Samurai Museum Tokyo
By Darren Gore on 10 Jul 2017
The samurai, despite having long ago disappeared from Japanese society, remains highly symbolic of the country both for foreigners and the Japanese themselves: even more so than contemporary icons such as black-suited salarymen or kawaii Harajuku girls. And so Japanese companies make heavy, and seemingly tenuous, use of the samurai as a marketing tool. Japan’s most-popular ice lolly Garigari-kun, for example, comes in a ‘Samurai Blue’ flavour, while car maker Suzuki’s ‘Samurai’ four-wheel-drive is a global success. But who were the samurai in reality, and where can we find traces of them in modern Tokyo?
From the 12th century through to the late nineteenth-century restoration of power to the emperor that ended centuries of military rule, the samurai (more commonly known as bushi in Japan) were an elite class of warrior that loyally served a country-wide network of feudal lords known as daimyo, who were in turn subservient to the shogun, a military dictator ruling over all of Japan. Over this period Japanese society was rigidly divided into four classes: one would be born into a class and die in that same social stratum, with virtually none of today’s social mobility.
Below the shogun and daimyo, samurai ranked at the top of the social tree, enjoying dominance over (in order of status) peasants, artisans and merchants, and they weren’t shy about exercising this power. Legally samurai possessed, and sometimes exercised, the right to execute by katana (sword) any commoners who they felt did not pay them sufficient respect.
As highly-disciplined warriors the samurai were of crucial importance in the Sengoku jidai (‘Age of Warring States’) that saw almost constant battle for control of Japan between roughly 1467 and 1603. Yet at the same time, and despite flashes of brutality of the kind mentioned above, the samurai were equally schooled in arts and culture, and contributed to popularising many traditional art forms. They also had a key role in spreading Zen Buddhism. The long reign of the Tokugawa shogunate (1603 to 1868, known as the Edo period) saw what is still the longest period of peace in Japanese history, and gave the samurai more time to pursue such un-martial arts as haiku poetry, brush calligraphy and even ikebana flower arrangement.
The Japanese penchant for tearing down buildings after a few decades, not to mention the occasional strong earthquake, means that there are sadly very few places in Tokyo where we might encounter the culture of the samurai. The town of Yanaka, on Tokyo’s east side, preserves to a degree the atmosphere of the late Edo period when samurai still walked the streets, and the Edo-Tokyo Museum houses countless artefacts from that same era.
But these days the best place to experience samurai culture is in an area of Tokyo that historically has no connection whatsoever with the cultured warriors! The Samurai Museum in Shinjuku’s love hotel-rich Kabukicho district (note that Kabukicho has never had any real connection with kabuki theatre either) comprises two floors full of armour, weaponry and other samurai-related exhibits, with plenty of hands-on opportunities. Visitors can try on authentic kabuto (helmets), armour and kimono, and get to grips with swords from different periods in the long history of the samurai. Each day also sees four performances of a samurai sword battle, given by actors from jidai geki period TV dramas, with sword and calligraphy courses available by reservation.
For me, one of the most enjoyable aspects of the museum is the highly entertaining manner in which museum head Noguchi-san and his team give their English-language guided tours (at no additional cost above the standard admission ticket). Although the samurai pursued all kinds of art forms, there seems to be no record of them having dabbled in comedy. In the Edo period however they did enjoy performances of rakugo (a form of humorous storytelling), and it’s this same kind of droll wit that Noguchi and co inject into their tours, while at the same time firmly respecting the seriousness of the subject. Noguchi and the other guides all possess a deep knowledge of all things samurai, and speak superb English too.
Just one example from Noguchi’s repertoire: many samurai chose the tombo (Japanese dragonfly) as the decorative motif for their armour out of respect for the way in which the tombo can only fly forwards; i.e. it can never ‘retreat’. As Noguchi speculates, had kangaroos been native to Japan we might well be looking at kangaroo-adorned samurai armour now, since these marsupials also lack the ability to move backwards.
So what became of the samurai after over seven centuries of history? As Noguchi-san explains, they were the victim of radically changing times after the 1850s, when Japan opened opened itself up to foreign trade and embarked upon a trajectory of rapid modernisation. Among other things, the longstanding social order, in which the samurai class had thrived, came apart. Merchants became wealthier than their samurai clients, with the latter often ending up in debt to the former, and a further humiliation came when the Meiji Emperor (reigned 1867-1912) revoked the samurai’s right to carry a katana in public and put to death disrespectful peasants.
But in traditional art forms (and thankfully not warfare) that continue into the present day, the legacy of the samurai is very much in evidence. And given the large numbers of samurai that lived (around eight percent of the population) their descendants are numerous: don’t be surprised if somebody you meet in Japan is has samurai ancestors in their family tree. Many former samurai families have gone on to achieve great things as ‘warriors’ in the business world: at the Samurai Museum I learned that the huge Mitsubishi corporation, most famous for its automobiles, was founded by the great-grandson of a samurai. Hmm, perhaps a car named the ‘Samurai’ isn’t so random after all…
2-25-6 Kabukicho, Shinjuku-ku, Tokyo
Access: JR Shinjuku, Seibu Shinjuku or Shinjuku-sanchome stations
Open: Daily 10:30 - 21:00 (last admission 20:30)
Darren came to Japan to study 11 years ago, and never made it back home to the UK. Since then he’s built up a detailed ‘mental map’ of Tokyo by intentionally getting himself lost, and loves taking visiting friends way off the well-beaten tourist track. In his free time Darren can usually be found in the backstreets of Koenji or Asagaya, with camera in one hand and a yakitori stick in the other.