Between 1603 and 1868, Japan — then a conglomerate of 250 autonomous mini-states rather than the nation we know today — experienced a long peace, one that history has deemed Great. The Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock; Japan was at peace. Thirteen American colonies declared independence; Japan was at peace. Our then-34 states turned on one another in civil war, and Japan, all 250 “states,” remained at peace.
When you get to the end of “Samurai and the Culture of Japan’s Great Peace,” the temporary historical exhibit recently installed at the Peabody, you learn how the Great Peace ended. The rest of the world, beginning with the U.S., landed on Japan’s shores and pressured the islands to open to international trade, breaking their isolation.
Let in the world; give up your peace.
The exhibit leads visitors through this era, two-and-a-half centuries of a nation turned in on itself. At first blush, the objects on display are as foreign as you’d expect, and the effect as transporting as you’d hope. Music from the period plays through speakers. The relics on display — clothing and armor and accessories — are ornate, beautiful and clearly from a different age. Still, at first, there seem to be few surprises. Visitors are greeted by a collection of swords and kimonos that could have been taken from a Hollywood set.
But it’s worth looking a little closer. The exhibit winds towards the back of a large room and then around to the front, escorting visitors deeper into the past and into more surprising territory. Visitors learn, for instance, that samurai used to see faces of their drowned brethren in crab shells. In an enchanting print reproduction of “The Sea Bed at Daimatsu Bay,” fearsome, armored soldiers loom amongst crustaceans. The caption beneath a displayed shell asks if you can see the “angry samurai face” in its hollow casing, and you’ll think that maybe there is some semblance in the wrinkles.
Personally, I am struck by the ancient books on display, whose accompanying touchscreens allow you to flip through the translated stories. One in particular, about a family’s fall from grace after an abortion, haunts me later. Illustrated with sketches of shriveled infants and crazed women, it is meant to be scary, the exhibit tells me. Although centered on one particular mountain village, it was commission to condemn the widespread practice of infanticide.
I am also surprised to learn that the royal family lost all power during the Great Peace, and spent it hidden away in a disintegrating palace. A merciful baker took pity on one of the period’s first emperors, delivering food to him daily. It later became tradition for townspeople to deliver the emperors’ breakfasts. I am struck by the story, and by the decidedly unappetizing reproduction of the fallen ruler’s meal: a bowl of six rice cakes and bean paste. I wonder how many emperors were born and died during the Great Peace — how many emperors knew nothing except the rickety walls of their palace and meals delivered by pitying peasants.
But, for all the period’s geographic and temporal distance, some of its aspects seem a little more familiar. I am especially drawn to a flushed, alarmingly vacant-looking 17th century theater mask: “that of a shōjõ, a water sprite from Chinese mythology with an apelike body and a human face … That of an adolescent male, but with a gentle smile reflecting the creature’s friendly personality. Strands of hair seem to be plastered to the forehead, as if it had just emerged from the water. The red pigmentation suggests the shōjõ’s remarkable fondness for drink and perpetual state of mild intoxication.”
Gazing at the mask, I am reminded of late Saturday nights at a hollowed New Haven institution: the Delta Kappa Epsilon house.
In all, the exhibit’s success lies in its ability to portray a remarkably different time and place in a faithful yet accessible manner. Certain objects surprise, excite, sadden or stir reflection. Others are similar to what you’ve seen before. But visitors leave feeling as though they’ve experienced 250 years of cultural history in a single room.
At the end of the day, it’s a little unclear whether you’ll learn much from this exhibit that you won’t in the popular spring “Japan’s Great Peace” lecture. But, for those of us without space in our Bluebooks, “Samurai and the Culture of Japan’s Great Peace” is more than worth the free admission.