Interview with the Curators of Jidai: Timeless Works of Samurai Art

Tanaka School, tachi koshirae with a design of dragonflies and family crest, 1800s. Wood, lacquer, iron, gold, and silver.
Tanaka School, tachi koshirae with a design of dragonflies and family crest, 1800s.
Wood, lacquer, iron, gold, and silver.

 

Currently on view in JANM’s lobby as part of this month’s Nisei Week celebrations, Jidai: Timeless Works of Samurai Art presents rare and historically significant samurai artifacts dating as far back as the Kamakura Period (AD 1185–1333) in Japan. We interviewed curators Darin S. Furukawa, an artist, educator, and samurai arts specialist; and Michael Yamasaki, founder of Japanese sword dealer tetsugendo.com and the only non-Japanese national to win the All Japan Sword Appraisal Championship, to get insight into this special display.

JANM: Can you both explain how you became such impassioned connoisseurs of Japanese swords and samurai artifacts? What is it that appeals to you about these objects?

Michael Yamasaki: My grandfather took me to see those classic samurai movies that most Issei and Nisei went to see at places like the old Kokusai Theatre in Los Angeles. Since then, I have wanted to own real Japanese swords and practice swordsmanship. I bought my first sword when I was 13, and that was just the tip of the iceberg—there was so much more to learn. The artistry and history grabbed me and has never let me go.

Darin S. Furukawa: I, too, can blame those old samurai flicks, along with parents who always filled the house with Japanese or Japanese-themed art. I was lucky enough to have Mike teach me about Japanese swords and fittings not too long ago (my knowledge base is still very much a work in progress), and I have found that these objects really speak to me. I feel the need to protect and preserve them. I actually feel ill when I see a piece that was treasured for centuries get destroyed by one generation’s neglect or misuse. That’s why I love to put on exhibitions like Jidai—to showcase not just the beauty of the objects, but also the care and dedication of the generations of responsible custodians who kept them in such excellent condition.

JANM: What are your favorite samurai movies?

MY: Seven Samurai and Kagemusha: The Shadow Warrior are two of my favorites, and of course the Zatoichi films for humor!

DF: Seven Samurai for the story. Ran for the visuals. Kill Bill: Volume 1 for Sonny Chiba, Uma Thurman, copious amounts of blood, and a great soundtrack!

Musashi Miyamoto, tsuba with a design of two sea cucumbers, 1600s, iron.
Musashi Miyamoto, tsuba with a design of two sea cucumbers, 1600s, iron.

JANM: From what I understand, Musashi Miyamoto (c. 1584–c. 1645) is a near-legendary samurai, considered Japan’s greatest swordsman. Jidai features a tsuba (sword guard) that was made by him. How did you get a hold of this item?

DF: Before I let Mike answer that, I just have to say that Miyamoto was so much more than a master swordsman. He was an artist, philosopher, strategist, and author of the Book of Five Rings (a martial arts classic that is a must-read for everyone). He was such a rock star that my son’s middle name is Musashi.

MY: This tsuba was in the hands of an old collector. It took much effort and enticement to get him to release this piece. Miyamoto’s sword guards, as well as anything that he made while in retirement, are very rare and have a special place in our efforts to collect and preserve Japanese samurai artifacts.

JANM: Another special piece in the display is a tanto (dagger) that was forged by a Japanese American while incarcerated at Manzanar. Please tell us what you know about “Kyuhan” Kageyama and how he came to forge this tanto.

MY: When I first purchased the tanto by Kyuhan, I had no idea who he was; in fact, it was hard to properly read his name, which is an adopted artisan’s name. From what I was able to glean, Kyuhan was a true Japanese sword enthusiast—a collector and a scholar, not just a hobbyist. He later became one of the more serious members of Nihon Token Hozon Kai—the first Japanese sword club in America, founded by Nikkei in Los Angeles. There has been speculation that the dagger was made with the same equipment used to make farming tools in camp. Of course, his work would have been done in secret, as it is highly illegal to make weapons in a federal prison. This just showed how important this aspect of his culture was to him.

JANM: Besides these two artifacts, what else in Jidai should visitors be sure not to miss?

DF: The beauty of Jidai is that there’s something for everyone. For guests who are just looking for beautiful artwork, we have two cases dedicated to sword fittings. The sword guards, in particular, are spectacular, and show a wide variety of materials, techniques, and design motifs; there are rolling waves, peacocks, and a Christian cross that would have been hidden when mounted, as practicing Christianity was an offense punishable by death. For those interested in the martial arts aspects, we have 3 blades bearing test cut inscriptions (meaning they were tested on multiple human bodies). Those who are familiar with the way technology altered the battlefield should check out the amazing matchlock wall cannon, as well as a helmet that has three bullet test marks on it. In short, I’m sure all of our guests will find something they like, but they should take the time to explore it all!

The curators will give a public lecture about Jidai at 2 p.m. on Saturday, August 15, in JANM’s Democracy Forum. Attendance is expected to be high; doors will open at 1:30 p.m. and early arrival is recommended. Jidai will remain on view through August 30.

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