Unraveling the samurai’s topknot
Japan’s warrior caste comes to Santa Fe
Depending on which hemisphere you’re in, the word “samurai” conjures images that range from stylized carnage to sophisticated nobles. In Japan, where the warrior class originated, it connotes a long tradition of honor that precedes the glossy, action-packed samurai tales in Western video games and movies. Much of anime, imported into this country from Japan (with cheesy English dubbing), glorifies the samurai with the same violent exaggeration found in U.S. culture. Though it’s easy to understand why these representations are appealing to Japanese and American youth, the traditions that define the soul of a samurai are often compromised for the sake of commercialism. It’s hard to sell a badass swordsman who slashes his opponent in half and then goes home to write a poem and have a spot of tea— so animators and movie directors focus on what sells, and at best, we end up with a hero with multiple personalities.
In an effort to explore all dimensions of this enduring figure in Japanese culture, Santa Fe JIN has chosen the samurai as the theme of its sixth annual Japanese Cultural Festival. From tea ceremonies and calligraphy workshops to kyudo ( Japanese archery) and traditional sword demonstrations, this year’s festival remembers the ancient way of the samurai while acknowledging its re-creation within pop culture.
As festival organizer Shizuko Kobayashi points out, “If you know the history of the samurai, you know why we chose it for our theme.” That history spans more than seven centuries. The modern-day concept of the samurai came to be over a progression of around 250 years, beginning in the early 1600’s, while the Tokogawa shogunate was in power. Prior to this relatively peaceful period in Japan’s history, samurai were essentially glorified bodyguards under the command of daimyos, or prestigious landowners. With the transfer of power to shogun Tokugawa leyashu and during the period of rule by his successors (known as the Edo period), the samurai experienced a cultural renaissance that resulted in higher social status and in some cases, political power.
Although the kids eat up the martial-arts aspect of the ancient warrior class, the demise of the samurai may be the most compelling part of their story. How could such an important part of Japanese culture have become obsolete? The 2003 film The Last Samurai portrays the final chapter in the history of Japan’s noble protectors, when Emperor Meiji made the decision to “Westernize” Japan’s army. In doing so, the results of centuries of domestic growth, during the country’s isolation from the rest of the world, were swiftly undone for the sake of filling the pockets of the few ruling families, while the emperor looked on as nothing more than a figurehead. Japan fell prey to the fear that only trade with the U.S. and European nations could successfully usher the country into a new age. As one character observes in The Last Samurai, “The ancient and the modern are at war for the soul of Japan.”
Though the samurai’s history ends abruptly, the legacy persists, more popular than ever, and it is the legacy that is now a cause for celebration. The theme this year might seem a tad cliché for a Japanese cultural festival, but it can be seen as a way to help reshape the modern concept of samurai so that when we hear the word we don’t immediately think of Uma Thurman in a skin-tight yellow jumpsuit, straddling a crotch rocket and speeding through downtown Tokyo.
In keeping with the samurai’s way of life, Santa Fe JIN hosts a line-up of events that celebrates aspects of art and war. The festival includes a demonstration of the graceful Japanese art of archery, presented by local dojo Jinko Kyudojo. A demonstration of chado, or the Japanese tea ceremony, is scheduled to follow. Later in the day, Nobuyuki Sato and his sword-fighting group perform a demonstration along with traditional dance. Formed in 1993, Sato’s group displays tate, the art of the samurai sword, in a theatrical presentation that combines technique with showmanship. The usual line-up of arts and crafts tables are scheduled, along with origami and calligraphy workshops.
And in case you get hungry during the frenzy of activity, cuisine from local restaurants Kohnami and Shohko Café is available. Santa Fe JIN is preparing teriyaki and tofu bento boxes and also offering adzuki ice cream — a popular dessert from the South Pacific made from adzuki beans.