Posts Tagged ‘samurai’

I went down to LA recently, to LACMA, to see this Samurai show which I had heard was all the thing. And it certainly was. Like many people, my interest in Japan started with a middle-school and high-school boyish enthusiasm for cool awesome samurai battles, and so forth; my interests later shifted, away from such things, towards popular arts and theatre, and the vibrant cultural life otherwise of a realm at peace, once the samurai wars ended. But, boy was this a great exhibit. It certainly served those intrigued or obsessed with the samurai – one kid, maybe about 7 or 8, who I saw several times over the course of the day, running around taking pictures with his iPad, was just so excited… I’m glad to see him having such fun, and taking such an interest. And, I’m glad to see a non-Western and non-modern show featured in the main central Special Exhibits hall. Not that that’s so unusual for LACMA, a museum with an entire pavilion dedicated to Japanese art, and most likely the largest Korean galleries in the country.

The label descriptions – which I presume came with the exhibit and were not by LACMA curators – really brought out the appreciation for the craftsmanship, design, and aesthetic quality that Mr and Mrs Barbier-Mueller clearly see, and thus helped me too see and appreciate these objects not just as cool awesome artifacts of a romanticized warrior class, but as art objects.

One thing that did bug me, however, was that the exhibit reifies, reinforces, rather than challenging, the myth of Bushido. It doesn’t come up too often, thank god, but here and there you see labels talking about the noble, honorable, spiritual moral code of the samurai. Bushidô as we know it comes mainly from two periods: (1) the Edo period (1600-1868), when books like Hagakure and the Book of Five Rings, and plays like Chushingura (47 Ronin), were written, long after the fighting ended, and at a time when samurai are struggling with their identity as “warriors,” and trying to reclaim something, and (2) the Meiji period (1868-1912), when Nitobe Inazo wrote Bushido: The Soul of Japan in an attempt to describe something in Japan equivalent to Europe’s chivalry, in order to support arguments and ideas that Japan had just as noble a tradition, and a history, as Europe. Very much a product of his time, Nitobe was not a historian, nor really an expert in samurai philosophy, but rather an expert on race and colonial studies (as such things were understood by, e.g. the British and French at that time as well), eager to find a way to put Japan on equal footing among the great powers of the world, such that the Western powers would not see Japan as lesser or inferior. The word “bushido” was so little known in Japan in 1901 that Nitobe is said to have believed he was inventing (coining) it.

A helmet by Masuda Myôchin, c. 1730, bearing the seal of the Matsudaira clan.

Looking at the show, and thinking about these issues, inspired me to think of how I might like to do a samurai show in future, if I were ever to get to curate one:

*Contrast the samurai arms & armor with paintings and other works that emphasize Japan’s peaceful and highly cultured artistic heritage. In any samurai show, there will always be those visitors who take it as supporting their understanding that Japan is somehow inherently, has always been and always will be, a militarist country. I suppose one response to such ignorance would be to just ignore it, but another possibility is to educate. Japan is now, and has always been, a country with deep aesthetic appreciation (at least among elites, prior to the Edo period), and since the 1600s, a very lively urban commoner culture, including beautiful paintings, pottery, architecture, poetry, and so on and so forth. And, let’s not forget that Japan was (with the exception of peasant rebellions here and there) at peace for over 200 years in the 1640s-1850s. How many countries can claim that?

*On a somewhat similar note, I would love to do a show that emphasizes the samurai in the Edo period – display and pageantry. Catering to the popular desire for cool, awesome, samurai warriors, most samurai shows focus on the samurai during the Sengoku Period, the age of the country at war, and then sort of say, well, most of the arms & armor we have today in our collections and on display is not from that period, but it would have been largely kind of sort of similar. Instead of showing Edo period objects and identifying them as simply being a later version of what things would have looked like during the height of samurai warfare, I’d rather do a show that is wholly situated within the Edo period. This is how samurai of the Edo period lived, this is the role of parade armor in politics of display and pageantry. The exhibit would talk about how the samurai identity changed in the Edo period, and how a warrior class that was now a bureaucracy, now struggled to define or redefine, to understand, their identity as “samurai.” We could describe it not as a “decline,” but simply as the next stage, and if anything, it’s a “rise,” as the samurai develop more fully into cultured and cultural elites.

