Like the knights of medieval Europe, so the samurai of Japan hold great fascination. Maybe, with a touch of orientalist exoticism, all the greater a fascination.

Exoticism or not, Japanese culture holds its fascination for me. I finally gave in to that when I visited the country again at the end of 2017; I have kept up an engagement with elements of it through matcha and spices, as well.

A chance to see a peculiar aspect of Japanese traditional culture, then, needs to be taken.

Samurai Face Masks
Samurai Face Masks

The Show

The Ann and Gabriel Barbier-Mueller collection of objects related to the Samurai on guest-exhibit in the Kunsthalle Munich (while I was there for the ISPO) was a must-see, then.

Samurai Armor

If you have any interest in Japan at all, you have probably seen samurai armor.

With its elaborate helmets and fanciful face-masks, its intricate detailing and mixture of protectiveness and beauty, strength and flexibility, it is always impressive.

Samurai armor, in (nearly) full
Samurai armor, in (nearly) full

The pieces of the collection shown here deepen this sense of fancy and function far.

There are helmets of such different kinds alone, it leaves one both impressed and rather incredulous.

Some seem made to strike fear into enemy’s hearts and good at it. Others only make one wonder how they could have ever been worn and not become death traps.

Like this steep helmet...
Like this steep helmet…
Horse Masks
Horse Masks

Exquisite Ignorance

Either way, the craftsmanship is incredibly exacting and impressive.

And the symbolism behind many a detail is an obvious indication of just how much one misses by not having the requisite knowledge to explain it all.

Or most of the time, to explain any of it at all…

Samurai armor, top pieces
Samurai armor, top pieces

Even so, it is an exquisite show. Small, making it easy to catch a glimpse of a world lost in time and distance… and with connections that still play their roles.

Thinking Japan

Japan may no longer be the country destined to rule the world economically.

It’s not the Land of the Rising Sun with armies of loyal salarymen out to win the war that business is, leaving ‘Westerners’ scrambling to understand what has shaped a work ethic where it is better to die of overwork (karoshi) than to fail in one’s task for the (company) overlord.

Samurai, mounted
Samurai, mounted

Rather, Japan is “just” another developed country in terms of industry, a tourist destination rising in popularity – and a country still shrouded in some cultural mystique, for better and worse.

As a cultural “other” that cannot simply be brushed off as backwards compared to ‘the West’, Japan continues to be a fascination and a worthy partner to think about commonalities and differences, history and the future.

Go, See!

Why not, then, start with elements of the past that are rather remote to Japanese and others alike, yet are great examples of craftsmanship independent of time and context?

And furthermore, objects that show interesting relations to elements of culture (such as history, religion and the tea ceremony) that are still of – more or less – influence?

This collection provides a nice way of gaining some insight into that – and I still wonder how it could ever, in a time when countries generally protect their cultural heritage from foreign purchase, amass so many, so special, objects…