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Europe’s first samurai museum opens in Berlin | cultural | Report on arts, music and lifestyle in Germany | DW


Japanese samurai are considered masters of swordsmanship and brave and fearless fighters. The myth surrounding the warriors still fascinates today. Both in Hollywood and in video games, Feudal Japan is a box office success. The samurai are romanticized as the epitome of chivalry and honor – though their warfare was no less bloody or ruthless than combat elsewhere.

A new museum in Berlin explores what lies behind the myth.

More than 1,000 objects from the collection of Peter Janssen, a German entrepreneur, are on display at the Samurai Museum Berlin, which opens on May 8.

Weapons and armor, tea sets, woodcuts and Buddhist sculptures are part of the interactive exhibition. “The myth and influence of the samurai on Japanese society is illuminated from various angles such as daily life, arts and crafts, or martial arts,” the museum writes.

Five facts about Japanese warriors:

1. Samurai means “one who serves”

The history of the samurai began when military conscription was abolished in Japan in the 8th century. Military-trained men from the provinces replaced the conscripts. They served the Kyoto Imperial Court as well as noble families. They earned their living as fighters.

Tea ceremony: Photo from the series Seven Virtues

Over the centuries, the samurai expanded their power. At the end of the 12th century, they established their own military government, the shogunate, which coexisted with the imperial house.

Until the 19th century, when their status was revoked by Emperor Meiji in favor of a modern army, samurai were an integral part of Japanese political, social and cultural life.

2. Only a true samurai was allowed to carry two swords

Samurai fought and rode horses, mostly using bow and arrows.

Over time, the two swords they carried – a long, curved sword (katana) and a second, shorter sword (wakizashi) – became an important status symbol.

In some families, they have been passed down from one generation to the next.

Sword hilt with intricate carvings

The sword is the soul of the samurai, a warrior chief once said.

The intricate ornaments and decorations added to the swords represented the personality of the samurai. Elaborately decorated armor and helmets also referenced the rank and character of the warrior. Motifs including demons, dragons and Buddhist patron gods were believed to offer supernatural protection. Sometimes samurai wore masks with sinister features and mustaches intended to frighten the enemy.

3. Samurai warriors did not always act nobly

The Japanese term bushido means “the way of the warrior”. He was referring to the samurai code of conduct long before a German rapper rose to fame under that stage name.

The values ​​idealized by the samurai included courage, honor and, above all, loyalty to one’s master. Warriors also had to be willing to sacrifice themselves in battle or by ritual suicide.

There is no doubt that the samurai displayed great courage and martial skill, but the extent to which the samurai followed a code of conduct is disputed today. In reality, there was betrayal, deceit, and disloyalty even among the Japanese warriors. They broke truces, burned villages and massacred the people they defeated. They took the heads of their victims as trophies.

three photos of a young woman wearing a mask that show different expressions

Masks show different emotions in Noh theater

In fact, bushido is more of an idealized idea of ​​how samurai should live their lives. The term only became popular at the end of the 19th century, when samurai no longer existed.

4. Samurai were more than warriors

Elite samurai had to combine the arts of peace (bun) and war (bu).

In times of peace, samurai turned to bureaucratic duties.

The samurai children had to study Chinese and Japanese literature and Confucian texts, but they also learned martial skills like archery and horseback riding.

Many high-ranking samurai devoted themselves to tea ceremonies and painting. Famous battle scenes, horse racing and the Inuoumono “dog hunt”, where dogs were slaughtered, were popular motifs.

Noh theater, a traditional form of dramatic dance, was another samurai activity. Noh plays emphasize Buddhist themes and focus on the emotions of a main character tormented by love, anger, or grief.

5. Samurai were men, but women fought too

Women fought alongside samurai. Nakano Takeko is considered one of the greatest and also the last Japanese warrior. During the Battle of Aizu in 1868, the 21-year-old led a unit of female fighters armed with rifles against the imperial army.

Samurai outfit, helmet and uniform

Impressive 18th century samurai armor

The daughter of a high official in the imperial court, Takeko was highly educated and trained in martial arts.

During Aizu’s attack, she killed several men before being hit by a bullet. Legend has it that she asked her sister to cut off her head so that her body wouldn’t be taken as a trophy by the enemy.

Shortly after the battle, the shogunate – Japan’s feudal military government – fell, leaving the imperial court in control and ending the era of samurai.

This article was originally written in German.