The Lost Samurai – Japanese Mercenaries in South East Asia 1593-1688, Stephen Turnbull

The Lost Samurai – Japanese Mercenaries in South East Asia 1593-1688, Stephen Turnbull

For most of their history the Samurai almost always fought within Japan’s many civil wars. However for a brief period at the start of the sixteenth century a relatively small number of Japanese ended up fighting for some of the other powers of south-east Asia, including Siam, Cambodia and the newly arrived Spanish, Portuguese and Dutch.

Japanese mercenaries can be found fighting in China well before this period, with the first instance recorded her dating to 1378. Japanese communities, merchants and pirates could be found across the region, although in fairly small numbers. The start date in the title here seems rather arbitrary, as most of the chapters begin before this, and the end date comes well after the heyday of the Japanese mercenaries was over.

We start with a brief explanation of why all of the terms used in the title are inaccurate – many of these men weren’t what we would understand as samurai, mercenaries is a bit vague and the area covered is somewhat larger than the current understanding of south-east Asia, but the title does still give a good idea of what the book is about!

There are several themes here. The story of the individual mercenaries is set against the backdrop of Japan’s changing relationship with the outside world, the end of the long period of civil wars, the brief expansion and then apparent destruction of Christianity within Japan. We also look at the origins of the mercenaries – some being Christian exiles, other members of local Japanese communities and some officially recruited from within Japan while that was still allowed. Finally we look at the actual examples of Japanese mercenaries, serving under the Dutch, Portuguese, Spanish, in Siam and Cambodia and even briefly defending the Portuguese position at Nagasaki. The general consensus was that the Japanese were brave, perhaps foolhardy on occasions, and often hard to control, but they generally performed well for their employers, and despite frequent suspicion were largely loyal.

This is an interesting book, covering a wider subject than it’s title would lead you to believe, combining an account of these Japanese mercenaries with a wider look at Japan’s place in the world as the Tokogawa secured power. 

1 – The Japanese ‘Wild Geese’
2 – ‘The Spaniards of Asia’: imaging the Japanese warrior
3 – Defending the Faith: the Japanese ‘mercenaries’ of Fort Nagasaki
4 – Traders and Samurai: Japanese Mercenaries in Siam
5 – The King of Spain’s Samurai
6 – The Dutch East India Company and their soldaten van Japon
7 – Heroism and Horror on the Spice Islands
8 – Wars and Rumours of Wars: Japanese plans to invade the Philippines
9 – The Wild Geese and the Defence of Cambodia
10 – Japan, Taiwan and the ‘Iron Men’
11 – The Flight of the Wild Geese

Author: Stephen Turnbull
Edition: Hardcover
Pages: 320
Publisher: Frontline
Year: 2021

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