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The way of the warrior
Publication Date : 17-09-2012
A walk through Thailand's Srinakharinwirot University's G23 Art Gallery is both a journey through past and present: past, because it evokes memories of the days when samurai fought their enemies with swords and other weapons. The present, as while the fighting techniques remain the same, the focus has shifted from inflicting damage to self-defence.
"The Spirit of Budo: The History of Japan Martial Arts", a travelling exhibition organised by the Japan Foundation, offers an impressive display of original artefacts, such as sword mountings and bows and arrows, as well as reproductions of armours and helmets crafted using traditional techniques to look identical to the originals preserved in museums and castles.
"This exhibition seeks to help the viewer understand a brief history of Japanese martial arts from bujutsu - battlefield combat technique - to budo, a way of fighting that pursues more than technique and aims to develop character and morality as well as physical skill. We hope the viewer will become aware not only of the history of Japanese martial arts, but also of the people's aesthetic awareness and creativity, Japan's social history and come to regard the Japanese way of thinking from a new angle," says Uchida Yasuko, head of Japan Foundation Bangkok's Arts and Culture Department.
"Especially outstanding are the o-yoroi-type armours, because they can be recognised as true works of art produced by artisans. The helmet is of the tsuji-kabuto type. It is a reproduction of the one shogun Tokukawa gave as a present to King James I of England."
The early type of armour worn by the samurai class was called o-yoroi - full armour - and was used by cavalry archers. In contrast, the haramaki (belly protector) style of armour was devised for the infantry, but armour with sleeves and haramai with a helmet added gradually came to be used by the generals as well.
A reproduction of the o-yoroi type with a hoshi-kabuto (star) helmet is one of the highlights of "Spirit of Budo". The front is covered with hide to prevent catching the bowstring when its wearer is engaged in horseback archery. The hide extends over both shoulders to the sleeves, and there are breastplates on both sides for protection when firing arrows. A loin protector supports the archer as he sits astride his horse and a star helmet completes the ensemble.
Next to this is a full reproduction of haramaki armour with a helmet of the suji-kabuto type. This armour had the advantage of not requiring much space for storage when elongated and folded over. To accommodate movement of the body, the trunk was hinged in four plates. The hands were sheathed in iron plates lined with cloth. The full ensemble had a lacquer coating atop the plates with all the parts joined together with deer hide thongs.
Owing to the difficulties in exporting and importing weapons of any kind, "Spirit of Budo" has been unable to bring in the swords themselves and showcases only the mountings. These, like the swords they sheath, are the consummation of more than a thousand years of craftsmanship, amalgamating various skills including iron forging, lacquerwork and metalwork.
The exhibition displays the mountings of both tachi - a curved single-edged sword with elongated handle to engage in combat from a safe distance with mounted foe - and uchigatana whose blade was worn thrust through the belt, edge pointing upwards when walking. The uniqueness of these mountings as handicraft objects mainly lies in the colour and shape of scabbard, sword guard, grip lacing and other decorative grip swells.
Japanese bows are characterised by their unusual length - about 2.2 metres - and unique shape. On view are historical bamboo bows that were lacquered and bound with rattan or cord to increase strength and prevent joints from splitting and the wood separating from the bamboo. Adjacent to these is a selection of today's fibreglass bows that are popular for their durability and easy maintenance.
Arrows were also made from natural materials like bamboo though competitive archers today use carbon arrows for their outstanding durability. Bamboo arrows are on view together with bowstring reels made of cane and twisted paper string attached with powder cases made of stag antler and cow horn. Other items of interest include a whistling-bulb signal arrow, a quiver, a deerskin glove and a left thumb protector.
Visitors will be fascinated by the eight wild helmets in this collection from the Warring States period (1467-1568) - an age of incessant violence - and they are all presented in their original splendour, just as they appeared at the time of their creation. They are called kawari kabuto (strange helmets) and served not just to intimidate opponents on the battlefield but also made it easy to distinguish friend from foe in the heat of battle.
The strange helmet of a false head is worth a closer look. Records show that hair was deliberately planted on top of the helmet to deceive the enemy into attacking apparently easy targets. The catfish-tail helmet sports a dragonfly-shaped symbol, signifying victory and courage.
Away from the war zone, the exhibition focuses on the contemporary practice of martial arts like karate, judo, kendo and naginata. Exhibits in this section include bamboo swords for practice, protective gear, gloves and training items for karate among them iron clogs, heavy jars and heavy weights. A descriptive DVD presentation demonstrates how various moves are performed.
"After the Meji restoration and starting in 1911, bujutsu was accepted as a discipline to be taught in school as an elective subject. The name was officially changed from bujutsu to budo in 1926. Between 1935 and 1945, budo became associated with the Shinto beliefs and played a significant role in military related activities during World War II. Following Japan's defeat in 1945, the practice of budo was banned for several years.
"When judo started being practised in 1950 followed by kendo in 1953, it was reintroduced in schools but under the condition that budo were to be taught as 'sports' with the rules and rationalisation of technique. Now, budo is practised through various types of martial arts disciplines and has become popular all over the world," says Yasuko.
''The Spirit of Budo: The History of Japan Martial Arts' continues until September 27. G23 Art Gallery is at Srinakharinwirot University's Prasarnmit campus on Asoke Road in Bangkok.