Samurai Culture

Japanese ambassador, Studio Nadar (1855-1939), France, end of 19th/beginning 20th century, Médiathèque de l’architecture et du patrimoine © Ministère de la Culture-Médiathèque de l'architecture et du patrimoine, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Atelier de Nadar. Samurai culture

Taking the theme of the warrior class in Japan, this exhibition in Paris explores samurai culture by exploring the aristocratic and samurai taste for noh theatre, the rise in popularity of the tea ceremony, and samurai’s attention to dress, weapons, and accoutrements. The show also looks at how strict martial discipline sat alongside their appreciation of poetry and the scholarly arts.

The bushi, later called samurai, appeared at the end of the 9th century when they form small armed groups formed around the provincial notables in the service of the imperial court of Kyoto. This nascent class developed in the regions distant from the influence and control of the emperor and court during the 10th to the 12th centuries, which allowed them to establish their own networks of loyalties and dependencies.

Eventually the influence and power gained by this new warrior aristocracy led to the samurai also gaining political power enabling to form a feudal military government. From the end of the 12th century to the last quarter of the 16th century (during the Kamakura and Muromachi periods), infighting was fierce between clans which created an endemic state-of-war in the archipelago, threatening the country’s economy and its population. The Sengoku period (1467-1568) was the turbulent period when the daimyo (feudal war lords) fought bitterly to maintain their territory and took action to control Japan.

Battle of Sekigahara

These feudal wars did not end until after the Battle of Sekigahara in 1600, with the victory of Tokugawa Ieyasu and the supremacy of a military power, the shogunate, over the imperial power. The imposition on the great lord of the ‘rotation of service’, which takes them from their stay in the shogunal capital, Edo (Tokyo), to their fief, reorganises the life and use of the income of the Japanese elites. The big chiefs of clans and their men have the monopoly of the handling of the weapons, and take place at the top of the social hierarchy. The Edo era (1603-1868), the subject of most of this exhibition, is marked by peace and only fantasized wars.

Between the 12th and 19th centuries, warriors were placed at the top of the Japanese social hierarchy. The lords (daimyo), from the elite and the aristocracy, cultivate the arts and luxury. With the omnipotence of the warrior aristocracy, the ‘way of the warrior’ (bushido) developed, granting fundamental importance to letters and culture, influencing artistic production, as evidenced by the fashion for spectacular and exuberant helmets, the practice of literature and poetry by shoguns, daimyos and samurai. Most daimyo think of their duty and rank to maintain theatrical troupes.

The samurai class had its own ethics and moral code which placed, above all, loyalty and fidelity to the (daimyo), devotion supposed to go until death. Class membership was expressed by a particular costume (the haori jacket worn over the kimono and the wide hakama trousers) and even more by the right to carry two swords (katana (large) and a small wakizashi (small).

Noh and Kabuki Theatre

Theatre is deeply rooted in Japanese and samurai culture. Noh, bunraku, and kabuki are particularly attached to illustrating the image of the courageous warrior, embodying the values of ancestral Japan. Born in the 14th century, Noh was from the outset the favourite art of emperors, samurai and the aristocratic classes. You can recognize a samurai on stage by his sabre (katana) and his costume, which evokes an ideal of military simplicity and reflects the warrior’s code: uprightness, courage, benevolence, respect, honesty, honour and loyalty. In the 17th century, the nascent kabuki, inspired by bunraku puppet theatre, was considered a secondary theatre as opposed to noh. Outrageous theatre, sometimes burlesque, very colourful, multiplying fight scenes and love stories, kabuki became very popular because it was aimed above all at the people, allowing itself a certain freedom in caricature and criticism of power. Indeed, the public likes to see samurai and lords on stage in sometimes comic or ironic postures.

Edo Period

By the Edo period, Japanese society had adapted concepts of Chinese origin and saw itself as ideally made up of four categories: warriors (shi, whereas in China this term designated literate civil servants), peasants (no), craftsmen (ko) and traders (sho). The culture of the samurai is thus in line with the assimilation by Japanese civilization of the great contributions of Chinese civilisation, first and foremost Confucianism. Warrior Buddhism blends with Shinto, the ancestral religion of Japan. The ‘way of the warrior’ (bushido) is not limited to the handling of weapons and also attaches fundamental importance to letters and culture. Samurai share quite a number of practices with Buddhist monks: the way of tea (chado), the way of fragrant woods (kodo) and the way of flowers (ikebana). However, it was in the field of literature and poetry that shoguns, daimyo, and samurai distinguished themselves the most and enhanced samurai culture. By learning Chinese letters, they also appropriated poetry from the continent and, in imitation of the imperial nobility, they also devoted themselves to Japanese poetry in 31 syllables (waka) and haiku.

Samurai Culture

To speak of ‘samurai culture’ is to evoke the culture of a large part of the elite of the country at the time, along with the aristocracy who, while wanting to be warriors, were also literate and cultivated in the arts and appreciated the art of luxury. This exhibition, in Paris, focuses on the omnipresence of the samurai in the multiple expressions of Japanese art while emphasizing its role in our imagination until today.

The personality of the samurai has been fictionalised, parodied, and admired. To explore the public relationship with Samurai, this exhibition uses prints, armour, photographs and works of art a to discuss how the image of the Japanese warrior was portrayed in popular culture and how these prescribed images were used to portray samurai in modern Japan and around the world. Symbols of power and loyalty, as well as a source of fascination for centuries, the samurai have become part of our collective imagination. This historical warrior, with their skilled combat techniques and fierce loyalty, has constituted an inexhaustible iconographic source for contemporary artists, from manga, cinema, video games and animated films – all populated by characters with supernatural and superhero powers.

Until 29 August, 2022, The Bow and the Sabre, Samurai Culture, at Musée Guimet, Paris,