The military elite dominated Japanese politics, economics, and social policies between the twelfth and nineteenth centuries. Known as bushi or samurai, these warriors, who first appear in historical records of the tenth century, rose to power initially through their martial prowess—in particular, they were expert in archery, swordsmanship, and horseback riding. The demands of the battlefield inspired these men to value the virtues of bravery and loyalty and to be keenly aware of the fragility of life. Yet, mastery of the arts of war was by no means sufficient. To achieve and maintain their wealth and position, the samurai also needed political, financial, and cultural acumen.
In contrast with the brutality of their profession, many leaders of the military government became highly cultivated individuals. Some were devoted patrons of Buddhism, especially of the Zen and Jodo schools. Several were known as accomplished poets, and others as talented calligraphers. During the Muromachi period (1392–1573), a number of shoguns exerted a profound cultural influence by amassing impressive collections of painting, enthusiastically supporting Noh and Kyogen theater, and sponsoring the construction of beautiful temples and gardens in Kyoto. Powerful warriors of the succeeding Momoyama era (1573–1615) inherited this repertoire of interests and added to it a love of grandeur and splendor. The massive walls, vast audience chambers, and soaring keeps of their great castles became the central symbols of the age. Glittering with the abundant use of gold and dynamic in design, the paintings of this period exuded power and monumentality. On a more intimate scale, the development of the tea ceremony was closely intertwined with samurai culture in the late medieval period. During the Edo period (1615–1868), the cult of the warrior, bushido, became formalized and an idealized code of behavior, focusing on fidelity to one’s lord and honor, developed. The samurai of this period inherited the traditional aesthetics and practices of their predecessors and, therefore, continued the seemingly paradoxical relationship between the cultivation of bu and bun—the arts of war and of culture—that characterized Japan’s great warriors.
Department of Asian Art. “Samurai.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/samu/hd_samu.htm (October 2002)
Mason, Penelope. History of Japanese Art. Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Pearson Prentice Hall, 2004.
Shimizu, Yoshiaki, ed. Japan: The Shaping of Daimyo Culture, 1185–1868. Washington, D.C.: National Gallery of Art, 1988.