Culture of the Samurai

By Kyoto National Museum

Horie monogatari emaki (Illustrated Tale of Horie) (17th Century) by Iwasa MarabeiKyoto National Museum

Culture of the

Samurai (or bushi) were members of professional warrior clans who started to play a central role in the history of medieval Japan. As they rose in both social and economic stature, they increasingly became the driving force behind the production of many kinds of artwork and decorative art objects. Swords and armor, symbolizing military power, and garments and paintings made during the Momoyama period (1573-1615), when military lords took center stage in history, demonstrate that samurai were not only fierce but also intelligent and cultured. This section presents a small selection of their cultural legacy.

Mounted Warrior (14th Century) by UnknownKyoto National Museum

Mounted Warrior
14th Century

This warrior, dressed in armor and astride a black horse, carries a naked blade over his shoulder and grips the reins in his left hand. There is no background. He is not wearing a helmet, his hair is disheveled, and he has a broken arrow in his quiver.

His large eyes gaze piercingly to his front, the details of his armor are carefully illustrated, and the coloring is truly beautiful. The horse’s nether quarters appear to be lowered, one of its front legs is raised in a spirited pose, and its forelocks are falling into its eyes, giving the painting an atmosphere of movement. As the painting was being cleaned, conservators discovered that a bow in the warrior’s left hand had been erased.

Normally, with portraits used as objects of veneration, figures are represented in static or still postures. However, this painting depicts the warrior as if he were taken from a battle scene in an illustrated hand scroll. The warrior is thus infused with the irresistible vigor of the battlefield.

As the signature above the warrior is that of the second Ashikaga shogun, Yoshiakira (1330–1367), scholars have assumed that this portrait was made before his death in 1367 (Jōji 6).

This is an early example of a painting representing a warrior wearing armor on horseback and differs considerably from stereotypical portraits of warriors that appear later. It thus indicates something of the conditions surrounding the establishment of the warrior portrait genre.

Armor (Yoroi) with Dark Blue Lacing (19th Century) by UnknownKyoto National Museum

Armor (Yoroi) with Dark Blue Lacing
19th Century

This large armor (ō-yoroi) set has been passed down as having been worn by Shimazu Nariakia (1809–1858). Ō-yoroi originated during the Heian and Kamakura periods as armor worn by upper-class warriors and was basically for cavalry, being developed for mounted archery combat. After the Nanbokuchō period, the main combat was done by bands of foot soldiers, and as fighting at close quarters grew to be the norm, eventually lighter-weight armor that one could wear more easily, like the dōmaru and the haramaki, supplanted it. With the introduction of guns to Japan at the end of the Muromachi period, functionally superior “modern armor” (tosei gusoku) replaced the old, which essentially ceased to be used in actual warfare. Still, after the civil wars ended, in the Edo period, daimyo families again sought old armor as a symbol of their authority, valuing them as highly ceremonial objects.

This set of armor also follows the basic traditional form of a ō-yoroi with a cuirass (dō) and dangling strips at the right chest (sendan no ita) and left chest (kyūbi no ita), as well as a right cuirass plate (waidate) with tasset (kusazuri), a helmet (kabuto), and large sleeve plates (ō-sode). To this, however, it adds a faceplate (bō-ate), armored glove-sleeves or vambrace (kote), thigh guards or cuisse (haidate), and shin guards or greaves (sune-ate) from the tosei gusoku armor, thus creating a pseudo-old style. The large metal fittings (suemon kanagu) form a cross in a circle, the crest of the Shimazu clan. According to one story, the gilding on these decorative metal fittings was the first to be done with electroplating.

This excellent armor was made with meticulous attention to detail, fitting for a leading lord. In addition to having a high level of perfection for armor, the accompanying decorative accessories prove extremely valuable for recognizing and understanding the revival of old armor among the daimyo families at the end of the Edo period.

Dōbuku Coat with Paulownias and Arrow (16th Century) by UnknownKyoto National Museum

Dōbuku Coat with Paulownias and Arrow
16th Century

Popular among the daimyo of the Warring States period, the dōbuku was a soft coat worn over other garments and is the precursor of the modern haori. The stylish design of this piece follows a “shoulder-hem” layout, having a purple band with ragged edge across the shoulders and a green band with arrow pattern along the bottom, but leaving the midriff as white space enhanced by the glossy beauty of the silk and scattered with paulownia motifs in green, purple, and light blue. This dōbuku has been passed down in the Nanbu family as a gift that Nanbu Nobunao received from the warlord Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1536–1598) in 1590 (Tenshō 18) for delivering goods to the field during the Battle of Odawara.

The entire piece is done in stitch-and-bind shibori, without any hand drawing or embroidery. To achieve the clear outlines in the design, tiny stitches outlining each motif were pulled tight, and the parts to be dyed were dipped repeatedly into several color baths, a technique requiring much time and great skill.

