Asian Art Museum brings way of the Samurai to SF

SAN FRANCISCO — San Francisco Asian Art Museum curator Yoko Woodson has organized many important exhibits — including the memorable two-part show of works by Hokusai and Hiroshige a decade ago — but the museum’s upcoming “Lords of the Samurai” may well become her biggest, most spectacular accomplishment.

Woodson brought the Hokusai/Hiroshige drawings from the Honolulu Academy of Arts’ James Michener collection to The City, making their public viewing possible for the first time, although individual pieces had been around.

With the Samurai exhibit, which opens Friday, Woodson is unlocking the key for hidden treasure none of which has been available outside Japan.

In fact, some of the 160 objects — armor, weaponry, paintings, lacquer ware, ceramics, costumes and more — are not readily available to the public even in Japan. The reason: Contents of the exhibit coming to Larkin Street are the private possessions of one family.

Woodson and former museum director Emily Sano began work on the show four years ago when former Japanese Prime Minister Morihiro Hosokawa (in office 1993-94) came to San Francisco on a business trip and visited the museum.

Hosokawa’s family is one of the most prominent Samurai clans, going back more than a half a millennia, between the 14th and 19th centuries, which were dominated by warriors who formed the country’s military aristocracy.

“This is the first time that the family’s heirloom arms and armor, paintings and decorative and applied art objects are to be shown in a comprehensive way in the United States,” says Hosokawa.

“Through the stories of the Hosokawa family, illustrated through their superb collection, we can understand the nature of the upper echelon of the warrior elite in early modern Japan,” according to museum director Jay Xu.

The Hosokawa collection in Japan is housed in the Eisei-Bunko Museum and in the family’s former home, Kumamoto Castle on Kyushu island. Ten of the artworks carry the designation of “important cultural properties” or “important art objects” due to their artistic and historical significance to the nation.

Because of their importance and fragility, some of the works will be rotated Aug. 3, replaced by others.

Besides their primary fame as elite warriors, the Samurai have also excelled in artistic, cultural and spiritual pursuits, all reflected in the exhibit.

“The Legacy of a Daimyo Family,” the show’s subtitle, refers to “great name,” meaning the standing of the Hosokawa family. Throughout 18 generations, the lords practiced and promoted the arts, even more prominently than did ancient European royal families.

Hosokawa, 71, himself is a celebrated tea practitioner, who has won acclaim for his skill as a ceramist and calligrapher. Some of his tea bowls and other tea ceramics are among the many on view in the exhibition.

From an earlier time, Sumimoto Hosokawa (1489—1520) is described as a great archer and horseman, “far above other humans ... also versed in waka [a form of Japanese poetry] and appreciates the moon and the wind.

“Outside the citadel, he takes bows and arrows; in meditation and reading of sacred books he protects Buddhism. Inside and outside, pledging to the mountains and rivers for the sake of the rulers and vassals, always with propriety and benevolence, he attains saintly wisdom.”


Lords of the Samurai

Where: Asian Art Museum, 200 Larkin St., San Francisco

When: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily, except closed Mondays and until 9 p.m. Thursdays; show runs Friday through Sept. 20

Tickets: $17 general; $13 senior; $12 college students; $7 youths; discounts after 5 p.m. Thursdays; $5 first Sunday of each monthContact: (415) 581-3500,

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