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1 Jul 14

Bushido: Way of the Samurai

The art and culture of the samurai encompasses more than 800 years of Japan’s history and creative past. From the twelfth century through to the Meiji Restoration and modernisation of Japan in 1868, shoguns, regional lords and their warrior retainers ruled the country and lived according to a rigorous code of ethics. This military aristocracy aspired to a life of spiritual harmony, devoted equally to the art of war and the fine arts. Bushido: Way of the Samurai introduces the samurai as both warriors and men of refined culture. The exhibition showcases the armaments and attire of samurai in the form of armour, swords, guns, helmets, costumes and horse saddles; displays the samurai’s cultural pursuits in the form of Noh theatre costumes, calligraphic scrolls, lacquer objects and tea utensils; and relives epic tales of the samurai through representations of historical events in large screen paintings and dramatic woodblock prints.

The origins of samurai culture can be traced to ancient ceramic figures of warriors and surviving suits of heavy armour from the Kofun period (300–710). It was during the Heian period (794–1185), however, that individual warrior clans developed the characteristic style of Japanese armour and weaponry that has come to universally represent samurai culture. The exhibition features some of the first Japanese items acquired by the National Gallery of Victoria in the 1880s, including two suits of armour, three sets of saddles and stirrups, a complete set of horse trappings and several lacquered ceremonial hats.

The two suits of armour represent the two main Japanese styles of historical armour: the so-called ‘modern’ tosei gusoku style, and the old-fashioned kozane gusoku style. The tosei gusoku armour, with circular dragon motifs, was gifted to the Gallery in 1888 by Mrs Henry Darlot, the widow of one of Victoria’s first pastoralists. Developed during the 1500s in response the advent of firearms, this style of armour was constructed from large, bulletproof iron plates. The kozan gusokustyle suit of armour, acquired from an unrecorded source in 1889, has never been exhibited before. Since arriving in Melbourne 125 years ago, the suit has been stored in boxes, unassembled, in many parts. Due to the NGV’s ideal storage conditions, the armour’s silk, lacquer, leather and metal components have been preserved in excellent condition.

Over the past year, NGV conservator Suzi Shaw has dedicated many hours to the research, treatment and assemblage of Japanese armour so as to allow this hidden treasure to take centrestage at the entrance of Bushido: Way of the Samurai. Produced during the Edo period (1600-15–1868), this suit of armour was created in the style of eleventh- or twelfth-century cavalry armour – its scales joined by gradating tones of blue lace – and is accompanied by an elaborate helmet featuring golden horns (wakidate kuwagata), suede-covered visor (mabizashi) and large turn-back deflectors (fukigaishi) on both sides. Such dramatic and visually foreboding attire, worn by a fierce sword-wielding warrior thundering into battle on horseback, must have created an image of heart- stopping ferocity embodying the spirit and the age of the samurai.

Three sets of horse saddles and matching stirrups, decorated with ornate taka maki-e relief lacquered designs, were also acquired during the same period. Japanese saddles and stirrups, quite different from those used in Europe, were coated in elaborate motifs of auspicious, authoritative or literary association and, along with armour and other accessories, further contributed to a samurai’s noble image and individual personality. Recent research on the NGV saddles dates them to the early Edo period, with possible re-lacquering undertaken later during that period. The earliest saddle, inscribed with the year Kan’ei 19 (1642), features a motif of twisting vines with berries. The next, inscribed Kambun 5 (1665), displays red-crowned cranes and turtles, symbols of good fortune and longevity, and plum blossoms over a cascading waterfall. The latest saddle, inscribed Kambun 10 (1670), features a dragon amidst lightning clutching a magical jewel in its claws. Matching stirrups feature a samurai general’s battlefield fans – signalling tools which came to represent the samurai.

The sword is often referred to as the ‘soul of the samurai’ and was one of the sacred symbols of Japan. Japanese mastery of metalsmithing reached its zenith with the production of samurai swords and sword fittings. Metals were heated, blended, folded, hammered and cooled with innovative techniques that produced the sharpest blades in the history of armaments. This, combined with the swords’ elegant curving shapes, mirror-like appearance, icy grey colour and ornate sword guards, made them universally admired. A magnificent selection of swords and sword fittings from the collection of Colin McDonald is on display in Bushido: Way of the Samurai. Accompanying them is a collection of sword guards acquired by the Felton Bequest and gifted to the Gallery between 1916 and 1924. These beautifully cast, engraved and inlayed metal objects are solid or of open metalwork design, and their decorations constitute an encyclopedia of Japanese legends, folklore and nature worship, featuring landscapes, immortals and mythical beasts, as well as beautiful compositions of flowers, plants and grasses, and animals including insects, birds, sea creatures, monkeys, rats, turtles, rabbits and horses.

Swords ruled the battlefields of medieval Japan until matchlock guns, or arquebus, were introduced in 1543 by Portuguese traders who made unexpected landfall on the small southern island of Tanegashima. News and examples of this new, wondrous technology were quick to circulate, with regional lords soon adapting Japan’s long tradition of metalsmithing to manufacture these new weapons of war. Within a few decades their use on the battlefield had irrevocably changed warfare and the ethics of samurai in battle.

A number of Japanese guns were purchased and gifted to the Gallery by the Felton Bequest in 1927, but prior to Bushido: Way of the Samurai only scant information about them, and no visual references of their existence, could be found. When crate CR 205 was moved from storage to the Gallery’s conservation laboratory, a time capsule from a sixteenth-century samurai battlefield was revealed. Two long barrelled teppō matchlock arquebus and a heavy barrelled ozutsu (hand cannon) were brought to light. Due to their exquisitely inlayed, engraved and applied decoration, it is evident that these amazing guns were not only produced as armaments for the battlefield, but also as flamboyant items for high-ranking samurai.

