The land of the rising sun has a long history in martial arts where, for the people, it is not just about skills to fight or to protect but also to lead a good life and discipline.
Japan’s traditional martial arts, their techniques and weapons that were actually used have become so immensely popular abroad and are often seen as representative images of Japan, which is true for two main reasons.
First is the recognition of the aesthetic value of the weapons and equipment which were produced with distinctive characteristics.
Second is understanding the importance of martial arts not only as defensive arts but also as physical exercise, leading to their popularity first as amateur sports and later as professional-level matches.
This is what ‘The Spirit of Budo: The History of Japan’s Martial Arts’ exhibition is trying to deliver – the understanding of the history of Japan’s martial arts and to feel the spirit circling around the atmosphere with the display of the suits of armour and helmets, bows and arrows, swords and the history behind it.
Organised by the Embassy of Japan in Brunei Darussalam, the exhibition began on January 23 at the Malay Technology Museum at Jalan Kota Batu and will be taking place until February 16.
Planned and produced on account of the strong overseas interest background in Japan’s martial arts culture, the Japan Foundation hopes visitors will gain the understanding on the brief history of Japanese martial arts, from Bujutsu (battlefield combat techniques) to popular sports or physical exercise tempering body and spirit (Budo – a Japanese term describing modern Japanese martial arts).
The exhibition features two parts, the first of which displays reproductions and originals of historical weapons such as bows and arrows, suits of armour, helmets and so on as well as the development and changes of Japanese martial arts dating from 8th Century to 19th Century.
The reasons for the reproductions are due to many ancient types of armour and weapons having not survived to the present or are too fragile for international transport.
In addition, the inclusion of the reproductions gives an even more vivid appearance of suits of armour and helmets at the time of original production.
There are several types of bows displayed, such as the bamboo bow designed in maki-e on lacquered ground decorated with to-maki (rattan binding); a bow with bamboo and fibreglass layer; as well as a bamboo bow covered with lacquer and decorated with ito-maki (a cord binding and thin type bow, also called nori-yumi). Along with this are the displays of the Kabura-ya (“whistling bulb” signal arrow) and a beautifully crafted quiver.
Also showcased in part one of the exhibition are the Kake (deerskin glove) and oshidegeke (thumb protector), as well as bowstring reels, including one made of cane with a powder case made of stag antler and one made of twisted paper string with a powder case made of cow horn.
Swords on showcase are the Tachi, Han-Dachi, Uchigatana as well as several bamboo practice swords.
Japanese swords are broadly divided into two types, namely the Tsurugi, which is a double-edged sword for stabbing or thrusting, and the Katana, a single-edged sword designed for cutting.
These swords and their mountings could be seen as the consummation of craftsmanship of more than a thousand years amalgamating various skills, which include iron forging, lacquer ad metal works. The swords themselves are not exhibited due to difficulties in exporting and importing swords, however the mountings are in the showcase.
Two items in this part of the exhibition caught my attention as I walked through the displays – the o-yoroi armour with hoshi-kabuto helmet and the Mogamido haramaki armour with the suji-kabuto helmet. It is amazing to think of the past Japanese warriors donning this war outfit (which looks like quite a weight to carry and fighting their way. It reminded me of those I have seen in dramas and movies.
There are also the displays of Kawari Kabuto (strange helmets) with unique designs, such as the Cow Horns, Catfish Tail, Turbo Shells, Stag Antlers, False Head, bundle of reeds and bent headgear for a court noble.
The reorganisation of Bujutsu to Budo in the 19th and 20th centuries and how the spirit of martial arts is still inherent in Japanese people today is featured in the second part of the exhibition with the introduction of Budo associations along with the clothes and implements such as bamboo swords, protectors and bows and arrows, used by players and students in this present day.
Often seen as representative images of Japan’s traditional martial arts, their techniques and weapons that were actually used have grown immensely popular abroad. This is perhaps due to recognition of the aesthetic value of the weapons and equipment produced with distinctive characteristics and the understanding of martial arts as not only defensive arts but also physical exercise that led to popularity, first as amateur sports and later as professional-level matches.
In the visual field, the films of Kurosawa Akira greatly aroused an interest in Japanese historical dramas since 1950s and there are the United States’ produced dramas and feature films from Shogun in 1980 to The Last Samurai in 2003. Japan’s warrior culture elicited great interest overseas because of the distinctive nature of the Samurai and Ninja.
Japanese comics, Manga, are also not to be ignored as they have played a role in kicking off a worldwide boom in the martial arts. These Manga have strong story attributes and depict educational themes such as achieving growth and self-realisation through the martial arts and searching for the meaning of life.
Visitors will learn the history of the Japanese martial arts and the people’s aesthetic awareness and creativity, as well as Japan’s social history and Japanese way of thinking from a new angle. If you are a fan of Japanese dramas and movies of the past, particularly the ones narrating the history of past rule and the war during those periods, take some time to visit and experience for yourself as you walk through – you may well be reminded of some scenes in those movies or dramas.