review–”Lords of the Samurai” dog-chasing, tea totling, elite warrior poets, Asian Art Museum, June 12- September 20, 2009
For more than 800 years the Samurai helped lay the foundation of Japanese culture and that legacy is explored in “Lords of the Samurai,” the Asian Art Museum’s stunning summer exhibition of over 160 rare objects from the collection of the Hosokawa family, one of Japan’s most elite warrior clans. The exhibition, in its final three weeks (ends September 20) includes priceless armor, several breathtaking swords and other weaponry, paintings, lacquer ware, ceramics, costumes and other rare objects from Tokyo’s renowned Eisei-Bunko Museum and in the Hosokawa family’s former home, Kumamoto Castle on Kyushu island, Japan. The objects reveal that the samurai and their daimyo (hereditary feudal) lords of pre-modern Japan were much more than just skillful military strategists and fighters; they were also artists and patrons of art and culture in its highest form. The show is organized by the Asian Art Museum and the Eisei-Bunko Hosokawa collection, Tokyo. This is the first time the Hosokawa’s precious collection of weaponry and artifacts have been shown in the United States and the Asian Art Museum is the sole venue for this exceptional show. Due to the light sensitive nature of roughly 50 of the initial artworks on display, the show is now on its second rotation and new artworks have replaced those that were rotated out.
Samurai—from loyal followers to fierce and principled elite warriors
The term “samurai” comes from the Japanese word saburau, meaning “to serve,” and was first used in A.D. 702 to describe mid-to-low-ranking court administrators and, later, armed imperial guards. Their title, mostly metaphorical, referred to their loyalty to the emperor. By the 10th century, when provincial governors began offering heavy rewards for military service, the samurai as we know them came into being. By the end of the 12th century, samurai became synonymous with the term “bushi” and were closely associated with the middle and upper echelons of the warrior class. The term “Samurai” held strong aristocratic overtones and brought great prestige to the samurai’s lineage—so much so that warriors would recite their ancestry on the battlefield. The distinguished lineage of the Hosokawa clan, which can be traced back seven centuries, trumps that of the imperial family whose history extends back only a few hundred years.
Hosokawa Clan, weilding power for centuries
The Hosokawa clan descended from Emperor Seiwa (850-88) and a branch of the Minamoto clan, via the Ashikaga clan. It wielded significant power over the course of the Muromachi (1336-1467), Sengoku (1467-1600), and Edo periods, and over the centuries moved from Shikoku, to Kinai, and then to Kyūshū. The first generation of lord of the Hosokawa clan, Hosokawa Yūsai (1534-1610), came of age in the “envisioned age” of Seven Samurai and fought valiantly in eight major battles. The samurai’s role in life was to follow a code of conduct called the Bushidō or “Way of the Warrior” and to follow the Way of Poetry. Poetry was studied and used among the samurai as vehicle of exchange and cohesion. Yūsai was the third person in history to have been taught the entire 15th century Kokin denju tradition, an orally transmitted commentary on the first Imperial anthology of Japanese waka poetry (kokin wakashū). As the sole possessor of this vital key to waka tradition, Yūsai was entwined with Japanese culture. Yūsai is renowned because the emperor intervened in one of Yūsai’s long battles to save him proving that Kokin denju was more important than military victory. The literary ethos of this great warrior-gentleman, who also mastered cultural, artistic and spiritual pursuits, has carried on through the ages.
The samurai maintained their elite status into the mid-1800s when Western influences started to take hold. The question of how and when Japan’s modernization occurred is still debated but after Japan opened its port to foreigners in 1854, it went on to modernize its military forces and did away with many of the samurai’s special rights. Following the abolition of the feudal class in 1871, the Hosokawa clan and its branches were made part of the Kazoku, the Meiji era’s new nobility. They were given the hereditary title of Marquis (kōshaku); the title became obsolete in 1947. The present head of the main family line, Morihiro Hosokawa, former Prime Minister of Japan, is a descendant of the Hosokawa of Kumamoto.
Armor—object and symbol
Lawrence Ellison, Oracle founder/mogul, who in the 1980′s liked to call himself ”the Silicon Samurai”–has been a passionate collector of Samurai antiquities, including an extensive armor collection. He frequently remarked that he treasured Samurai armor for its beauty and strength and because “it encapsulates the fundamentals of Japanese character. As comprehensively as any people on earth, the Japanese know that while we are predators, we are also constantly trying to capture our humanity through a code of ethics and a sense of honor. (Forbes 156, n.7 (September 25, 1995).