Triptych, Snow, Moon, and Flower, by Tokugawa Nariaki, Lord of Mito, c. 1840-1860. LACMA Collection.

Returning to talking about the LACMA exhibit, the Barbier-Mueller Collection includes many beautiful pieces, and I was pleasantly surprised with how many are identifiably associated with rather major families. The structure and display of this special exhibit was impressive, really impactful. But, for me, I quite enjoyed the sort of complementary exhibit they were hosting on the other end of the museum complex, in the Japan Pavilion. Since the Barbier-Mueller Collection, or at least those objects loaned to LACMA, includes mostly armor, and very few weapons, LACMA supplemented the exhibit with a great show of samurai paintings, prints, pottery, and yes, weapons. This show included many pieces borrowed from Tetsugendo.com, and the Museum of Global Antiquities (which, interestingly, I cannot seem to find, or find out about, at all from basic Google searches); between those and LACMA’s own collection, I was kind of amazed to see sword accessories crafted by Miyamoto Musashi himself, and blades by Muramasa and some of the other most famous swordsmiths in Japanese history, as well as examples of weapons like Japanese matchlock guns that we just don’t see very much of. A triptych of calligraphy scrolls by Tokugawa Nariaki – one of the most prominent and influential figures in Japan’s supposed “opening” to the West in the 1850s, and a member of one of the top samurai families in the country, was a highlight as well. One cannot help but wonder why such a thing is not in the Tokugawa Art Museum, local Mito area museum or archives, or the like, and how it came to be owned by LACMA.

Anyway, I suppose this review has sort of petered out. But, if you’re in the area and you’re into samurai armor and such, do check out Samurai: Japanese Armor from the Ann and Gabriel Barbier-Mueller Collection at LACMA, before it closes on Feb 1st!

All photos are my own. Thanks so much to LACMA and the Barbier-Mueller Collection for allowing photography in the exhibit!

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A stele at the temple Zuikô-in in Kyoto marking the burial site of the topknots of 46 of the 47 ronin. The graves of the ronin themselves, and of their lord Asano Naganori, are located at Sengaku-ji in Tokyo, a temple which is much more strongly associated with the 47 Ronin today; but, as I haven’t been there, and prefer to use my own photos…

I have yet to see the new “47 Ronin” movie starring Keanu Reeves, and most likely will not be seeing it any time soon (if at all). So, I post this having admittedly not seen the film myself. That said, Prof. Jonathan Dresner of Pittsburg State University in Kansas has seen the film, and in a review entitled “The Many Things “47 Ronin” Gets Wrong About Shogun-Era Japan (And the One Thing It Gets Right),” has some choice words.

Nearly everything in the movie, from a cultural and historical standpoint, is questionable or wrong. Nothing unusual about that, but the movie credits two historical consultants, and begins and ends with voiceover claiming historical and cultural authenticity: “To know the story of the 47 Ronin is to know the heart of old Japan” … Even discounting the “witches and demons,” the movie frames the Tokugawa Shogunate (1603-1868) as “Ancient,” “Feudal,” and shoguns as “an absolute ruler,” none of which is helpful. It perpetuates the myth of samurai as “master swordsmen” and “protectors” and the conclusion praises them for enacting “the old ways of Bushido” as though there were a continuous tradition which had degraded in the contemporary age (but which the Shogun had no desire to actually revive).

These are, of course, some of the key ideas I have tried to impart to my students. Three hundred years ago is not “ancient times,” but is actually relatively recent, and indeed many scholars consider the Tokugawa periodearly modern.” Shoguns were absolutely not absolute rulers; the daimyo (regional lords) had onsiderable autonomy within the Tokugawa state.

Samurai were bureaucrats and administrators who paid lipservice to a martial tradition generations past. Training in swordsmanship and the like was certainly a part of their upbringing, but by no means does that mean that most, or even many, were truly masterful fighters. And as for them being “protectors,” or “honorable,” honestly, do you know of any class of people that can truly be said to be just and honorable? Certainly, there were some samurai who were more ethical and upright in belief and action, but so too were there many who were corrupt, selfish, or just trying to get by. Many frittered away their meager incomes gambling and cavorting in the pleasure quarters. Many took up dishonorable by-employments (side jobs) in order to earn enough just to get by. Many were unable, all their lives, to secure an official government position. Many got into fights in the streets. And, of those who did hold official posts, and relatively sizeable incomes, many were corrupt and selfish in a variety of ways, just like politicians or corporate elites today.

