Forget Tom Cruise – you are about to see the real last samurai of the late 1800s. At this time, photography was just coming to Japan, and the samurai? After holding an elite position of military power for centuries, they were officially in decline. While warlords had once depended on them for their specialized training, the Meiji Restoration of 1868 consolidated the country under the rule of Emperor Meiji, who felt it was time to create a modernized, Western-style army.
Slowly, the once-revered warriors lost their position as the nation’s only armed force, as well as their right to wear a sword in public. Although they continued to hold influential positions, most wielded power through business, government, and newspaper jobs, rather than through the military. By the early 1900s, the samurai had all but disappeared. To this day, however, people are fascinated by their ferocity, dedication, and philosophies. From Hollywood to comic books, video games, and anime, there are still many references to the samurai way of life in modern culture.
Even if you are familiar with samurai, there’s still a good chance that you’ve never seen them quite like this. While the colors may seem odd in some of the photographs, remember that these were taken between 1862 and 1900, a time when color photography was not yet common or affordable. When artists wanted to showcase the vibrant colors they saw, they hand-painted black-and-white photos, several of can be seen below. There is much to see in each photo, so sit back and prepare to enter the twilight years of the last samurai.
1. Mulan wasn’t the only woman samurai! In fact, they were quite common in feudal Japan, and while their main responsibility was maintaining the family household, they enjoyed an elevated position in society. Unlike many females of the time, nearly all women samurai were literate.
2. Most samurai, however, were men. While they made up less than 10% of Japan’s population, the samurai were extremely influential.
3. Tattoos have a long history in Japan, and while we don’t know exactly why samurais partook in the art form, there are theories that tattoos were used to identify bodies after battle. To a culture in which afterlife rituals were very important, this would have been a great peace of mind to families.
4. This striking image was taken by Franz von Stillfried-Ratenicz in 1881. It’s no wonder he decided to hand-paint it – just look at those colors!
5. I can’t imagine how heavy all this armor must have been, especially the helmet, which was known as a kabuto.
6. An elderly man wearing the traditional samurai robe known as a fire dress. In addition to leading military forces, samurai were sometimes called upon to serve as firefighters in times of public emergency.
7. Until the rule of Emperor Meiji, samurais were the only individuals allowed to carry swords in public. As they were disbanded, however, they lost that right.
8. Three warriors show off their full garb in 1900.
9. Can you imagine going around all day with a hat like that?!
10. This photo from 1867 might be my very favorite. Just look at the details – you can really tell that the photographer spent a lot of time trying to get the colors just right.
11. The same is true with this image. While the samurai’s weapon of choice was a sword, they were also skilled in archery and hand-to-hand combat.
12. The studio aspect of the backdrop is interesting, as is the somber air of the photos. Perhaps both the warriors and photographers knew they were documenting history.
13. After all, it wouldn’t be long before their unique dress, lifestyle, and philosophies were nothing but a memory.
14. This hairstyle, known as a “chonmage,” was originally developed to hold the samurai helmet firmly on the head during battle. Over time, it became a status symbol of the warrior class.
15. This photo of a stern samurai wearing a fire dress was taken by Felice Beato. The samurai code held honor above all else, and emphasized loyalty to duty until death.
16. Two samurai in 1865. The man on the left wears a jingasa hat, while the one on the right shows off his traditional indigo tabi socks, worn by samurai firefighters.
17. Sometimes photographers chose to only hand-color certain elements of a photo, such as the blue robe and purple sash of this samurai.
18. A warrior in 1867 demonstrates how to use a large conch shell as a horn …
19. While this man shows off his unique tattoos.
20. The samurai may be gone, but these strong, dedicated, and fiercely passionate warriors will never be forgotten.
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