March 2021 Book Survey: Stephen Turnbull Samurai Texts


My reading theme for March 2021 included books by Dr. Stephen Turnbull about Samurai and closely related topics in Japanese history. These are a few thoughts on the titles that I (Richard) read. 


Dr. Turnbull is the most prolific author I have encountered while researching reputable martial arts books. He earned his PhD from Leeds University in 1996, with his thesis addressing Japan's Kakure Kirishitan, or "hidden Christian" communities. I first encountered his work in the form of his excellent 2018 book Ninja: Unmasking the Myth, which I reviewed for Martial Journal

This post will include two main sections. The first part offers a deeper look at 4 of Dr. Turnbull's books. They are pictured at the top of the post. The second part lists 27 books that I briefly reviewed. I will make a comment on each. 

I previewed these titles in a series of social media posts using the hash tag #StephenTurnbull. Each features art samples from the books. You can see them on Twitter and Instagram (look at "most recent").

The Samurai: A Military History, 1977, updated 1996

The Samurai: A Military History, 1977, updated 1996

The Samurai: A Military History may have been Dr. Turnbull's first title on the Samurai, with the initial edition arriving in 1977. I liked how this book explained sources of tradition and culture, like the story of the Yamato. The battle narratives are much easier to follow than a book like Sengoku Jidai. Nobunaga, Hideyoshi, and Ieyasu: Three Unifiers of Japan by Danny Chaplin (2018), profiled in last month's post Survey of Japanese History Texts. The book helpfully emphasized key points in history, like the "most famous" characters, or the destruction of entire families (like the Taira). 

The Samurai and the Sacred, 2006

The Samurai and the Sacred, 2006

The Samurai and the Sacred is mainly about "religion" in Japan. I put religion in quotes because the Japanese concept of what Westerners called "religion" doesn't match the Western word. The book addresses spirituality throughout Samurai history and its role in their lives. It offered a great chapter debunking the popular concept of bushido. For more on that topic, see my review of Dr. Oleg Benesch's Inventing the Way of the Samurai: Nationalism, Internationalism, and Bushidō in Modern Japan. One of the key themes of the book is that the Japanese are a "syncretic" society that only in the Imperial era tried to "purify" Shinto by trying to separate and purge influences like Buddhism.

The Samurai Swordsman: Master of War, 2008

The Samurai Swordsman: Master of War, 2008

The Samurai Swordsman: Master of War is about the changing character of war over Japanese history. (Note that military historians tend to say that the nature of war, i.e., violence, is unchanging, but the character can change over time.) The book emphasized that the Samurai were born as horse-mounted expert archers in the 10th through 12th centuries AD. Dr. Turnbull makes his case by citing many ancient sources. One question arose while I read them: just who wrote these detailed battle accounts? 

Eventually the Samurai evolved into a horse-mounted spearman. The notion of the Samurai as a katana-wielding dynamo came much later. 

I made a note of the four oldest schools of swordsmanship that Dr. Turnbull cited in the book:

  1. Tenshin Shoden Shinto Ryu, founded by Iizasa Choisai Ienao (1387-1487 or 1488), also called Katori Shinto Ryu
  2. Kage Ryu, founded by Aisu Iko (1452-1538), also called Kamiizumi Nobutsana Shinkage Ryu
  3. Chujo Ryu, founded by Chujo Nagahide, but popularized as Itto-Ryu by Ito Ittosai between 1550-1560.
  4. Maniwa Nen-Ryu, founded by Higuchi Mata Shichiro in the 1590s.

Note all of these date from the late 15th century and throughout the 16th century. (This is the case for most martial arts around the world, incidentally -- at least as far as real documentation goes. Europe has an older claim according to surviving fighting manuals from the late 14th century.)

One problem I had with this book was that almost all of the material on Miyamoto Musashi was historically wrong. For the best sources on Japan's most famous swordsman, see my earlier post Miyamoto Musashi Book Survey.

The Samurai, 2016

The Samurai, 2016

I noted that The Samurai seemed to include more material on non-military life. I recognized some of the text as being repeated from previous works. The title features great illustrations and art. It addresses sword mythology, Samurai armor, logistics, and mobilization. This book struck me as a realistic, non-mythical depiction of Samurai life.

Rapid-Fire Book Notes

The following offers quick notes on the 27 other titles by Dr. Turnbull that are closely associated with the Samurai.

