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.
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.
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.
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.
‘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.
‘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.’
Text: CALUM HENDERSON
Samurai: history and legend is at the Cambridge University Library until 28 May 2022. Entry is free and no booking is required.
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All images: Cambridge University Library.