Happy new year!
I am hoping you would share your resources for your reading on Japanese history. Book titles and/or urls would be very helpful.
I got that a week ago, and I kind of sat there staring at the email. Japanese history is some of the most confusing to start to learn, because different elements of Japanese history and culture all play on and influence each other. I could run you through the military history of Japan from The Battle of Okehazama to Sekigahara to the Boshin War, from there into Dai Nippon Tekoku Era, from there into defeat and the Occupation under McArthur, and then we could do a little post-war history.
Problem is, it wouldn't make any damn sense at all.
Well, that's not right.
It would make sense. It'd make plenty of sense. But it'd be wrong - if you looked only at the chain of battles leading from the Warring States Era to the Tokugawa Shogunate to the Japanese Empire to post-war Japan... it would seem like you understood Japanese history, but you wouldn't really.
The Underpinnings of the Samurai Philosophy, and the Most Revered Death in Japanese History
With all due respect to the various martyrs and desperate charges and last stands in history, I point to the death of Torii Mototada as the most beautiful in history.
Torii Mototada served Tokugawa Ieyasu for over 40 years, since both were children. At age 62, war broke out between the the Western Forces under Mitsunari and the Eastern Forces under Tokugawa. Mototada's castle stood in the Western army's path.
Outnumbered 10 to 1, Mototada resolved to die and was able to hold off the Western army for two whole weeks.
If you believe in honor and duty and loyalty, it'd be tough to read Mototada's final letter to his son with choking up a little bit -
I am resolved to make a stand within the castle and to die a quick death. It would not take much trouble to break through a part of their numbers and escape, no matter how many tens of thousands of horsemen approached for the attack or by how many columns we were surrounded.
But that is not the true meaning of being a warrior, and it would be difficult to account as loyalty. Rather, I will stand off the forces of the entire country here, and, without even one one-hundredth of the men necessary to do so, will throw up a defense and die a resplendent death. By doing so I will show that to abandon a castle that should be defended, or to value one's life so much as to avoid danger and to show the enemy one's weakness is not within the family traditions of my master Ieyasu.
Thus I will have taken the initiative in causing Lord Ieyasu's other retainers to be resolved, and in advancing righteousness to the warriors of the entire country. It is not the Way of the Warrior to be shamed and avoid death even under circumstances that are not particularly important.
Because Lord Ieyasu is well aware of my loyalty, he has left me here in charge of the important area of Kamigata as Deputy of Fushimi Castle while he advances toward the East, and for a warrior there is nothing that could surpass this good fortune. That I should be able to go ahead of all the other warriors of this country and lay down my life for the sake of my master's benevolence is an honor to my family and has been my most fervent desire for many years.
After I am slain, you must lovingly care for all your younger brothers, beginning with Hisagoro, in my stead. Your younger brothers must earnestly look to you as they would to their father, and must never disobey you.
As they grow up, they should one by one present themselves to the Lord Ieyasu, make efforts with their own various talents, do whatever they are commanded, be on friendly terms with one another, and remain forever grateful to their ancestors, by whose blessings our clan was established and its descendants succored.
They must be determined to stand with Lord Ieyasu's clan in both its ascent and decline, in times of peace and in times of war; and either waking or sleeping they must never forget that they will serve his clan, and his clan alone. To be avaricious for land or to forget old debts because of some passing dissatisfaction, or to even temporarily entertain treacherous thoughts is not the Way of Man.
Even if all the other provinces of Japan were to unite against our lord, our descendants should not set foot inside another fief to the end of time. Simply, in no matter what circumstances, unify with the heart of one family - of elder and younger brothers - exert yourselves in the cause of loyalty, mutually help and be helped by one another, preserve your righteousness and strive in bravery, and be of a mind never to stain the reputation of a clan that has not remained hidden from the world, but has gained fame in military valor for generations, especially since the days of the Governor of Iga.