Recently scholars have defined this art as “tsujigahana,” but medieval documents generally use the term tsujigahana to refer to bast-fiber garments, rather than silk. Scholars are unsure whether those textiles were dyed with shibori techniques or not.

Eight Drunken Hermits (1602) by Kaihō YūshōKyoto National Museum

Eight Drunken Hermits
By Kaihō Yūshō

Based on a verse entitled the “Eight Drunken Hermits,” by the Chinese Tang poet Du Fu (712–770), this screen depicts four hermits drinking, and presumably its paired screen (now lost) showed the other four.

Kaihō Yūshō (1533–1615) is a painter from a samurai family. His special method of depicting people with minimal brush strokes emulates the “sketch style” (Ch. xie yi, J. genpitsutai) of the Southern Song painter Liang Kai (1130–1210); in Japan this was dubbed, “bag figure brushwork” (J. fukuro jinbutsu). This amazing piece is a quintessential example of sumi-e, or ink painting. The inked strokes rhythmically punctuate the energetic movement in the picture. Intensity flows from the forms; the expressions of the drunks are individualistically delineated; and the rocks and pine tree framing the scene have a rounded softness created through effective use of shading.

From the inscription on the left side, one can infer that Kamei Korenori (1557–1612), lord of Kano castle in Inaba province (modern Tottori prefecture), commissioned this screen on the third day of the tenth month in 1602 (Keichō 7). Since very few of Yūshō’s paintings have verifiable production dates, this screen provides a valuable standard for establishing the dating of his other works.

Horie monogatari emaki (Illustrated Tale of Horie) (17th Century) by Iwasa MarabeiKyoto National Museum

Horie monogatari emaki (Illustrated Tale of Horie)
By Iwasa Matabei
17th Century

This elaborately colored hand scroll, with almost overbearing ornamentation, is one of a set of scrolls known as the “Matabei-type hand scrolls.” Its artist, Iwasa Matabei, was born the son of Araki Murashige, a military general during the Sengoku (Warring States) period. A year after his birth, nearly his entire family was slaughtered at the hands of the warlord Oda Nobunaga (1534–1582). However, the infant Matabei was rescued and taken to Kyoto to be raised as a painter. At around age 40, Matabei moved to Echizen province (present-day Fukui prefecture) to serve under the provincial lords Matsudaira Tadamasa and Tadaaki. It was during this period that he is thought to have produced the Matabei-type hand scrolls.

The sometimes gruesome scenes depicted in the paintings in this work resonate with the artist’s own personal history. These scrolls depict the Tale of Horie (J. Horie monogatari), a prose narrative (otogi zōshi) dating back to the Muromachi period. It relates the story of a young man named Tsukiwaka seeking revenge on those who had killed his parents when he was a child. The best-known version of this tale, a twelve-scroll set in the MOA Museum, is actually an abbreviated version of the story.

Samurai painted by Iwasa Matabei

The Kyoto National Museum scroll comes from an earlier 20-scroll set, of which six scrolls are known to have survived: three in the Kōsetsu Museum, one in a private collection in Mie prefecture, one in Chōkoku-ji Temple in Nagano prefecture, and this volume in the Kyoto National Museum.
The KNM scroll, which directly precedes the final scroll of the series (owned by Chōkoku-ji), depicts the climax of the entire narrative, in which the main character finally avenges the death of his parents.

Tachi (Long Sword), signed "Norikuni" (13th Century) by NorikuniKyoto National Museum

Tachi (Long Sword), signed "Norikuni"
13th Century

As a center of political authority, Kyoto from early on was home to numerous smithies for the production of swords (tōken). Among these, the smithies situated in the Awataguchi area of the early capital during the late Heian and Kamakura periods came to be known as the Awataguchi school smithies. Particularly famed were six brothers – Hisakuni, Kunikiyo, Arikuni, and Kunitsuna, as well as Kunitomo and Kuniyasu – who were swordsmiths serving the Retired Emperor Gotoba (1180–1239, r. 1180–1198) on a rotating basis. The forger of this sword Norikuni (n.d.) was the son of Kunitomo.

Originally this blade was longer, close to three shaku (over 90 cm), but it was shortened to its present length for better handling using a method known as suriage, whereby both sides of the lower end of the blade were filed down to extend the tang upwards, and then the tang was cut shorter. The tang butt still bears a two-character inscription, “Norikuni,” incised with a relatively thick iron chisel. The slender sword has a point (kissaki) with a small edge and gentle slopes, and the curve of the blade is centered slightly towards the tang end.

These characteristics lend the sword a tight, smart impression; even alterations in later centuries did nothing to disfigure the overall proportions. The long sword’s elegant form, with a dignity composed of beautifully curved lines, is characteristic of early Kamakura-period Kyoto swords. It exhibits trademark techniques of the Yamashiro smithies: a grain (jigane) with densely forged koitame (“fine wood grain”), a tempering pattern (hamon) incorporating small veins and flecks, and a narrow, straight temper line (hososuguha) that dips somewhat. Such achievements in bracing tempering (yakiire) and in incomparably precise grain pertain not only to Kyoto swords, but also typify Japanese swords in general. This one is a king among swords.