The show opens with a 19th century reproduction of the Ōyoroi armor worn by Hosokawa Yoriari, founder of the Hosokawa clan, in the battle of Kyoto in 1358. This reproduction is basically a synthesis, containing parts that are historically accurate as well as parts that have been reinvented. The exhibition also includes five other full sets of armor of different styles that span several eras, up until the end of the shogunate in the mid-1800’s. Painstakingly handcrafted by leading artisans of the day, it is hard to imagine these ever being bloodied in combat. In fact, most of the suits on display in the exhibition have not seen actual battle, nor have most of the battle trappings, but some objects, even ornately lacquered stirrups, do show moderate signs of wear.
Ōyoroi armor (big armor) is the most formal armor and was used from the late Heian period (794-1185) to the Kamakura period (1185-1333) in one-on-one mounted combat. The suit weighed about 60 pounds and consisted of a helmet (kabuto), cuirass (dō), tassets (kusuzuri which are overlaced with lames) to protect the hips and shoulder guards (sode). It had great aesthetic value and is called “shikisei no yoroi,” the right ceremonial armor. Because a warrior’s armor became his funeral attire if he was defeated, a great deal of attention was paid to decorative details and ornamentation and it was very costly and time-consuming to produce. An early 10th century legal compendium discussed in Karl Friday’s Samurai, Warfare and the State in Early Medieval Japan indicates that the production of Ōyoroi required between 192 and 265 days, depending on the season and length of day. Modern-day craftsmen normally require ten months to two years of full-time labor to construct Ōyoroi replicas. It has been documented that this reproduction, begun in 1824, took five years to complete. This stunning suit of armor, with its combination of white cord lacing with diagonal accents of multicolored lacing in the shoulder guards and tassets, was popular in Yoriari’s time for its exquisite refinement.
Swords—deadly and stunning
It has been said that the samurai’s sword was his soul. The legendary katana, or curved sword, invented a millennium ago, remains a marvel of aesthetic beauty and skillful engineering. The katana embodies the perfect melding of form and function. While most bladed weapons were designed to either pierce or slash, the katana’s two different types of steel gave it optimum qualities for both, making it a highly versatile weapon in battle. Human bone-cutting qualities were tested and refined during actual executions. Delivered with the proper single blow by a trained warrior, the very finest swords were able to slice but through as many as five human bodies at once. (“Secrets of the Samurai Sword,” NOVA, an exceptional tv program airing in Sept., goes into the history of samurai swordmaking and visits contemporary Japanese metalworkers as they craft a sword from scratch using ancient techniques. ) The exhibition includes several highest quality examples of ceremonial long blade, long blade and short blade swords that were either used directly or collected by the Hosokawa clan as evidence of their family status.
A supreme 13th century ceremonial long blade, crafted by Moriie, has been designated an Important Cultural Property. Moriie (active from 1249 to 1256) was from Hatada, which was near Osafune, the greatest sword-making center in the Bizen region. This area is currently known as the southeast Okayama prefecture. In addition to the superb workmanship on its surface steel and edge, this tachi sword (designed for cavalry combat) exhibits Moriie’s hallmark temper lines– irregular clove-shape (chōji midare) lines alternating with tadpole (kawazugo) lines. The sword would have been sheathed with the blade edge pointing downward and slung from a waist belt.
Equally valuable were the sword’s guards and mountings which were often embellished lavishly, elevating them to works of art. The sword guard balanced the blade and hilt and protected one’s hands from slipping onto the blade while using it. The imperial sword guard mounting pictured here was made in late Edo period.
Its scabbard is decorated in the makie lacquer technique, with nine-planet Hosokawa family crests in gold on a sprinkled pear skin (nashiji) background; variants of the family’s cherry blossom crest adorn the hilt. Other works include exquisite fans, costumes, helmets, saddles and stirrups.
The Osher Gallery contains the workmanship of Miyamoto Musashi (1584-1645) the greatest Samurai swordsman of his day, perhaps of all time and a renowned painter. Musashi was sword instructor to the Hosokawa family and founded the Niten Ichi-ryū School of swordsmanship “the school of the strategy of two heavens as one” that uses the long and short swords together. In 1645, he wrote his great book Gorin no shô (A Book of Five Rings), a martial arts strategy manual, that is in the exhibition as a set of five scrolls. The original of the book was lost but his trusted disciple made a copy and it has remained with the Hosokawa family. During the 1980’s, Musashi’s popularity stateside soared as American businessmen, eager to penetrate the Japanese mind, consumed his Book of Five Rings. Can adroitness with a sword carry over to brushwork? Not to be missed are Musashi’s stunning folding set of two six-paneled folding screens “Wild Geese and Reeds” designated “Important Cultural Property.” In the left screen, gracefully-rendered light-featured geese rest beneath a tree and in the right screen, dark-featured geese rest and feed. Throughout the work, he achieves economy in brushwork while conveying energy and movement.