At any rate, if you will take it into your mind to be sincere in throwing away your life for your master, you will not have the slightest fear or trembling even with the advent of innumerable impending calamities.
Warrior Ethics and Duty
To understand the Japan, you need to understand the warrior ethics of the samurai, and indeed, the ethics of duty that filtered down through the entire country.
Absolutely the combination that makes the most effective soldiers in history is this -
1. A desire to die in battle
2. Simultaneously, a desire to win and continue serving
3. A constant obsession with training
Any two of those traits will make an effective soldier, but when all three come together you get legendary warriors.
A desire to die in battle makes an opponent formidable, more aggressive and less concerned with his own life, cooperative and selfless on the battlefield, and not understandable by an opponent who seeks to preserve his own life.
But the recklessness you see under suicide fighters who want to die for martyrdom's sake or glory or to make a point... this doesn't reach the heights of effective soldiering. Simultaneously, a desire to overcome the enemy and destroy him, in order to continue serving - this combined with a desire to die on the battlefield and relentless training and preparation...
It's what made the Spartans so formidable. It's what made the various Christian warriors and Muslim warriors during the Crusades so formidable. (It doesn't apply to modern third world suicide attackers, who don't seem driven to live and win, probably because of their rag-tag third world forces have no realistic chance of winning in conventional combat - they can only really aim for public relations type victories and hope the weaker minded overly-compassionate idealists in Western countries press for surrender and conciliatory behavior, as happened in the various Vietnam Wars, for instance.)
But I digress. The Japanese simultaneously desired to overcome the enemy for their cause, and to die on the battlefield. This state of living between life and death - the "borderlands of life and death" - is the goal and underpinning of samurai philosophy.
This is Torii Mototada. He simultaneously was thrilled that his life would end in such a glorious and beautiful death, while trying to take as many of the enemy with him before falling. While he was happy to die at the Siege of Fushimi, he also attempted to the final minutes of battle to take as many of the Western forces to the grave with him. If he had miraculously cut through all of Mitsunari's forces and routed them, he would have been satisfied with that outcome as well.
This obsession with duty underpins the samurai philosophy, which underpins Japanese culture and history.
The tricky part is, you can't really understand Japanese history without understanding the philosophy behind it, and you can't understand the philosophy without knowing the history. I have my recommendations for where you should start in a moment, but let me mention a few books that underpin samurai philosophy.
I would strongly recommend "Hagakure", which is a work written in the early 1700's outlining samurai Yamamoto Tsunemoto's views on samurai conduct.
I've got some excerpts from the book -
Hagakure is obviously out of copyright, and there are a number of translations available online. To fully understand the book, though, you'll want to read a few people's opinions of the work. I've spoken about the samurai philosophy at length with Japanese people which might or might not be available to you to learn, but I will point at Yukio Mishima's "Samurai Ethic and Modern Japan" as a good primer on the key concepts of Hagakure.
I had some excerpts from The Samurai Ethic and Modern Japan here if you're interested.
The Romantic Version of Japanese History
Do you already know the difference between romantic art and realist art?
Romantic art is mostly concerned with capturing an ideal, an archetype, or an emotion. It frequently succeeds, but at the expense of its... well, realism. Romantic art frequently sacrifices the nitty-gritty, the details, and exceptions in order to convey an ideal.
Here's Napoleon Crossing the Alps -
Realism, on the other hand, wants to capture the situation as close to reality as possible. Here's the Battle of Eylau -
What's this have to do with Japanese history?
There's two versions of Japanese history - the romanticized version about ideals and honor and ethics and duty, and the real version that includes assassination, cruelty, betrayal, and the rest of those more base human things about us.
I recommend you start by learning the romanticized version of Japanese history.
There's a certain... cultural... thing in Japan, where you just don't talk about certain stuff directly.
I can't really explain it, it's something you kind of just get a feel for over time. Maybe someone better with words and subtlety than me could explain it.
