Japan, Muromachi period circa 1400 CE
Wood with lacquer and gilding, inlaid with precious stones
Total height 155 cm, figure 125 cm
The samurai emerged as a clearly defined military class from feudal Japan, the result of a lord and vassal relationship perpetuated through generations. The very word ‘samurai’ is rooted in the verb that means ‘to serve or accompany a person of high rank’. The feudal shogunate supported the samurai as a martial aristocracy and the vehicle through which military power was exercised. A samurai’s allegiance to his lord and clan was absolute. Over time the samurai way of life came to be known as bushido, ‘the way of the warrior’, a code of moral principles which the samurai were required to observe. It embodied a number of virtues: gi (righteousness), yuki (courage), jin (benevolence), rei (respect), makoto (sincerity), meiyo (honour), and chugi (loyalty) – principles that are still upheld in everyday life. Their increasing military and economic power made the samurai a force to be reckoned with in the politics of Japan’s imperial court. In the Kamakura period (1185-1333) the first samuraidominated government emerged, and the emperor became little more than a figurehead. But a samurai’s life was not all fighting and politicking – intellectual cultivation was also an integral part of his existence. Moreover, in the thirteenth century the Zen school of Buddhism spread to Japan and helped to shape samurai standards of conduct.
This figure of a samurai holds a sword. Traditionally described as ‘the soul of the samurai’, it was the deadliest of weapons, the most cherished of possessions. Even today it calls out to the imagination as no other bladed weapon can do. The use of the sword was a vital part of a samurai’s training, together with archery and horsemanship. In the late thirteenth and early fourteenth century Goro Nyudo Masamune, one of the greatest swordsmiths in the history of the Japanese sword, whose blades were both strong and beautiful, developed a two-layer structure of soft and hard steel which improved cutting power and endurance, thus producing one of the most potent weapons in Asia. His sword-manufacturing techniques were studied and copied by many other smiths. Changing styles of warfare brought about changes in the style of the sword. By around 1390, samurai were adding the katana to the longer tachi.
This statue resembles portraits of the famous Kusunoki Masashige (1294-1336), a fourteenth-century samurai who fought for Emperor Go-Daigo in the Genko War (1331-1333) and is admired as the ideal of samurai loyalty. He wears full armour – cuirass, shoulder guards (sode), hand guards, helmet (kabuto), throat guard, chain armour, and boots. On the front of the helmet is the crest (meadate), the samurai’s badge or insignia that represented clans and families, professions and ranks. This badge is in the shape of a circular sun or moon. The samurai’s hands rest on the hilt of his sword, which stands upright in front of him.
This highly important and monumental sculpture has a superb presence. Noteworthy are the expressive mythical makara heads from which the arms emerge, the fluid movement of the sleeves and skirts, as well as the makara head just above the belt. The sculpture has a harmonious balanced symmetrical construction, rich in fine detail, and complemented by lacquer, gilding and inlaid stones.
Collection A. B. Freeman-Mitford (1837-1916), 1st Baron Redesdale, British diplomat, collector and writer.
Collection Mrs D. Devonshire, Duchess of Devonshire, the youngest of the Mitford sisters (1920-2014) and by descent.
A.B. Freeman-Mitford Redesdale, Tales of Old Japan, Public Domain, 1871.
H. Cortazzi, Mitford’s Japan. Memoires and Recollections 1866-1906, Japan Library, London, 2002.
S. Turnbull, Samurai, The World of the Warrior, Oxford, 2003.
J. Guinness, The House of Mitford, Orion, 2015.
Report on Radiocarbon dating by The Royal Institute of Cultural Heritage (KIK-IRPA), Brussels, 18 May 2016. Conclusion date with 95,4% between 1310 and 1440 AD.
Detail: close-up of face