Looking Back to Move Forward: Japan’s Samurai

Shinzo Abe, Japan’s prime minister, has promised a lot since his victory in December 2012 and his subsequent re-election earlier this month.  So far the results have been dismal.  Mr. Abe’s popularity is declining due to an uneven distribution of wealth, decreasing standards of living outside large cities and a weak yen (Japan’s currency), a December 2014 article from The Economist explains.  But Mr. Abe is not the only one trying to restore Japan’s place in the world.  There have been three recent exhibitions across the United States of America focusing on Japan’s past; specifically, its Samurai history.  These exhibitions come at a critical time—recounting a country with a rich and strong history—as Japan focuses to regain its strength today.

The Samurai ruled Japanese society and government from the 12th century until the late 19th—helping to lead Japan into the modern world.  Craftsmen outfitted these individuals with weapons, most notably the Samurai sword.  Arguably a work of art and a weapon, this sword is a common theme in past and present exhibitions: Lethal Beauty at the Birmingham Museum of Art (Alabama, USA); Lethal Beauty: Samurai Weapons and Armor at the Katonah Museum of Art (New York, USA); and Samurai Japanese Armor from the Ann and Gabriel Barbier-Mueller Collection at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (Los Angeles, USA).

The exhibition at the Birmingham Museum of Art, Lethal Beauty, has since ended (September 21, 2014), but its contributions are worth noting.  It recognized the attributes associated with these warriors: bravery, respect, honor and loyalty.  The Samurai had control over the common people and eventually gained social and economic status, the Museum notes.  Their weaponry, from the fine swords produced to the arms and armor, not only exuded artistic craft and beauty.  But they were also practical.

Lethal Beauty: Samurai Weapons and Armor at the Katonah Museum of Art (through January 4, 2015) continues the conversation.  The exhibition includes masks, helmets, armor, swords and daggers, among other items to convey the beauty and craftsmanship of Samurai weapons created from the 13th to 20th centuries.  And finally, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s current Samurai exhibition (through February 1, 2015) reveals many of the same ideals as the past exhibitions.  Battle gear—weapons, armor and the like—teach visitors about the evolution of the Samurai.

It is striking that three exhibitions, debuting within months of each other, embrace the topic of the Samurai.  Why is this and why now?   Mr. Abe is working to improve Japan’s economic situation today, since it is a means “to restoring national pride and even recasting Japan’s historical narrative,” another December 2014 article by The Economist notes.  Japan has a strong and rich history, and these exhibitions remind visitors of this.  This one-time country leader is working to regain its strength after their real estate and stock bubble burst in the 1990s.  Indeed sometimes the best way forward is to reflect back, which is precisely what these exhibitions do.  At the same time they seemingly forecast what is to come: a prosperous future for Japan.