“Bushido” (“The Way of the Warrior”), meanwhile, that crown jewel in the myth of the samurai, was invented during the Edo period, and only first more fully articulated in 1900, roughly thirty years after the samurai class itself was abolished entirely. To be clear, this means that no samurai in early periods, “traditionally,” even knew of, let alone could have adhered to, the bushidô ideals articulated by Nitobe Inazô in 1900, or those described in the Hagakure (c. 1709-1716) or Miyamoto Musashi’s Book of the Five Rings (c. 1645). These Edo period texts were written at a time when the wars were already over, and members of the samurai class were working to try to understand, or re-capture, their identity as “warriors,” through a re-invention and glorification of the past. In short, bushidô is, through and through, an invented tradition. Only a small portion of people would have ever read Hagakure or the Book of the Five Rings during the Edo period; in other words, the vast majority of samurai would not have read them, would not be aware of their content, and therefore could not have subscribed to any “code” they describe. Simply put, there never was a single “code of conduct” or “honor code” widely known and widely accepted among samurai throughout the archipelago.

Certainly, samurai placed high value on loyalty to their lords, but that loyalty was based on reciprocal relationships, of service to one’s lord in exchange for titles, land, wealth, or the like, and not on some abstract sense of honor, or a coordinated structured system of honorable (and dishonorable) behaviors. In short, warriors demanded rewards for their loyal service, and when lords were unable or unwilling to provide such rewards, warriors grew disgruntled; there are numerous examples of individual samurai betraying their lords, and historians credit the inability or refusal of the Court or shogunate to grant rewards to samurai as major factors contributing to the rise and fall of shogunates. The above is a clip from the 1955 film Shin Heike Monogatari (“New Tale of the Heike”) depicting samurai returning from battle, expecting considerable reward from the Imperial Court for their service; though clearly quite stylized, in some respects, it may be the most “accurate” depiction of samurai I have ever seen. The warriors are dirty, uncouth, and violent – essentially, dude-bro frat jocks – in sharp contrast to the well-mannered, elegant court aristocrats in perfectly clean, well-put-together robes; the warriors are plainly shown as beneath the aristocrats, not only in terms of being less cultured, and in terms of political or status hierarchy, but also literally, physically beneath the aristocrats – whenever they speak to aristocrats, the warriors sit or kneel on the ground, and are not permitted to step up onto the clean wooden floors of the aristocratic mansion or Imperial Palace. This may take place way back in the 12th century, but I think it a good indication of how we should think about samurai, the warrior class, during the Sengoku Period as well. The Sengoku era, literally the Age of the Country at War, was surely not an era of glorious loyalty and refined codes of honor, but rather one of great chaos and violence, in which anyone and everyone, samurai and peasant alike, scrambled for power, or simply to survive.

For those interested, this issue of the myth of the samurai is addressed further in various places throughout the Samurai-Archives Forum, and in episodes 5, 6, 7, and 8 of the Samurai-Archives Podcast (Disclaimer: a podcast in which I am one of the discussants).

Dresner finishes his brief review of the film saying:

As I’ve told my students, family, and acquaintances many times, it’s a shame that more media creators don’t trust the original source material, the actual history, to be captivating, when it so often is much more interesting and dramatic than the fictions.

I could not agree more.

You can read the rest of Prof Dresner’s review at the History News Network.

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One of the many (possibly) historic buildings in Sakura. I kind of like this as an image for the top of this post, as it sort of represents the atmosphere or aesthetic of Sakura – a mix of the age of samurai, and the aesthetic of the early postwar. I don’t know how old this building is – might be only 50-60 years. Today, it houses a hardware store.

I’ve been hanging out in the town of Sakura1, out in Chiba, for more than a week now, and a few days ago, I finally took a day to run around and see the sights. As it turns out, there’s just perfectly enough sights to fill out one day of sightseeing – sure, there were a few things I haven’t seen just yet, but I hit just about everything I planned to, and a few things I hadn’t planned on, and managed to finish it all up right around 5pm, just as anything with a closing time was doing so.

