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Legend of the Samurai revealed in Cambridge exhibition



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From a manuscript showing cats dressed as Samuari warriors to helmets, a board game and a priceless scroll, the treasures from one of the world’s most important collections of Japanese literature are being displayed for the first time at Cambridge University Library.

Samurai History and Legend: A three-panelled 19th century woodblock print shows an imagined scene below two sites of famous Japanese sea battles in 1185 (Yashima and Dannoura). Picture: Cambridge University Library
Samurai History and Legend: A three-panelled 19th century woodblock print shows an imagined scene below two sites of famous Japanese sea battles in 1185 (Yashima and Dannoura). Picture: Cambridge University Library

Samurai: History and Legend is drawn from the world-class collections of the library. Among the objects going on display for the first time is a seven metre-long scroll of the Lotus Sutra, a key Buddhist scripture in East Asia.

The library’s Lotus Sutra scroll was produced in Japan about 800 years ago with each Chinese character painstakingly handwritten in pure gold. The paper itself was dyed with indigo and decorated with gold and silver.

Dr Kristin Williams, curator of the exhibition. Picture: Keith Heppell
Dr Kristin Williams, curator of the exhibition. Picture: Keith Heppell

The free exhibition, which runs from January 22 to May 28, explores the historic roots of the samurai and the literary image of the samurai in manuscripts and woodblock-printed books from Japan. The objects provide a contrast to familiar imagery and modern perceptions of the samurai that – especially in the west – have led to widespread misunderstanding of their social and cultural role in Japan.

Samurai History and Legend: Yoshitsune learned to fight while leaping or balancing on one foot as well as to fend off attacks with his fan. Picture: Cambridge University Library
Samurai History and Legend: Yoshitsune learned to fight while leaping or balancing on one foot as well as to fend off attacks with his fan. Picture: Cambridge University Library

Exhibition curator Dr Kristin Williams said: “The image of a samurai warrior is iconic, both in Japan and overseas. However, the imagery we usually see is as much legend and mythology as it is history. We want visitors to question their assumptions about Japan while they explore and examine the rare books and objects in the exhibition. We may think of weaponry and armour when we think of samurai, but there was far, far more to their story.”

This book features colourful illustrations of cats in costume, including cats dressed as Edo-period samurai with swords. The book was woodblock-printed between the 1870s and 1880. Picture: The University Library
This book features colourful illustrations of cats in costume, including cats dressed as Edo-period samurai with swords. The book was woodblock-printed between the 1870s and 1880. Picture: The University Library

Samurai were not only warriors. Life as a samurai was complex and multi-faceted, not all predicated on warriorship, samurai swords and battles. Some exhibition texts reveal the place of music and performance in samurai life or show samurai playing the flute. Even the delicate art of flower arranging had deep ties to Buddhist practice and was part of samurai culture.

The later objects in the exhibition are colourful and visually striking. During a long period of peace, Japan developed a publishing industry with books, maps and games for commoners and samurai alike. This later print culture shows a playful irreverence toward the samurai. The exhibition includes a book depicting cats dressed as samurai complete with swords, and a board game in which the players throw a die to follow the life of a medieval warrior. There are also sketches by Hokusai, one of Japan’s most famous artists.

Dr Williams added: “The hardest thing about curating this exhibition was choosing only 60 objects from a total collection of over 130,000 Japanese items.

“Most people in the UK will have heard of samurai but only associate them with swords – the samurai image is so familiar but so distant from the real sources and stories. Hopefully, our exhibition will inspire people to learn more about Japan and to seek out the stories behind our stereotypes.”

Rachel Sawicki, exhibitions conservator. Picture: Keith Heppell
Rachel Sawicki, exhibitions conservator. Picture: Keith Heppell

Going on display for the first time alongside helmets, antique children’s books, and a manuscript that passed flower-arranging techniques secretly between master and disciple, is Azuma Kagami, one of the first Japanese books in Britain when it arrived around 1626.

At the time, Japan was largely closed to foreigners. In 1715, this single volume also became the first Japanese book in Cambridge University Library.

Sharon Catlin, collections care assistant. Picture: Keith Heppell
Sharon Catlin, collections care assistant. Picture: Keith Heppell

At first, it was misidentified as a Chinese manuscript and even bound upside down. The language is Chinese, but it is a work of Japanese history, printed in Japan using an old style of wooden movable type.

Dr Chris Burgess, head of exhibitions and public programmes at Cambridge University Library, said: “When Japan started a modern army in the 1870s, the samurai became obsolete – but the legends grew bigger than ever as books and prints spread far beyond Japan’s borders. Centuries of complex history were collapsed into the sort of memorable images of the samurai that we’re all so familiar with today.

Samurai History and Legend: Lotus Sutra. Picture: Cambridge University Library
Samurai History and Legend: Lotus Sutra. Picture: Cambridge University Library

“This exhibition asks visitors to examine, through the extraordinary books, manuscripts, and objects on display from our collections, just what kind of samurai is revealed to us.”

The free Samurai: History and Legend exhibition is on now at Cambridge University Library and runs until May 28, 2022. No booking is required. Opening hours are 9am-7pm Monday to Friday and 9am-4.45pm on Saturdays. The library is closed on Sundays.



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