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BOOK REVIEW: The Samurai: A New History of the Warrior Elite

The Samurai: A New History of the Warrior Elite by Jonathon Clements is one of the non-fiction books held in the collection of the Footscray Mechanics Library ( FMI).

It is a good introduction to Japanese history generally, as it tells the story of Japan’s warriors. The book takes one through centuries of history as it applies to the Samurai.

This class of warrior can be divided in historical terms into pre and post 1600 AD. The earliest written records of Japan date from 3rd to 6th century AD in Chinese annuals. By the 8th century AD there are Japanese written records. For the following 700 years the warriors are servants of the court based in Kyoto intermittently taking control of the entity that is Japan, though always under the aegis of the Emporer. Periods of peace under various warrior families are interspersed with civil discord during this time. The period in the 13th and 15th centuries is one of continual civil warfare on the islands of Japan until a series of successful warlords unify Japan in the late 1500s. The country is then unified under one family who rules under the purported authority of the Emperor. This family, the Tokugawa, establishes control and rules for over 250 years. The early periods have warriors who are both elite Samurai and commoner soldiers. Class in terms of those involved in conflict is flexible. After the Tokugawa unification class is fixed and this period gives rise to the theories and philosophies that formulate the ideal of Samurai. This ideal is what most westerners see as Samurai ie a sword toting armoured guy who lives by a code and is keen to be first into battle for his honours sake. This image continued into the 1940s.

The Tokugawa were the effectual rulers of Japan for a long time during which many things changed; the international body politic as well as the Japanese economy. The Samurai changed also: devolving from warriors to in bureaucrats. Early days of the 1600s saw the warrior class being controlled by the Tokugawa family to avoid civil strife. The country, unified, operates as a quasi-federation. The Tokugawa control, thru their estates, the country, but the 250 or so lords who own other domains have autarchy in their own areas. These lords have to maintain a residence in Edo the main city (now Tokyo). They were expected to spend a significant period of time there with their wives and heirs to remain in Edo in a hostage type arrangement. Over time the warriors who spend time in the main city are domesticated and civilised via work and artistic hobbies till the country is forced open by the Western powers and the major domains take power and modernise Japan. The ex-Samurai play a key part in both the opening of the country to international commerce and Japan’s subsequent modernisation.

A rollicking yarn, the book has a sardonic and playful tone and one can be sure to find weightier and more serious tomes awaiting those interested in the subject.

The FMI Library has hundreds of books in its non-fiction section, ranging from history to politics to gardening and cookery. Recently the collection was augmented by a kind donation by Verity Burgmann. See the catalogue online: http://bookmark.central.sa.edu.au/fmi.htm [Neil Farren - FMI Committee]




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