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Hokusai and the Samurai World 

Legends of the Japanese samurai era are on full display through February 24 in the Sumida Hokusai Museum's latest exhibit titled Hokusai and the Samurai World. 



Exhibition announcement. (Screenshot from the Sumida Hokusai Museum website) 

A special exhibition titled Hokusai and the Samurai World is presently running at The Sumida Hokusai Museum in Tokyo until February 2024. It is scheduled in two parts. The first term runs from December 14 until January 21 and the second term from January 23 to February 25. Many of the exhibits will be substituted for artworks depicting similar themes during the second term.

Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849) was one of Japan's most enduring artists. His prolific output of woodblock prints, sketches, paintings, and hand-printed books, continues to influence and inspire. His body of work completed slightly before the advent of photography also constitutes a valuable pictorial record. 

Katsushika Hokusai, Kusunoki Tamonmaru Masashige and Yao no Bettō Tsunehisa, The Sumida Hokusai Museum (First term)

What Were the Samurai?

The life and times of the samurai count among the most fascinating cultural elements of Japan. As a warrior class with the power of life and death over the peasantry, the samurai lived with every expectation of a violent death, via ritual suicide (seppuku) if not at the hands of an adversary.  

Farm women casually watch on as samurai pass by. By Katsushika Hokusai from the series, "Mount Fuji seen in the Distance from Senju Pleasure Quarter," from the series "Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji." (Showing both terms)(Courtesy of The Sumida Hokusai Museum)

A highwater mark of the samurai as warriors was during the 1500s. Japan was enduring a series of reunification wars, while concurrently dealing with encroachments of the West. After reunification was achieved in 1600, the capital was moved from Kyoto to Edo (Tokyo), and the Edo era (1603-1868) commenced. The West was expelled and a period of prolonged peace began.

As the Edo era progressed, the samurai, as a soldier class during an era without wars, needed an expanded role. Many, found their calling in the form of government officialdom and civic administration. The era in which Hokusai worked coincided with the final years of this period of peace. 

Four years after his 1849 death, the West reappeared in the form of US Commodore Matthew Perry. At the same time, Japan became embroiled in another civil war.

The exhibition is comprised of three sections: Images of Samurai, On the Battlefield, and Samurai Weapons. The first is both the most illuminating and surprising.

Disheveled samurai in less than glorious pose. By Katsushika Hokusai from the A Kyōka Picture Book: Mountain upon Mountains, Vol. 1. (Sowing both terms) (Courtesy of The Sumida Hokusai Museum)

Images of Samurai – Many Unexpected

It was commonly believed that a samurai would have no qualms about lopping off the head of a farmer or townsperson who failed to bow deeply enough as he passed by. This may or may have been true in the early 1800s. For example, within some of the more tradition-bound regions of feudal Japan, like Satsuma (Kagoshima) and Choshu (Yamaguchi). 

However, the peasantry of Hokusai's stomping ground, the low-lying Sumida neighborhood of Tokyo, did not seem overly concerned. 

This is apparent in "Mount Fuji Seen in the Distance from Senju Pleasure Quarter." A column of samurai march by while two farm women casually watch on. In a Kyoka picture book, "Mountains upon Mountains," the samurai are disheveled. Sloppily attired, they are most likely drunk. Clearly, 250 years of peace had taken a toll. 


An amusing inclusion within the Images of Samurai section is of a crowd of townsfolk attempting to gain a glimpse of a Dutch delegation that was visiting Tokyo. Holland was a largely secular power with little interest in the promotion of Christianity. Therefore, the Dutch were excluded from early Edo-era expulsion orders. However, they were compelled to remain on a man-made island off the coast of Nagasaki named Dejima

Every year (every four years from 1790), the chief of this Dutch trading post made a tribute journey to Edo. Once there, he was received by the ruling shogun. Hokusai captures the scene of a gawking crowd that includes a samurai who is holding a fan. 

Tokyo townsfolk gather around to catch a glimpse of the visiting Dutch delegation. By Katsushika Hokusai from the series, "Pleasures of the Eastern Capital." Vol. 3 (On exhibit 1st term) (Courtesy of The Sumida Hokusai Museum)

Heroes of History and Folklore

The exhibition's second section, "On the Battlefield," brings out the more predictable images. It is divided into four sections: Off to Battle, Famous Battles, Life-or-Death Battles, and Slashing Demons. 

There are innumerable tales of martial lore from Japan's warlike past. Hokusai and his contemporaries drew upon these as source material. Such tales provided marketable content for the illustrations and picture books that kept them employed.

The Tale of the Heike, an epic account of the struggle for supremacy between the Taira and Minamoto clans was one key source. During the battle of Yashima in 1185, Nasu no Yoichi Munetaka, a member of the Minamoto alliance, is reputed to have shot an arrow into a fan that had been erected on a Taira ship. 

