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The best books on Samurai

recommended by Michael Wert

Samurai: A Concise History by Michael Wert

Samurai: A Concise History
by Michael Wert

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The samurai, Japan's warrior caste, have been embraced by popular culture and made their way into films, comic books and video games. But who were they really? Michael Wert, professor of East Asian History at Marquette University and author of Samurai: A Concise History, recommends the best books to learn more about samurai, literally 'one who serves.'

Interview by Sophie Roell

Samurai: A Concise History by Michael Wert

Samurai: A Concise History
by Michael Wert

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You’ve just written this very nice, brief history of the samurai, it’s just over a hundred pages long. In the book’s introduction you talk about “a global fantasy” about the samurai. Do you want to start by telling us who they really were?

‘Samurai’ is the popular term in the West to refer to warriors in general. In Japan they wouldn’t necessarily use the word samurai and historians wouldn’t use the word ‘samurai’ because it has a very specific meaning. But, broadly conceived, they’re warriors who are legitimately recognized as warriors by whoever is in power at a particular time, whether that’s the court centered in Kyoto or a warrior regime in the form of a shogunate.

In the book, you’re looking at the samurai over nearly a thousand years. We don’t have as many sources for the medieval period, but then getting into the pre-modern period we have a lot more. Also, at some point, the samurai become a caste and being a samurai becomes something very rigid—whereas early on, it’s not. So you’re also trying to chart their evolution over time?

Yes, from their origins until their fall. One of the big debates used to be, ‘When can we begin talking about the samurai?’ Some authors argued that as soon as you have warriors and an army, you have the origins of the samurai. Others would argue, ‘a soldier doesn’t necessarily make a samurai.’

It’s really in around the 9th century that you have warriors who are working for the nobility and the emperor in Kyoto. That’s when you have a very specific group of people known as those who serve the court and that’s the definition of samurai.

That’s what it means in Japanese, isn’t it?

Yes, samurai is ‘one who serves.’ So in its original meaning, it could actually have referred to people who were not warriors; it could refer to non-warrior servants—although even in pre-modern Japan, it’s mostly associated with warriors. It’s in maybe the 9th or 10th century that we have noble families who are themselves warriors—and that’s where we get the beginnings of warriors as politically influential people—and when most people would start talking about the samurai as a group: a very small and not very cohesive group, but a group nonetheless.

And when do they become completely dominant?

That happens much later in history. I’d say once we get into the late 13th and early 14th century, then the warrior regime really starts to dominate; they become the hegemonic power at that point. They still have to negotiate power with the court and nobility in Kyoto and the emperor, but it’s clear that they’re the dominant partner in that partnership.

Is it unique to Japan, this setup where you have the emperor and the nobility and then, separately, a warrior class?

It’s often the claim that in Chinese and Korean history you do have soldiers and warrior specialists. In fact, a lot of samurai thought and ethos and philosophy come from the Chinese military classics: I tell my students, ‘If you want to understand samurai thought, you should read the seven military classics of China.’ But I would say that the warriors—as their own separate ruling group, as their own caste, something that you’re born into—are unique to Japan in Asian history.

“Samurai is ‘one who serves.’ So in its original meaning it could actually have referred to people who were not warriors”

Before we get to the books you’ve chosen, just one more question in terms of understanding the whole system: how did the samurai relate to the Shōgun?

The Shōgun or the shogunate was a government of warriors, mostly for warriors. It was there to adjudicate any problems among warriors or between warriors and non-warrior nobility in Kyoto. The shogunate represents the power of warriors at any given moment: in the beginning it’s very, very weak, it’s certainly a junior partner to the court and nobility in Kyoto. And then, later in history, the shogunate becomes the de facto national power.

It’s quite unique, historically, this emperor with no power.

Yes, the weak emperor model dates from maybe the 17th century or so.

And it persists to this day, I guess.

Yes, essentially, though the emperor had a good run from the late 19th century to 1945, as a figurehead at least.

In your book, Samurai: A Concise History, you’re often putting right misconceptions about them. Could you just outline what the most common misconceptions about samurai are, where the image is different from the reality as historians understand it?

When I give talks related to my book, I have a top three myths about the samurai. The biggest one is that there was some kind of well-defined code of the samurai, this idea of ‘bushidō’ that a lot of movies are based on. There’s a wonderful book about the creation of modern bushidō by Oleg Benesch—Inventing the Way of the Samurai—that talks about this, but that’s the biggest myth, that there was a code of chivalry equivalent to that of the knights in Europe. That idea actually dates from the very late 19th and early 20th century. That’s not to say there weren’t shared ideas or values among warriors in the ideal, but there was no consensus; there was nothing codified and it never operated in reality.

