In addition to superior strategic and military ability, most elite samurai were expected to be versed in the cultural arts. The warrior’s ideal balance of military and artistic skill is captured well in this description of the sixteenth century daimyo Hosokawa Yusai (1534–1610): “Renowned for his elegant pursuits, he is a complete man combining arts [bun] and arms [bu] . . .” Learn more.
In addition to superior strategic and military ability, most elite samurai were expected to be versed in the cultural arts. The warrior’s ideal balance of military and artistic skill is captured well in this description of the sixteenth century daimyo Hosokawa Yusai (1534–1610):
Renowned for his elegant pursuits, he is a complete man combining arts [bun] and arms [bu]. A man of nobility, a descendant of the sixth grandson of the emperor Seiwa, he was a ruler endowed with awesome dignity and inspiring decorum…He built a splendid castle, which was majestic, beautiful and high…He discussed Chinese poetic styles and recited by heart the secret teachings of Japanese poetry…1
Minamoto Yoritomo, Japan’s first shogun, urged warriors not to display excessive interest in court culture, yet by the late thirteenth century literary pursuits—poetic composition and reading classic Chinese and Japanese texts—were already integral parts of warrior life. By the seventeenth century, the Regulations for Military Houses legally required samurai to pursue such practices:
The arts of peace and war, including archery and horsemanship, should be pursued singlemindedly. From old the rule has been to practice the “arts of peace on the left hand and the arts of war on the right”; both must be mastered.2
This emphasis on cultural skills grew from the samurai’s need to govern lands acquired through warfare. Simply put, literacy was required to rule: to draft documents, samurai needed to have at least minimum skill in calligraphy and knowledge of literary conventions. Their ability to participate in courtly arts like classical Japanese verse (waka), strengthened the samurai’s authority, lending dignity and prestige to warriors who frequented aristocratic circles. Like nobles, samurai often attended social gatherings where poems were recited, written, or exchanged. Samurai children were expected to prepare for life by studying Chinese and Japanese literature—as well as Confucian texts—alongside martial skills like archery or horseback riding. Poems were used to utter prayers for victory in battle, and to communicate with warriors from other regions.
Among other pastimes, high-ranking samurai were often avid connoisseurs of painting. Warrior patronage of painters and artisans advanced the visual arts throughout the period of military rule, as shoguns and daimyo vied to fill their mansions and castles with brilliantly colored screens and beautifully decorated objects for daily use. In addition to objects imported from China or pictures inspired by Chinese styles of painting, particular favorites were screens painted with scenes from famous battles, or other warrior pastimes such as falconry, horseracing, and dog chasing.
Noh theater, a traditional form of dance-drama, was another cultural activity enjoyed by the samurai. Often drawn from classic literary sources, Noh plays emphasize Buddhist themes, and focus on the emotions of a main character tormented by love, anger, or grief. The warlord Toyotomi Hideyoshi famously both studied and performed in Noh plays himself, even while in the midst of a military campaign. Noh was taken so seriously that during the Edo period (1615–1868), “every daimyo household was required to maintain a full set of robes, masks, and musical instruments for the performance of No[h]….Daimyo vied in sponsoring No[h] actors, building stages, and acquiring robes and masks.”3
Finally, many samurai were devoted to the “Way of Tea” (Chado, also known as Chanoyu, lit. “hot water for tea”). At its simplest, tea is a gathering during which water is heated, tea is prepared and served, and conversation flows between host and guest(s). Initially warriors practiced elaborate forms of tea, at times involving huge gatherings, tea identifying contests or day-long events in which meals and sake were also served. Hideyoshi and Nobunaga, two of Japan’s most powerful warlords, were both ardent collectors of tea utensils; Nobunaga is even known to have awarded prized tea bowls to his vassals for loyal duty in battle. Under warrior patronage the tea master Sen Rikyu developed the simple, more intimate, and rustic form of tea practice that survives today in modern tea lineages.
3 Martin Collcutt, “Zen Art in a Monastic Context: Zen and the Arts in Medieval Kenchoji,” in Awakenings. Zen Figure Painting in Medieval Japan, ed.Yukio Lippit and Gregory Levine (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007), 41.