  1. Samurai Armies 1550-1615, 1979: This book covers the Momoyama period, also known as the Shokuho period, also known as the Azuchi-Momoyama period. Historians derived the latter name from castles owned by Oda Nobunaga and Toyotomi Hideyoshi, respectively, with the era  covering 1568 or 1573 or 1574 to 1600 or 1615, depending on your perspective. The book contained interesting battle formation diagrams, distinctive art by illustrator Richard Hook, and cool diagrams on how to put on armor. The material on the ninja was repeated as fact, although Dr. Turnbull's last book on "ninja" repudiates those myths.
  2. The Book of the Samurai The Warrior Class of Japan, 1982: This title featured beautiful color art and photos. 
  3. Samurai Warfare, 1996: I liked the material on naval warfare in this book and the stunning color art.
  4. The Samurai Sourcebook, 2000: This title includes arms, armor, strategy, tactics, a catalog of battles and sieges, case studies, short biographies of key people, and miscellaneous topics like religion. The sections on family names and history were helpful too.
  5. Nagashino 1575: Slaughter at the Barricades, 2000: This was one of the many Osprey-published battle or campaign titles, suitable for wargamers.   
  6. Ashigaru 1467-1649, 2001: Finally the "light feet" or foot soldiers of the Samurai get some credit! This is another nice book with many details and beautiful art.
  7. Samurai Heraldry, 2002: Featuring drawings by illustrator Angus McBridge, this title discusses the function of Samurai heraldry and examples from multiple periods. Wargamers seeking accurate flags would like this book.
  8. Samurai Invasion: Japan's Korean War 1592-1598, 2002: This title features an in-depth review of this phase of Japanese history, with lots of art.
  9. War in Japan 1467-1615, 2002: This short Osprey title is more text than art. 
  10. Japanese Warrior Monks AD 949-1603, 2003: This book features art by illustrator Wayne Reynolds and talks about a force that opposed the Samurai on numerous occasions. The Sohei's beliefs, service, campaigns, and battles make appearances. 
  11. The Samurai: The World of the Warrior, 2003: This appears to be a coffee-table type book published by Osprey. It had some nice art but did not capture my attention like some other titles.
  12. Kawanakajima 1553-64: Samurai Power Struggle, 2003: This is another Osprey battle and campaign title. 
  13. Samurai: The Story of Japan's Great Warriors, 2004: This is a large coffee-table type book with lots of cool art. I liked the section showing layers of Samurai clothing and armor. 
  14. Samurai Commanders 1 940-1576, 2005: This is the first of two volumes, featuring art by Richard Hook, with profiles of prominent Japanese warriors. 
  15. Samurai Commanders 2 1577-1638, 2005: This second book had more biographies, but didn't catch my attention as much as its predecessor.  
  16. Warriors of Medieval Japan, 2005: The inside of this book notes that it contain material previously published in books on the Ninja, Ashigaru, and Japanese warrior monks. At this point Dr. Turnbull had not yet recognized his Ninja material was outdated.
  17. Pirate of the Far East, 2007: While not strictly about Samurai, this book covered a topic that was related. Richard Hook provided more beautiful art.
  18. Samurai Armies 1467-1649, 2008: As another battle and campaign title, this book provided information on individual armies and their composition over time.
  19. The Samurai Capture a King: Okinawa 1609, 2009: This is a neat book that highlighted the interaction between Japan and Okinawa. It was interesting to see the Okinawan forces use a three-barreled firearm and venomous snakes against Japanese invaders.  
  20. Katana: The Samurai Sword, 2010: This book's clean, modern layout with captivating art and photos is sure to be a favorite. 
  21. Samurai Women 1184-1877, 2010: Featuring drawings by illustrator Giuseppe Rava, this book addresses another underserved topic. The story of the two daughters who avenged their father makes an appearance, for example.
  22. Hatamoto: Samurai Horse and Foot Guards 1540-1724, 2010: One of my favorite illustrators, Richard Hook, returns for this title. 
  23. The Revenge of the 47 Ronin: Edo 1703, 2011: Illustrator Johnny Shumate contributes to the beautiful art in this book, along with wonderful photos.
  24. Samurai: The Japanese Warriors Unofficial Manual, 2012: Written as if a Samurai was recording his thoughts, this innovative book creatively conveys tons of information. Most of the art appears as black and white drawings.
  25. The Samurai in 100 Objects, 2016: This book is a cool collection of mostly physical artifacts.
  26. The Gempei War 1180–85: The Great Samurai Civil War, 2016: Giuseppe Rava's stunning drawings, along with the great maps and photos, are the highlight of this title.
  27. Samurai vs Ashigaru: Japan 1543–75, 2019: Johnny Shumate's art appears in this book. One of my favorites is the same battle scene, drawn twice -- from the perspective of each side of the conflict.


From the 2008 book The Samurai Swordsman: Katō Kiyomasa, one of the Seven Spears of Shizugatake, grappled with an enemy samurai over a cliff in 1583. He prevailed! Image: an 1883 woodblock by Utagawa Toyonobu (歌川豊宣), 1859–86

Although this post mentioned over 30 books, that's not even half of Dr. Turnbull's catalog. I've read that he's published over 50 books with Osprey alone, and this late 2019 Tweet by his daughter congratulated him on the publication of his 80th book. I'm happy to say that, at least from my "learning newcomer" perspective, you really can't go wrong with a book by Dr. Turnbull. 

I'm looking forward to the publication of his book The Lost Samurai: Japanese Mercenaries in South East Asia, 1593–1688 in about two months. In late June his next Osprey book, Weapons of the Samurai, will arrive as well.

You can see and purchase his catalog of Osprey titles via this query. At this time of posting, it looks like Osprey is running a sale. 

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