Part I - Who was he and what was his function?

Photo: Studio Ferrazzini Bouchet Photography, Genève

Okegawadō tōsei gusoku (armor)End of the Momoyama –

early Edo period: end of xvi century (sashimono), early xvii century

Samurais are essential figures of feudal Japan stretching for the 12th to the 17th century. The word Samurai could be translated as "he who serves". He served his master, a daimyo or shogun, sort of military leader close to our western notion of dictator. The samurai's loyalty to his master had no limits, not even death. He was a highly skilled warrior who lived by very strict codes that defined his clothes, armor and behavior on the battlefield while putting a strong emphasis on honor. Contrarily to a western knight, a samurai had to be a fierce warrior but at the same time a lover of the arts. Because of that, he is part of an elite, thus superior to commons soldiers and even citizens. That would, largely explain the care and aesthetic qualities that one finds in the costumes presented in the Samurai exhibition now at the Musée de la Civilisation. Everything in his battle outfit was special, even the undergarment, such as those that can be seen in the exhibition. He had a particular hairstyle to make wearing his helmet more comfortable. At all times, and particularly in combat, the samurai had to be washed and well groomed. Some even wore perfume.

Trained for feudal warfare, the samurai had to learn the arts of fencing, archery, horsemanship, tactics and the use of the spear. He also was taught a form of wrestling called jiujutsu in order to have a better knowledge of anatomy applicable to their fighting techniques of offense and defence. He was also taught things like calligraphy which, because of its pictorial form, was considered as indicative of one character. All of this training relied on three basic notions: wisdom, generosity and courage.

The only thing required of a samurai was to be ready to fight whenever necessary. It's true however that many of them never went into battle. They were all provided for either by their own family or by their master. Some did however have other activities on the side to round out their income.

The samurai has been the subject of numerous folk legends in Japan and has also inspired western literature and movies. May I suggest two movies that you can rent at the video club Cartier: the Japanese film Kagemusha or the American production The Last Samurai.