“Up to the 19th century, Edo was larger than London and Paris.”

The other myth that I’m pushing back against is this image of samurai as always in armour, riding around on horses fighting each other. They’re doing all kinds of jobs and especially from the 17th through the 19th centuries, it’s quite mundane office work. By that point, they’re sword-wearing bureaucrats. Going to war is not the largest part of what they do, it’s probably the least of what they do.

The third reality I like to emphasize is the centrality of warrior women. Not as in women going out and conducting warfare, but wives of warriors and how important they were to the management of a warrior family and warrior property. Especially in early Japanese history, they are the portfolio managers, if you will.

Some of them don’t even go and live with their husbands, do they?

Marriage is not at all what we think of as marriage, and earlier in Japanese history, warrior women had a lot more independence than they did later.

One nice thing about your book is that it gives you an inkling of what’s going on in Japanese history generally. For example, at one point you talk about the biggest battle to take place in early modern history and how Edo was the biggest city in the world. There are all these hints of what Japan was like over this period, which I had no idea about.

A lot of the way I wrote this book is how I teach Japanese history to students at college. Hideyoshi’s invasion of Korea, the Imjin war, was the largest international war before the 20th century and the armies were larger than any European army. Up to the 19th century, Edo was larger than London and Paris. Even the most uninformed business students, even readers who know nothing about history, will know what Paris and London are and that they are big important cities, so it gives a good baseline.

Also, I never knew where the word ‘Kamikaze’ came from.

Yes, that was the wind that saved Japan from invasion by the Mongols.

Let’s go through these excellent books about the samurai you’ve recommended. Generally you’ve chosen books that are quite academic, they’re for someone who really wants to go into the history of this period, is that right?

Some of the books I put on the list are academic and a couple are primary sources that have been translated into English and are quite readable by regular folks. They’re the kind of books I would assign to freshmen in a survey course and they’re entertaining. The academic books are books that can be easily read by non-academics; they have a lot of information and are ones I know non-academics have read and enjoyed. It was actually tricky trying to come up with five books on the samurai, because there aren’t really that many books that are just about the samurai. A lot of samurai books are glossy, buy-for-your-kids type books—they’re not books I would ever recommend to anyone. But these books I’ve chosen really do have the warriors at the centre.

Let’s go through them in the order you listed them in your email. First up, Luke Roberts, Performing the Great Peace.

This is a book that came out in 2012 and in fact we just had a mini conference at Yale and the whole conference was based off of this book. We had some historians of Japan but then there were also scholars who were doing everything from Ptolemaic Egypt and the Holy Roman Empire to modern Chinese politics. We were looking at the phenomenon of having a surface truth in the political structure and then the way things might actually function behind that: is that something unique to Tokugawa Japan and the warrior regime, or is this something that we see in general, in other places and at other times? The whole purpose of the conference was to ask that question.

So this book, Performing the Great Peace, was important. It’s also really entertaining. It shows us how the warrior regime is not so strict, it’s not so rigid, it’s not so fearful and that there’s a lot of negotiating among smaller warrior domains and the national warrior regime. The book has a lot of very interesting and humorous examples of how this plays out, which is why it’s assigned in a lot of courses.

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People often ask me, ‘What is my definition of a good book?’ I usually have two ways I define it. One is a book that changes the way I think about something in a large, conceptual way. Those tend to be books of philosophy or of critical theory that I like to read. They change how I think about the concept of ideology or politics or something like that. Another good book for me is one where, once I’ve read it, I can never go back to before having read that book. There’s no turning back. The way I lecture about something, the content of my lecture changes and I can’t unread what I’ve read. Luke Roberts’s book fits into that latter category. There are so many tidbits and ways of thinking about Japan that he articulates that are useful for teaching and thinking about Japan at that time period.

What is the time period the book is covering?

It’s the Tokugawa period, which is the last warrior regime in Japan and lasts from the 17th through the 19th centuries. It’s about how the warrior regime is able to maintain relative peace in Japan, despite the fact that there’s some 260 relatively autonomous mini-domains throughout the country.

Let’s move on to the next of the books on your list, which is also about the samurai during this time period. It’s by Eiki Ikegami and it’s called The Taming of the Samurai: Honorific Individualism and the Making of Modern Japan.

This is an older book. I don’t necessarily agree with everything in it, but it’s a book that tries to do a lot of very broad things that are very bold and ambitious in a good way. Again, she’s looking at the Tokugawa period from the 17th through the 19th centuries and asking, how does the warrior regime function? What does it mean to be a warrior? And how do we go from having warriors who were very violent in warfare during the Warring States period of the 16th century into the not-so-violent types of this later period? How do we tame them, essentially? How do we do that by changing the ethos and the notions of what it means to be a samurai? She does this by looking at notions of honour. Essentially, what it means to be a samurai is that, sure, you learn how to use weapons and that kind of thing, but really a true warrior is someone who has self-restraint and holds himself back, who doesn’t take an insult and just fly off the handle and get into a fight. That’s one of the big things that she’s looking at.

