The man’s haunted face looks off to the side, perhaps recalling some bloody battle or past triumph. His hair is swept up in a traditional topknot; his armor is ornate and gilded. He is a samurai, and he is proud of the fact.
The samurai, of course, were a strong, ancient class of warriors prominent in feudal Japan. But feudalism had come to an end by 1871; and, as many of these images were captured around that time, these men were likely among the last of their kind.
The story of the samurai, though, is a long one. It begins in the 7th century when high taxes and reforms in Japan were forcing many agriculturalists into hawking their land. This led to a handful of rich landholders gaining in power.
But now these new landholders – or feudal lords – needed warriors to help protect their lands and keep others away from the source of their wealth. As a result, the samurai were created.
Over time, though, the role of these warriors changed. In 1156, for example, the warring sons of deceased Emperor Toba brought about the dissolution of imperial power, and the samurai clans emerged as significant forces in the ensuing wars and power battles.
Indeed, for the next 700 years, rebellions, wars and invasions throughout Japan caused power to ricochet back and forth between various factions. And, throughout it all, the samurai remained a formidable force.
But samurai are not all about brute strength. Certainly, the samurai were also renowned for their lifestyle, or bushidō. It promoted allegiance, a humble standard of living and honor above all else. The “way of the warrior” also encouraged a form of Zen Buddhism that balanced their violent lives with knowledge and calm.
What’s more, the samurai were easily identifiable by their intricate armor and the distinctive combination of blades that they carried. Men additionally wore their hair tied up in a high bun, which symbolized their lofty social status.
In fact, historians estimate that in the mid-to-late 19th century around 8 percent of the Japanese population belonged to the samurai class. This incorporated not only the male samurai warriors, but also the women who looked after – and sometimes violently defended – their homes.
Then, in 1868, everything changed. Imperial power was restored, and the Emperor Meiji began his reign, bringing about a steady Westernization of Japan. The feudal system was abolished three years later, and the samurai seemingly became obsolete.
Although many resisted change, launching a dramatic rebellion in 1877, they were no match for the Emperor’s newly formed military forces. In a final showdown, Japan’s last remaining samurai committed suicide rather than lose their honor.
The latter years of the 19th century were the death knell for the samurai class. Already removed from power, they suffered indignity after indignity until even their right to carry a sword in public was taken away.
As the old ways were quickly disappearing, new Western influences began flooding into Japan. The country had been forced to sign a treaty opening up its ports to international trade, and visitors from around the world began to land on its shores.
Among these were men such as Felice Beato, an Italian-British photographer who captured some of the very first images of eastern Asia on film. Moving to Yokohoma, Japan, in 1863, he set about photographing the strange new world he saw around him.
Among his many photographs are several striking images of local samurai, kitted out in the elaborate armor associated with their class. Some of them show young men posing with weapons, as if ready for battle. In others, they carry out the daily business of accompanying dignitaries or geishas.
During this time, Beato employed a Japanese assistant named Kusakabe Kimbei. He went on to open his own workshop, carrying on his mentor’s work of capturing the dying days of the samurai for posterity.
These photographs, along with others captured throughout Japan towards the end of the 19th century, give us a unique insight into a vanished world. Some of them are hand-colored, lending the images an eerie sense of immediacy.
Some pictures depict samurais poring over maps, debating their military tactics during the Boshin War that would ultimately decide their fate. In the end, with their old-fashioned weaponry, they couldn’t win against a better-equipped enemy.
Although there are no active samurais in Japan today, their legacy lives on. The bushidō, their ancient code of conduct, forms much of the moral blueprint still adhered to in Japanese martial arts studied around the world.
Through movies, television shows and video games, the samurai have become a byword for a type of honor that many find lacking in modern society. And through these photos we are able to catch a final glimpse of their true nature before the unstoppable tide of progress consigned them to the annals of history.