Royal Armouries goes Japanese

Lord Tokugawa Ieyasu is probably not a name you remember from school history lessons; in fact, you may well never have encountered it before. It hardly rolls off the (Western) tongue, and just getting the spelling right requires more effort than the average student is likely to expend in a day. But hop on the next flight to Japan, or, alternatively, get googling old Ieyasu, and you’ll soon realise that you’ve been missing out on a serious legend. Responsible for unifying hundreds of rival factions into what we now know as Japan, as well as bringing peace and prosperity under his lengthy rule, Tokugawa is still today revered as a God. Move over Bismarck, make way Garibaldi; Lord Tokugawa is the unifier of the moment.

For all readers now tearing their hair out, cursing the Eurocentric bias of their schooling, and begging for it to be redressed, fear not; the path to enlightenment is short, and costs a mere £5.80 return with a Young Person’s Railcard. That’s right, the Royal Armouries Museum in Leeds is currently the home of ‘Shogun: The Life of Lord Tokugawa Ieyasu’, an exhibition dedicated to (surprisingly enough) documenting Lord Tokugawa’s ascension to power and glory through a series of spectacular battles and deft political manoeuvres.

Admittedly, a day trip to a museum with the words ‘Royal Armouries’ in its title is perhaps simply asking for too much. At least these were my thoughts as D-day (that’s ‘D’ for deadline) loomed ever nearer, and the inevitability of the visit became impossible to ignore. Childhood memories of aching feet while being dragged around war museums, each featuring the same, endless, green-tinged replicas of rifles and gas masks, had made me wary of all things bellicose, as well as of all things old for that matter.

Happily, a lot has changed since my oh-so-distant childhood days, and theRoyal Armouries Museum is actually leading the way. Hell, it’s won a ‘Visitor Attraction of the Year’ award, quite the achievement by any standards, and in particular considering it’s based in Leeds. The museum is a great big modern building on the River Aire, with five separate galleries and more interactive activities than you could shake a child at. It’s an easy walk from the city centre, free entry, and boasts a well-stocked shop where you can pick up anything from a full set of samurai swords, great for impressing guests a la ‘Kill Bill’, to a full set of Warhammer models, great for, well, not a lot really .

But I digress. The purpose of my visit was to check out what is being hailed as ‘one of the most important displays of Japanese heritage and culture ever to be seen within the United Kingdom’. If that hasn’t impressed you, bear in mind that the eighty ‘breathtaking’ objects on display are leaving their sacred shrine for the first time, and are of such religious importance that they were accompanied by two priests on the journey over from Japan, to ensure their safekeeping. Keep bearing it in mind as you hand over the £4.50 for your entry ticket; surely a couple of drinks can be forsaken for such a unique learning experience.

Because, yes, ‘Shogun’ is actually a highly impressive, and unquestionably unique exhibition. You may think you’ve seen enough objects in glass cases to last you a lifetime, but the ones on display in Leeds at the moment will beat them all hands down. The armour, costumes, screens, weapons, scrolls, books and banners that make up the exhibition are of genuine interest, and are complemented by engaging and informative panels. I can now tell you that Tokugawa Ieyasu came to power in the early 17th century, largely due to his leadership of the massive battle of Seki-ga-Hara, which left over 36,000 dead in one day (alright, I had to check the website for the number). At the exhibition you can see the actual battle plan diagrams used, as well as the massive golden fan that was Tokugawa’s battle standard. Tokugawa was subsequently given the title of Shogun, which granted him full control of the army, and upon his death was made into a deity.

The highlights are undoubtedly the amazing full-sets of armour on display, so much more colourful and enjoyable than the Western stuff, in particular the helmets that cover the full face and come with bushy moustaches stuck on, presumably to intimidate the enemy. Also enticing are the computerised touch-screen reproductions of the original books held within the cases, so that you can actually browse through the pages (they even turn from right to left).

There’s also a special section for the less energetic of the visitors; a zen area with benches for relaxation and meditation; a little tacky in relation to the rest of the exhibition, but decidedly useful for putting up the aforementioned tired feet and shutting out restless children.

Move over Bismarck, make way Garibaldi; Lord Tokugawa is the unifier of the moment.

If you’re still not convinced, time your trip well and you may catch one of the many extra cultural and artistic activities organised by the Museum to make your experience all the more enriching. These include origami, temari, and kumihimo demonstrations (that’s paper-folding, thread balls and braiding to us), and there’s also flower-arranging, painting, and calligraphy. For those seeking more visceral entertainment, there are martial arts demonstrations, as well as the rather ominous-sounding horse archery. And if you find that you just can’t get enough of that Samurai sensation, you can go all out and sign up for my personal favourite, the Shogun Sleepover.

The exhibition’s final merit rests in its size, which is mercifully small. A well-administered shot of quality over quantity that allows you to walk out feeling simultaneously erudite and itching for more.
To exit the exhibition you must first pass through the inevitable gift shop, this one exclusively dedicated to Shogun-related material. Which doesn’t quite explain the plastic monkey keyrings, but we’ll let that one pass.

‘Shogun: the Life of Lord Tokugawa Ieyasu’ is on at the Royal Armouries Exhibition in Leeds until the 30th August 2005. Check out www.shogun.org.uk

One comment

  1. This article must be spread over the world and read out loud twice – nay, thrice a day.

    (…it’s good!)

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