The title suggests she’s looking at the ramifications of this through into the 20th century and Japanese society today, is that right?

That is part of the book, but I’m not sure it’s the strongest part. Usually, when people read it, it’s more for the samurai ethos and the taming part, rather than the ‘this is how we get to the 20th century.’

Moving on we’re now at book no. 3 of your selection of books on the samurai. This is Tour of Duty by Constantine Vaporis, and it’s about military service.

This is about the same time period, the 17th through the 19th centuries. Like the first book by Luke Roberts, this book has a lot of wonderful detail. The ‘tour of duty’ in the title refers to one of the defining characteristics of this time period, which is that all these mini-lords (called ‘daimyō’ in Japanese) have to spend every other year living in a compound in the capital city of Edo. The other years, they live in their home domain. Their wives and the heirs to their domain live permanently in the city of Edo, which is why Edo becomes so huge. Daimyō have to maintain compounds with lots of servants and that costs money.

But the key feature is that the daimyō have to travel back and forth every other year, with hundreds—and in some cases thousands—of warriors and servants. What was that like? What did that mean for the spread of food culture, fashion trends, dialects, popular culture? How did it actually function in terms of the political structure?

“I tell my students, ‘If you want to understand samurai thought, you should read the seven military classics of China.”

Specialists, students—in fact anyone who has a passing knowledge of Tokugawa Japan—knows about the tour of duty, this alternate attendance system, but no one had really gotten into the details of how it actually functioned. This is a book that gets into those details and again, for me, it’s a book where I can never go back. When I teach students, I take a lot of wonderful anecdotes from the book. For example, I say to them, ‘Imagine you’re the heir to a lord’s domain. You grew up in London or Manhattan, but the domain you’re going to take over some day is out in the boondocks. How excited would you be going to live out there in the middle of nowhere?’ That’s what happens in Tokugawa Japan. There are teenagers who refuse to go out with their fathers to visit the old homeland. Advisors are berating them saying, ‘If you don’t go out and visit the land that you’re one day going to be the lord of, it doesn’t look good.’ In the book, there are all kinds of tidbits like that that are just wonderful.

All three of the books we’ve discussed so far are about the same period. Is there a reason for that?

When most people think of the samurai, it’s the Tokugawa period, also called the Edo period, or just early modern Japan. A lot of the sources are from this period, so we can get into the details. That’s not to say that in the medieval period or premodern Japan there weren’t sources. There were, but they tend not to give us a lot of insight into rank-and-file warriors. They tend to be top-heavy, a lot of institutional or political history. Most of the depictions of samurai that we see in popular culture are not from that earlier period, they’re from the Warring States period through the Tokugawa period. That’s also the field that I’m a specialist in. I chose books that were meaningful for me and I think would also be meaningful for people interested in learning more about the samurai in general.

Lastly, we’ve got two primary sources. The first one is Musui’s Story: The Autobiography of a Tokugawa Samurai. Tell me about it.

This is a wonderful autobiography from the 19th century of a really low-ranking, dirty warrior. He’s essentially recording his ne’er-do-well ways for his son—getting into fights, partying, being arrested. Sometimes he’s a sword seller—non-warriors sometimes liked to imitate the image of the samurai so he would appraise swords for commoners and buy and sell for them—sometimes he’s scamming people out of money by being a fortune teller.

This book is assigned in a lot of Japanese history classes so students can understand that warriors were not these noble men we see on TV or in popular culture. Some of the lowest ones had a real rough time of it and were scoundrels, and this book is just a perfect example of that. It’s short and easy to read and regular folks will love reading it as well. It really destroys the noble image of the samurai in wonderful ways.

That’s a theme in your book, the economic difficulties faced by samurai. A lot of them don’t have that much money.

Yes, which is why I liked it at the beginning when you said that the samurai became their own caste. A lot of people would say they became their own class, but they’re not a class in the economic sense. Some of the lords or daimyō might be wealthy, but a lot of samurai were poor and because they’re born into their career, they have a hard time earning money. Sometimes they do it on the sly, and their boss looks the other way. Sometimes they get permission to do something on the side for money and sometimes they get into real gangsta-type stuff, as Musui does.

Can samurai own land?

