Standing suits of armor in Samurai

The 3 Unifiers of Japan

Each suit of armor in the Ann and Gabriel Barbier-Mueller collection now on view at the Denver Art Museum tells a story about the samurai who commissioned it and the time in which he lived. The history of Japan’s warring-states period, which lasted from 1467 to 1600, is filled with stories of famous battles and brilliant samurai warriors. The central military government under the shogun had broken down, and daimyo, powerful warlords ruling their clans and provinces, waged war against one another for control of the country. Leading armies of tens of thousands, three daimyo stood out as the most successful warriors of their time, becoming known as the three unifiers of Japan.

Oda Nobunaga (1534-1582)

Ruler of Owari, a coastal province in central Japan, Nobunaga was a ruthless warrior who skillfully adapted new methods to his battlefield tactics. He is known for his interest in western technology which began entering Japan with the arrival of the Portuguese in 1543. He clashed with Buddhist monasteries and warrior monks who possessed great political power, and with other famous daimyo of the period, including Uesugi Kenshin of Echigo, and Takeda Shingen of Kai. Oda won his most decisive battle at Nagashino in 1575 through the use of muskets, defeating Shingen’s son, Katsuyori and destroying the Takeda clan, paving Oda’s path to control.

At the pinnacle of his power Nobunaga succeeded in occupying the imperial capitol of Kyoto, but was betrayed by one of his generals, Akechi Mitsuhide, and was forced to commit suicide in the temple of Honno-ji while his enemy set it alight.

Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1536-1598)

Hideyoshi began his military career as the sandal-bearer to Oda Nobunaga. The military genius of this low-ranking warrior was soon recognized, and he became one of Oda’s trusted generals. After waging successful campaigns in the name of his lord, Hideyoshi successfully avenged Nobunaga’s death and quickly set about taking his place at the top of the samurai order. Through military and political means, he finished the task of unifying Japan by 1590, establishing his headquarters in Osaka.

Hideyoshi was a great patron of the arts, and lavishly decorated his castle of Azuchi. He is also known for his practice of the tea ceremony under the great tea master, Sen no Rikyu. In a move contrary to his own rise to power, he made the Japanese class system rigid, taking weapons from the peasants and making social mobility almost impossible. In a final show of his lust for power, he launched a failed military campaign to Korea shortly before his death.

Tokugawa Ieyasu (1543-1616)

Ruler of Mikawa province, land adjacent to Owari, Ieyasu was also a general under Nobunaga. He was a shrewd commander who learned from his many victories, and occasional defeats. Also poised to avenge the death of Nobunaga, he initially fell under the control of Hideyoshi. However, upon the death of Hideyoshi in 1598, Ieyasu maneuvered to become the guardian of his heir as a plot to seize power. Ieyasu faced opposition from other Toyotomi generals and war for control of the country broke out again.

In 1600, forces loyal to Toyotomi Hideyori, Hideyoshi’s son, under general Ishida Mitsunari fought Ieyasu at the battle of Sekigahara. Two hundred thousand troops are said to have participated. Ieyasu was victorious and in 1615 Tokugawa forces eliminated the remaining Toyotomi resistance in Osaka. Ieyasu established his new government, the Tokugawa Shogunate, in the city of Edo—modern day Tokyo.

Unification

With the elimination of the Toyotomi clan the unification of Japan was finally truly achieved. The Tokugawa government set into place new measures to prevent future uprisings. Daimyo were assigned territories and positions based on whether they had supported the Tokugawa at Sekigahara or had only submitted later. They were required to maintain a residence in Edo, where their families were essentially held as hostages, and were also required to keep a residence in their home provinces. The great cost of periodic travel between those residences ensured that the daimyo had fewer resources to oppose the Edo government.

In this new period of peace the samurai began to take on new roles as administrators. However, they maintained their martial readiness. The philosophy of bushidō, “the way of the warrior,” was formalized in this period, reminding the samurai what it ideally meant to be a member of that class. Many pieces on view Samurai: Armor from the Ann and Gabriel Barbier-Mueller Collection exhibition were made in the Edo period, as much or more for displaying a samurai’s social standing and power, as for fighting. But the armor made in peacetime still echoed the strife and styles of previous centuries, when warriors fought to rule Japan.

Samurai: Armor from the Ann and Gabriel Barbier-Mueller Collection is organized by The Ann & Gabriel Barbier-Mueller Museum, Dallas. Local support is provided by the generous donors to the Annual Fund Leadership Campaign and the citizens who support the Scientific and Cultural Facilities District (SCFD). Promotional support is provided by 5280 Magazine, CBS4, Comcast Spotlight, and The Denver Post.

Douglas Wagner is the curatorial assistant in the Asian art department. He has worked in various departments at the Denver Art Museum since 1997 and for the Asian art department since 2006. He recommends that visitors don't miss the Walter + Mona Lutz Gallery, the only one in the United States devoted solely to bamboo art from China, Korea and Japan.

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