Anyways, when you talk Japanese history with Japanese people, you need to start with the romantic version. To give you a Western example, it'd be like if you wanted to talk about the American Civil War and you started by talking about amputation and disease and why did Lincoln have his detractors in the Union States arrested?
No, no, no. That's going to terribly offend people. No, no, no. You need to start with Gettysburg Address and Emancipation Proclamation, from there move into Grant relieving McClellan, from there into Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson and Fort Sumpter, and if you're still on the same page with whoever you're talking to, then maybe you can get into the nitty-gritty of the American Civil War. For the record, I think the war was about politics and imperialism and had very little to do with high-minded ideals, and yet I think it was the correct move on Lincoln's part and I'm a supporter of his.
This position kind of baffles everyone and they don't know what to make of it, so y'know, I normally don't start with it in conversation.
Back to Japanese history. There's lots of treachery and assassination and bad stuff, but you don't start by talking about it. Now, I think a person's perception of things is shaped by the order in which they're learned. Whatever is learned first becomes the dominant opinion that all everything else becomes compared to.
Thus, I strongly encourage you to start with romanticized Japanese history, high-minded ideals type stuff.
Absolutely the best book for this - and in fact, my favorite book in all the world - is Eiji Yoshikawa's "Musashi".
Miyamoto Musashi was one of the greatest swordsmen of the Sengoku Era. Eiji Yoshikawa's novel "Musashi" is historical fiction retracing what we know of Musashi's life with period accurate details, and some filling-in-the-blanks of how his training might have gone, encounters with bandits of the day, and things like that.
It's an excellent work and it's a fun, easy read. After it, you'll have a better idea of the Japanese notions of honor, what matters and what doesn't, martial skill, some philosophy, and some introduction to the geography and alliances of the era. It's highly readable as a swashbuckling story and deep with philosophical lessons, so this is a good choice for anyone to start with.
After reading Yoshikawa's Musashi, you might consider reading Miyamoto Musashi's own work on tactics, the "Go Rin No Sho" - Book of Five Rings (at Wikipedia, at Amazon). It's short, and there's some excellent pragmatic gems about winning, combat, mastery of self, understanding the nature of purpose and mission, and so on.
"The primary thing when you take a sword in your hands is your intention to cut the enemy, whatever the means. Whenever you parry, hit, spring, strike or touch the enemy's cutting sword, you must cut the enemy in the same movement. It is essential to attain this. If you think only of hitting, springing, striking or touching the enemy, you will not be able actually to cut him." -Miyamoto Musashi, the Book of Five Rings
If you enjoyed Musashi, I'd recommend Yoshikawa's second most famous historical fiction next - "Taiko," about the rise of Hideyoshi Toyotomi. Now, Taiko is a more difficult work than Musashi, since there's lots of moving pieces and many different names, places, and dates.
I'd say get a copy of Musashi first, start reading it, and if you really enjoy it - then order a copy of Taiko, but it would be wise to read a few summaries and bios of the key people of Sengoku before reading Taiko.
There were three "Great Unifiers" of the Sengoku Era - Oda Nobunaga, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, and Tokugawa Ieyasu. They all have things you can learn from each of them, but... hmm, how shall I put this?
If you value great conduct more than great outcomes, you're probably an admirer of Toyotomi Hideyoshi. If you value great outcomes more than great conduct, you're probably a Tokugawa Ieyasu man.
Hideyoshi Toyotomi was one of the most impressive people in all of Japanese history. He rose from nothing to become the ruler of all of Japan... but then he kept going, overexpanded, and his entire bloodlines went extinct shortly after his death, due to his own overexpansiveness and mistakes.
He might've had 10,000 victories and innovations and amazing things completed. But he made 2-3 fatal mistakes, and that cost him everything. (Notably, invading Korea, trusting Yodo-dono, and putting his nephew to death, among a few other minor points)
Tokugawa, while also very impressive, did maybe only one-tenth as many amazing things as Hideyoshi, but he won in the end and his family ruled Japan for the next 250 years.
I put a huge premium on that, but, as a swooping generalization, most Japanese people tend to value conduct more than outcomes. Thus, Hideyoshi is the most popular of the Great Unifiers.
Anyways, I bring this up because the author Yoshikawa is definitely a pro-Toyotomi man, so he kind of glosses over Hideyoshi's huge errors, and paints Ieyasu in a pretty bad light. I'd recommend you read up on the background of the era before getting into Taiko - it'll make the book easier to follow along, but you also won't only get the pro-Toyotomi side of the story. The book Taiko ends before the ill-fated invasion of Korea, before Ishida Mitsunari was dispatched to Korea and harassed and alienated many of the Toyotomi generals, before he put his nephew Hidetsugu to death...
Actually, there's far too much that happened in Sengoku for me to cover it all, but since everyone tends to love Toyotomi, allow me to point out this paragraph from his nephew's Wikipedia page to show how utterly bad of a decision it was:
Controversially, Hideyoshi ordered the execution of Hidetsugu's entire family, including children, wives and mistresses, at Sanjogawara. The harshness and brutality of executing 39 women and children shocked Japanese society and alienated many Damiyos from Toyotomi rule. Combined with the fact that Hidetsugu was the last adult member of the Toyotomi clan besides Hideyoshi himself, the whole incident is often seen to be one of the key causes of the Toyotomi downfall. In a particularly tragic case, Hideyoshi refused to spare the life of Mogami Yoshiaki's 15 year old daughter, who had only just arrived at Kyoto to become Hidestugu's concubine and had not yet even met her husband-to-be. Her death caused the powerful Mogami clan to zealously support Tokugawa Ieyesu in the Battle of Sekigahara against Toyotomi loyalist forces, a mere 5 years later.
Stupid, stupid shit... young Hideyoshi is one of the most brilliant commanders of all time. But Hideyoshi after winning become a crazed monster. Around that time, he took as his primary wife a princess named Yodo-dono who is really one of the most poisonous and hated people in Japanese history. Hideyoshi, so great at diplomacy, fell head over heels for this woman who demanded he execute his nephew, his nephew's entire household, etc, etc. It was a contributing factor to the destruction of their entire bloodlines. The Korea invasion was far too overexpansive. But I'm getting way ahead of myself here, let's step back a moment.
Romantic Japan History, Following the Tokugawa Line, and then...
Here I am criticizing Hideyoshi pretty strongly (despite being a tremendous admirer of the first 50 years of his life or so), but he's one of the most beloved people in Japanese history. Really, I point out his mistakes only because you're going to get the pro-Toyotomi view almost everywhere else. And really, the first 51 years of Hideyoshi's life is one of the most remarkable ascents in history... if he'd stopped and consolidated at age 51 after unifying Japan, his family could have ruled Japan instead of the Tokugawa.
But y'know, don't start a conversation with a Japanese person like that. It'd be like starting a conversation about the American Civil War with amputation, disease, and Lincoln arresting elected officials who wouldn't support the Union cause in Union States. Yeah, that stuff happened, but it's not really what people like to talk about, and might well offend people.
So, start with Romantic Japanese History. Musashi, quick bios/summaries of the key people of the era, Taiko, and the basic philosophies of bushido and samurai strategy/tactics as laid out in the Budoshoshindu, Hagakure, and the Go Rin No Sho.
Where to go after that is tricky - I haven't found any good historical fiction, or even any really good biographies of the Tokugawa in English. I had to piece my understanding of the ascent of the Tokugawa together from lots of little articles, discussions with Japanese people, and snippets I could get here and there in various places. (If anyone knows a good biography in English of any of the early Tokugawa, please recommend it to me.)
One totally sensible way to study Japanese history would be to get the Romantic View, and then follow the historical path for a while. The Tokugawa Shogunate went Ieyasu -> Hidetada -> Iemitsu -> Ietsuna, and all of those guys have interesting points about them.
Ietsuna was the last good Shogun for a while and he didn't have kids... his brother took over after him, and is generally a regarded as starting an unstable period of very poor rule. There was sort of a chain reaction of sorts, and though a couple of the next half-dozen shoguns were okay, the Tokugawa Shogunate was generally crumbling until Yoshimune took over.
Now, Yoshimune is a hell of a dude, and in fact, probably the person who makes the best argument for monarchy throughout most of history. Yoshimune took over a weakening and corrupt Japan, and he just wholesale fixed everything with sheer force of will and good governance. A brilliant administrator. His life is worth studying.
...Gritty Japanese History
Toranaga: There is no mitigating factor for rebellion against your liege lord.
Blackthorne: Well, unless you win.
Toranaga: Hmm, very well, you may have named the one mitigating factor.
-From Clavell's "Shogun"
Japan is an honor-bound, traditional, proud country. But like anywhere else, there's spies and assassins and murder and betrayals. Quite a few, in fact.
Well, no more than anywhere else. But let's get back to Japanese culture. There's a sort of kind of thing where there's some things you say, and other things you say without saying, and sometimes you say things indirectly, and sometimes things are notable in that they're explicitly not said.
You're not Japanese, so you can get away with breaking some of these rules. Still, it's worth trying to understand some of this before trying to get into Japanese history.
Presumably, you'll want to talk about Japanese history with a Japanese person sooner or later. You don't start with the gritty stuff, the assassins and poison and betrayals and ninja and Hideyoshi putting his nephew's household to death. Just trust me on this, don't start there. That's why I recommend starting by learning the romantic view of Japanese history - the main text of any conversation you have on Japanese history needs to cover the honorable parts of things. The other parts can be a subtext, or once you get a little closer. Still, you need discretion on when you bring them out.
To the end of learning about the grittier side of Japanese culture, I'd recommend you the historical fiction "The Samurai Banner of Furin Kazan" by Yasushi Inoue. Furzin Kazan was Takeda Shingen's war banner - Wind/Wood/Fire/Mountain - "Be fast as the wind, compact as the forest, rage like the fire, hold strong as the mountain."
Samurai Banner is good because it's primarily about Yamamoto Kansuke, the Takeda strategist who really cared tremendously about winning and not so much about honor. He did many dishonorable and borderline crazy things to win for the Takeda. Still, he had that overarching philosophical loyalty and duty-bound, but his methods of execution were... well...
Whilst on the topic, let's talk about ninja, or "shinobi" as they're called in Japan.
There wasn't really any one group of ninja. The closest analogy I could give to ninja would be like the special forces of a modern military - like the American Navy SEALs, for instance. They're skilled in combat, but also infiltration, planning, demolition, intelligence, logistics, and so on, and so on.
Contrary to the modern Western understanding of ninja, they weren't hardened combatants. They could hold their own in a fight, but because they had such a broad training and skillset, they wouldn't be able to hold their own against a samurai. A samurai spent the bulk of their time training in combat and administration - only two disciplines. Meanwhile, someone in shinobi type training would learn perhaps 30+ different skills ranging from unarmed combat, concealment, knife fighting, sword fighting, chemistry, weather, geography, climbing, evasion, infiltration, picking up gossip at drinking houses, and many other things. They'd get slaughtered in straightup combat - hence, they relied on the element of surprise, defining the time and place of the battle, and achieving their objective with the very first strike.
After understanding the romantic view of Japanese history from Musashi and Taiko, the historical view of Japanese history with some summaries and bios of the key people of the era, and the philosophical and strategic underpinnings, then you want to get into the grittier stuff with Furzin Kazan, and then I think you'll be able to get quite a lot out of "Lone Wolf and Cub."
Lone Wolf and Cub is a graphic novel about a fallen samurai named Ogami Itto who starts working as an assassin. It's a beautiful story, and really, you'd do well to read it through at any time. I reviewed one lesson from it in "Rule an Empire, a Fistful of Rice" here on the blog.
You'd get a lot out of Lone Wolf at any time, I reckon, but going through it after understanding the romantic view, historical view, strategic and philosophical underpinnings, and then getting into the grittier side... I think that would be a very good development path if you decide to study the era seriously.
My knowledge of Japanese history really starts around the Sengoku Era, but there's a lot of rich culture beforehand. I'd recommend Lady Murasaki's "Genji Motoganari" (Wikipedia, Amazon, Gutenberg)- The Tale of Genji. It's set in an earlier period, and Lady Murasaki is generally regarded as the William Shakespere of Japan. Really an incredible work.
There's a few factors why the Tokugawa Shogunate was dismantled. Yes, being on the opposite side of military modernization is almost always a losing strategy. Yes, times changed and the policies that served the Tokugawa well eventually led to their downfall.
But I think it's also worth studying the leadership. Tokugawa Yoshinobu, the final Tokugawa Shogun, reminds me a lot of Qing Puyi, the last Qing Dynasty Emperor of China. The two are probably both worth studying together, as examples of how having an unprepared sovereign on the wrong side of a modernization leads to the government being overthrown.
Originally when I set out to write this article, I was going to cover through the modernization and imperial period, World War II, the Occupation, and Restoration... but man, just my coverage of Sengoku took a lot longer than I expected, and I barely scratched the surface. Still, I think there's some good jumping off points here.
Again, here's the rough order I'd learn about Sengoku were I you -
Start with Eiji Yoshikawa's "Musashi" - historical fiction that will give you a romanticized view of Japanese history.
Then read Miyamoto Musashi's own book of tactics and strategy, "The Go Rin No Sho" - it's short and contains a lot of wisdom.
Still enjoying the era? Read the Wikipedia pages for Sengoku, Oda Nobunaga, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, and Tokugawa Ieyasu. That's the era and the Great Unifiers. You might consider clicking around while reading - for instance, Akechi Mitsuhide assassinated Nobunaga, so he's worth understanding. Unfortunately, Nobunaga's oldest son died at the same time as him, thus breaking the Oda clan into two factions.
One was Hideyoshi's faction that backed the third son, the other was Shibata Katsuie's faction that backed the second. (Katsuie lost, obviously)
Follow the branching paths off the Wikipedia pages, and you'll probably wind up meeting the Imagawa, Takeda, Uesugi, and Date. You'll probably meet Mitsunari and Hidetada and O-ichi and Nene and Yodo-dono.
Alright, after some basic familiarity with the key people of the era, take up Eiji Yoshikawa's "Taiko" - definitely stop reading the book intermittently and google key characters to learn more. Also, realize it's a very Toyotomi-centric book, while there's other intelligent opinions on the era.
If you haven't fully gotten into the philosophy yet, now is a good time to read some Hagakure, the Budoshoshinsu, the Samurai Ethic and Modern Japan, and generally try to get that philosophy down.
After doing that, you've got a couple choices - you could either follow the historical line into the Tokugawa Shogunate, learning about Hidetada, Iemitsu, Ietsuna... (things going wrong and declining)... Yoshimune... (slow decline)... Yoshinobu... overthrow of the Tokugawa and Meiji Restoration.
Or you could get into the grittier elements of Japanese history, of which I think The Samurai Banner of Furin Kazan is a very good introduction. From there, I'd point to the comic series Lone Wolf and Cub as excellent information, period accurate, and with some incredibly deep philosophy in there as well.
I hope that helps with your studies and interest in the era. If you ever have any questions or would like to discuss, shoot me an email - I love that era of history, so I'm always up for a discussion. Ganbatte.