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Samurai invade the DIA

Complete Set of Armor (tosei gusoku) with Flag - detail

The Land of the Rising Sun meets the Motor City as samurai invade the DIA.  The new exhibit, Samurai: Beyond the Sword focuses a light on the art, history and culture of the feudal Japanese warriors.

Samurai means “one who serves.” At one time they were warriors who served Japan’s emperor and nobility as swords for hire. Over time, however, they became very powerful and took political control for themselves.

Pecking order for the elite class

Pecking order for the elite class

Most people are aware of their history as soldiers, but what is less known is that they were also the guardians of and participants in Japanese artistic culture.  The exhibit reflects all of these roles.

While samurai were at the top Japan’s rigid and complex class hierarchy there was a pecking order. Before we go on you need to know who’s who.

  • Shogun: Japan’s supreme military ruler. In the Edo period, all shoguns came from the Tokugawa family.
  • Daimyo: High-ranking samurai and regional warlords who held political and economic control of their territory, granted to them by the shogun.
  • Chief retainers: Fulfilled government and military duties in service to their daimyo, who in turn served the shogun. Lived off stipends provided by their daimyo.
  • Retainers: Acted as a standing army and some performed minor government duties. Lived off stipends provided by their daimyo.
  • Low-ranking samurai: Included spear-bearers and gunmen. They received the smallest stipends.

Now let’s take a quick walk through the life of the samurai.

War and art

The first room shows both sides of samurai life with the warrior part depicted on the left and the artistic on the right. The first thing you see as you proceed is a tapestry showing the hierarchy of the civilization with the shogun on top and his samurais below.  However, that room and the other early rooms are dedicated to the more recognizable points of feudal Japan … the military side.

Complete Set of Armor (tosei gusoku) with Multi-colored Lacing

Complete Set of Armor (tosei gusoku) with Multi-colored Lacing

Helmets, suits of armor, and swords draw the eye and demonstrate the military prowess of the culture.  There are even examples of the less well-known weapons such as guns brought to the Japan from Portugal.  And, while the armor on display was mostly ceremonial, even when they were forged hundreds of years ago, it is possible to picture a bullet hole from battle.

Some ornamental details on helmets and armor had spiritual meaning. An ornament shaped like a sword has a Buddhist ritual object for a handle that might represent incredible force, indestructability and spiritual power.  Two chopsticks poking out of the top of a helmet formed a hollow container with a plug for holding a precious liquid. The inscription on the left chopstick suggests the liquid would be Buddhist holy water. The right chopstick inscription refers to a Buddhist saint and protector of warriors.

Helmet (kabuto) in the Form of a Bears Head

Helmet (kabuto) in the Form of a Bears Head

This is not a mere showcasing of weapons. It goes into the design and significance of the weapons to culture.  There is even a video showing the process of sword making, which is considered a highly artistic skill to this day. Families with that lineage still make highly prized sword as their ancestors had done for hundreds of years.

Not far from the diagram showing the parts of a sword and how they go together is a collection of sword guards.  The guards were decorated to show off among other things the spirituality of the user, such as Zen Buddhism or Taoism imported from China.

The use of spiritual influence was not uncommon for the samurai, most often Zen Buddhism.  The samurai would spend lots of time with the monks, which led to a general inclusion into the samurai way of life.  Much of the iconography, design and culture are borrowed from the practice.

Tea ceremony, a sip of culture

Cup StandMost well-known of the Zen influence was the tea ceremony. The exhibit has gathered together some examples of the dishes and tools that were designed and used for the elaborate and highly disciplined practice.  There are even some examples to pick up and hold to help simulate the experience, which are located just in front of a monitor showing a reenactment of one of the less intimate versions of the ceremony.

You should know that hosting a tea ceremony was an honor granted to only a select number of high-ranking warriors. The samurai built tea rooms in their castles and homes to host political allies and adversaries. There was a good reason. Swords were left at the door, but politics were always discussed. Practicing perfect tea etiquette ensured that one would not offend the host, who might be a potential ally … or foe.

The tea ceremonies were vital to the way samurai were viewed. The accessories showed off his prestige and taste. During a tea ceremony, the use of fine tea accessories was an indication of political power and status. The accessories were also exchanged as gifts. Receiving a fine tea bowl from a higher-ranking samurai would imply an obligation, or it could be a generous reward for loyal behavior.

Another practice important to the exhibit is Confucianism. In the time of the samurai, things from China were highly prized … both objects and ideas.  There are a fair share of works of art that show Chinese influence, including a work that talks about Confucianism

Chinese influence

The painting styles of China were mimicked as well, or at least acted as inspiration, for quite a few of the works, which share space with the more traditionally Japanese styles.  The influence from China was so strong that works of art, like pottery still came into Japan after it became a closed society. The influence is so deep that Confucianism’s teachings about how to act towards government caused many of the samurai to abandon their ways out of a lack an agreement with their shogun, an act usually though unimaginable.

While there is Chinese influence and artifacts there are far more traditionally Japanese items and influence in the exhibit. This makes perfect sense because the samurai were the guardians of the Japanese society’s culture.  It was also considered a point of pride to be well-rounded and versed in the arts.

Noh Theatre Robe

Noh Theatre Robe

The guardianship of culture led the samurai to host and fund Noh theatrical shows.  As Birgitta Augustin, curator of the exhibit, points out this may be the least familiar part of the culture for westerners.  The structure and build up are so slow and the play so long that westerners often fall asleep in the first hour. You can watch short part of a performance on a monitor and check out the musical instruments and portions of the costumes that made up the shows.

Tale of Genji

Westerns will relate to the Tale of Genji.  This story is not too different from the fairy tales we know. It is the tale of handsome prince Genji, who is cast from the line of succession for the title of emperor, but regains his political power. If a high-ranking samurai gave the Tale of Genji as a give it could be a subtle, yet prickly reminder of his power over his rivals and lower-ranking samurais.

Several scenes from tale are painted on a large painted screen in the exhibit.

Screen such as this were often used as a sign of extravagance, made for special occasions.  The tradition is uniquely Japanese and an interesting was to show off art.

Like much of Japanese art the seasons play a role. Spring is associated with youth and is on one screen made for an 18th birthday. Other symbols included cranes for longevity and geese in harvested rice fields represent winter and life reaching its end.

Dog-chasing contest

Dog-chasing contest

Peacetime is shown with a work depicting a contest of hunting a dog (where it was not to be killed) with special arrows to keep the skill of archery alive. Even the twilight of the samurai is shown with items made of recycled parts of the Japanese culture, like a basket made of arrows.

Samurai: Beyond the Sword was put together by curator Birgitta Augustin. Dr. Masako Watanabe acted as special consultant on the exhibit and Megan DiRienzo was the interpretation specialist.

In the first week of April there will be companion piece to Samurai: Beyond the Sword as a special edition of the DIA bulletin.  It will offer more information on Japanese art in both the exhibition and the DIA.

Museum Hours

Tuesdays–Thursdays: 9 a.m.–4 p.m.

Fridays: 9 a.m.–10 p.m.

Saturdays and Sundays: 10 a.m.–5 p.m.


$16 for adults, $8 for ages 6–17, free for DIA members; Groups (15+): $12 per ticket

Tickets are timed and advance purchase is recommended. Tickets are available at the DIA Box Office, or 313-833-4005. A $3.50 handling charge applies to all non-DIA-member tickets, except those sold at the DIA Box Office.

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3 comments on “Samurai invade the DIA

  1. I always tend to learn more and more about the Samurai. No matter what the modern generation may think, but most of the Samurai had a code rather than just being a killer for hire.

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