In an effort to balance both sides of samurai—the skilled fighter vs. the refined artist—I tipped the scales on the side of the stereotypical samurai, and in the process sparked a lively, and at times heated, dialogue about the glorification of war through the creation of art activities. Although the previous projects posted through the blog focus on the tools used by the samurai class in ceremonies as well as in combat, I stand by them as a way to bring history to life and engage kids in an exploration of Japanese art, culture and history, and provide a launching point for a larger, more thoughtful discussion about war and violence (and pacifism, the anti-war movement and critical thinking)…
Archive of Posts by Allison Wyckoff
interests: arts education, art in the tenderloin, children, youth, family, layering, collaboration, community
likes: gardening, language, photos, making stuff, aural landscapes, sitting still, biking, walking, trees, & subversive comedy
People are serious about their swords. I was trying to show the swords and sword guards (tsuba) on view in Hambrecht to a friend the other day, but couldn’t quite reach the cases housing these finely crafted beauties. A group of hungry-eyed gentlemen hovered over them like vultures waiting for lunch—mouths open, staring. Although I tried, even my most effective derby moves weren’t enough to get the two of us close enough to see the displays. We ended up looking at the campaign coat until the men moved on to the next gallery and my friend and I were alone (at last) with the swords.
Samurai wore elaborate suits of armor to protect themselves in battle. Four distinct styles were worn—the showier, fancy armor generally saved for ceremonies –oyoroi and domaru-gusoku — and the two that were more often actually worn in battle, haramaki and tosei-gusoku (in case you haven’t already, you can see samurai armor on view at the museum through September 20). Armor was made of materials such as iron, bronze, metal, leather, lacquer and braided silk, and constructed in pieces so the samurai could move easily when fighting their enemies. Among other pieces, samurai armor consisted of the breastplate (dō), which protected the samurai’s heart and guts, and the tassets (kusazuri), which protected the hips. Like the helmets samurai wore, breastplates were often decorated with elaborate designs that distinguished them from the other samurai, guardian figures that protected them and creepy imagery that frightened their opponents. Ever wondered what it’s like to wear samurai armor? Make your own and find out!
In addition to masks, helmets (kabuto) were an important part of the samurai uniform. Made of metal and decorated with materials like wood, fur, feather and bone, the helmet’s features were both decorative and functional, distinguishing samurai from one another and protecting their necks from the sharp sword blades of their enemies. With the extra material added to the design you’d think the helmet was one of the heavier elements of the samurai’s uniform. In fact, they only weighed about 5 lbs—depending upon the type of armor, this was anywhere between 1/5 to 1/10 of its total weight. Of course, I wouldn’t choose to wear a 5 lb. baseball hat around all day while trying to play Guitar Hero, calculate the square root of pi and hang out with my friends. I’m just sayin’.
Would you like to make your own samurai helmet? Click here and have fun!
What I love about Japanese design—whether it’s an orange sherbet colored mini fridge or a wrinkled and mustachioed samurai mask—is the craftsmanship and attention to detail. I’d trade my sorry ol’ 1970’s Frigidaire for a tabletop model if I wasn’t so fond of ice cream, and in fact, I’m guessing it was the sweat drainpipes built into their masks that kept samurai loyal, not their code of ethics.