Along the length of the first arquebus are delicately inlayed designs of irises, flowing water, flying sparrows and butterflies, and on the second gun are dancing shishi lion dogs with peonies. Importantly, the latter also displays the family crest of Oda Nobunaga on both its barrel and stock. Nobunaga was the first in a line of military rulers who unified Japan during the mid to late sixteenth century, and one of the first military strategists to embrace the production of firearms and their use on the battlefield. His ritual suicide in 1582 – during the Honnō-ji incident, in which one of his generals staged a coup d’état – brought an end to his family line and the use of their crest; this weapon therefore dates to the era of early Japanese gun production, before 1582. Ozutsu were heavy and brutal weapons that fired combinations of shot, and, in some cases, custom-made arrows. The imposing ozutsu included in the exhibition is decorated with engraved dragons and swirling clouds along the length of its barrel, and features the inscriptions Tenshō Gannen (1573) and Protector of the Matsudaira clan, as well as the three–hollyhock leaf family crest of the Tokugawa clan (formerly Matsudaira clan), who became allied with Nobunaga in 1560.

Samurai in the frantic frontline of battle are brought to life in a large double-folding screen on loan from the Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide. The screen depicts the battle of Ichi-no-tani, on the northern shore of the inland sea, recounted in The Tale of Heike which narrates the Genpei War and monumental struggle between two warring clans, the Minamoto and Taira, from 1180 to 1185. On the left screen we see the surprise attack of the Minamoto, featuring Yoshitsune and his followers’ famous descent, on horseback, of perilous cliffs, the Fukuhara mansion and the ill-fated child emperor Antoku, dressed in red. On the right screen we see the retreating sixteen-year-old Taira samurai Atsumori make the noble decision to return to battle and face inevitable defeat and death.

Other episodes from samurai legends are brought to life by colourful and dramatic woodblock prints popular during the closing years of the Edo period and into the early Meiji period. These images of blood and bravery include some of Utagawa Kuniyoshi’s warriors from his series of forty-seven rōnin (masterless samurai), Tsukioka Yoshitoshi’s depictions of samurai battling to preserve the Tokugawa feudal system at the Kumamoto uprising, as well as the suicide of Saigō Takamori (often referred to as the last true samurai). In the adrenaline-filled print The death of Kusunoki Masatsura, 1862, by Utagawa Yoshitsuya, we see the famous fourteenth-century general Kusunoki and two fellow warriors battling through a storm of arrows at the battle of Sakainoura in 1348. In the poetic tradition of many samurai, before his final battle Kusunoki composed the following death poem, which may have influenced Yoshitsuya’s melodramatic work of art:

I have a feeling

I will not be returning,

so among the names

of those who died by the bow

I inscribe my own.1

Dedicated warriors who risked their lives in battle cultivated a consciousness for living life as richly as possible, and hence a deep reverence for the arts and literature. Not only were the samurai skilled swordsmen and archers, they were also great patrons of Noh theatre and famous for their practice of Zen philosophy, calligraphy and the tea ceremony. Noh robes, based on the attire of the ruling samurai elite, became formalised during the fifteenth century. On display is an atsuita costume worn mainly for male roles, with alternating block design featuring auspicious symbols; as well as a kariginu costume, worn for female roles, featuring a detailed motif of autumn flowers and grasses. Accompanying the robes are Noh masks representing the three main groups of characters that appear in Noh theatre: male and female humans, ghosts and spirits, and supernatural beings. Of particular interest is the mask of Chūjō, inspired by the ninth-century poet and romantic Ariwara no Narihira. Narihira was a warrior of imperial linage who became known as an ideal man, and was the inspiration for roles of gallant generals and noblemen and, it is believed, the lead character of Murasaki Shikibu’s Tale of Genji.

The samurai were renowned custodians of classical literature and took great pleasure in the noble pastimes of falconry, incense games, poetry games and the tea ceremony. The tea ceremony became a fundamental part of political negotiations, and often functioned as a peaceful method of soothing confrontations between families or rival factions. During the Muromachi period (1333–1568) a formal style of tea was practised that preserved ties to Chinese tea culture and the use of Chinese tea ware. The fine green celadon Longquan tea bowl and tenmoku hare’s fur spot glazed Jian tea bowl included in the exhibition represent this older tea practice.

During the Azuchi-Momoyama period (1568–1615), innovative tea masters such as Sen no Rikyu and his disciple Furuta Oribe (a high-ranking samurai himself), established a new and uniquely Japanese style of tea known as Wabi-cha that used rustic and irregularly shaped tea bowls. Raku–style bowls with red and black glazed surfaces were created by Rikyu in collaboration with the potter Chōjirō, and tea bowls were designed and decorated in the taste of Furuta Oribe, featuring whimsical and often abstracted nature designs.

In 1868, when Japan signed trade treaties with America and European nations, the feudal system in which shoguns and regional lords controlled the country came to an end. New Japan forbade samurai from carrying swords and removed their privileged social status, bringing the age of the samurai to an abrupt end. However, the samurai’s culturally refined lives and reputation for honesty, courage, benevolence, respect, self-sacrifice, self-control, dutifulness and loyalty are embodied to this day in the objects and artworks they created, commissioned and inspired.



‘Kusunoki Masatsura’, Wikipedia,, accessed 28 May 2014.