Dog-Chasing: a sport for mounted Samurai
Of the many antiquities in the Hosokawa family collection, dog lovers, archers and equestrians will be fascinated by a late 17th century Edo period six-panel folding screen depicting inuoumono (dog-chasing)– a samurai archery drill that originated in the Kamakura period during the reign of Emperor Gohorikawa (r. 1222-32) and evolved into a very popular spectator sport. The dogs were not harmed: the goal was to shoot the running dogs with heavily padded arrows, a task that challenged the samurais’ skill as horsemen and archers. The event typically took place in the center of an open riding ground where two concentric rings were formed with ropes. The warriors were divided into teams, and the teams waited outside the larger circle until the dogs were released from the smaller circle by a dog-handler. Each archer the same number of padded arrows; skill and accuracy were judged according to the length of the chase and the location of a hit. Closely codified rules governed the size of the field and the number of dogs and archers participating.
Only when a dog passed over a rope was it a target and then, the only shots that counted were torso shots; shots to the head or limbs drew penalty points. This screen is typical of early 17th century folding screen compositions of the sport which emphasized mounted archers around the concentric ropes, watching or chasing a dog. The brilliant colors and detailed action figures are set against a gold leaf background. Today, only about a dozen of these folding-screen compositions are known to exist and most date to the 17th century. Interestingly, as genre painting took hold, artists’ compositions of inuoumono changed somewhat, with increased emphasis on the spectators in attendance–their clothing, gestures, so forth.
An Adopted Son becomes a Samurai
Other scrolls in the show range from albums of flower paintings to portraits of Hosokawa daimyos. An exquisite hanging silk scroll portrait of Hosokawa Sumimoto (1489-1520) by Kano Motonobo has been designated “Important Cultural Property.” Hosokawa Sumimoto, distant ancestor of the Hosokawa lineage was a warrior who experienced continual conflict and was engaged in war most of his life. He was adopted into the line of Hosokawa shogunal deputies and into a family that already had an adopted son from the powerful Kujō family. The Warring States period (late 15th and 16th centuries) was an extremely brutal time when warriors were consumed by ambition, suspicion and jealously and many members of distinguished warrior families turned against their own family members in a grab for power. The two adoptees quarreled over succession to the Hosekawa line and Sumimoto’s brother was killed by one of Sumimoto’s supporters. An attempt was made on Sumimoto’s life but he fled Kyoto to the Ōmi province and remained there until his position as head of one branch of the Hosokawa clan was secured. His victory was short and he was unseated in 1508 and failed in subsequent attempts to regain his power. He died disappointed and alone. The portrait depicts him at age 19 mounted on his grand horse, wearing haramaki armor, a helmet with a horn like crest, his sword mounting is slung at his left side. He carries his halberd blade up, a whip in his right hand and his reins in his left hand. A short sword is tucked in his belt. An inscription in fine calligraphy by Keijo Shūrin of the Nanzenji temple in Kyoto dates the portrait to 1507. A portion of the inscription reads—“Hosokawa Sumimoto, a great archer and horseman, is far above other humans. He is also versed in waka and appreciates the moon and the wind….Outside the citadel he takes bows and arrows; in meditation and reading of sacred books he protects Buddhism…”
Samurai Tea Practitioners—Ritual with Awesome Cups
It might be easy to dismiss this humble raku tea bowl, but this 16th century object, called “Otogaze,” bears the designation “Important Cultural Object” and is attributed to Japan’s most famous potter, Raku Chōjirō, and as such bears rock-star status. The bowl takes its poetic name from the jovial female deity Otafuku, also called Otogaze, and it’s thought that the bowl’s volumptuous shape inspired the name. In early raku wares like this, the raw clay was coated with a lead glaze and then fired in a small-scale kiln.
The Hosokawa family’s meticulous records of art objects and tea utensils mention this bowl by name and indicate that it was beloved by Hosokawa Sansai (1563-1646). Sansai was one of the family’s most important tea practitioners and one of seven disciples of Sen Rikyu (1522-1591), the tea master who perfected the Way of Tea (chanoyu). Rikyu composed a poem which is still quoted “Though many people drink tea, if you do not know the Way of Tea, tea will drink you up.” Without any spiritual training, you think you are drinking tea but actually tea drinks you up. The age-old tradition of chanoyu has been maintained throughout many generations of the Hosokawa family and is observed today. Former prime minister Hosokawa Morihiro (born 1938), the eighteenth generation head of the Hosokawa family, is a celebrated tea practitioner and an acclaimed ceramist and calligrapher. A number of his tea bowls and implements for the Japanese tea ceremony, no doubt inspired by ancient ones are included in the show.
The show concludes with a series of works relating to Zen Buddhism whose emphasis on obtaining inner autonomy and self-awareness by learning to control the body through the mind and the mind through the body appealed to the highly-disciplined samurai warriors.
Ticket prices for the exhibition show include a $5 surcharge over regular museum admission. A fully illustrated catalog of the exhibition published by the Asian Art Museum is available at the museum store, $30 softcover, $45 hardcover.