Unless you’re a real enthusiast, you might not have known these facts about Japan’s warrior class.
1. Many samurai never saw battle.
In the early centuries of the feudal period there was frequent warfare among the lords of the samurai. But during the Edo period (1615-1868) Japan was, for the most part, stable and peaceful. During this period some samurai paraphernalia was more ceremonial than functional. The sword guard at right, which was made in the 1600s, reflects this trend. Sword guards were designed to protect the hand that held the sword. While an openwork sword guard like this one might keep the hand from sliding down the blade, it does leave the hand more exposed than was usual in earlier examples.
2. Some samurai enjoyed playing a game of fragrances.
Reminiscent of the perfume apparatus described by the French decadent writer Joris-Karl Huysmans in his novel A Rebours (Against the Grain), the incense game often involved a dizzying array of fragrances. Guests would bring their own incense (mixtures of pulverized aromatic woods and animal scents, kneaded with honey and other substances) and the group would try to identify the aromas and decide which it liked best.
The appreciation of fragrance originated in Buddhist ceremonies; it was transmitted to Japan in the sixth century, and thereafter this aesthetic pursuit became popular in aristocratic social occasions, outside of any religious context.
Shown is an incense game box and implements from the 1700s. Made of lacquered wood with sprinkled metalic powder, silver, bronze, and mica, it includes fire tools, box, braziers, and a tray of mica plates.
3. Many objects cherished by the samurai were made in faraway places
While we usually associate the samurai with a distinctly Japanese aesthetic, the samurai loved exotic items, not just from elsewhere in East Asia but from distant locations in South and Southeast Asia as well. Such objects were often modified or refunctioned to work in the Japanese cultural context. Several examples, such as this sixteenth-century Vietnamese teabowl. appear in the exhibition Lords of the Samurai.
4. Some fierce warriors were also Zen Buddhists
AAM blogger Nico commented on the connection between the samurai and Zen in a previous post. Miyamoto Mushashi (1584-1645), probably the most famous of all samurai swordsmen and the author of The Book of Five Rings, spent his later years making Zen paintings such as this image of Bodhidharma, the first patriarch of Zen Buddhism (a detail is shown). Bodhidharma’s expression suggests the intensity of his concentration.
Musashi perfected the Niten Ichi style of swordsmanship, in which a long and a short sword are used together. Like many other samurai whose lords died in the Battle of Sekigahara in 1600, Musashi became a masterless samurai, or ronin. As a wandering ronin he is said to have fought sixty-eight duels without being defeated. He spent his final years as a sword instructor in the service of Hosokawa Tadatoshi (1586-1641), and during this period he painted many works on Zen themes.
5. But some members of the samurai class were Christians
The bell at right is thought to have been cast for Hosokawa Tadaoki (1563-1645) in honor of his wife, Hosokawa Gracia (1563-1600). Gracia was captured by the forces of an opposing daimyo. To prevent her husband from wavering from his duty because of her captivity, she ordered her servant to kill her.
Gracia was a Christian, and when peace finally came, Tadaoki built a Christian church in her honor. He ordered a large bell marked with the Hosokawa crest to be cast for the church. But in 1613 the shogun banned Christianity from Japan, and shortly thereafter the church was destroyed. Three hundred years later this bell was discovered hidden in a corner of a tower in the Hosokawa castle.
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