Samurai: The World of the Warrior - Stephen Turnbull

The World of the Warrior
Stephen Turnbull
Osprey Publishers
ISBN: 1841767409 (Amazon link)

My interest in Japanese history has been rekindled lately, and during a recent trip to the British Museum I enjoyed their special exhibition on the Japanese arts, which naturally included some arms and armour. This led to me realising that there were only a few episodes in Japanese history which I actually knew about in any detail, and that perhaps a trip to the museum bookshop was in order ... any excuse!

In the end, I picked up a few histories, but this one looked the most accessible (that is, it had the shortest and least specific title), and provided what I wanted first - an overview of the different historical periods, letting me orient myself in regards to which family had power when. I have read and enjoyed a couple of titles by Turnbull before, with his Samurai Sourcebook being particularly memorable, and enjoy his illustrative approach.

Samurai is an unashamedly popular introduction to the history of Japan's famous warrior elite, with the large format featuring colour illustrations on almost every other page. I'll be honest, I bought this title for the pictures as much as the text, as some of the full-page prints are gorgeous. I particularly liked the many woodblock prints by Kuniyoshi and don't think it's a coincidence that the author is listed as running a picture library!

This isn't a mere coffee-table book though; Turnbull provides a solid and comprehensive history, starting with the possible origins of the samurai class behind the creation myths, takes us up through the C12th Gempei wars, the C15-16th Senguko Jidai, and through the decline during the Tokugawa Shogunates, finishing with the Meiji Restoration, The White Tigers and the Satsuma Rebellion. Along the way there are side-trips into castle construction, the effect of firearms and foreign trade, the importance of seppuku on the Samurai tradition, and, most entertainingly, a look at the interplay between Samurai and piracy.

Obviously, given the subject matter, this is primarily a military history, but the focus is more on the characters and episodes rather than the technology or campaigns, and Turnbull is very good at bringing the tragic human elements of his subject to the fore. I particularly appreciated the fact that the illustrations are tied closely to the text - sounds silly, but very many histories don't illustrate the people and places under discussion, or bundle a handful of colour plates in the centre, away from where they add impact to the writing.


Posted: Sun - February 15, 2004 at 11:37 PM