The Samurai - Stephen Turnbull

The Samurai
A Military History
Stephen Turnbull
Routledge Curzon Publishers
ISBN: 1873410387 (Amazon link)

The prolific Stephen Turnbull has written several fine military histories of Japan, and over the last five years I've read several of them. Okay, so it was the pretty pictures that got my attention at first, but somewhere along the way I picked up a genuine interest in medieval Japanese history. Turnbull must be selling quite well because over time his publishers seem have moved him to much nicer coffee-table sized hardback formats. This seems appropriate as the author maintains an historical Japanese image archive, the contents of which greatly enhance his recent books like Samurai: The World of the Warrior. By contrast, The Samurai is a less lavish production, being a reprint of a 1977 title. Apparently this was once regarded as a standard text for Japanese history. As you might then expect, it's perhaps a little less accessible for the casual reader than his later titles, and certainly under-illustrated. There are a dozen black and white plates in the middle, but as the text is riddled with references to painted scrolls it's a pity this new edition didn't opt for the more lavish treatment of his later books. Still, the content is absolutely excellent, if now strangely familiar in place.

Okay, so I've gained a background in Japanese history now, so it's not surprising that some sections seem familiar, but this title clearly served Turnbull as his mother-lode for other works. Certainly it's not unexpected to see some this material revised only slightly in later summary work, but it's also interesting how many small chapters or asides have later developed into full titles. For example, he has a few lines comment about the historical difficulty in addressing the topic of ninjas and alleged assassinations, a difficulty he presumably overcame when he later wrote the fascinating Ninja. (Quite possibly the winner of the "Historical topic most abused by the entertainment industry." award.) On that note, the chapter with most material new to me dealt with medieval Japan's only overseas war, the invasion of Korea in the late C16th. Absolutely fascinating how different history might have been if Admiral Yi hadn't been so lucky when it came to surviving musket fire... so onto my reading list goes his 2002 title Samurai Invasion: Japan's Korean War 1592-1598.

The Samurai: A Military History contains exactly what you would expect. It's a condensed history of Japan, from the creation myths to the Meiji Restoration. This is a military history only in that for the majority of Japanese history government and power went hand in hand with military might. The focus is primarily on samurai, but of course the classical samurai class was a relatively late invention. Equal coverage is given to the early bushi, the warrior monks, the Imperial Court, the role of religions (Buddhism and later Christiantity) and the impact of the Portuguese on society. The bulk of the discussion covers, naturally, the colourful periods of the Gempei War, the Sengoku-jidai period and the re-unification and emergence of the Tokugawa Shogunate. What makes Japanese history so interesting to me is that where Western military history often deals with vast impersonal armies (enlivened primarily by their leaders), discussion of logistics and fairly dry, to non-military minds, discussion of strategies, Japanese wars, even in the large scale, are still absolutely dominated by stories of individual daring. Admittedly some of those around the Gempei War in particular are liable to be more legend than fact, but when they're as entertaining as Benkei and Yoshitsune, who cares? Turnbull manages to strike a nice balance here, he provides a solid base of historical analysis, laying out the various political, social and economic forces behind events, while still managing to get in every juicy incident he can. His writing isn't half bad either, tending to be crisply paced and strong on explanation without breaking the central narrative. He's also not averse to quoting the Heiki Monogatari, or similarly dramatic sources, at every opportunity, which is very enjoyable.

About the only criticism I have is that this book just wasn't long enough. In particular the later chapters whoosh by; there's a lot of detail on the battle of Sekigahara itself, but from 1600 onwards Turnbull is in fast-forward mode, providing a very terse summary of events. I almost have to wonder if there was an issue fitting to the original page-count? However, I enjoyed his closing remarks, where he contrasts the popular picture of the Samurai with the reality. He's quick to point out that the Hagakure and similar works on Bushido tend to originate from a very late period, and one in which Samurai were practically redundant after a century of peace. I was reminded of the tone of Karl Friday's Samurai, Warfare and the State in Early Medieval Japan as Turnbull runs down the list of 'Samurai values' and has some difficulty reconciling them with the history he's been telling.

Recommended as an excellent introduction to Japanese history, but probably not as good a choice for a casual reader as one of his later, and more lavishly illustrated, titles.

Posted: Thu - June 10, 2004 at 11:36 PM