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Legacy of a Daimyo Family

by Deborah Clearwaters

Who were the samurai? In their native Japan they have inspired countless fictional portrayals for hundreds of years. More recently a fascination with samurai in popular culture has spread far beyond the Japanese archipelago; Kurosawa Akira, the renowned Japanese filmmaker who dedicated the better part of his career to making films about samurai, profoundly influenced filmmakers around the globe. George Lucas’ Star Wars films borrow heavily from samurai lore and aesthetics. Takashi Okazaki’s internationally popular present-day manga/anime Afro Samurai chronicles the revenge story of a master swordsman in a futuristic feudal Japan.

But what about the historical samurai? How can we learn more about the realities of their lives?

The art and stories in the special exhibition Lords of the Samurai: Legacy of a Daimyo Family provide an intimate view of the Hokosawa family, one of Japan’s most erudite and long-lived military clans. This exhibition marks the first time this family’s collection has been shown in a comprehensive way in the U.S.

The samurai arose from warrior bands formed to protect the Japanese imperial capital in Kyoto. They gained importance and political power through the Heian period (794–1185) and instituted a military government (shogunate) in the Kamakura period (1185–1333). Soon after this, the long history of the Hosokawa clan—as told through their art collection—began to take shape. Two early works in the collection serve as the opening chapter of the family history, and by extension, that of the samurai in general. The sword by Moriie from the 1200s (p. 7 of this issue) and the portrait of Hosokawa Sumimoto painted in the midst of the violent civil wars of the 1400s and 1500s (p. 3) evoke the early history of the samurai, who originally served in great part as professional warriors. Sumimoto is pictured ready for battle astride a fine horse, and the sword by Moriie, similar perhaps to the one the mounted warrior wears at his belt, represents the weapon most associated with these fighting men.

As is amply clear from this remarkable collection, however, elite clans such as the Hosokawa were also great patrons of the arts and learning, and were creators of a highly sophisticated aesthetic world. Members of this family through the generations have composed and studied poetry, practiced the multifaceted tea gatherings known as the Way of Tea, and learned to paint or to work in other art forms. These artistic and literary pursuits polished the image of the samurai clans, who sought legitimacy in a cultural context centered on the highly refined imperial court of Kyoto.

As noted by Hosokawa Morihiro (b. 1938), the living descendant of this 700-year-old clan, in his introduction to the catalogue published in conjunction with this exhibition:

Japanese generals have always had a high regard for the arts. They decorated their swords with elaborately ornamented mountings and went into battle in exquisitely designed armor. At their banquets, they performed dances from the Noh theater, and as they approached death they composed death verses of classical waka poetry. They are known to have rewarded success on the battlefield not with land or status but with prized utensils for the tea ceremony. There was a time when a single tea utensil could be valued as highly as the land comprising an entire province. Because they put their lives on the line in battle, these warriors cultivated a consciousness for living life as richly as possible, which led to a deep reverence for the arts and for literature. The maneuvers of military generals were not constrained to wartime: together with rivals who tomorrow might turn into their enemies on the battlefront they held renga linked poetry competitions and chanoyu tea gatherings; it was not uncommon for them to use such occasions for the purpose of political negotiation. No matter how much military strength a general might have, he would not be able to live through those troublesome times without being thoroughly versed in literature and the Way of Tea.

The Hosokawa family consciously strove to embody the ideal characteristics of the warrior elite by pursuing achievements in two realms: culture (bun) and arms (bu). By the very act of collecting art and preserving family lore, they were able not only to express the family’s nobility but also to educate successive generations to be culturally and militarily competent. The Hosokawa’s fine collection survives to the present day because this multitalented clan stayed in power for centuries. They made good choices of political allies, particularly through the battle torn years of the 1500s, ensuring they would usually be on the winning side.

Many objects in this exhibition are marked with the nine-planet Hosokawa family crest. The crest—serving the dual role of design motif and symbol of family pride—adorns decorative objects, clothing, armor, and textiles used in many of the hanging scrolls’ mountings, particularly the thin strip of fine brocade silk fabric bordering the top and bottom of the image. You may enjoy engaging in a treasure hunt for all the clever and charming ways artists employed the nine-planet motif as well as that of a stylized cherry blossom, another family symbol.

Each object in this exhibition—including paintings, calligraphy, metal weaponry, armor, ceramics, lacquer, textiles, and bamboo—was commissioned, purchased, or received as a gift, or designed or created by a member of the Hosokawa family. Painstaking care has been taken over the generations to record historical data relating to the artworks—such as the identity of the man who wore a particular suit of armor, and the occasions on which he did so; or the identity of the man who commissioned a certain artwork—leaving us with a richer picture of the tastes and times of the Hosokawa samurai generals and their families.

Deborah Clearwaters is director of education at the Asian Art Museum.

Originally published in Treasures, the members' magazine of the Asian Art Museum, vol. 11 no. 2 (Summer 2009). Copyright (c) Asian Art Museum, 2009. Reprinted by permission.

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