Oda Nobunaga

Mementoes of warring daimyos

2 months ago
2 mins read

Fans of the gripping FX miniseries “Shogun,” based on James Clavell’s novel, might be surprised to learn that history buffs can wander through a real-life exhibition of artifacts from that very era. The Metropolitan Museum of Art offers a unique chance to see these historical mementos in “Samurai Splendor: Sword Fittings from Edo Japan,” currently on display in Gallery 380.

The Met, as it happens, boasts the most extensive collection of Japanese artifacts from this period outside of Japan itself. Here, one can marvel at the intricate designs of tsuba, or sword guards, alongside a wealth of objects spanning the Ashikaga to the Tokugawa eras. Imagine the awe-inspiring sight of an o-yoroi, a suit of armor, once worn by a powerful daimyo like Ashikaga Takauji!

For centuries, Japan endured a tumultuous period as feudal lords, known as daimyos, clashed for dominance. Three ambitious figures stand out in their attempts to unify the nation: Oda Nobunaga, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, and Tokugawa Ieyasu.

The first of these, Nobunaga, emerged as a brilliant military strategist. Upon inheriting his clan’s leadership, he faced threats not just from rival warlords but also from within his own family. Betrayal and bloodshed were, sadly, all too common during this era of warring states.

SWORD GUARD. According to The MET, “This is the smaller guard (tsuba) of a pair of sword guards that is the product of a collaboration among three artists. The father and son Hagiya Katsuhira (萩谷勝平, 1804–1886) and Suzuki Katsuhiro (鈴木勝容, 1827–1886) made the smaller guard, for the wakizashi, in 1860. It features an extraordinary openwork design of a flower basket whose quatrefoil rim is decorated with a Greek-style key pattern inlaid in gold. Ishiguro Masaaki (石黒政明, born 1813) crafted a larger guard (acc. no. 19.71.7) of the same design to create a matching set for the traditional pair of swords worn by a samurai .”

Nobunaga, however, proved resourceful. A fortuitous event – the arrival of a Portuguese ship bearing a new weapon, the arquebus – presented an opportunity. Nobunaga adopted this revolutionary firearm, gaining a significant edge over his opponents. With the arquebus at his side, he consolidated power within his province and then steadily expanded his influence, conquering neighboring territories.

Oda Nobunaga built the Azuchi Castle so close to Kyoto so he could monitor the approaches to the capital.

Yet, despite his triumphs, Nobunaga’s life remained precarious. A treacherous betrayal ultimately led him to commit seppuku, a form of ritual suicide, when caught off guard by an enemy siege.

Following Nobunaga’s demise, Toyotomi Hideyoshi ascended to power. His ambitions were even grander, as he dreamt of conquering China – a dream ultimately dashed by geographical realities and the strain placed on his daimyo allies.

As Hideyoshi neared his death, he entrusted his son’s future to a council of advisors. However, the ambitious Tokugawa seized control, forcing Hideyoshi’s heir to take his own life.

It was Tokugawa who finally ushered in a period of peace that endured for over two centuries.

The Met’s “Samurai Splendor” exhibition allows us to step back in time and experience this fascinating epoch firsthand. These exquisite sword fittings, many never before displayed publicly, offer a glimpse into the lives and battles of Japan’s samurai warriors. Don’t miss this rare chance to connect with history!

This rare medieval yoroi from the early 14th century Japan during the Muromachi Period is on display in a separate exhibit at The Met on Fifth Avenue. A yoroi is an armor worn by warriors on horseback and this particular piece was used by the founder of the Ashikaga shogunate, Ashikaga Takauji.

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