As with all military leaders of the preceding Momoyama Period (1573-1615), the Tokugawa were celebrated patrons of the arts. The sheer output of the craftsmen they employed reveals an indefatigable support of the arts that extended to the amassing of beautifully crafted swords, armor, art and tea-ceremony utensils.
Although local workmanship was held to a very high standard, the most prized ceramics were typically imported from China and Korea. Among the highlights of the ceramics on exhibit are four rare tea bowls, including a Chinese Tenmoku-ware bowl with an oil-spot glaze, a Korean Mishima-ware bowl, an Ido-ware bowl with a deep interior, and a white Hakeme-ware bowl with a white slip applied by brush.
The Mishima tea bowl, dating to the 16th century, belonged to the tea master Sen-no-Rikyu (1522-1591). This exquisitely designed, cylindrically shaped bowl of gray-green stoneware is decorated with a repeated stamped inlay pattern in white.
These bowls have illustrious provenances, many having been typically used during special tea ceremonies held for the Shogun. Such ceremonies were of great importance, providing the occasion for formal recognition of the relationship of a Shogun to a vassal warlord. The event would be an opportunity for the warlord and the Shogun to exchange gifts such as valuable tea bowls and swords.
The restrained architecture of tea houses of the time, represented by an incredible model tea house constructed on site for the exhibition, reveals the aesthetic of the period. The sparse decorations, controlled spaces and compression of volume within them provided the perfect setting for shoguns and warlords to display their appreciation of the arts and their mastery of Zen Buddhist values and of tea ceremony virtues — such as harmony, respect, purity and tranquillity. The tea ceremony utensils on display in the room are arranged as they would have been on the actual occasion of the Shogun’s visit.
As with the arts, the Tokugawa paid particular attention to the design and decoration of their swords and armor. The whimsical touches employed in military garb distinguished leaders on the battlefield and told of their prowess. Commanders wore elaborately decorated helmets with ostentatious ornamentation, including bull horns, dear antlers and designs with centipedes, large crescent moons and family crests.
Among the most impressive items on display are 13 coats of armor, eight of which were personally owned by the first Tokugawa Shogun, Ieyasu (1542-1616). His favorite black lacquered iron coat of armor is known as Shida no Gusoku or the “fern” armor. It derives its name from the decoration that adorned it’s helmet, and its symbolism from the belief that the fern represented victory. Made of gold-coated leather, the decorative piece was tied to the helmet with leather strings.
Sword-making was one of the most challenging of arts, requiring the skill of a master sword smith and countless hours of forging and polishing. Swords were highly treasured and believed to embody the tamashii (or spirit) of the samurai, as they represented both the soul of the sword smith and the invincibility of the samurai warrior.
The sword collection that has been preserved from this period includes impressive examples of workmanship. Thirteen of the swords in the exhibition are designated as National Treasures or Cultural Properties, and were forged by master sword smiths between the 10th and 14th centuries. One in particular, an almost 70-cm tachi-type sword created by Miike Mitsuyo in the Kamakura Period (1185-1333), is an elegant example of craftsmanship with a very sharp cutting edge, which was designed for a greater reach from horseback.
The Tokugawa shogunate founder Ieyasu had such an unswerving belief in the spiritual power of this sword that on his death bed he officially transferred his spirit to it, vowing to ensure the eternal prosperity of the shogunate. As a gesture to indicate the Tokugawa family’s position of ultimate control, he ordered the tip of the sword, when displayed, to be pointed toward the region of the Toyotomi clan, which had threatened his hegemony. The sword was the symbol of Ieyasu’s role as protector of the country and became treasured as the main object of worship in the deification of Ieyasu as Tosho Shinkun, the Great God of the Shrines of Eastern Japan.