Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Samurai Art Exhibition

Well, after a one-day delay when my lovely daughter was up all night sick, the manuscript is out and I'm back. Now we cross our fingers over here...

This weekend the family and I went up to San Francisco and saw a great exhibition at the Asian Art Museum. It was about the life of the samurai warrior class in Japan - and though I've seen a lot of Japanese stuff in museums, I have to say I loved it. The Asian Art Museum did a great job not only of showing objects, but of trying to depict various aspects of samurai life, including swordsmanship and armor of course, but also poetry and art. They also tried to explain some of the reasoning behind the features of the objects.

It's when you see both better known and little-known aspects of a lifestyle that you start to feel you're getting an insight into how people lived, and how they thought - which is of course my favorite thing to think about.

I thought I'd give you a picture of a few of the things we saw and how they got me thinking.

In the battle-related area, we saw two types of "yoroi" armor. The first type was made of metal plates woven together with silk cords, and came from the era of sword battles on horseback. The second incorporated chain mail in the sleeves, had fewer plates and thus less cord-weaving. That variety came after the introduction of firearms to Japan by the Portuguese.

Both these varieties of armor were extremely fancy. Some had built-in horsehair mustaches on the faceplates. One had a four-foot-tall wooden crest on top of the helmet! The cord-woven ones used several different colors of cord, and wove them through in patterns. We saw one with white, green, brown and purple striped cord work. While the one with the four-foot crest was purely for ceremonial occasions, the other ones were all designed for battle - but I did learn that the samurai who died in battle were buried in their armor. This was given as the explanation for the incredible detail of metalwork, embroidery, and other fancy work that went into the armor.

There were also differences in the armor over time. I mentioned the first difference above - once firearms came into Japan, the armor changed. The biggest difference between the two styles of armor was that the post-firearms style weighed a lot less. Things change when it's less important for your armor to take a lot of really stiff sword blows, and more important for you to be able to maneuver to dodge weapons fire. There was also a trend in the later armor towards less ornamentation and more sober colors, such as cordwork done entirely in dark blue. This was explained as reflecting the more sober tastes toward the end of the samurai era.

I also learned why samurai swords curve. This was totally cool. The swords are made of two types of steel: a core of steel that contains very little carbon - flexible, but not able to keep a super-hard edge; and an outer layer of carbon steel - sharp, but very brittle. In battle the edge does what you think it does, and the core steel absorbs the impact of blows on the blade, so that the sword won't break. The two layers are forged together into a straight blade, but towards the end of the process they are tempered by heating them up to a particular temperature and then plunging them into cold water (quenching). In fact, the forgers close big heavy curtains and make the room totally dark when heating the sword at this point, so the outside light won't affect their judgment of the heat of the blade, which is based on its color. When the heated blade is plunged into the water, the two types of steel contract at different rates. A high level of carbon in the steel actually prevents it from shrinking as fast, so the core steel shrinks more and faster while the outer layer shrinks less. The result is that the blade comes out of the water curved.

I also saw an unusual-looking sword in the display. Some of you may know that the hilt of a samurai sword often has cords wrapped over a sort of bumpy layer underneath. This layer is made of the skin of rays (quite expensive even now, but more so in the samurai era). The sword we saw had the ray skin of the sword hilt uncovered by cords - and it also incorporated ray skin into the scabbard. This was where it got cool. The ray skin was wrapped around the scabbard in a long spiraling strip, and lacquered at the same time as the wood of the scabbard - then sanded down until smooth and covered with clear lacquer instead of black. The result visually was that the scabbard had a spiral of tiny white dots wrapped around it. It was beautiful.

I saw a copy of the Book of Five Rings, which was a book on proper sword technique.

There was also a collection of paintings of iris flowers that was just breathtaking. I think the young men were having a painting contest - but I've never seen iris flowers rendered in more detail, except scientifically.

The samurai had lots of contests like this - art contests, poetry contests, etc. Around these and other activities they enjoyed, like tea drinking and smelling incense, elaborate systems of rules sprang up. The exhibition didn't go into all the rules, but it was still interesting to see the variety of activities that could be made into contests or ceremonial occasions. For any of you who want to do a bit of research, the "renga" poetry contests were just fascinating, and required amazing skill - imagine having to write a sequence of poems where the last line of each one is the first of the next, and each two sequential poems have to share an image, but the image must change for each pair (and the second pair includes the second member of the first pair...).

Last, I'll mention textiles. The exhibition had kimono from the Noh theater. I have never seen such care go into a woven item. One of the kimonos had a checkered looking pattern where each square was about 1 foot by 1 foot; this had been executed by tie-dying the warp threads, and then carefully weaving through the weft threads so that they matched the color through that section of the cloth. Floral designs in other bright colors had been woven into the cloth as well. The exhibition said that the kimono of Noh probably came to be so fancy because wealthy samurai would give them as ostentatious gifts to their favorite actors - and pretty soon, everybody was having them.

The last object was a sort of sleeveless coat, made of horizontal stripes in red and white wool. Wool was a European product. The exhibition pointed out that this coat would have stood out (I could believe it would stand out for about a mile!) because of the brightness and clear difference between the stripes. They were each three or four inches wide, and the strips of felted wool had actually been laid side-by-side and stitched together.

My kids' favorite area of the exhibition was the area where they had a Japanese style room in which you could try on simple kimono, play go, look at art, and write in a folding book. Hands-on rocks for the younger set, and I enjoyed this also. The exhibition ends this weekend, so take advantage of the remaining days if you live near San Francisco and get a chance to go see it.


  1. That's fascinating, Juliette. I didn't know about the curved swords.

    Having grown up in Northern California, I like the SF museums. I'm down south now so I don't get to visit very often.

    We went to Kyoto a year ago and loved it. I'd been once before. We have some antique Japanese prints, mostly Meiji, but one nice Edo era one.

    Do you know the fantasy series "Tales of the Otori," set in a quasi-mythical, quasi-historical Japan? I'd imagine you do, but I couldn't find it mentioned here.

    Good luck on the submission!

  2. CWJ,

    I lived in Kyoto for eight months when I was in college. It was just amazing - I've been back to visit a few times, but not since the kids were born, and I'm aching to go back.

    I've seen ads for "Tales of the Otori," but never read them. I should go pick one up, as I'm sure I'd get into the Japanese atmosphere.

    Thanks for your good wishes - in fact, the novel I just submitted has a lot of Japanese elements in it. But it's not the same kind of world as "Tales of the Otori."

  3. You'd probably be more attuned, but the Tales of the Otori seemed to be both well-written and fairly knowledgeable about Japan. I liked the way that some Japanese elements were included in such a way as to be recognizable and yet made the author's own (for example, ninjas, which are almost satirical these days, are recast as "the Tribe).

    Although the Tales of the Otori read almost like a YA series (the protagonist starts off as a teenaged boy and ages through the series), be aware that there is considerable violence and brief, but non negligible, sexuality; so any parents would want to read ahead to make sure it is appropriate.