Asian Art Museum | Education

The best of Asian art at the tip of your fingers for use in the classroom or at home.

Sign up

In My Resources you can save the content you like all in one place. Get started by creating an account.

Create a new account

Code of the Samurai in Art and Literature (lesson)

The First Man Across the Uji River

The first man across the Uji River and the battle of Awazugahara, from The Tale of the Heike, one of a pair, 1650–1700. Japan. Edo period (1615–1868). Pair of six-panel screens, ink, colors, and gold on paper. Courtesy of the Asian Art Museum, The Avery Brundage Collection, B60D60+.


Students will view representations of literary epics, read related excerpts, and discuss how those scenes exemplify the code of the samurai.

60 minutes
Resource Type: 
Keyword Results: 

Common Core Standards: RIT 6.2: Determine a central idea of a text and how it is conveyed through particular details; provide a summary of the text distinct from personal opinions or judgments. RIT 6-8.3: Analyze in detail how a key individual, event, or idea is introduced, illustrated, and elaborated in a text.

Content Standards (California):
VPA/VA 6.3.1: 3.1 Research and discuss the role of the visual arts in selected periods of history, using a variety of resources (both print and electronic). VPA/VA 6.5.2: Research how traditional characters (such as the trickster) found in a variety of cultures past and present are represented in illustrations. VPA/VA 7.3.1: Research and describe how art reflects cultural values in various traditions throughout the world.

Worksheets: Student Worksheet; Artwork: Screen Painting Battles at Ichi-no-tani and Yashima; The First Man Across the Uji River; Scene from The Storehouse of Loyalty


  1. Provide each student with the Student Worksheet.
    • Ask students to brain­storm characteristics of samurai behavior (courage, loyalty, honor, military skill)
  2. Show artwork Battles at Ichi-no-tani and Yashima and  First Man Across the Uji River from The Tales of the Heike.
    • Ask the students to describe what they see. Summarize The Tales of the Heike. (See artwork descriptions and contex­tual essays for an overview in "Related Resources" below.) Ask:
      • Why might this story have been popular on screens in the home of a daimyo or samurai? (gold adds light, screen could divide room)
      • How do you think this screen might have looked and functioned in the context of a room? (The screen painting was purposely made to look very beautiful, with rich colors and a gold background. Some samurai lords wished to appear wealthy, so they commissioned paintings that would project status and wealth.)
      • What do we learn about samurai behavior from the story as it is shown in the painting? (courage, discipline, loyalty, acts of heroism, appreciation of beauty)
        • What do we NOT see about war in the painting? (blood, graphic death)
    • Have students add supporting evi­dence of samurai behavior from the artwork and description of Tales of the Heike to their worksheet.
  3. Show artwork The First Man Across the Uji River, from The Tale of the Heike.
    • Have students observe if other mod­els of samurai behavior are evident in The First Man Across the Uji River from The Tales of the Heike.
    • Have students read the excerpt about Tomoe Gozen from The Tale of the Heike.
    • Discuss how Tomoe’s story exempli­fies the code of the samurai. Add examples to the student worksheet.
  1. Show the Scene from The Storehouse of Loyalty.
    • Have students read the excerpt from Chushingura and view Scene from The Storehouse of Loyalty. Have students complete their worksheets.
    • Discuss the action of the figures in the painting.
    • Discuss the concept of ronin, or masterless samurai. Samurai felt great honor and loyalty to their master. The story of Chushingura tells about a group of samurai who lost their master and avenged his death. Look at the picture and read the accompa­nying excerpt from Chushingura.
    • How does the action of the men in this print, which shows such a story, express the deep loyalty that dishonored samurai would have felt? (angry faces, raised weapons)
    • How do their actions reflect the code of the samurai? (acting as a group, showing loyalty and obedience to a leader)

Further Research:
Find examples from other primary sources, such as Miyamoto Musashi’s The Book of Five Rings, that state how samurai should behave. Then, find a filmmaker or artist who has been inspired by samu­rai. Compare and contrast the literary descriptions with examples of how samurai are represented in popular culture. Consider themes such as group loyalty versus the lone hero. Take a position and write a persuasive essay arguing why your example is successful or unsuccessful at representing samurai with historical accuracy. Possible sources are: films by Quentin Tarantino, Akira Kurosawa, etc. such as  The Last Samurai and Ran.

See More [+]See Less [-]

You Might Also Like

Related Blog Post