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Samurai: A History

Samurai: A History

5.0 1
by John Man

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The inspiration for the Jedi knights of Star Wars and the films of Akira Kurosawa, the legendary Japanese samurai have captured modern imaginations. Yet with these elite warriors who were bound by a code of honor called Bushido—the Way of the Warrior—the reality behind the myth proves more fascinating than any fiction. In Samurai,


The inspiration for the Jedi knights of Star Wars and the films of Akira Kurosawa, the legendary Japanese samurai have captured modern imaginations. Yet with these elite warriors who were bound by a code of honor called Bushido—the Way of the Warrior—the reality behind the myth proves more fascinating than any fiction. In Samurai, celebrated author John Man provides a unique and captivating look at their true history, told through the life of one man: Saigo Takamori, known to many as "the last samurai." In 1877 Takamori led a rebel army of samurai in a heroic "last stand" against the Imperial Japanese Army, who sought to end the "way of the sword" in favor of firearms and modern warfare. Man's thrilling narrative brings to life the hidden world of the samurai as never before.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
British historian Man (Ninja) adds to his solid series of general-audience books on Far East military subjects with this analysis of Japan’s military nobility. Taking an unusual perspective, he focuses on Saigo Takamori, whose iconic status as a 19th-century embodiment of the samurai ideal gave him “semidivinity... even before his death.” Man perceptively describes “samurai” as a sense of being: a way of the warrior built around the cult of the sword; seppuku, ritual suicide, as the ultimate proof of loyalty; and bushido, “freedom that is bound to service,” as the highest ideal. Renewing their identity to fit new circumstances, the samurai became “the very essence of Japanese society.” Saigo’s lord, Shuzami Nariakara, saw him as honest and trustworthy, fearing neither authority nor evil, and “the kind of man who cannot be manipulated.” Saigo became a key figure in the Meiji Restoration, but his conviction that “the duty of government is to serve the people” led him to reject the new Japan’s “politicians, bureaucrats, and capitalists.” Seeking the life of a “Confucian gentleman-scholar,” he resigned his offices. Drawn unwillingly into leading a doomed rebellion, he committed seppuku; in death he became “a national treasure” whose life and death embodied “the self-destructive courage, the nobility of failure, that was so much a part of the Japanese character.” (Feb.)
The Daily Express
“With a relaxed and honest prose style [Man] slashes through the thicket of 19th-century Japanese politics with the keenness of a samurai’s tempered steel blade.”
“Exciting, surprising, and moving. ... A well-written saga”
Shelf Awareness
“An engaging look at the final days of a military elite.”
Kirkus Reviews
Man, a crack biographer of Asian historical figures (Ninja: 1,000 Years of the Shadow Warriors, 2012, etc.), tenders a survey of the samurai, the equivalent of Japan's feudal knights. This is a well-written piece of history with an easy storyteller's rhythm and plenty of intrigue. Readers will quickly realize that the author, who previously worked for Reuters and Time-Life Books, is well-versed in Far Eastern history, but he also accommodates new discoveries and insights. To understand the samurai, it is critical to understand the nature of the Japanese political landscape, "a patchwork of sixty provinces and six hundred estates, all scrapping with one another." The lords found protection in landowning warriors—samurai—who were gifted land by the lord and gathered wartime booty. There also arose a strict code of conduct within the samurais' elite community. They were generous, stoic, intelligent, and masters at swordplay and spiritual matters; they also realized that there was often no way out but death, which tended to make them rather fearless. But times change, and Mann intricately describes the shift in the orientation of the Japanese government after the post-1600 revolution: the rise of the shogun and the banning of warfare. In these peaceful years, the samurai could have disappeared, but they survived. "The key to their survival," writes the author, "was the way they renewed their sense of identity, not by abandoning the past but by cherry-picking aspects of it to suit new circumstances." The samurai became enforcers of the peace; they could kill at the drop of an insult, an act of adultery or out of revenge. But they were also schooled in the art of speaking and "of attitude, of clothing, of intellectual vigor"—a ready-made diplomatic corps. Smooth, sophisticated history writing.
Library Journal
Saigo Takamori (1828–77) was one of Japan's most colorful and complicated figures, famed in history, fiction, and legend as "the last samurai" for his roles in the Meiji Restoration and his leadership of the 1877 Satsuma Rebellion. Man (Ninja: 1000 Years of the Shadow Warrior; A New History) peppers his biography of Saigo with additional chapters on the samurai as a whole (with the expected discussion of bushido—the samurai honor code—and seppuku, a form of its ritual suicide) and on the development of the samurai's appeal in popular culture. As in his previous work, above, Man provides engaging accounts of Japanese culture, but again he is limited by a reliance on English-language resources. Some glaring mistakes, e.g., a photo of Tatsuya Nakadai in the film Harakiri is miscaptioned as Toshiro Mifune in Seven Samurai, undermine the book's credibility as a whole. VERDICT Despite errors, this is an entertaining read, though its appeal lies in its breezy style and its discussions of the modern-day popularity of samurai rather than in historical rigor. For that precision, see Mark Ravina's The Last Samurai, which remains the standard for an English-language biography of Saigo.—Kathleen McCallister, Univ. of South Carolina, Columbia, Libs.

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HarperCollins Publishers
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5.20(w) x 7.90(h) x 1.20(d)

Meet the Author

John Man is the author of Attila, Genghis Khan, The Great Wall, Gobi: Tracking the Desert, Ninja, Samurai, and other works. Educated at Oxford and the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies, he was awarded Mongolia’s Friendship Medal in 2007.

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Samurai: A History 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
Marty0 More than 1 year ago
Great book.