Un­rav­el­ing the samu­rai’s top­knot

Ja­pan’s war­rior caste comes to Santa Fe

Pasatiempo - - Pasa Tempos - Amy Kuhre

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.

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