The image of the samurai, Japanese warriors, now extends beyond Japan and is well-known around the globe, in this latest exhibition of Japanese Art, Asian Art Newspaper looks into the world of samurai culture, from armour to the floating world and ukiyo-e prints

For Japan’s samurai (warriors), prowess on the battlefield was matched by an acute aesthetic sensibility. In this major new exhibition, Samurai presents the art and ethos of this warrior culture, from the austerity of lacquer and tea bowls to the opulence of golden screens and armour to explore how the ethos and tastes of this warrior class permeated every aspect of Japanese art and culture from the 13th to the 19th centuries.

As Russell Kelty, curator of Samurai and Associate Curator, Asian Art at the Art Gallery of South Australia (AGSA), comments in his opening chapter of the accompanying online catalogue, ‘The culture and identity of the samurai are often understood in one particular context: as ferocious and loyal warriors who lived by a strict moral code’.

He goes on to explain that samurai means ‘to wait upon or to serve’ and it is this, above all other roles, that defines their place in society. As the hereditary military class, which includes the shogun, daimyo and various classifications of their retainers, the samurai were entrusted with the service and safeguarding of the emperor, as well as the administration of the archipelago.

Japanese Warrior Culture

A warrior culture is evidenced in the form of iron body armour, helmet and straight swords, created from the 3rd century BC. Armour and helmets were made from pieces of iron, bound together with leather fixings and rivets, creating a durability and flexibility suited to warfare on horseback with bow and arrow. Innovations of the preceding centuries resulted in curved swords, which were the envy of East Asia, together with flexible lightweight armour and accoutrements of exceptional quality.

The birth of the samurai occurred during the Heian period (795-1185), as the aristocracy of Kyoto indulged in the intrigues of the court and presided over a spectacular blossoming of art and culture. Imperial armies were disbanded and the conscription system abolished, leaving the security of the provincial estates to the clan chieftains and governors appointed from the middle ranks of the aristocracy. The governors were often provided with clan names such as Minamoto and Taira, members of which in the following centuries would vie for dominion over the archipelago.

It was these regional warriors who were tasked with guarding the provincial estates of the aristocracy and were based in Kyoto. Their ascension marked a distinct transition in Japan and for centuries the samurai class dominated the country. Their patronage of the arts and cultural pursuits remain inextricably woven into the fabric of Japanese art and society.

Samurai Art and Culture

The exhibition examines the influence of the important samurai classes on the art and culture of Japan, from their ascension in the 12th century to the present day, seeking to explore the complexity of the samurai, including their philosophical motivations and aesthetics, which continue to both fascinate and delight modern audiences today. For the centuries that the samurai class ruled the archipelago of Japan the country was transformed with the socio-political and artistic landscapes emerging at the time.

If looked at as warriors, their devastating conflicts and heroic deeds provided a wealth of material not only for the great military epics of Japanese literature, but also their culture was reflected in works of art. And as patrons of the arts, they fostered a cultural renaissance, which still underpins and defines the most recognisable forms of Japanese art and culture today. In their class, their idealised code of ethics and their cultural pursuits continue to resonate with the global community.

As symbolic personae, they were essential in presenting Japan to the world and are now a distinctive fixture in global culture. Objects chosen for the exhibition to explore these themes include textiles, lacquer ware, ceramics, metalware, screens, scrolls, prints and swords, all from AGSA’s collection, with some of the exhibits on public display for the first time.

The Tale of Heike

In his second essay, Russell Kelty explores the aesthetics of samurai culture and their passion for the arts. The epic novel, The Tale of the Heike, compiled circa 1330, retells the struggle between the Taira clan and Minamoto clan for control of Japan at the end of the 12th century during the Genpei War (1180-85). Kelty explains that these calamitous events ushered in the era of the samurai and the decline of the influence of the aristocracy in Kyoto.

The victorious leader, Minamoto no Yoritomo (1147-1199), established Japan’s first warrior government (bakufu) in Kamakura on the east coast of Japan where he assumed the title of shogun – the emperor’s military commander. For the next 600 years the archipelago saw a succession of hereditary military governments that also recognised the legitimacy of the emperor.

Over time, the bakufu in Kamakura established offices in Kyoto and wielded such considerable influence that they were able to select emperors, control imperial appointments and maintain control over the regional provinces. The first code of the samurai was written to deal with the disputes over land and religious and criminal disputes (joei shikimoku) and recognised the separate function of the imperial court.

Mappo and the Samurai

The new military ethos, described as ‘violent and masculine’ (masuaoburi), contrasted with the ‘gentle and feminine’ (taouameburi) culture of the Kyoto aristocracy. However, the military elite indulged in the pursuits of the court and were ‘more likely to compose poetry on the beauty of falling cherry blossoms than on the joys of victory in battle’.

The literature of the period reflected the interests of the samurai and was infused with a sense of pessimism and recognition of impermanence, encapsulated in the widespread belief that Japanese society had entered an age where Buddhist dharma had degenerated or ended (mappo) and they had narrowly escaped the Mongol hordes who were turned away by divine winds (kamikaze).

The aesthetic vocabulary established by the aristocracy to describe courtliness and refinement (miyabi), the beauty of sharpness, intensified and darkened. The term yugen is often translated as ‘deep mystery’ and can be used to describe art forms that evoke the stirring emotions, which cannot be fully expressed in words. Of all art forms, it was the subtle beauty of Noh theatre that captured the ethos of yugen.

