A Case Study of Medieval Japan through Art: Samurai Life in Medieval Japan
By Ethan Segal and Jaye Zola
Lesson Plan for Grades 11-12
Teachers are encouraged to read “Medieval Japan: An Introductory Essay,” by historian Ethan Segal, prior to conducting this lesson. The introductory essay may also be assigned to students with advanced reading abilities (grades 11-12). The essay provides context for this lesson by sketching the history of medieval Japan.
Medieval Japan saw warfare and chaos. The growth of the warrior class and the influence of Buddhism eventually gave rise to a refined culture having roots in the classical Japanese tradition.
The time period referred to as medieval Japan actually comprised three distinct periods: the Kamakura (1185-1333), Muromachi (1336-1573), and Momoyama (1568-1603). Beginning with the Kamakura through the mid-19th century, military rulers governed Japan. During the Muromachi and Momoyama, the feudal structure concentrated wealth, culture, and power in the hands of feudal lords called daimyō. The social structure of samurai as retainers to noble lords enabled a few powerful daimyō to eventually be shogun or the military ruler.
This lesson is designed to challenge the view of sword-wielding samurai of U.S. movies. Rather than focusing on one particular art form, this lesson uses a variety of images from scrolls, screens, and artifacts. Using these visual sources, students learn about the three different periods of medieval Japan. Adding to the visual record of this time period, literature selections bring the voice of the samurai into the historical account. Students use art and literature to deepen their understanding of warrior life, looking at the importance of cultural and religious traditions to the daily life of daimyō and samurai and expanding their knowledge of medieval Japan.