On Saturday at the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History, visitors watched as experts in traditional Japanese sword drawing and modern Japanese martial arts performed.
These performances signaled the opening of Yale’s temporary exhibit “Samurai and the Culture of Japan’s Great Peace.” This is the first temporary exhibit fully curated by Yale since “Echoes of Egypt” debuted in spring 2013. The exhibit, composed entirely of Yale materials, features more than 150 artifacts from four Yale collections — the Peabody, the Yale University Art Gallery, the Yale Collection of Musical Instruments and the Sterling Memorial Library. Although samurai are often remembered as being experienced warriors, most people forget that Tokugawa Japan experienced a 250-year period of peace due to tight control by the shogun, the ruler of Japan, said Richard Kissel, director of public programs at the Peabody.
“Most real-life samurai during the Tokugawa period lived boring lives, with days filled with guard duty and bookkeeping,” said professor of theater studies and East Asian languages and literature Will Fleming in an email. “But in popular novels, songs and illustrations, they were martial heroes who were shown as willing to lay down their lives in the service of higher ideals. We try to highlight this telling gap between the real-life samurai and the imagined samurai.”
The impetus for the exhibit came from a Carpenter Foundation grant which gave the Peabody the ability to restore several samurai swords. A master swordsman from Japan helped restore the swords, Kissel said.
The armor and swords of the samurai were often symbols of status and were not used for actual combat fighting, Kissel said. One unique Peabody piece, which Kissel said is “like no object ever seen before,” features a helmet with a golden sea urchin on the top. According to Kissel, only a leading member of the Japanese army like a commander would wear this piece.
“In the 18th century, a samurai owed his status as a warrior to the fact that his great-great-great-great-great grandfather had been very good at killing people,” Fabian Drixler, professor of history and the exhibit’s head curator, said. “If he was lucky he was allowed to test his sword on the corpse of a criminal at some point in his life, but that was the closest he got to experiencing what it is like to kill somebody.”
But Drixler added that despite the strong association of the samurai with the sword, by the mid-16th century most battles were decided by firearms, archers or pikemen. At the time, Japan probably had more guns than all European states combined.
Fleming said the curators sought to highlight the “diverse groups who supported [the samurai] as a class and existed around them.”
Although Japan was isolated for many years from foreign interaction, the country interacted with the Ainu, the indigenous population of northern Japan. Drixler said he expects people will draw parallels between the Ainu and Native Americans.
“What we have been trying to do is to show the Ainu as agents, as people who make their own decisions and take charge of their own lives, for example, by creatively integrating Japanese artifacts into their world — while at the same time acknowledging that the Ainu suffered exploitation and physical abuse from their much more populous neighbors,” he said.
The exhibit also displays scenes related to Japanese filial piety, including images of a woman breastfeeding her sickly elderly mother and a son putting on a show of youth to entertain and console his parents.
Head of Education and Outreach at the museum David Heiser said the Peabody continues to increase its efforts to link history and art with contemporary culture. Thus, the exhibit includes a variety of event programming that will extend throughout the year, including various lecture and film series as well as cultural performances of contemporary Japanese arts.
The exhibit will be on view through Jan. 3, 2016.
Correction, April 1:
A previous version of this article incorrectly spelled the name of History professor Fabian Drixler.