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One haunting image that lingers in the mind after seeing the exhibition “Legacy of the Tokugawa — The Glories and Treasures of the Last Samurai Dynasty” at the Tokyo National Museum is a carved-wood statue of Ieyasu (1543-1616), the first of the Tokugawa shoguns, now the deity of the Shiba Tosho-gu shrine next to Tokyo Tower.

As Japanese artisans had long mastered the art of portrait sculpture, we can assume that it is true to life. The warlord is seated in a full court costume tinted with sober colors, looking straight ahead with the cool, penetrating expression of a man you most definitely would not want to cross.

Quite a few did during his lifetime, and they all met their ultimate fate — either in war, at the hands of executioners or by ritual seppuku on his orders. Their list is long, and it was by vanquishing them all that Ieyasu achieved total control over a country that had endured centuries of internecine wars. The statue was carved in 1601 and, according to one of his descendants, served as an alter-ego with which Ieyasu argued and debated on strategy and policy for the last decade and a half of his life — it even accompanied him into the field of battle.

Though he was ruthless in practice, Ieyasu showed deep respect for scholarship and religious ethical teachings, and well understood the civilizing role of culture in a noble warrior’s life. After his victory in the Battle of Sekigahara (1601), he proceeded to establish a system of control based in Edo (present-day Tokyo) that was only challenged by Toyotomi Hideyori (1593-1615), the son of the great warlord Hideyoshi (1536-1598), at Osaka Castle in 1614. There Ieyasu won his last battle, besieging the castle and annihilating the Toyotomi clan and all its supporters. He left the heads of thousands of samurai mounted on planks along the road from Kyoto to Fushimi as a warning, but also suffered injuries himself that led to his death in 1616.

His legacy of power-control and administration was perpetuated by successive generations of the Tokugawa clan, keeping the nation at peace for a quarter of a millennium until the Meiji Restoration in 1868, a remarkable accomplishment that — correct me if I am wrong here — must be a record unequaled by no other country in history.

Apart from favoring those who had supported him with special privileges, Ieyasu installed the brilliant system of sankin-kotai, which obliged all regional daimyo to spend alternative years in Edo, leaving key family members behind whenever they returned to their home fiefs. By always having members of every daimyo family close by as de facto hostages, the policy not only thwarted any antigovernment mischief, but also kept the regional lords financially stretched by having to maintain both a castle in their home fief and a suitably impressive palace in Edo.

Keeping up with the Maeda — one of the most prestigious daimyo clans — became a full-time preoccupation.

The shoguns enjoyed colossal wealth generated from both their own vast landholdings and from a taxed share of the rice-yield from the fiefs of all regional daimyo. How they used this in their public and private lives is shown in this superb exhibition, with many objects being displayed for the first time.

The first section emphasizes the military nature of shogunal authority with examples of armor, ferocious helmets, matchlock firearms (copied from examples found with a couple of shipwrecked Dutch sailors during the 16th century), splendid banners and parasols that identified who was who on the battlefield, and — that iconic symbol of the samurai and implements of violent death — razor-edged swords (see accompanying article by Yoko Haruhara). From the shogun down to the lowest foot-soldier, all were trained to use these whenever necessary, and those holding the right to bear arms formed the highest-ranking social class.

In complete contrast, the second section displays objects demonstrating the high prestige and cultural level of the shogun’s family, including paintings and tea-ceremony utensils. Noh drama, too, was considered a suitable entertainment for the shogun’s family and prestigious visitors, and fine examples can be seen of lacquer-decorated hand drums, costumes and masks.

The Tokugawa Shoguns chose to marry princesses of the Imperial family or the daughters of prestigious families in the old capital of Kyoto, thus elevating their status to match their power and distancing themselves from regional daimyo who might still have harbored less-than-loyal feelings. Therefore the third section of the exhibition shows the elegance of the cloistered women’s quarters of the Edo Castle.

Armies of craftsmen produced lavish silk costumes for the inhabitants and luxurious accouterments for everyday life. Gold lacquer predominates in trousseau sets, the paraphernalia of personal grooming, and objects for court games and pastimes. Many display the circular Tokugawa crest as part of the decorative design, much as old European families flaunted heraldic crests to demonstrate rank and exclusivity. Everything is of peerless quality, but one senses that, no matter how comfortable, the lives of the palace women were so burdened with mannered protocol that it was probably not much fun. There was certainly no escape.

Even though the rule of the Tokugawa shoguns worked well for so long, its inflexibility contributed to the dynasty’s downfall. The country could no longer isolate itself from the technical superiority of the West when the Americans arrived in 1854, brandishing the latest cannons as a hint for the country to open itself to international commerce. Soon the shogun, daimyo and samurai relinquished their power and Japan started its race to become a major industrialized power. Looking at politics today — and what passes for democracy — there are surely some who would see merit in reinstating them.

“Legacy of the Tokugawa — The Glories and Treasures of the Last Samurai Dynasty” is showing till Dec. 2 at the Tokyo National Museum in Ueno Park; open 9:30 a.m.- 5 p.m. (closed Mon.); admission ¥1,500. For more information call (03) 5777-8600 or visit www.tnm.jp

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