moult.

Act 11 of the “Treasure of Loyal Vassals” series: Night Attack 5, The Retreat by the Ryogoku. Utagawa Hiroshige (1797-1858). Polychrome print (nishiki-e). 1830-1840.

Great Bodhisattva Hachiman. 1795. Polychrome wood heightened with gold.

Stick fight. Hokusai's Manga. 1819. Book illustrated with woodcuts printed in two colors.

If you feel like you want to take the daimyo maintained nō theater groups, the kabuki will seize the image of the samurai. This more popular form of performance alternates dramatic and comic episodes. The saber and the fan are the symbol of the samurai in the theater. The acting is fundamental and often the public came to see the actors more than the play they already knew. The magnificence of the costumes, the make-up and the pose (mie), charged with power and emotion, made the fame of the most famous actors. It should be remembered that since 1642, female roles (onnagata) are held by men. Some artists, such as Utagawa Kunisada (1786-1864), specialized in portraits of actors and others depicted kabuki scenes. Utagawa Hiroshige (1797-1858) thus drew all the episodes of a famous play, The treasure of loyal vassals, which are exposed.

Le daimyo carried a staff of command (saihai) and a fan in addition to his armor in order to transmit orders during battle. One of these fans is exposed, it bears on one side, a red sun on a white background, and on the other, a golden moon on a black background.

A small miniature chapel houses a representation of Hachiman Daibosatsu, on horseback. This imperial ancestor, god of war in Shinto, was integrated into Buddhism to become the great bodhisattva Hachiman, divine protector of Japan and the Japanese people. Hachiman is symbolized by the pigeon and two of these birds adorn the front of the small sanctuary.

The manga, before becoming a contemporary comic strip, was a set of sketches which were then used for the composition of prints. A page from one of these books, Hokusai's manga (Denshin kaishu Hokusai manga- The initiation to the transmission of the essence of things), depicts a demonstration of stick fighting.

Le crystal samurai, is a sculpture by Patrick Neu (born in 1963); it combines crystal, metal and paper to symbolize the fragility of the samurai image.

Modern manga appeared in the 1950s and was then inspired by traditional stories in which the figure of the samurai once again became predominant. The art of the print has greatly influenced the manga in the representation of movement and the nervousness of the line. Mangas have also been inspired a lot by kabuki theater, as well as Japanese anime where we find superheroes endowed with superhuman abilities.

Miyamoto Musashi. Ishinomori Shotaro (1938-1998). Editions Kana.Paris. 2008.

Crystal Samurai. Patrick Neu (born in 1963). Crystal, metal and paper. 1999-2015.

Poster of the film Kagemusha by Akira Kurosawa (1910-1998). 1980.

Detail of a Darth Vader doll. Hong Kong. 1978. Plastic.

The myth of the samurai punctuates the entire history of Japanese cinema. Many films have highlighted the Japanese warrior ideal and contributed to its incarnation of Japanese identity in the Western imagination.

George Lucas drew a lot of inspiration from the traditional culture of Japan for his Star Wars series: Darth Vader's helmet is copied from the Kabuto, the character of Master Yoda seems to be inspired by the teaching of Zen Buddhism, the Jedi, dressed in a light kimono, wields the lightsaber like a samurai, etc.



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