Hand-Coloured Images Show Japan's Last Samurai
The proud Japanese military caste was dissolved in the mid-19th century, but their philosophical legacy continues to this day.
The image of the Samurai is embedded in the collective unconscious as a source of power, pride and beauty: a caste of warriors whose historical purpose was to serve the shogun military, morally, and with their lives if need be.
The decline of the Samurai was not slow, but sudden. It might even be framed as one of the clearest consequences of Japan’s trade liberalization; the Meiji Restoration of 1868. Soon after, these provincial 12th century warriors were condemned to oblivion by new policy directives benefiting Western investors and the Samurai way of life was confined to the museum.
The code of honor of the Samurai, the bushido or “way of the warrior,” was not only a fixture in the complicated code surrounding the warriors’ group, but a sharp wisdom that guided practical life and socially linked the Samurai with a way of life that Japan had ever so gradually put aside.
Discipline and loyalty, but also joy and respect for our rivals are all part of the legacy that disappeared with these proud warriors. The photographs presented here belong precisely to that stage of history when Japan’s maritime borders opened for the first time to international trade. New laws banned and even criminalized the possession of swords, and authorized the use of weapons only in the new Western style army.
The Japanese expression wabi-sabi, a difficult translation, involves the aesthetic contemplation of beautiful that has faded. Its essence is understood emotionally, not intellectually, and it’s probably what we see in the images of these proud warriors. The Samurai in the images presented here are powerful, even overwhelming, but ultimately delicate, like a flower made of iron. It’s an image of something gradually coming to an end, a graceful and dignified fade in accordance with an equally dignified life, the joy of samurai fighting even as they had already died.
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