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Friday
May302014

Samurai ningyo

Ningyo: samurai tradition has been celebrated on May 5 since 730 AD, originally called Tango-No-Sekku (the first day of the horse). During the Edo period of 1600-1868, the celebrations and displays by the samurai class were elaborate displays of weapons and combat; the first samurai dolls appear at the end of this period, at the beginning of the Meiji era.  The Bata Shoe Museum has a samurai doll, a ningyo much like this one, that dates from 1870.  The samurai as a military class had sidelined the emperor to figurehead status, a situation that lasted 'until 1868 when the Meiji emperor was restored to power'.  It is interesting that Bata's ningyo was created just two years later, valourising the tradition of a class that had just been demoted and its right to carry arms abolished. Originally it was only the samurai class that commissioned ningyo, however, as Japan embarked upon a long modernising process of industrialisation, they came to stand for 'pure' Japanese character and became generalised and idealised.

Samurai protected farmers: the strong protect the weak, and in turn the weak will serve the strong. This theme (according to an essay by Timothy Mertel) appears symbolically as the tiger and bamboo: the tiger protects the bamboo grove from predators, and the bamboo camouflages the tiger's lair.  This is the major tenet of Japanese feudal society.  

Our man, above, has been a fixture of my life forever, can't remember when he wasn't there – it might have been a wedding present for my parents. His sword is in a tiger skin sheath. The armour is, I think, from the Kamakura period (1185-1333): lacquered plates laced with silk and repoussé metal mounts. I'm taking this description from Mertel's piece, so far it all fits.  I've never known anything about this small figure until today.  He is wearing rather lovely cream silk jacquard bloomers.
The Bata Shoe museum describes the shoes thus: 'These samurai shoes are called tsuranuki. They are made of bear fur, which symbolises the intrinsic ferocity, strength and courage of a samurai warrior.'   

Ningyo bodies are straw with carved heads and hands covered in a crushed oyster shell paste which is then burnished and painted.  My fellow has the most delicate pale blue gloves embroidered with flowers.  His face is quite fierce, and is a particular samurai of legend, the details of which I cannot find.  

The armour: it is very interesting, and it was the flexibility of the dragon skin ceramic discs that reminded me of samurai armour: metal plates that were laced together so they moved and didn't inhibit action. 

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