Accession #- E/1955/17/006
Japanese 1860s- (Approximately 1868-1869)
Materials: Lacquered Paper, Copper Fasteners, Fabric Lining, Horse Hair
This striking head-gear survives from an important period in Japanese history. These helmets are often referred to as “Bear Wigs” due to their wild and disheveled appearance. Worn in battle during the Japanese Civil War, or Boshin War (1868-1869), this style of head-gear identified the officers of the Japanese imperial troops. In addition to identifying officers on the battlefield, these types of “Bear Wigs” also represented different regions or clans depending on the color of the horse hair used. Officers hailing from the southern region of Tosa Jinshotai, wore the Shaguma helmet. The Shaguma helmet utilized dyes to create a vibrant and terrifying red wig. Officers from Choshu wore the Haguma helmet which varied from white or cream. Finally, officers from Satsuma wore the Koguma helmet, typically made from dark or black horse hair. Can you guess which region the helmet is from in figure 1.?
To understand the driving forces behind the Japanese Civil War, one must go back at least a decade. Beginning in 1853, American Commodore Matthew Perry arrived with his “Black Fleet” at Edo bay. Over the course of the next decade, more foreigners arrived, slowly eroding centuries of Japanese isolationism. However, not all of Japan was happy with the handling of foreign missionaries and traders. This was especially true for factions of young samurai and nobles in Japan from the regions of Tosa, Choshu, and Satsuma. These samurai felt that the reigning military Shogunate allowed the new foreign arrivals too much authority in making trade agreements.
A fissure between the two authoritative powers in Japan developed. On one side sat the political military power of the Samurai. This formed the Shogunate, or system of government headed by generals. Seated at the head of this political system was the Shogun, an reigning individual who, for centuries, controlled feudal Japan with absolute authority. On the other side of this military state, sat the imperial power of the Emperor. At this point in Japanese history the emperor was largely reduced to a ceremonial or religious figure. Although the Shogun ruled Japan entirely, it was still only through the acknowledgment or blessing of the emperor that this power was bestowed. Yet, the Boshin War would upheave this centuries-old power structure.
Rebellious samurai turned their backs on the Shogun, eager to return the emperor to complete rule. Supporters believed the teenaged Emperor Meji would restore Japan to isolationism, casting out the barbaric foreigners. Despite greater numbers and military skill, the shogun struggled against the relatively more modern weapons of the imperialist troops. Seeing the writing on the wall, the Tokugawa Shogunate abdicated his power to the emperor. This gesture would end the feudal Shogun’s power in Japan forever. When the war was fully resolved and the imperialists declared victory, the Emperor Meji ushered in the self-named, Meji Era. Interestingly, the imperial court did not pursue the removal of foreign agendas in Japan. On the contrary, Emperor Meji pushed Japan further towards globalization, seeking to modernize his country so that it could compete on an international level. Emperor Meji wrote into law the first compulsory education for both and girls, and met many heads of foreign state as equals.
Can you find the imperialist officers in this wood block print of battle?
Where does the color of their “Bear Wigs” tell us they are from?
[[Christina J. Naruszewicz]]
bibliography /Suggested Readings
- Gonick, Gloria. Matsuri! Japanese Festival Arts. Los Angeles, CA: University of California Press, 2003.
- “Boshin War”, http://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/Boshin_War
- Keene, Donald. Emperor of Japan: Meiji and His World, 1852–1912. New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 2005.
- “Perry In Japan”, http://library.brown.edu/cds/perry/people_Perry.html