Tag Archives: 侍

Vintage Japanese Art


My Aunt Eiko had these in a brown paper bag of all things.

Hundreds of old Japanese artwork kept by my Great-Grandfather Wakio Shibabayama.  Born August 17, 1874 in Kaga City of the Ishikawa Prefecture.

Sumi-e.  Watercolors.  Sketches.  On thinner-than-tissue rice paper.  Dog-eared from what appears to be many years of handling by my Great-Grandfather.


My Aunt Eiko’s knowledge of Wakio (her grandfather on her mother’s side) is unfortunately sketchy.  No pun intended.

Her knowledge of these paintings is even sketchier unfortunately.

But they survived the war and I don’t know how they did.  They are so fragile to say the least.

Surprisingly, some artwork was painted on several sheets of rice paper glued together.  I don’t know what kind of glue it was but it sure beats Krazy Glue.  And it’s non-toxic to boot.  I think.


An apparent samurai in full armor.

Aunt Eiko knows Wakio was an accomplished artist and that he taught art in his senior years.  In Japan (and unlike here), professors were elite.  And quite a few of them were samurai towards the end of the 1800’s.  Unbeknownst to many Westerners, the Japanese government began banning the samurai around 1870 to bring civility to society… but by then, the samurai had begun transitioning to a peaceful life philosophy.  Many took up art.

And I’m not saying Wakio was samurai… but my mother drummed it into my head that “her” family heritage WAS samurai. lol

Aunt Eiko remembers Wakio passing away when he was about 80.  (It does appear that long life is in one’s genes.)

She has little information about this collection.  She recalls these sketches and watercolors were done by his students…perhaps as assignments.  I can read some of their names.

But my Great-Grandfather’s “hanko 判子”, or seal, is stamped on all of them.  In fact, there are several variations of his seal through the years.  You can see them on the samples.

Aunt Eiko also remembers that “a couple of his students” became well-known artists but cannot recall their names.

Here are some samples.  Currency can be seen for reference; in some photos, you can actually see how thin the rice paper is:

This appears to be one of the oldest in his collection. Undated.
Detail of the brush work can be seen immediately below.
fan close up
A close up of the brush detail from the fan painting immediately above.
In spite of being folded for decades, the serenity of this piece still shines. You can see right through it, too.
Appears to be street performers from old Japan.  You can also see it was painted on several sheets glued together.
A dramatic sketch of what appears to be a non-Japanese warrior. Undated.
A serene painting of a gorge.

dragon lily

dragonfly closeup
You can see the remarkable attention to the detail in this close-up…down to individual brush strokes.
A fragile rice paper booklet written in Wakio’s hand… all with a brush and carbon ink. You can also see ties at the right. I don’t know exactly what it is but there is a reference to the “43rd Class” in red at the upper right. Perhaps this was his syllabus.  The seal in blue states 1947 and he was 74 years old.  The red seal apparently functions more like a signature.


But as mentioned, Wakio was an accomplished artist.  Not to say he was famous.  Just accomplished.  My family has several of his original silk paintings, one of which is shown below.

wakio painting

We don’t exactly know where Wakio sought refuge during World War II but these delicate art pieces from long ago survived.  My aunt believes my grandmother inherited these from him upon his death.

And here is the one photo I have of my Great-Grandfather Wakio Shibayama.  You can see it on the scroll above.


Too bad Sony hadn’t invented portable digital voice recorders.  I would have liked to have heard the story behind these remnants Old Japan.

OMG Samurai Truths 第一

John Wayne.  Clint Eastwood.  Kirk Douglas.

All familiar names to us with a common thread – they helped create the lore of the rough and tough cowboy.

Killing eight bad guys with their Colt .45 six-shooters.  Without reloading.  Bullets would glance off them as if they were slickered with the world’s supply of Vaseline.

Make that a non-stick coating.

With that, let’s get into the lore – and the truths – of the samurai.


Toshiro Mifune portraying Lord Toranaga in "Shogun"
Toshiro Mifune portraying Lord Toranaga in “Shogun”

Yes, Japan had their John Wayne, Clint Eastwood and Kirk Douglas creating the samurai lore.  Not to bore you with the names of key Japanese actors portraying samurai, but Toshiro Mifune is their John Wayne.  You may have seen him playing Lord Toranaga in the 1980 TV mini-series “Shogun” opposite Richard Chamberlain.