One of the main streets of Sakura, as seen from the fourth floor of the city art museum.

I’m tempted to try to say something about the size or character of the town, especially since this really is my first time spending so long in any town in Japan outside of a major city. Prior to this, I’d only been to Naha, Kanazawa, Hiroshima, and Fukuoka, for a day or two or three (each, of course), and I’d only ever spent any more time than that in Yokohama, Tokyo, or Kyoto. Wow, that’s a distressing thought – so many of my peers have spent years in various parts of the country, whether on JET or otherwise, and while I’ve been fortunate to do a bit of traveling, as I type this out I realize my experiences really have been rather severely limited. I haven’t even lived in a provincial city, like Kôchi or Kanazawa or Kagoshima, nor in a sort of historically significant but smaller, off-to-the-side city like Nara or Kamakura, much as I think I’d love to.

The entrance to Keisei Sakura Station, and its immediate surroundings, on the north side of town. The city is also served by a JR station, on the south side of town.

In any case, I’m really not sure what to say about Sakura. I’m not sure what I can say, especially given how I’ve been thinking about generalities and essentialization lately. Maybe the best I can do is to say what it’s not. It’s not a big city by any means – less than an hour walk from one end to the other – but neither did I see any fields or rice paddies or anything of the sort within the core of the city. Much of the town is very much the kind of density and nice residential streets (one- or two-family houses, not apartment buildings) I associate with suburbia – reminds me actually of where I grew up in the suburbs of New York City, with of course the various differences in architectural style, and certain other aesthetic elements. The town has pretty much no big-name or chain stores – no Starbucks2, no Mister Donut, no BookOff, no McDs, no Yoshinoya, no Jonathan’s. Not that I like eating at chain stores, but, at least it would make me feel comfortable as to the level of quality, lack of sketchiness, degree of whether or not I (as a non-regular customer, and as a foreigner3) am welcome… There are a couple of 7-11s and Lawson’s, though. But, then, it’s not as if it’s the cutest, quaintest little town either – the JR station is surrounded with parking lots, pachinko parlors, and the like, and not too much else. I’ve seen neighborhoods in the middle of Tokyo much quainter, where a small three-car train stops at a station that consists of basically nothing more than a platform, right in the middle of the neighborhood, directly adjacent to a cute, local, shopping street (shôtengai). Which isn’t to criticize, but merely to attempt to describe.

Models of the three samurai houses, on display inside one of the them.

In any case, let’s move on to talking about the historical sites I visited on my one-day wandering exploration adventure. One thing I read somewhere claimed that Sakura has more intact samurai houses than any other town in Japan. I’m not sure whether or not I believe this, but, over the course of the day, I certainly did see a lot of old-looking buildings, scattered across town, and quite a few of them had little wooden placards identifying them as historical structures. Three of these samurai homes (buke yashiki) are open to the public, as historical homes or whatever you want to call it, and they’re relatively close to where I’m staying, so that’s where I started.

Along Kaburaki-kôji, a nice, quiet, residential street below the castle, these three houses are lined up one after the other. The pamphlets and such say that this street looks much as it did in the Edo period, though given that the road has been asphalted over, and pretty much the only other thing to see is tall hedges lining both sides of the street, obstructing the view of any traditional architecture that may exist, I’m not really sure what it’s worth to make such a statement.

Right: The entrance to one of the three samurai residences open to the public.

In any case, it would seem that quite a number of the houses along this street are extant, surviving, samurai houses from the Edo period, though the majority of them remain privately-owned property, and are therefore off-limits to the likes of myself. As for the ones I did get to visit, frankly, I’m not sure what there is much to say about them. Wooden construction, tatami floors, tiled, thatched, or shingled roofs, like so many others I’ve seen… I hate that I should be so jaded about this. When I first came to Japan, such things would have been amazing to see, and to get to go inside and walk around in.

