Artful Readings: The Samurai's Garden

Our Artful Readings program brings together two things we love—great literature and art! The Kimbell’s book discussion group enjoys selected readings and explores relevant artworks on view in the galleries.

In this series of blog posts, join us to learn about some of our favorite picks and the topics covered during these Friday night discussions.

The Samurai’s Garden, A Novel
by Gail Tsukiyama 

About the book: 

On the eve of the Second World War, a young Chinese man recovering from tuberculosis moves to his family’s summer residence near a seaside village in Japan. His friendships with the stoic caretaker and a secreted community of lepers emerge in a tender story about loneliness and friendship, illness and wellness, and nature’s beauty set against the brutality of war.

Discussion topics:

What does the term “samurai” mean in the context of this novel? What other associations does the term bring to mind? Samurai lived by a special code known as bushidō (“the way of the warrior”). How would you describe Matsu’s code?

The author uses references to gardening and nature throughout the story. How do the characters relate to and interact with the natural world? In what ways do Matsu’s garden and Sachi’s dry garden reflect their inner lives?

The story’s richness emerges through dichotomies between the experiences of its characters. Find some examples of parallels in the narrative. How do they bring out essential aspects in the human condition? 

How do daily routines as well as observances of traditional holidays help to shape the story?

How does young Stephen change over the course of the novel? How does his time in Tarumi affect his relationships with his father and other family members far away? 

Why is it important that Stephen is an artist? 

How does the backdrop of world events, particularly Japan’s invasion of China, affect the characters and the overall tone of the book? Consider this historical moment in relation to shared cultural traditions in China and Japan. 

In the galleries:

“Once, when I asked him [Matsu] to name a few blossoms for me, the words ‘Kerria, Lespedeza, Crepe Myrtle’ seemed to flow from his lips in one quick breath.” 

This decorative screen from Japan’s Momoyama period might have come right out of Matsu’s beloved garden. Wisteria, hydrangea, morning glories, and hollyhocks are described here in rich pigments that glow against the gold-leaf background. 


From Stephen’s description of the annual pilgrimage to honor ancestors during the Ghosts’ Festival: “Large and small paper lanterns hung from thin poles, lighting the way for the ghosts to arrive and depart.”

Adapted from a favorite Chinese folktale, this Japanese painting refers to the story of a physician who was unjustly defrauded of a first-rank grade in his civil examinations. Overcome with shame, he commits suicide. When the emperor orders that Shoki be buried with the highest honors, his spirit dedicates itself to protecting the empire from demons. Themes of personal honor, respect for ancestors, and observation of nature resonate in both this screen and Tsukiyama’s story. 

Other Artful Readings selections relating to Japan: 

Snow Country, by Yasunari Kawabata

Set in the desolate beauty of western Japan, the snowiest region on earth, this haunting novel of impossible love embodies the suggestive qualities and powerful sense of motive that earned the author the Nobel Prize for Literature.

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, by David Mitchell

The ambitious new novel by one of today’s most acclaimed writers vividly evokes Edo-period Japan and the tale of a young clerk, whose five-year stint with the Dutch East Indies Company takes a turn towards forbidden love and surprising adventure. 

The Hare with the Amber Eyes: A Family’s Century of Art and Ideas, by Edmund de Waal

A memoir by the renowned British ceramicist and fifth-generation owner of a large collection of netsuke, or hand-carved Japanese miniatures, traces his family’s astonishing history through the story of these strange and charming objects. 

About Artful Readings 

The Kimbell’s book discussion group meets every other month to discuss selected readings over light refreshments and to explore connections with artworks on view in the galleries. Space is limited and registration is required. Click here for upcoming programs and fees. 

Click here for a complete list of ten years of Artful Readings selections.