Beating Swords Into Objets d’Art : JAPAN : The Shaping of Daimyo Culture 1185-1868<i> edited by Yoshiaki Shimizu (George Braziller/ Washington: National Gallery of Art: $80; 402 pp., illustrated) </i>

Forty-two personalized portraits and 12 sculpted images of imposing individuals open this book--hardly the kind of thing we usually associate with art that is “properly” Japanese. What, we leap to ask, has happened here to the well-known Japanese tendency to hammer down all individualism until nothing but a “corporate” personality is left? Is this some maverick and minuscule side-street of Japanese history where a repressed desire for individuated expression somehow squeezed out a little place for itself?

Scarcely. The art of this book covers most of the millennium now winding down. It was the art of the men who had the era’s land in mega-parcels--a fact that made them the “big names” or daimyo of Japan. Such individuals, often more treacherous than paragons of the “loyalty” ethic supposedly theirs, loved power and weapons. Part of what makes Yoshiaki Shimizu’s book so fascinating, then, is what shows up within its covers: not only silks and tea bowls but also lots of terrific swords, guardian “Buddhas” who resemble beefy men on steroids; paintings of hungry, chained dogs newly brought in from Europe, and suits of lacquered armor topped by helmets with gigantic intimidating antlers.

The point of this splendid book, however, is to show why and how Japan’s tough men found it in their interest to be also cultured men. Or, as Martin Collcutt states in his lucid historical essay, “The art and culture of the daimyo was created by and for a class whose existence depended on military power, but whose social function and self-image called increasingly for mastery of the arts of peace.” This, however, did not mean the end of struggle. In an extended sense what Collcutt calls the “arts of peace” were also weapons for the daimyo . If Clausewitz could hold that war is politics by other means, the daimyo could seem to move that dictum one notch further: “Culture is war by other means.” Refinement is sometimes that kind of thing.

Daimyo were not just collectors but patrons in the hard, aggressive, self-serving sense; they paid their painters to make portraits of themselves that were designed to inspire nothing less than religious awe. Elsewhere, Yasuo Yuasa, a Japanese philosopher, has noted that in such portraits there is something that, for all their individuality, also separates such men from ordinary mortals and makes them “gods” in some sense. Viewers were not really supposed to feel right about stepping up close to eyeball pictures such as these.


The daimyo also liked falcons and falconry. Takeda Shingen, a physical rock of a man, had himself painted so that his sword was on his right and his tough bird on his left. It is, however, Nago Kagenaga’s painting of a white hawk with steel talons wrapped around a white-flowering branch of plum that perfectly projects this book’s theme. Shimizu rightly notes that since the plum symbolized the high-minded purity of the literati, this painting “unifies the traditions of bun (cultivation of the arts) and bu (martial prowess).”

The bun -and- bu connection is, in this retelling, what this age is all about: nearly 1,000 years of trying to work out a relationship between the sword and the writing brush. This volume brings the narrative to an end at 1868, technically correct since it was then that the daimyo as such disappeared. A curtain-down at that point has, however, another advantage--that of allowing the Japanese story to be largely one of impressive success in turning samurai into bureaucrats and in beating swords into exquisite objets d’art. From approximately 1615 until 1868, the Japanese people had what is sometimes called the Pax Tokugawa , something they either “enjoyed” or “suffered under"--depending on what gets accented in the telling. Although, as Collcutt reminds us, that period was one of virtually no freedom and a time when the conditions for women greatly worsened, it was also a straight span of 2 1/2 centuries of peace.

Of course, it was followed soon after 1868 by a lot of wars--and a narrative, untold here, that got far messier in our own century. History never closes when and where the museum doors do. And when it comes to bun -and- bu matters, the real attention-grabber within recent memory undoubtedly was Yukio Mishima’s 1970 public self-disembowelment after having just completed the writing of his magnum opus , “The Sea of Fertility.” Enacting the ultimate self-inscription, Mishima wanted also to be a dying god who would pump new life into what he saw as a wimpy, deadbeat generation of corporate bureaucrats who were forsaking the glorious old aesthetic-military code of life and death.

Must the choice be limited, though, to being either deadbeat or dead? Most contemporary Japanese, to their credit, have rejected as false Mishima’s way of posing the problem. Moreover, much of what is truly brilliant in the artistic achievements of contemporary Japan either ignores bushido (the code of bu) or parodies it. Historians, too, now can show that bushido has been vastly overplayed--both within Japan and abroad--during the last 100 years or so. Samurai values were a part of the past, clearly not the whole of it.


“Japan: The Shaping of Daimyo Culture” stunningly evokes an age in which brutal men started to find pleasure in having sword-guards shaped like dancing cranes and lacquered saddles inlaid with gold and shell in cherry-tree motifs. To actually “use” war tools so aestheticized would, they seem to have sensed, have risked their ruination. So too the daimyo eventually learned to appreciate tea caddies and writing boxes, things from which all traces of man’s capacity for mayhem had been removed. The daimyo had not forsworn power but had found prettier, safer ways of exercising it. This eventually coincided with the outlawing of all firearms and a great reduction in incidences of blood-letting by swords. No one can claim that such things alter the heart or psyche of man, but public safety, which is after all mostly a matter of policy and practice, was surely enhanced in Japan--and is so again today. However still imperfect, a studied honing of the “arts of peace” is among the few strategies man has for protecting himself from himself.