Tantō (Single-Blade Short Sword), signed "Kanemichi" (16-17th Century) by Iga-no-Kami KanemichiKyoto National Museum

Tantō (Single-Blade Short Sword), signed "Kanemichi"
16-17th Century

The Yamashiro (Kyoto) smithies that prospered from the Heian through the Nanbokuchō period (14th century) eventually declined during the Muromachi period (15th to 16th century) due to civil unrest that devastated Kyoto, and due to pressure from provincial smithies, such as the greatest of the Japanese sword smithies in Bizen, and the newly rising smithy in Minō. Eventually, rivalry among local lords led to the emergence of the daimyo of the Warring States period, who warily set their eyes on the capital, and Kyoto was again revitalized. Oda Nobunaga (1534–1582) built Nijō Castle, and Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1537–1598) constructed his Jurakudai residence and Fushimi Castle, calling on numerous craftsmen to migrate back. Among those who moved to Kyoto in the late 16th century was the Mishina School of swordsmiths from Minō, founded by Kanemichi. His children – Iga no Kami Kanemichi, Izumi no Kami Kanemichi, Tanba no Kami Yoshimichi, and Etchū no Kami Masatoshi – were all first-class swordsmiths. Among these, the creator of this short sword, Iga no Kami Kanemichi, was named the “All Japan Swordsmith” (Nihon kaji sōshō), a role that was passed on to later generations and that required him to act as an intermediary, receiving court requests and representing smiths from the whole country.

This longish tantō, made by the first Iga no Kami Kanemichi, is in the style known as an “extended short sword.” The grain (jigane) was forged with a rough surface showing both a straight and wood grain (itame) pattern; the strong, wavy reflective spots (sunagashi nie) of the tempering pattern (hamon) alternates all–over high firing (hitatsura tobiyaki) with ribbed tempering (sudareha).The tempering at the tip (bōshi) is small, indented, and has a deep double back. This “Mishina Bōshi” is a signature aspect of the Mishina school.

This masterpiece sword fascinates the viewer with its magnificent tempering pattern, the glint of its minute metallic crystals, and the aggressive swell along the length of the blade. Here one can see the germination of the ribbed tempering later perfected by Tanba no Kami Yoshimichi, and thus the sword serves as an invaluable resource that offers a glimpse into the background of how one family worked to refine its techniques.

Collar and pommel cap with Relief "Kanzan Jittoku" signed "Nagatsune" (18th Century) by Ichinomiya NagatsuneKyoto National Museum

Collar and pommel cap with Relief "Kanzan Jittoku" signed "Nagatsune"
18th Century

To make a sword ready for use, various trappings become necessary, such as the sheath to cover the blade and the hilt to hold it. Together these trappings are referred to as koshirae. Naturally, craftsmen related to outfitting the sword with necessary accessories gathered in areas where fine swords were being manufactured. Kyoto, the home of many swordsmiths producing numerous famed swords since the Heian period, was no exception. The countless master craftsmen of sword trappings who emerged inherited their know-how from metal workers who fashioned decorative fittings for Shinto Shrines and Buddhist temples.

Collar and pommel cap with Relief "Kanzan Jittoku" signed "Nagatsune" (18th Century) by Ichinomiya NagatsuneKyoto National Museum

Collar and pommel cap with Relief "Kanzan Jittoku" signed "Nagatsune"
18th Century

The Kyoto artisan Ichinomiya Nagatsune (1721–86) rivaled Yokoya Sōmin (1670–1733) of Edo. Nagatsune, who studied painting with Ishida Yūtei (1721–1786), the teacher of Maruyama Ōkyo (1733–1795), possessed superlative skill, not just in carving metal, but also in the composition of preliminary sketches and in illustrative genius.

Collar and pommel cap with Relief "Kanzan Jittoku" signed "Nagatsune" (18th Century) by Ichinomiya NagatsuneKyoto National Museum

Collar and pommel cap with Relief "Kanzan Jittoku" signed "Nagatsune"
18th Century

One could say he personified the atmosphere of flowery wit of the capital. With experience working as a professional painter, Nagatsune has left us a notebook of sketches he used for his metal work: Natsuō taikan hokō Ichinomiya Nagatsune horimono gachō (Supplement to the Natsuō Encyclopedia: Sketches for Sculpting by Ichinomiya Nagatsune; Tokyo National Museum), which includes the designs for these hilt collars and pummel caps. With brilliant skill, his chisel work flows smoothly and unerringly, his cuts accurately recreating the sketches using his favored technique of vertical and angled incisions on a base alloy of copper and silver in the proportion of 4 to 1, respectively.

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