Samurai: history and legend

For many centuries, the outside world knew little of the Japanese way of life. Before the Meiji Restoration of 1868 – after which the country rapidly modernised and opened itself up to global trade – only a handful of books and manuscripts had made their way beyond its shores.

Some of these early texts were acquired by the Cambridge University Library, which is now home to the pre-eminent collection of Japanese material anywhere outside Japan itself. The collection includes a copy of the Azuma kagami, which was one of the first Japanese books to reach Britain when it arrived here in 1626.

Life of Yoshitsune, a board game based on the life of the military commander of the same name. Like Snakes and Ladders, players rise and fall depending on how they roll the dice. The image below [2] shows the unfolded mat on which the game is played.

Now a new exhibition is putting a selection of these artefacts on public display, with a focus on Japan’s historic warrior class, the samurai, and a side to their culture that Western eyes may never have seen before.

This woodblock from 1869 reimagines an infamous night attack on the Edo mansion of Kira Yoshinaka in 1703 by loyal samurai of the late Asano Naganori, intent on avenging their master’s death.

During a long period of relative peace for Japan between the 18th and mid 19th centuries, the country’s publishing industry exploded, producing books, maps, and games for the common citizenry and samurai alike.

Colourful illustrations of cats in costume, including cats dressed as Edo-period samurai with swords, as featured in the book Neko no shibai (‘Cat Theatre’). This is from a woodblock-printed book from the 1870s/1880s.

It is through these artefacts that visitors will enjoy a more comprehensive understanding of the samurai way of life. On show are books, games, and manuscripts depicting the warriors playing music, performing, and even arranging flowers – perhaps not what you would associate with a military nobility which typically brandished swords almost two-and- a-half feet in length.

This illustration from an 1858 book about the priest Nichiren (1222-1282) shows the ways in which the Japanese wrote, read, and stored books in the past.

‘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,’ said Dr Kristin Williams, curator of the library’s exhibition.

An unfolded three-panel woodblock print from the 19th century showing an imagined scene below the sites of two famous Japanese sea battles in 1185, Yashima and Dannoura.

‘We want visitors to question their assumptions about Japan while they explore and examine the rare books and objects in the exhibition,’ Williams added. ‘We may think of weaponry and armour when we think of samurai, but there was far, far more to their story.’

The warrior depicted in this book is Minamoto no Yoshiie (1039-1106). He is here in the process of dressing himself in armour, from putting on his undergarments to taking up his weapons.
Minamoto no Yoshitsune (1159-1189), the military commander of the Minamoto clan (also depicted in the board game), is shown here learning to fight while leaping or balancing on one foot.


Go further:
Samurai: history and legend is at the Cambridge University Library until 28 May 2022. Entry is free and no booking is required.
Cambridge University Library, West Road, Cambridge, CB3 9DR
+44 (0) 1223 333000
All images: Cambridge University Library.