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THE SAMURAI

Warrior, Katsushika Hokusai, drawing, ink on paper, Tikotin collection

HARMONY IN BRUSH AND SWORD

THE WAY OF THE SAMURAI

 

July 18 - December 30, 1998

Curator: Dr. Ilana Singer

 

The samurai (retainers), also known as bushi (warriors) arose in the tenth century, and were ranked among the aristocracy of Japan from the twelfth century until Japan entered the modern era with the Meiji Restoration in 1868. In the 1870s, their special status was rescinded but, by that time, many samurais had already established themselves in key positions in the Japanese Government.

 

At the close of the Heian Dynasty (794-1185), the central rule in Japan weakened, and private estates arose, administered by their owners.The samurai were the mercenaries, swordsmen subject to the rule of these lords, and not to the government. Their task was to guard the estates, to oversee the peasants and to collect taxes from them. Conflicts between samurais of different estates occurred quite frequently. As the rule of law waned, so the power of the samurai became more entrenched, and they in turn became the ruling elite. As a result, even the monarchy, the nobility and the temples enlisted samurai in their ranks.

 

In the middle of the 12th century, a blood feud arose between the Taira and Minamoto clans. The victor in this confrontation was Minamoto no Yoritomo who, in 1192, founded the first military regime of Japan in Kamakura (Kamakura Shogunate, 1192-1333), and achieved the rank of Shogun (Highest Military Commander). Until 1868, Japan was ruled by a military government, the last of which was the Tokugawa Shogunate (1603-1868), which ruled in peace and security for two hundred and fifty years.

 

The term ‘Bushido' (the way of the warrior), which appeared in the Tokugawa Era, was the moral code of the samurai. Bushido taught the samurai, not just the martial spirit and expertise in the use of arms, but also absolute allegiance to the lord who had bestowed their title on them, a deep sense of honour and duty, and the courage to risk their lives in battle or ritual death for their masters. Suicide of the samurai after his lord's death was an indication of total loyalty (Junshi - faithful unto the death). There were even those who sacrificed their families for their lords.

 

In the samurai creed, the Hagakure (‘hidden among the leaves'), compiled by the warrior Yamamoto Tsunetomo in 1716, it is written - "the way of the warrior is to die". The moral ethic was to ‘die like a madman', and only those who were prepared to risk their lives at any moment could become samurais. These warriors lived spartan lives. They were taught not to display their emotions, and to support any burden or suffering without complaint. This concept, which has so little regard for life, either general or individual, was reinforced by the Buddhist concept of a transient world, though the Buddhists were forbidden to kill. The Zen creed, which prescribed the nullification of the self, and of emptying the consciousness of all desire, was adopted by the samurai because it contained the  elements necessary for strength of character and self-control. In Zen, the martial arts were a route to spiritual enlightenment.

 

The samurai rode their horses wearing armour constructed of small lacquered metal plates which were linked together with coloured cords and bore the family crest (mon). This light and flexible protection allowed more freedom of movement than heavier armour. The samurais shaved the front of their heads, and drew their hair back into a ‘pony tail' which was fastened on the crown of the head. They wore two-horned helmets which protected the neck. A cloth strip (Hachimaki) was tied round the forehead, a sign of determination, persistence, and eternal identification. Their arms were the bow and the sword. The bow was a longbow, the arrows having bamboo shafts and metal points. They also carried a war fan made of sharp metal rods, which could also be used as a weapon in the hour of need.  

 

When a samurai went to war he proclaimed his name, so that if he were killed he would merit praise.The samurai preferred death to dishonour. Defeat or capture was shameful. Suicide (Harakiri, or Seppuku - cutting the stomach) was often the self-inflicted penalty of the samurai who recognized his responsibility for failure and atoned for it with his life. This was an honourable death. After drinking a cup of sake, dressed in ceremonial robes, the warrior plunged a short sword into his stomach, first cutting from left to right, and then vertically. Behind him stood a samurai who then relieved him of his suffering by decapitating him with a single sword-stroke. Another form of atonement was to leave the warrior's life and become a monk.

 

The samurai was loyal to the lord and his family, continuing to serve the sons after the lord's death. Samurais who lost their lords and, for one reason or another, did not continue to serve the family, were known as ‘Ronin' (floating men). They lived alone, and many of them became brigands. 

 

Miyamoto Musashi, a samurai without a lord, was a champion swordsman and Zen artist who developed the art of duelling with two swords, and wrote the book ‘The Five Rings' before he died in 1645. At the beginning of the book, in a critique of the art and strategies of war, Musashi wrote - "It is often said that the way of the warrior (bushido) can be found in his ability to die. But this does not merely apply to warriors. Monks, women and peasants also face death courageously, either in duty or shame. The difference is that the warrior uses the strategies of war to overcome his enemy, whether in duel or battle, and this entitles him to glory".

 

The history of Japan is full of tales of courage and renown, of samurais and heroes of the aristocracy who became the ruling class. Among these are Yoshitsune and Yoritomo, brothers of the Minamoto family which fought the Taira clan in the twelfth century; the Soga Brothers; the forty-seven samurai; and others. Many tales and legends combining history and imagination have been written. Themes from the world of the samurai have been depicted in all forms of traditional Japanese art - in drawings, paintings, and prints. The samurai swords and their splendidly decorated accessories bear witness to this magnificent tradition.    

Exhibition catalogue

 
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