Culture of
the Samurai

Starting in the late ninth century, wealthy families began to take a vested interest in protecting their land and assets by forming militia units. Early in the tenth century, the court and nobility then started incorporating the powerful forces of these local warrior groups. Among the two largest were the Genji and Taira clans that emerged in the Kantō and Kansai regions. The Taira clan originally rose to power as a result of their military support of the emperor. Following the Hōgen and Heiji rebellions (1156 and 1159), the Taira came to exercise full control over the court. However, monopolization of power in the hands of the Taira clan led to civil disturbances throughout the land. Led by Minamoto no Yoritomo (1147-1199), the Genji clan launched an attack and defeated the Taira clan. As a result, in the late twelfth century Yoritomo established a shogunate in the Kamakura region. Afterwards, the center of political power in Japanese history shifted for the first time to the Kantō area and cultural supremacy left the aristocracy for the warrior class.

After the Muromachi shogunate was established in the fourteenth century, political power transferred back to Kyoto. The new samurai culture merged with traditional aristocratic culture in Kyoto, to which Chan (Zen) culture from the Chinese mainland was added. As a result, new art forms emerged in Japan, including monochrome ink painting (suiboku), tea culture (chadō), flower arrangement (ikebana), and Noh theater. Then, starting from the late fifteenth century, Japan was plunged into civil war for a century. Not until the appearance of Toyotomi Hideoyoshi (1537-1598) was Japan unified in the late sixteenth century, forming the foundation of modern Japanese society. After the death of Hideoyoshi, Tokugawa Ieyasu (1543-1616) established his shogunate base in the city of Edo (modern Tokyo). He transformed the military culture of the past into a civil one, the role of the warrior likewise changing from military duties to political administration.

The Arts of War

The samurai warrior was equipped with items for battle, such as sword and armor for himself and a harness for his horse. With the rise of the samurai class came economic clout and aesthetic awareness, leading to great effort and expense to create items of refinement and decoration in the arts and crafts. Both in terms of form and detail, they fully reflected the unique aesthetics of the samurai who wielded them. A succession of samurai generations resulted in the elegant military equipment that has been passed down to the present day. These works have long been admired by collectors for their form, forging, metalwork, and lacquer art, at the same time revealing the unique form of appreciation found in Japanese art.

The Arts of Leisure

With the rise and fall of shogunates in Japan, who dominated politics for nearly 700 years, art and culture witnessed remarkable achievement and diversity. For example, the eighth shogun of the Muromachi military regime (bakufu), Ashikaga Yoshimasa (1436-1490), amassed a large collection of Chinese luxury goods and fine art, which he used to furnish his residence and to reinforce his authority in cultural matters as well. Monochrome ink painting (suiboku) was brought to Japan with Zen Buddhism in the first half of the thirteenth century and became popular in Zen temples during the Muromachi period. While the Way of Tea (chadō) developed by Sen no Rikyū (1522-1591) took refined simplicity in the appreciation of tea to new heights, the magnificently colorful screen paintings of the Momoyama period (1573-1603) reflected the aesthetic tendencies of shoguns and the period style at the time. The items used by the samurai in daily life were often opulently decorated, reflecting their extraordinary status in society.