I’d be curious more precisely the rank, or income in koku, of the samurai families who lived in these homes, because they just seem rather small and sparse for a member of such an elite class as the samurai. That is, of course, we also get a skewed impression because we aren’t seeing much of the material culture that would have been used in these homes – how fancy were their clothes, dishware, and other objects? I’ve seen commoners’ townhouses (machiya), and they definitely don’t seem any smaller, or any worse apportioned, than these samurai homes, and that I think is where it really gets me. From what little we do see of material culture here in these samurai homes – a few chests of drawers, buckets, mirrors, books piled on a desk, the lifestyle does seem pretty simple. Which, if this is the life of an elite family, even if they’re only a very low-ranking elite family, it just makes me wonder how much simpler, how much more “wanting” the lives of the lower classes – the so-called peasants – must have been. I’m not sure I want to know. Then again, I’ve also seen peasants’ houses, and, I don’t know, maybe those were the homes of well-to-do village headmen or something, but they were pretty large, and almost just as well apportioned as these samurai homes, in terms of cushions and desks and buckets and stoves and whatever. Sure, the villager might not have a heirloom suit of samurai armor sitting in the tokonoma, but… all in all, these samurai homes had a lot more in common with peasants’ homes (minka), or commoners’ townhouses (machiya), than with the samurai lord’s mansion I was to see later in the day.

The view straight through from one side of the house to the other. Each house has only a handful of rooms, in wood and tatami – with a minimum of decorative elements, e.g. carvings on the ranma, or any kind of byôbu or fusuma paintings – plus a rather basic-looking kitchen with a dirt floor.

It was certainly a nice wake-up call, to see the scale and style of more typical or average samurai homes. Being more used to seeing samurai residences on the scale of the lord’s mansion – since structures like those stand out a lot more as famous historical sites and tourist destinations, and are more typically preserved because of their association with more prominent figures – one can easily get the mistaken impression, as I did, that that was indicative of a samurai home, even for lower-ranking samurai. So, to see these homes was certainly a valuable experience, a valuable correction to my previous assumptions. We have this image in our minds of the samurai as “elites,” but, then again, if every samurai had a grand palace, where would you have room for all of them? Besides, even though we aren’t told precisely what rank the samurai families of these homes were, they are outside of the castle, indicating them to be of a lower rank than those living within the castle walls; the top-ranking retainers had residences close within the second or third bailey (ni- or san-no-maru) of the castle.

I took tons of pictures of plaques and labels and explanations, and haven’t gotten around to reading them. But, hopefully, eventually, I do hope to read them and write up Wiki articles on the Samurai Archives Wiki based on what I find. So, my apologies that these blog posts may be a little superficial, but, I thought it perhaps better to post something, rather than putting it off indefinitely until I got around to doing a more thorough, detailed job of it (something that, quite frankly, what with school and other projects, and such, might not come around for months and months). But, keep your eyes on the Wiki, and, hopefully before too long I’ll be putting something at least up there. Yoroshiku onegaishimasu.

This neighborhood also includes a house once occupied by Kodama Gentarô, a general who was involved in basically every major war of the Meiji period (on the side of the Imperial Japanese Army), from the Boshin War through the Russo-Japanese War. So, that’s pretty cool, even though a high wall and hedges and such all but prevented me from seeing the house itself at all.

At the end of the street is a narrow pedestrian-only path called Hiyodori-zaka, flanked by bamboo, which is said to (even moreso than the residential street itself) be pretty much preserved from how it was during the time of the samurai. This, actually, I can believe. Certainly looks plausible – not that I know that much about Edo period roads in precise detail, but certainly nothing stands out and screams anachronism. It’s a simple sloped path, which I can imagine people walking up and down to get in and out of this samurai neighborhood.

Next time, temples! And the cemetery of the Hotta clan, lords of Sakura domain in the second half of the Edo period.

(1)That’s 佐倉, literally something like “assistant warehouse,” not 桜 (“cherry blossoms” or “cherry tree”).
(2) There is reportedly a Starbuck’s attached to one of the big-box stores over on the other side of the train station, but I’m not counting that. I’m talking about things in town, that have a storefront on the street, rather than being in a strip mall or parking lot adjacent to nothing but highway…
(3) Not that I’ve ever come across too many “normal” restaurants that explicitly don’t welcome foreigners, but rather because I feel like the more “local” you get in Japan, the more “snack” and “pub” places there are, that aren’t really meant for anyone at all except for regulars, and/or are involved with or associated with, well, not-so-above-board activities.

