by Hugo Gonzalez Koop, age 17 and Sharon Ruiz, age 14
Rulers of Japan for almost 700 years, the Samurai warriors established an impressive legacy, one that continues to astound many to this day. Recently, SSFP staff and students had the opportunity to delve into the fascinating history of Samurai warriors at the Chazen Museum of Art’s stunning “Samurai: The Way of the Warrior” exhibit.
Supported in part by the Wisconsin Arts Board, the State of Wisconsin, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Kikkoman Foods Foundation, Inc., the exhibit is one we anticipated for weeks. Organized by Contemporanea Progetti SRL with the Museo Stibbert, Florence, Italy, it boasts a collection of more than 90 items from important collections of Japanese arms and armor from areas surrounding Japan.
We arrived early one morning to our South Towne newsroom full of excitement for the day’s adventure: we knew this would be an unforgettable experience. After we were joined by our lovely volunteer Jane Coleman, who organized the field trip for us, we divided into two cars and began our journey downtown. While some of us had been to the Chazen before, others of us had no idea what to expect when we arrived. But we were all excited for the awesome collection of Japanese armor we knew we would see that day.
Once we parked our cars and walked to the Chazen’s entrance, we were met by Mary Brennan, a friend of Jane’s and our docent for the day. Mary led us to a dimly-lit room on the museum’s top floor. Here, we saw a beautiful Japanese painting on a folding screen. It depicted the great battle between the two most powerful Japanese clans: the Minamoto and the Taira. While we stood in front of this glorious work, Mary taught us about the social stratification of Japanese society during the Heian Period, which spanned 794-1185. During this time, Samurai warriors played an essential role in society by protecting the interests of powerful, land-owning elites.
Next, we visited the primary display of the exhibit, where we observed the traditional war clothing of the Samurai. Then, we went on a scavenger hunt of Japanese words within the exhibit itself. This allowed us to explore the different areas that comprise the exhibit. The words we found included: katana, kabuto, and tsuba which, translated to English, mean “sword,” “helmet,” and “sword guard,” respectively. Each word we found correlated to an object about which we could read and learn.
As we walked through the various parts of the exhibit, Mary explained to us that the Samurai liked to show off by crafting and painting patterns onto their armor and sword guards, which were not just for use but were also for show. From the Samurais’ swords to their clothing, every inch was intricate and every detail deliberate. Their helmets were especially fascinating; each had an opening at its top, which the Samurai believed would allow the war god to give them strength. The helmets were also very functional, with long pieces to protect the warriors’ necks and face guards to protect them from blows. It was clear that the Samurai put a lot of care and thought into their armor, as it was meant not only to protect them in battle but also to express their family names and familial honor.
We wrapped up our visit after viewing the Samurai armor, but we wished we could stay for many more hours. We are very thankful to Jane and Mary for the incredible opportunity. We learned so much about the Samurai people and Japanese history in a very short period of time! Not surprisingly, on our drive back to Simpson Street, our journey to “Samurai: The Way of the Warrior” was voted among our favorite recent fieldtrips. We hope to return to the Chazen for another adventure soon!