They don’t really own the land they have. It depends on what rank of samurai you are, but if you’re a lowly guy like Musui, you don’t have any connection to land whatsoever. Once we get to mid- and higher-ranking samurai you might have land of which the produce is assigned to you as part of your salary, in some sense. But you would never be able to go out and rule that land directly. The land is not yours as such; you don’t live on it and you have little or no interaction with the village that might be assigned to your family’s income.

So who owns the land?

In a domain, the daimyō owns all the land. All the samurai live in one capital city in each domain, to keep an eye on them. It’s also to keep them out of the countryside where they could get up to no good. The Warring States period was all about local warriors banding together and overthrowing a lord. So the way you avoid that is to put all the warriors in one town and then they can’t plot and plan out in the countryside.

Peasants love this as well, because there are no warriors living next to them all the time constantly monitoring them. A warrior might be sent out once in a while to check on them and to assess their produce for tax purposes.

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So most of the land is owned by the local daimyō but then a quarter of the total land in Japan is owned by the Tokugawa shogunate. The Tokugawa clan runs the regime and they have lands scattered all around Japan. So in a particular domain, a daimyo might own most of the land, but there might be a little chunk that is assigned to the Tokugawa clan’s own warriors or something like that.

Isn’t a daimyō also a samurai?

Yes, he’s a warrior, but he’s at the top. Those are few in number. Most of the warriors are not daimyō.

I can see why Musui might have resorted to fortune telling and other scams! Let’s move to the last of your books, which is also written by a samurai. Lust, Commerce, and Corruption is the title of the annotated version. It’s An Account of What I Have Seen and Heard by an Edo samurai using a pseudonym.

This is a book that was very, very famous in Japanese for a long time. Everyone and their brother cited it as an example of warriors observing society around them, the changes that were happening, and bemoaning those changes. But for the longest time, if you didn’t read Japanese, you couldn’t use it. Now, finally, a group of scholars has translated it and it came out a few years ago. Again, it’s a book that I assign to students because it’s easily readable and really gives us a sense of what’s going on in Edo society, the frustrations that warriors are feeling that things are changing and not in their favour.

In the book, he’s bemoaning the commodification of everything, how warriors themselves are getting involved in commerce and losing their way as real samurai. More generally, he describes how everything in society is in decline.

Do the annotations help in terms of explaining what’s going on?

Absolutely. It’s a book that someone who has never taken a Japanese history course could pick up and read and it would be fine.

Lastly, if someone wanted to watch a film or read a novel about the samurai that has some level of historical accuracy, are there any that you could recommend?

There’s an old movie from the 1960s called Harakiri. It really describes well both the economic and material problems that samurai faced and also gives a good depiction of what a lord’s compound would look like in Edo. It’s an urban setting which is fairly accurate.

It also complicates notions of the noble samurai and the idea that they’re ready to commit suicide at any moment, death before dishonour. The ending of the movie is very symbolic. [SPOILER ALERT] The family has a suit of armour that’s always put in a place of honour because it was their ancestor’s. When things break apart politically, that suit of armour crumbles, as the place burns down, to show that this is all just symbolic and, in reality, it’s not so noble and honourable and stable as people think. So that would be a good movie.

Any novels? I read Shōgun as a teenager, are there any others?

I’m not a big fan of historical fiction in general and the Japanese field doesn’t really do a lot of it. I can’t even think of a warrior novel other than Shōgun: the reality is just so much more interesting.

How did you get into the field?

I’m a walking cliché. I was born in the 1970s, and I’m a child of the 80s. When I was in high school I started doing karate and that got me interested in Japanese culture. In college I was an East Asian Studies major at George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs. When I graduated I went over to Japan on the JET program, and then went into grad school. I don’t really think of myself as an expert on the samurai as such. People who know me from before this book wouldn’t think of me as the samurai guy necessarily, and I’m fine with that. But I do early modern and modern Japanese history and samurai are a big part of those periods.

Before speaking, I was worried I needed to know more about the popular culture. I’ve watched Ran, directed by Akira Kurosawa, but I’ve never even seen The Last Samurai. I was wondering whether I needed to spend the morning watching it . . .

Kurosawa films are pretty accurate about depicting the samurai in different time periods. I have friends in the field who are like the history police. You know the types, ‘Oh this little thing is not accurate, so the movie is trash.’ I’m not really one of those types of people. I enjoyed the Last Samurai. Of course the depictions are inaccurate, but the basic idea is based on a historical event and samurai were upset that their caste was being destroyed. So in terms of the broad strokes, it was fine.

Interview by Sophie Roell

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Michael Wert

Michael Wert is Associate Professor of East Asian History at Marquette University, specializing in early modern and modern Japan.

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Michael Wert

Michael Wert is Associate Professor of East Asian History at Marquette University, specializing in early modern and modern Japan.