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The Art of the Warrior Class

The Art of the Warrior Class

A new exhibition of samurai armor captures the violence and delicacy of Japan's warrior caste.

Grace Phan Jones

The same week this spring that Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida was visiting Washington to bolster U.S. support for closer defense tiesthe Virginia Museum of Fine Arts (VMFA) a hundred miles away in Richmond was delving into the art of the Japanese Warrior Class. Its new exhibition, “Samurai Armor from the Collection of Ann and Gabriel Barbier-Mueller,” is open to the public through August 4, 2024.  

This new VMFA exhibition spotlights the armor, artistry, and complicated social dynamics of Edo-era Japan. The 140 items on display represent only a mere fraction of the Barbier-Mueller collection. One of the largest private holdings of samurai ephemera in the world, Japan's Ministry of Foreign Affairs has recently recognized its owner Mr. Gabriel Barbier-Mueller for his diplomatic contributions toward fostering mutual understanding between the United States and Japan.

No matter the contemporary political moment, the VMFA exhibit is geopolitically significant. Japan's samurai armor has long shouldered the role of diplomacy. Following centuries of isolation, Japan gifted Queen Victoria suits of armor to symbolize the beginning of Japan’s trade relations with the West in the mid-1800s. Today, as the United States balances its own relationships with international powers, the Barbier-Mueller collection offers unique insights into the themes of isolation and exchange.

Upon entering the exhibition, darkness settles around the visitor. Black and bronze walls create a shadowy backdrop from which eerie figures emerge. Fully assembled suits of armor fill the gallery, leading one to wonder about the men who occupied these formidable forms. The facial expressions forged in metal masks reflect the proud spirit of those who wore them. Well-placed spotlights fall on a fearsome mask, a leering warrior's face with silver teeth glinting in the darkness. On a typical visit to any museum, I have to restrain myself from touching the artifacts. Not so, now. Face-to-face with the vigorous warrior image, I am relieved that a pane of glass divides us. 

The scowling mouth of this half-mask, or menpō, is framed by a wiry horsehair mustache and menacing goatee to match. Atop the samurai’s head, spiraling shells of gold adorn ear-like deflectors on either side of the kabuto helmet. Flirtatious hearts perforate his leather neck guard in tribute to Marishiten, Buddhist goddess of archers. Twin dragons bask in effervescent ocean spray etched on the warrior’s brow.

In an era before name patches, distinctive helmets like this were key to identifying individual combatants amid chaotic brawls. Throughout the late 1400s, warfare in Japan evolved from provincial land disputes into civil wars among military and political elites that involved armies of hundreds. With increased demand, tosei gusoku, or modern armor, already designed to be streamlined for rapid manufacture, grew in popularity. While the structure of body amor grew more standardized, specialized headgear and other embellished accoutrements were still fair game for personal expression, especially for elite soldiers with access to avenues for customization.

The unique chest plate of our silver-toothed samurai reveals something of how the contradictions of violence and delicacy emerged over the course of the samurai evolution. The unnamed artisan who meticulously crafted the chest plate worked its metals to withstand the novel threat of gunfire. With the arrival of the Portuguese in 1543, Japanese armament had to undergo further modernization. But the bulletproof medallion over the breast in the display is actually the crest, or mon, of the Sanada daimyō clan: a clover leaf patch of three interlocking medallions. Safely corralled within the triad of rings, a damascened shishi lion frolics through peonies etched in full bloom—emblems of royal power.

Just as a foreign enemy threat fostered innovation in samurai armament, periods of peace also played their role. At the beginning of the 17th century, the Tokugawa shogunate established military dominion over Japan and enforced isolationist policies that banished the Portuguese and Spanish, limited diplomatic relations with Holland and Korea, and persecuted Christians. With the island sequestered from foreign influence and with civil warfare brought to a heel by Tokugawa’s iron thumb, the arts and culture of the Edo period (1603-1869) achieved then-unmatched heights of expression. In the absence of constant warfare, armor took on an ornamental quality. Now a ruling class of administrative elites, the samurai practiced bushido, a code of honor which preserved the art of war while incorporating leisure for other gentlemanly pursuits—for example, the art of smoking tobacco. 

Although introduced by foreigners, smoking received a warmer reception from locals than did guns or Christianity. One Edo period sculptural helmet, or kawari kabuto, in the Barbier-Mueller collection pays playful homage to the pastime. Pipe stems carved from bamboo shoot up from either side of the head like horns. Round tobacco bowls of black lacquer curve outward like convex ears. An exaggerated scowl is forged on the iron visor. If you are struggling to picture the samurai-pipe-helmet, it is exactly what it sounds like: a pointy hat with pipes stuck to either side, and built-in eyebrows.

Humor is a fine companion to the grave business of structural and aesthetic integrity, as evidenced by the exhibit’s astonishing array of helmets. I am stupefied by the nasubinari kabuto—a tall, conical helmet fashioned into an anthropomorphized eggplant. The form—created with underpinnings of papier-mâché made from mulberry bark—is light and portable. The plated neck guard is attached by braids dyed a rich, aubergine hue. From atop the vertex of the cone sprouts a leafy stem. When I try to conceive of being hounded by a warlord dressed as an angry eggplant, the results are a mixture of dreadful and droll. Nevertheless, the Edo period ought not be reduced to the bureaucrat class’s peaceful timeout. Though the culture flourished, the rule of the shogunate was severe. There were those who felt a restless nostalgia for the days when the warrior class was called to serve its fundamental purpose.

By the mid-19th century, the island’s time of isolation was ending. In 1853, Commodore Matthew Perry and his American armada forced Japan to reopen for trade. Following the ultimate overthrow of the Tokugawa shogunate, the Meiji Restoration, beginning in 1868, reestablished imperial rule in Japan. This was now infused with Western influence and the revitalization of a national military. A law passed in 1876 that prohibited the carrying of a sword in public. As samurai armor and weaponry receded further from practical use, Western art collectors surged to acquire the exquisite artifacts, which were subsequently scattered around the world. In this diaspora of defense lies the origins of the global treasure hunt that the Barbier-Muellers have pursued in order to assemble what is now one of the world’s largest private collections of samurai armor.

The 140-object VMFA exhibit represents only a fraction of the Barbier-Mueller repertoire. Nevertheless, the opportunity to observe even one of these artifacts floods the viewer with curiosity about the relationship between patrons and artisans, the paradox of strength and delicacy, and the transformation of art and armor with the ebb and flow of domestic and foreign influence. 

Partnership between the United States and Japan will become ever more vital in the coming years as the threats in the Indo-Pacific intensify. It would behoove us as Americans to continue learning about our ally’s history as a nation of warriors and artists alike. 

Grace Phan Jones is program manager at the Hertog Foundation.

Image: A still from the VMFA-produced promotional video for the exhibition. (Source)

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