A Mark of Nobility

Part of the Horse exhibition.

The class of noble warriors known as the Samurai arose more than 1,000 years ago as armed horsemen who fought for the warlords of Japan. But during the Edo period (1603-1867), Japan's rulers kept the country at peace. The Samurai left the battlefield and became teachers, doctors, and administrators.

In time, Samurai fighting skills were transformed into ceremonial arts. Once needed for war, the samurai's weapons, his armor, and his horse became symbols of rank and refinement.

samurai horseback
Samurai archer on horseback.
Interfoto/AGE Fotostock

Straight Shooter

Early Samurai warriors lived by a code of conduct known as "the way of the horse and bow." Each man had to act with honor while mastering the arts of war, including the difficult task of shooting a bow and arrow from the back of a galloping horse.

In the 1100s, the shogun Minamoto no Yoritomo took a special interest in this skill and made it into a sacred ritual. Today, riders continue to perform the art of archery on horseback, or yabusame, at Shinto festivals in Japan.

Message Bearer

In the Shinto religion of Japan, worshippers write prayers on wooden tablets known as ema, meaning "horse picture." This custom may have roots in ancient times, when horses were presented to Shinto shrines as living offerings to the gods.

Did You Know?

In the 12th century, the Samurai Kiso no Yoshinaka reputedly had 10,000 horsemen in his command. These horses may have belonged to the Kiso breed, which was developed about 1,000 years ago in central Japan.

Samurai Saddle

During the peace that reigned in Japan from the early 1600s to the mid-1800s, the Samurai's tools of war were transformed into decorative arts. A saddle in the exhibition trimmed with lacquer and gold recalled the victories of a mounted warrior but is lavish enough for a lord.

Woodblock Print

A woodblock print in the exhbition showed a springtime scene in which the legendary Samurai warrior Minamoto no Yoshiie (1039-1106) rides from his home in Kyoto to a troubled region in northern Japan, while lower-ranking soldiers follow on foot.