Let’s give you a taste of the movie “lore” created in Japan.  This compilation is of “Zatoichi” (座頭一), a blind swordsman of all things.  He is portrayed by Katsu Shintaro, another famous actor.  Think of him as Sean Connery in a series of films; instead of James Bond, it is Zatoichi.

His character is a very entertaining combination of John Wayne, Clint Eastwood and Jackie Chan, all rolled into one fantasy character.  The lore.  No need to watch the entire thing, of course; its intent is to expose you to the samurai lore.

In these fictional fight sequences (What am I saying?  It’s a movie!), Zatoichi slays up to 40 bad guys with his one sword, i.e., eight guys with a six shooter.

Incorrect.  More like 20 bad guys with a six-shooter.

Yes, Zatoichi is smothered in Japan’s supply of Vaseline…and there is no guard (tsuba 鍔) on the sword to protect his pinky.

Anyways, I’m sure you have a flavor of the samurai lore by now.

Did any of you watch the entire clip?  Better than the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (which really didn’t happen in the O.K. Corral, by the way)?


Let’s begin the first OMG Samurai Truth with a simple question based on Western culture:

When Colt made a six shooter, how did they test its accuracy?  After all, no cowboy would want to aim at a bad guy and have it miss by a couple of feet when it counted.  Only Bob Hope.

Colt pistol, 1851
Colt pistol, 1851

They test fired the pistol, of course.  Likely at a target with a bulls-eye.

And its resulting level of accuracy also made for higher selling prices.  They would be prized possessions.

Well, second question: how did the samurai know his samurai sword, or “katana” (刀) was sharp?

Jabbing a bulls-eye would be unthinkable.  Where’s the fun?

They would test the katana out on an executed criminal.

Testing out a new katana (From "Secrets of the Samurai", 1973)
Testing out a new katana (From “Secrets of the Samurai”, 1973)

Cut off a limb.  Perhaps an arm or a leg.

Well, that’s mostly true.

If a samurai was of high enough ranking (perhaps one of my samurai ancestors), he can pay……for a live one.

While the “lore” varies, there is one documented story – but who knows?  The story is a criminal was being taken to his execution when he spied a high ranking samurai with a vassal carrying his brand-spanking new katana.

The criminal asked, “Are you going to try out your new katana on me?” to which the samurai replied in the affirmative.  The samurai said he would try a slashing diagonal cut on him from the shoulder down.

The soon-to-be executed criminal then replied something to the effect of, “Well, I wish I would have known beforehand as I would have swallowed some stones to dull your blade.”


A grisly first “OMG Samurai Truth”, perhaps, but truth nonetheless. Not lore.

But one thing is for certain: the consequence of execution did not defray criminals from doing their dastardly deeds even in the 1600’s.  And they did indeed carry out the sentences.  No ACLU.


Stay tuned for more OMG Samurai Truths.  More to come.

John Wayne? A Samurai?

It’s true.

John Wayne would have made a great samurai.

He often killed eight men with his six shooter.

Samurais did the same thing…  Slashed through two dozen other samurai with one sword…at least in the movies.



My mother drummed it into me for the first years of my life – that “my ancestors” were samurai.

And not just plain ol’ run-of-the-mill samurai.

They were 偉い侍.

Okie-dokie.  I’ll help.  High ranking samurai.

And its true…but flawed.


It gets too complicated so for argument’s sake, I have a second cousin, Toshio.  He was adored by both my mother and Aunt Eiko.  “Tosh-chan”, as we lovingly called him, was always kind to them through the years.  Considering his horrendous working hours common amongst Japanese workers of that time, he still made the effort without complaint.  He eventually became a top-notch engineer for Mitsubishi and worked in Cairo and Singapore to name a few places.  He lives in Yokohama, Japan.

Tosh-chan sporting a Japanese goliath beetle near his home in the village of Fukui. 1974

When I lived in Japan alone for a couple of years as a very young adult, ever faithful Tosh-chan was there again.  This time to help me out as well.


