These samurai devotees bring a cherished culture back to life

A photographer’s search for his Japanese identity leads him to rediscover the past in the present.

At Japan’s Soma Nomaoi Festival, armor-clad participants, some of whom have samurai ancestry, parade and race on horseback. Here, Mitsuo Abe—in everyday life, a dealer in antique armor—dresses as a type of samurai called go-taisho, a battalion general.

After years of making images outside of Japan, Ryotaro Horiuchi turned the camera toward his home country. As he questioned what constitutes Japanese identity—and his own identity as a Japanese person—he began looking into matsuri, the communal celebrations held in every region of Japan since ancient times.

When Horiuchi attended Fukushima Prefecture’s Soma Nomaoi Festival, where samurai descendants and devotees dress in armor and compete on horseback each July, he was “overwhelmed and moved by the power and human aspect,” he says.

The festival has been held for more than a thousand years; its origins lie in the military training of the lord of Soma’s samurai, who dedicated their lives to protecting his. Today’s participants take inspiration from the discipline, honor, and loyalty practiced by the samurai—values that have helped them persevere through life’s adversities, including the devastating earthquake and tsunami that hit the Soma area of Fukushima in 2011 and caused a nuclear disaster.

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