Samurai Art in Transition

Detail of woodcut of a samurai warrior by Toyokuni
YPM catalog no. ANT.206758

A pair of bronze hares.
YPM catalog nos. ANT. 241844 and ANT. 241845

 

After Commodore Perry’s opening of Japan to the West in 1854, vast changes occurred in the Japanese economy and society. Political upheavals brought in new leadership who adopted policies intended to westernize the country.

The samurai, the ancient warrior class that accounted for about 6% of the male population, were stripped of their status and no longer allowed to carry their twin swords. More importantly, they lost their hereditary stipends.

Above: A tobacco pouch with its large ivory netsuke.
YPM catalog no. ANT.241869

Below: A pair of sword guards. Called a tsuba, it was usually made of iron and was sometimes decorated with silver or gold inlay.
YPM catalog nos. ANT.140628 and ANT.55520

 

In the years after the restoration of the Emperor Meiji in 1868, American collectors sought items made by the artisans of the “new Japan,” along with cultural items that transcended the vast changes of the Meiji period.

This period of modernization was one of economic turmoil for the artisans who had lost the patronage of the samurai. Swords and sword accoutrements were no longer made and, with the conversion to western dress with pockets, inro and similar personal containers lost their utility.

Left: A red lacquer inro decorated withstylized kogai, indicating the owner’s class.
YPM catalog no. ANT.231937

Right: An 18th century inro with gold and silver decoration on a black lacquer background, with silver ojime and large ivory netsuke.
YPM catalog no. ANT.231940

 

Small multi-section containers, called inro, functioned as pockets for the samurai. The sections were kept in place by a small sliding bead called ojime. When inserted around a belt or sash a counterweight, the netsuke, kept the inro secure.  Often these items were made of ivory and precious metals.

A bronze and crystal okimono of cranes, symbolizing wishes for a long life.
YPM catalog no. ANT.241843

 

In response, artisans designed new wares, and converted older items in imaginative ways that appealed to western visitors. The examples here include both original and converted samurai items, as well as new designs created during Japan's transition to its new economy.