Kristin Williams
Cambridge University Library. Head of Japanese and Korean Section

Cambridge University Library's 'Samurai: History and Legend' Exhibition

'Samurai: history and legend' explored the historic roots of the samurai and the literary image of the samurai in manuscripts and woodblock-printed books from Japan. This exhibition of treasures from Cambridge University Library's collection of rare Japanese books opened in January 2022, nearly two years after the spring 2020 opening that was originally planned. This was the first major public exhibition based on the collection, more than 100 years after most of the UL's historic Japanese books and manuscripts arrived in 1911 and 1912.

The samurai is an image of Japan that is familiar to many in the United Kingdom. This exhibition challenged visitors to broaden their understanding of Japanese history and culture—starting with the samurai but not ending there. Samurai history and legend included battles and weapons and armour, but it also featured religion, music, and flowers. Especially in the later centuries of the samurai, they were not necessarily fighting but rather identified as a social class with certain expectations for literacy, learning, and the practice of certain skills and arts.

Highlights of the exhibition included a late Heian period copy of the Lotus Sutra written in gold, an early movable type (kokatsuji) edition of the Tale of the Heike, medieval manuscripts, and a colourful miniature book of samurai cats from the late 19th century.

After introducing the exhibition's themes and highlights, I will discuss the process that went into preparing the exhibition as well as the challenges we faced. I will share links for digital resources related to the exhibition and the Japanese collections at Cambridge. Finally, I will talk about how we hope to build on the exhibition to continue working with the Cambridge Japanese collections in the future.