Stephen Turnbull is one of the leading British experts on the Samurai, having written an impressively wide range of books on the topic. He is thus the ideal author for this overview of the history and culture of the Samurai, which covers a wide range of topics, starting with an overview of Japanese history and the role of the Samurai within, and moving on to examine their lifestyle, their weapons (focusing on the full range of weapons, not just the famous Samurai sword), the impressive range of armour, their attitude to death, their actual role in warfare, the development of the Japanese castle and finally their fall in the aftermath of the Meiji Restoration.
One can argue that the true Samurai faded away several centuries before their formal end – once the Tokugawa Shoguns stamped out internal warfare in Japan and began the long period of isolation the Samurai lost their role as warriors, and became increasingly irrelevant, lacking a real purpose. By the time the last Samurai rebelled against the changes imposed during the Meiji Restoration it had been two centuries since they had been genuinely involved in warfare, and they were outclassed by the well trained commoners of the new Imperial army. One minor quibble is that Turnbull doesn’t mention the poor treatment of shipwrecked sailors amongst the reasons for the American intervention in Japan – there had even been a ‘no second thought’ order to drive away or execute all westerners who landed in Japan, even shipwrecked sailors, that had only recently been revoked. There were of course other, less laudable motives, but this was a real issue at the time.
This is a very attractive book, copiously illustrated with a mix of original Japanese art, pictures of surviving arms, armour and castles and the occasion modern artwork. Samurai military equipment was undoubtedly very striking, and very colourful, and that comes across well here. Turnbull knows his subject, and the result is a very good overview of the samurai and their military role. Turnbull is very good at dismantling some of the myths about the Samurai, in particular when it comes to their weaponry, making it clear that the famous Samurai swords only came to prominence fairly late in their history. It is nice to see the story taken all the way to its end in the 19th century, as well as going back to the earliest days of the Samurai, so we can trace how they developed into the most familiar version as well as their decline.
The Warrior lifestyle
Arms and armour
'The way of the samurai is found in death'
The samurai at war
Strongholds of the samurai
The last samurai
Author: Stephen Turnbull