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Just a couple links, today, on topics related to early modern Japan, and two related to museum matters.

*First, a recent issue of the scholarly journal City, Culture, and Society, focusing chiefly on early modern Japanese cities, especially Osaka. All thirteen articles are freely downloadable (no login or university affiliation necessary).

Article subjects include “Urban social policymaking in modern Osaka,” “Poverty, disease, and urban governance in late 19th century Osaka,” “The traditional city of Osaka and performers,” and articles on carpenters, construction workers, and stevedores (dockhands) in early modern Osaka, among others.

*Next, a full-hour video of a talk given by Constantine Vaporis back in 2008, entitled “Samurai in Edo and the Culture of Early Modern Japan.” The talk focuses on the lifestyle of samurai retainers in Edo during their stay there on sankin kôtai (alternate attendance), a major element of the content of Vaporis’ book Tour of Duty, which would be published the following year. This is easily one of my favorite books on Japanese history, in its detailed “facts on the ground”-oriented approach, helping us envision life in that time and place, rather than subordinating the historical evidence to the advancement of abstract theoretical arguments.

This video is a great taste of what you’ll find in the book.


*In our third link today, Metropolitan Museum Director Thomas Campbell presents at TED.

He speaks on a variety of subjects, mostly on the value and importance of museums – of seeing actual objects rather than just digital images on the Internet, accessible as those may be – and addresses, in part, the value of museums in bringing the cultures of the world to the museumgoer. The Islamic galleries at the Met have just reopened after being closed for renovations for many years, and present a view of the Arab world quite different from that we see in the news. They play an important part in helping us understand our world – and specifically, that part of the world – more fully. And, at a time when Turkey, among other countries, are trying to reclaim anything and everything excavated from their lands, these exhibits serve an important purpose in inspiring people to be interested in Turkish history and culture, to visit Turkey, and perhaps even to think positively of Turkey, its people, and its culture. As Campbell says:

“We are in the business of celebrating Turkish culture. It is the great displays in London, Paris and New York, more than anything else, that will encourage people to go to Turkey and explore their cultural heritage, and not just the sun and beach.”

Japan understands all too well the importance of soft power – the effect that art & culture can have on creating a positive, friendly attitude among people around the world. It is a shame that Turkey does not seem to feel the same way.


*Finally, an article in the New York Post discussing Nazi provenance issues, and alleging that many top New York museums have resisted claims that objects in their collections were acquired after being stolen from their proper owners by the Nazis.

These issues can be quite complex, especially these days so long after the Nazi era, when former owners have passed away and inheritors are now making claims, and when, in at least some cases, the paper trail may be incomplete, leading to inconclusive evidence as to whether or not a work was obtained ethically.

I was not surprised to read in this article that many museums take this issue seriously and are working on doing the necessary research, but that it’s difficult and takes a long time and that they only have one or two part-time staff able to devote time to doing the work. I was surprised, however, at this statement from MoMA: “The museum maintains the work wasn’t considered stolen because the German museums were state institutions ‘and the art in them was owned by the German government.'” I should sincerely hope there is more to the story than what this NY Post article implies, because, seriously, shame on you, MoMA, if that’s your genuine stance.

My thanks to my father for alerting me to the existence of this news article. Thanks, Dad!

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‘Art of the Samurai’ has just opened at the Metropolitan Museum. In the wake of controversy, protests, and rather scathing (anti-)Orientalist accusations leveled against the San Francisco museum for their Lords of the Samurai exhibition barely a month ago, one might think the Met would have rethought their exhibition schedule. But, of course, these things are planned out way in advance, and one month ahead of time is far too short notice to cancel or change things, except in the most extreme of situations.

In any case, I’m sure it’s an excellent exhibition, and I regret that I won’t be able to be home in New York to see it.

The New York Times’ review can be found at: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/10/23/arts/design/23samurai.html

It also includes some great photos, providing a glimpse at the kinds of things, including a number of National Treasures, on display: http://www.nytimes.com/slideshow/2009/10/22/arts/20091023-SAMU_index.html

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