As it turns out, and while mom was there with me visiting, he took us to his home village of Fukui, on the Japan Sea side.  It was beautiful country and the area still had the ambience of pre-war Japan.  We stayed at his parent’s house and were fortunate to meet some of the extended family.  The house was typical from that early time – even the abode was outside.  And the mosquitoes.  Notice the plural?  They never went away.  The little buggers loved me…  After a couple of hours, I was swollen like a Japanese pin cushion.

Mosquitoes and me - nice and puffy.
Mosquitoes and me after a while – nice and puffy.


One day, Toshio drove mom, his mom and me to a very old temple, Zenshouji (全昌寺〒922-0807 Ishikawa Prefecture, Kaga, Daishoji Shinmeicho, 1 if you’re curious).  It was at least three centuries old and miraculously escaped US Naval bombardments.

We met with the head monk who took us to a room where we waited.  We sat with our feet under our hineys; you should try that.  Very uncomfortable.  And the damn mosquitoes were there.

Then out came the monk with a VERY old notebook for the lack of a better description.  It had black front and back covers.  It was about three inches thick and quite dusty.  It was held together by an old hemp string which bound EQUALLY old rice paper.  He opened it up on the tatami flooring.

I wish I took photos of it.  But my family (on my mother’s side) does have something similar in appearance.  The paper and writing looked like something like this:

Example of calligraphy on rice paper. Written by Great-Great Grandfather Wakio Shibayama.


The rice paper the history was written on was from the 1600’s… from about the time the Mayflower set sail on her historic voyage putting it into an American mindset (which was AFTER the Native Americans were here, of course).  And the writing had some details on “my” samurai ancestors.  Unbelievable.  Even Joan Rivers would have been speechless.


We then proceeded up a good sized hill accompanied by – you guessed it – the world’s supply of mosquitoes.  I would have preferred just one Doutzen Kroes bug me.  Was it my Hai Karate cologne?…  or my blood infused by twenty years of Oscar Mayer bacon?  Whatever it was, I must have smelled scrumptious to them.  I was the nectar of the gods to the little buggers.

We climbed.  And Tosh-chan pointed out that as we climbed up, the gravestones (called Ohaka) got older.  And older.  And older.  1900.  1850.  1800.  1750.  1700.  1650…  “Fascinating,” as Spock frequently said.

Then, near the top of the hill by a ledge was a line of ohaka.  There they were.  “My” ancestors.  Samurai ancestors.  I was standing by their ashes.

You can see the edge of the hillside off to left of Tosh-chan.
You can see the edge of the hillside off to left of Tosh-chan.

The ohaka with the roofs on them mark the resting place of the honorable samurai.  (The littler ones mark the resting place of children.)  The one Tosh-chan and I are standing next to represents the resting place of a high ranking samurai.  All their last names were of the “Shibayama” clan of which my grand-mother was one (my mother’s mother).

According to the family’s understanding, one ancestor was so skilled in swordsmanship that he was appointed the personal instructor to the son of a shogun.  I’d have to admit that would be quite an honor back then.  Others were feudal lords.

But……..  That is on my mother’s side and even then, half of that as she had her father’s blood in her… although my grandfather was also of samurai heritage.  I know very little of grandfather’s side except that he came from the island of Shikoku.

And my father’s family?  They were hard-working farmers.  NOT samurai.  And that’s one-half of ME.

So what does that make me? As mentioned at the beginning, my mother drummed into me my ancestors were samurai.  I grew up thinking, “Yeah!  I’m samurai!”

Yes, my ancestors were samurai.  Noble ones at that.  No doubt.  But what my mother drummed into me was just a tad flawed to say the least.  SOME of my ancestors were samurai.


So I guess John Wayne is more of a samurai than I.

Make that Tom Cruise.  He did a much better job portraying one in “The Last Samurai”.


In a future post, you will learn of the true samurai.  Not the lore.  It is definitely not what you see in Hollywood movies.

But in closing this chapter, here is good ol’ Tosh-chan this past summer when my oldest son Takeshi and I went to Japan.

He helped us once again.  Right down to the mosquitoes.

My son Takeshi and Tosh-chan in Yokohama near my father’s WWII US 8th Army HQs.