A number of most beautiful and costly Japanese Samurai artefacts are on show in the Hypo Kulturhalle, Theatinerstraße, Munich through June 2019 and will then tour to other places. The pieces are on loan from the Ann and Gabriel Barbier-Mueller Museum in Dallas, Texas.
Japanese society was organized in castes, in the Tokugawa period, the general shogun was at the top, then came the nobility, the daimyo, or regional lords with at least 10,000 koku income. One koku was 180 l of rice, enough to feed one person for one year. Daimyo showed off their wealth by building castles. In order to control the approx. 260 daimyo, the shogun obliged them to come to Edo at Himeji castle every two years and leave their wives and children as hostages. On the other hand, the lords were also able to parade their fantastic armor made of leather and metal plates, silk threads and unique decorations.
This armor should have been a model for European suits of armor, as they weighed much less. The sizes could be adjusted from father to son by snipping through the threads of one row and adding or taking out rows of plates. The threads, laces and leather parts also ensured flexibility of movement: soldiers were no longer encased in a hard shell that could not be removed in case of injury.
Boots were soled with removable straw soles, every soldier bushi had an extra pair. Swords were short and of the very best steel, folded over innumerable times. Some swords are worth two to three hundred thousand euros meanwhile. The samurai would start by putting on his undergarments, his arm guards, the various pieces of armor, and finally his coat, his boots and his helmet. Bushido means “the way of the soldier”, his fighter’s ethics.
Horses were small, as they had to be imported from the north. Stirrups were often decorated with monkeys and goats, animals that were kept in the stables to keep the horses moving to prevent any hoof ailments. The Japanese loved bear fur on their helmets, yet had to import such goods from the north as well, so traders would sell them all sorts of fur as long as the imitation looked like the real thing.
Symbols are interpreted differently from country to country. Whereas Germans believe that rabbits are easily frightened, in Japan they are considered intelligent beings. To us an aubergine or eggplant is simply a vegetable, to the Japanese they bring you good luck. Thus such symbols were often used creating the unique helmets, with antlers, horns, devils’ faces, ears and sweatbands, a long nose (with a hinge to breathe), crests and crescents, etc.
In the Japanese caste system, the shogun was the highest ranking person, then came the 260 daimyo, then the peasants and all the way at the bottom, the tradesmen. During the 240 years of peace in the Edo period, the warriors were retrained as civil servants and tax collectors. Many of the suits of armor collected by the Muellers were never worn in battle. Some date back to the 13th century and are still here for us to look at and admire.