To achieve yugen works of art were required to be stripped of colour and glitter and achieve a stillness. Other terms such as sabi, appear in the earliest compilations of poetry, as well as in The Tale of the Heike, and refer to objects that had acquired the patina of age or rusticity. These terms were influenced by new forms of Buddhism.

Samurai and the Rise of Zen Buddhism

The ascension of the samurai as the de facto rulers of Japan coincided with the emergence of new Buddhist lineages and schools, which advocated a more direct path to salvation and enlightenment. Pure Land Buddhism and Zen Buddhism became increasingly popular. Zen, which was transmitted from India to China and then on to Japan, found favour with the new military government. Vast temple complexes were established in both Kamakura and Kyoto. From the beginning, Zen Buddhism was influenced by existing esoteric practices, featuring wrathful protectors such as Fudo Myoo.

Zen practice elevates the discovery of the inner ‘Buddha’ within oneself over the worship of Buddhist icons. An emphasis was placed on the teacher-pupil relationship, which paralleled the loyalty of samurai to their lords. Zen also offered the opportunity for instantaneous enlightenment (satori), which required a type of discipline familiar to the samurai and their daily pursuit of martial perfection.

Zen temples acted as a window for the reception of prominent trends in poetry and painting from China and served as repositories for a wealth of art and culture. The arts of the brush (poetry, painting, and calligraphy) merged into one format: hanging and hand scrolls. The patriarchs of Zen Buddhism, Daoist immortals, and seasonal landscapes were prominent themes among artist monks. The most evocative are the complementary pair of dragon and tiger, which appear widely in the interior decoration of temples.

The Tea Ceremony

Tea, in the form of powder, was introduced for the second time to Japan from China as an aid to meditation among Buddhist monks. The elevation of tea from a drink to an artistic pursuit and ritual was influenced by monastic rules, leading to the saying ‘tea and Zen have the same flavour’.

The way of tea (chado or chanoyu) was literally shaped by the architecture of the 15th-century Silver Pavilion (now Ginkakuji Temple), built by the shogun Ashikaga Yoshimasa as a retirement villa in the eastern hills of Kyoto.

Although the ritual of the tea ceremony originally featured Chinese ceramics and utensils, the influential tea master, Murata Juko (d 1502), who transformed the tea ceremony in the late 15th century, initiated a taste for the imperfection of Japanese utensils that evoked a simple, unpretentious beauty (wabi). Murata believed that upon entering his small and austerely appointed tearoom, the trappings of daily life, particularly one’s status, must be discarded, as each participant was considered equal.

He also imbued his tea ritual with performative elements from Noh theatre and the philosophy of Zen Buddhism, which placed an emphasis on the communal nature of life. The most striking element of the ceremony was that participants were often required to use the same tea bowl. These were authentic rustic wares from Japanese or Korean kilns rather than luxurious porcelains from China.

As a result, tea bowls became the most prominent utensils of Murata’s wabi-cha, with the most spectacular examples coveted by the wealthy merchants of Sakai and powerful daimyo seeking to express their own prestige and power. For the samurai, ‘the way of tea’ would become essential to their lifestyle and essential for cultivating their own aesthetic sensibilities.

The Flourishing Culture of the Edo Period

During the flourishing culture of the town during the Edo period, the floating world emerged – fuelled by economic growth, political stability, and urban expansion that led to the rise of the pleasure quarters in Kyoto and elsewhere, with the increasingly wealthy chonin (townspeople) participating in this social world reflected in the ukiyo-e of the time. Kabuki theatres and pleasure districts appeared throughout Tokugawa Japan as described in Tales of the Floating World (Ukiyo monogatari) by Asai Ryoi (1612-1691).

Kabuki featured actors striking poses with dramatic facial expressions on stage – complemented by sumptuous costumes and set designs. Theatres were established in the three urban centres of Edo, Kyoto, and Osaka. Depictions of well-known actors playing popular samurai roles on stage, particularly in Osaka, were complemented by designs of historical warriors and samurai showing typical virtues related to the warriors: courage, perseverance, and loyalty. As the Tokugawa shogunate slowly collapsed, the population of Edo yearned for the feats of heroism and valour and destruction retelling the tales of the struggle during the late 16th century.

Tales of warriors and samurai fighting the oppression imposed by the established authority were continuously popular amongst the Edo crowds, producing such tales as the heroes of the Water Margin, the 47 Ronin, and Ishikawa Goemon. The success of warrior prints to illustrate these tales by Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849) and Utagawa Hiroshige (1797-1858) and their pupils preceded the rise of Utagawa Kuniyoshi (1798-1861), the considered master of the warrior print, who transformed these late 16th-century heroes into popular prints.

The cultural influence of the Samurai has continued through the 20th century up to the present, as can be seen through manga, comics, and tv series. In the mid-1950s, a new genre of comics emerged in Japan: gekiga (dramatic pictures), which was enthusiastically embraced by magazine readers, which became a central genre of mainstream manga by the late 1960s that is still being published today in the form of samurai manga and related films such as the international hit Blade of the Immortal (Mugen no juunin), which starred a cursed ronin who must kill a 1,000 evil men to regain his mortality and banish the ‘bloodworms’ in his body.

From Zen tea ceremonies, bushido, kabuki prints and manga, the samurai continue to fascinate the contemporary world as they have become a global phenomenon.

Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide,