(Review) Ben Hubbard, The Samurai: Swords, Shōguns and Seppuku, (The History Press, 2014)

Pages: 156                           ISBN: 978-0-7509-5589-8

A book that claims to offer a “complete, concise account of samurai history and culture” in just under 160 pages is either purposefully misleading or downright deluded. To even think that 1,000 years of history, numerous political and social upheavals, various religious syncretisms – and more importantly for the topic of this book, the evolution and changes in warfare – can be surmised without missing important elements is, at best, very naïve. That is not to say that this book is not well written, and an entertaining read at times but it suffers with two important elements: structure and idealism.

The structure of the book is broken down into 8 chapters. The first chapter belies the issue of idealism with its title “The Way of the Warrior”, an allusion to the word bushidō which is often misappropriated into ‘Medieval’ Japanese history, a tradition that Hubbard continues. This section looks at the elements that made a samurai (bushi) a ‘samurai’; through his behaviour and his physical training. Hubbard fails to get across the important point that most of the texts which he uses throughout this chapter are from post-1600 AD. This means that much of the ‘way of the warrior’ was being defined when the ‘warrior’ in question had no war to speak of, and their sense of place in society needed defining, which raises the question: how relevant is this analysis for the entire history of the samurai period?

Chapter 2 is on the ritual form of suicide known as seppuku (hara-kiri) and it is by far the most successful chapter. This section brings to life the raw origins of the ritual and briefly introduces the various manifestations it displays through the vast time period under review. Hubbard also shows how various members of the family would die slightly differently depending on various circumstances, with some touching moments of familial insight that deserve more publicising.

Confusingly, Hubbard jumps from a thematic structure into a chronological one as he dedicates his next three chapters to historical periods – the Heian Period, the Gempei War, and Medieval Japan. This shift causes there to be some repetition in the text. The narrative itself is concise, but ultimately too brief to give any real account for any of the periods he is describing. Although, it does give an easily digested narrative to allow someone new to the topic a way of getting a taste for the period.

Hubbard describes the origin of the samurai through the wars with the indigenous Emishi tribes, which is admirable. The use of horses, curved blades, individual combat, and the general exposure to tough military campaigns are unarguably a core influence for later ‘samurai’ culture and the rise of a military class (or caste, Hubbard swaps between the two words intermittently). It is a little strange that he does not explain that the root of the word Shōgun comes from these frontier lands and the military commanders instructed to fight back the barbarians; but this a minor quibble. More concerning is the lack of reference to the brilliant works by Karl Friday on the Emishi Wars, which must be the starting point for anyone researching the topic.

Hubbard flies through the Gempei War with clarity, which is no mean feat for what is quite a confusing narrative of deceit and warfare. His section on Medieval Japan, however, is too concise for my liking. Hubbard has to fit too much information into a period that covers the Minamoto’s loss of power, the regency of the Hojo, the two Mongol invasions, the outbreak of the Sengoku Jidai and the rise of the three unifiers (Nobunaga, Hideyoshi and Tokugawa), the war in Korea, and the Meiji restoration in just 26 pages! To achieve this Hubbard has had to omit characters like Takeda Shingen and Uesugi Kenshin which, from a purely military point of view, is verging on sacrilege.

Chapter 6 is a narrative of three battles from the various periods described earlier: Kurikara (1183), Kamakura (1331) and Sekigahara (1600). The narratives are very short and only give a slight flavour to the nature of the warfare Hubbard is trying to depict. Chapter 7 looks at the lives of four samurai warriors, two of which are from the Minamoto clan and another being the ‘Last Samurai’ Saigō Takamori. Hubbard presents a nice short account of each of the characters, but his most important inclusion is the female warrior/samurai Tomoe Gozen who, in my opinion, deserves to be more widely known.

Chapter 8 brings the samurai into the modern day, looking at their presentation in popular culture. This chapter is of interest if, like me, you have watched far too many samurai-inspired films: from the great works of Akira Kurosawa, to the guilty pleasure of Edward Zwick’s The Last Samurai. The book ends with a loose conclusion – which seems to conclude very little. It brings the book to a strange end which seems to focus more on the previous chapter of film and pop-culture than it does the history of the samurai.

With a paltry bibliography of just 18 books (including primary sources) this book is undone by its complete lack of referencing. Some chapters contain absolutely no footnotes at all, whereas others are slave to a single source, such as chapter 4 on the Gempei War which only cites the Heike Monogatari, but Hubbard does not give a specific passage reference at any point.

Hubbard’s book may appeal to younger readers who show an interest in Japanese history or samurai culture, but otherwise it should be approached with caution. The portrayal of samurai ideals is incongruent with the military history of Japan. Where he often quotes from military manuals in the 17th and 18th century, a better place to look may have been the various ‘house codes’ from the ‘Medieval’ period, which show the code of conduct expected from samurai of various clans (there is a particularly long one from the house of Takeda). It is quite telling that when the narrative moves into the history, rather than the ideals, Hubbard is left to remark how ‘un-samurai’ the behaviour is – perhaps this is the wrong way round, and it is the ideal which is ‘un-samurai’?

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