Samurai, Warfare and the State in Early Medieval Japan - Karl Friday

Samurai, Warfare and the State in Early Medieval Japan
Karl F. Friday
ISBN: 0415329639 (Amazon link)

The third and most serious - hence last read - of three Japanese histories [1] I picked up at the British Museum. I'll be first to admit that my interest in Japanese history grew out an interest in shiny sharp things, and I'm a bit embarrassed to admit that I picked up this title by a noted Japanese scholar partly to settle an argument... While talking about the film The Last Samurai someone asked me what the exact difference was between a Japanese cavalry sword and a foot-soldier's weapon. To be more precise, what differentiates a tachi from a katana? I wasn't precisely sure. I was taught to wear a katana edge upwards, being told that was appropriate while on foot, but that I would wear it edge downwards if mounted. I also knew that the furniture would be different due to the practicalities of mounting a sword onto armour, but when it came down to specifics, I wasn't even certain that tachi were longer! With that gaping lack of knowledge fresh in mind due to an exhibit [2], a quick flick through this title in the museum bookshop turned up a section which explained the evolution of the tachi, so I bought it.

There were other reasons for reading this title of course. In particular, I'm aware that my knowledge of Japanese history remains strongly coloured by fiction, and that the limited reading I've done has focused on fairly late periods, typically the Senguko Jidai or Tokugawa shogunates. Friday's history explicitly covers the earlier Heian, Kamakura, and Nambokychō periods, and so seemed a worthwhile read.

Friday's history is well written and accessible, but is fairly serious, and clearly aimed not aimed at the coffee-table market. He tackles his topic with a broad brush, starting with the basic idea of what constituted a war - in early medieval Japan, to be a bushi typically meant fighting in very small scale police actions as a state authorised private individual. The author then moves on to discuss the organisation of early Japanese war, again concentrating on the social and political aspects in a world where armies were made of up of amalgams of small warbands operating under strict centralised control.

The third chapter is the most prosaic - and the one that I noted in the bookshop - focusing on the arms and equipment of the period. I knew for example that the importance of the sword was very minor in early Japan, but didn't appreciate quite how unimportant it was until a much later period. Friday is typically writing about the Gempei wars period, in which the tradition of horse and bow was pre-eminent, but I was fascinated to discover quite how odd this was - their bows were feeble, the horses tiny and fairly wretched, and their armour heavy and awkward. Naturally, this has an effect on the type of war fought, and the final couple of chapters focus on how precisely wars were fought and with what rules. Again, the fictional picture of the honourable Samurai is at odds with the reality of ambuscade, treachery and brutal disregard for collateral damage to the civilian population.

A quick Google shows Friday, a Professor of Japanese History, to be well regarded in his field. This book explicitly sets out to dispel popularised myths about the period, and represents a summary of several decades of research by several scholars. References are numerous, and all his primary arguments are backed by primary sources. As these tend to include art based only on the juiciest, bloodiest bits, and exaggerated literary accounts, this scholarly argument from evidence doesn't at all preclude entertainment value. The truth that the early bushi, the fore-runners to the later Samurai ruling classes, were in fact little more than badly equipped mercenaries, operating in small personal warbands and happy to kill their enemies asleep in their beds is hardly romantic. As Friday puts it, "The view that has emerged over the past decade and a half is perhaps a bit less poignant and less heroic - less fun - than the popular image." However, that doesn't mean the period is less interesting as a result, in fact, quite the contrary. I'll admit I bounced off the introduction's account of the Wada rebellion a couple of times before I could keep the names straight, but this is an entertaining and informative history, clearly written and well argued. Bit of a niche title clearly, but recommended if you're getting into the period.


[1] If you're interested, here are the first and second.

[2] The exhibit was of an Edo period tachi belonging to the Tsuchiya family, and can be seen here. (There is no picture of the blade unfortunately, which was dismounted and displayed separately.)

Posted: Sun - April 25, 2004 at 01:25 AM