Hokusai depicted this famous event in "A Picture Book of Japanese Warriors." In the illustration, however, the ship and fan are not evident. Hokusai added the notation: "Since there is little space on the page, please imagine the warship that the arrow is aimed at." This is forgivable. The illustration is merely within a picture book, after all. 

A legendary arrow shot (to an imagined target). By Katsushika Hokusai, titled "Honor to Nasu no Yoichi Munetaka for Shooting the Fan." In "A Picture Book of Japanese Warriors," Illustrated, Vol. 2, (On exhibit both terms) (Courtesy of The Sumida Hokusai Museum)

Tales of the 47 Ronin and Demon Slayers

No collection of famous Japanese life-or-death battles would be complete without including the tale of the 47 ronin. In 1703, these masterless samurai avenged the death of their lord before committing seppuku. The incident inspired a kabuki play. It immediately became a hit and the popularity of the tale has never waned. 

Hokusai depicts the loyal retainers climbing over a gate to attack the mansion of Lord Kira, their adversary. In reality, the 47 divided up into two groups. Half attacked the main gate and half the gate at the back. 

The 47 ronin storm the residence of Lord Kira to exact their revenge. By Katsushika Hokusai, Act XI, from the series "Treasury of Loyal Retainers." (On exhibit in the first term.)(Courtesy of The Sumida Hokusai Museum)

The lesser-known aspect of samurai martial lore, however, is shown in "Slashing Demons." This is in the final part of the Off to Battle section of the exhibit. 

Such was the presumed prowess of the samurai that they were credited with the power to drive off demons. Samurai were believed capable of carrying out exorcisms by plucking a bowstring. Startled by the sound, the demon would then flee. 

Accordingly, illustrations of samurai battling monsters and otherworldly adversaries became popular fare for picture books. 

A showdown between a samurai and an adversary from the spirit world, by Katsushika Hokusai. The image is from "Oki no Jirozaemon Is Invited to the Imperial Palace and Destroys a Monster That Has Taken the Form of a Bird," in the "Picture Book of Chinese and Japanese Warriors," Vol.1. (On exhibit both terms) (Courtesy of The Sumida Hokusai Museum)

The Sharpest and Most Decorative of Weapons 

Section 3 of the exhibition is titled "Samurai Weapons." It also includes illustrations detailing the process of sword making and the display of two historic blades. 

There is another item, however, with a more widely appreciated aesthetic beauty. It is the Tachi-o, a thin, approximately three-meter cord belt attached to a saya (scabbard). Appropriately, for an exhibition that deals with samurai during the Edo era, the Tachi-o is used during peacetime.

A historic tachi blade in the collection is signed NOBUFUSA saku (Important cultural property). (On exhibit both terms.) (Courtesy of the Japanese Sword Museum.)
A saya (scabbard) with tachi-o (a thin, approximately three-meter cord belt) is an item of war in a time of peace. (On exhibit both terms) (Courtesy of The Sumida Hokusai Museum)

Samurai Status Lost and Acquired

The exhibition ends with a description of how those not born into a samurai family might become samurai. A peasant could gain the status of country samurai (goshi) via a monetary donation. Nevertheless, he would continue to farm the land. 

Full status, however, could be acquired through the process of adoption, during which a monetary transaction was also common. Hokusai's second son, in fact, was adopted by a samurai family, who were vassals of the shogunate. His son, Hokusai's grandson, became a shogunate official. 

It is also reputed that Hokusai's maternal great-grandfather was a samurai who defended Lord Kira against the 47 ronin. Samurai status, therefore, was less than a hereditary blood right. It could be both lost and acquired. 

With the coming of the Meiji era in 1868, the samurai were formally disbanded. But their legend has never died. They remain an enduring component of foreign perceptions of Japan and the Japanese. 

Samurai continue to fascinate and astound. There is much about the samurai, however, that the legend leaves out. A trip to The Sumida Hokusai Museum before February 25, is therefore recommended. Those who get there will find it an artistic delight lending valuable insights into the totality of the samurai world. 

To See the Exhibition

What: Hokusai and the Samurai World

When: December 14, 2023-February 25, 2024

Two Parts: Schedule: 1st term: Dec 14, 2023 - January 21, 2024, and 2nd term: January 23, 2024 - February 25, 2024


Where: The Sumida Hokusai Museum

2-7-2 Kamezawa, Sumida-ku, Tokyo 130-0014

Telephone: (During business hours) 03-6658-8936

Open Days/Times: 9:30 AM-5:30 PM (Last entrance 5:00 PM) on Tuesdays-Sundays Except Jan 4, Jan 9, Feb 13.

How to get there: The Sumida Hokusai Museum is a short walk from the JR Ryogoku Station. However, there are many other options for access as well. Please refer to this page for the best directions to meet your needs. 


Author: Paul de Vries
Find other reviews and articles by the author on Asia Pacific history on JAPAN Forward.

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