April 2021 Book Survey: Japan's Samurai, Zen, and War


My reading theme for April 2021 included additional books on Japan, on topics like Samurai, Zen, and war. These are a few thoughts on the titles that I (Richard) read. 


I try to read 8-10 books with martial arts themes per month. Sometimes I can neatly group them into specific themes. Other times I loosely group them, as happened this month. I read four more books on Samurai, two books on Zen, and two books about sociology and Japanese martial arts.

Previous posts of this nature are generally available via the blog's books tag.

Secrets of the Samurai by Oscar Ratti and Adele Westbrook, 1973

Secrets of the Samurai by Oscar Ratti and Adele Westbrook, 1973

Tuttle first published Secrets of the Samurai by Oscar Ratti and Adele Westbrook in 1973. They are a husband-and-wife duo who practiced aikido together. 

The publisher continues to release this book in new formats with different covers, sometimes with an additional introduction. This book reminded me of Comprehensive Asian Fighting Arts by Donn F. Draeger and Robert W. Smith, published in 1969 and reviewed in my post Best Book Winner: General Martial Arts Histories in English. In brief, readers probably welcomed it when it was first published almost 50 years ago, but today it is outdated and shows signs of unreliable scholarship.

It's clear the authors were hoodwinked by the concepts of "Bushido" promulgated by authors like Inazo Nitobe. They provide statements like "Down through the centuries, then, the innermost fiber of the Japanese nation was imbued with the warrior’s particular ideas, ethics, and sense of mission... For centuries these truths, as well as the way of life they represented, were inculcated into the Japanese character, seeping down to all levels of society and coloring every stage of the national development."

They also repeat myths about the invented tradition of bushido, praising the "code of behavior which demanded unquestioning obedience to the commands of one’s immediate superior." They ignore the innumerable historical cases where samurai switched sides, literally during battle, in order to pursue favorable rewards. (Consider the Battle of Sekigahara in 1600 as one of the most famous examples.)

Finally, they repeat other myths still heard today, such as those that claim Okinawan karate was invented to counter, and successfully used, against armored Samurai invaders. In the following excerpt, they also repeat the single origin myth for martial arts: "It was in these islands—according to a predominant theory in the doctrine—that he [the Samurai] learned how inadequate his armor and his array of traditional weapons (which had hitherto won the respect of enemy warriors in Korea) could prove to be, when pitted against the bare hands and feet of a peasant sufficiently desperate and properly trained in the ancient Chinese techniques of striking. These methods, said to have originated in the distant reaches of Asia (India, China, Tibet), helped men to develop their capacities for hitting or striking with hands, feet, and other parts of the body." (italics added) 

The previous quote also demonstrates how unnecessarily wordy and complicated this prose tends to be.

Aside from the figures, such as "steps in the donning of armor," I suggest skipping a lot of this book. Any time the authors write about Japanese spirit or character they are channeling now-disproven myths and stereotypes. I also recommend avoiding any discussions of ninja or ki. 

A Brief History of the Samurai by Jonathan Clements, 2018

A Brief History of the Samurai by Jonathan Clements, 2018

In last month's survey I reviewed Dr. Clements' A Brief History of Japan, published in 2017. He followed that well-written volume with today's book, A Brief History of the Samurai, in 2018. Initially I was concerned that the new title might simply be "A Brief History of Japan, with a concentration on the Samurai." I was pleased to discover that the new work was sufficiently different from the previous book to warrant a recommendation here. 

I'd like to highlight some nice genealogy figures from the beginning of the book. Here is one for the Tokugawa Shogunate:

Tokugawa Shogunate, Jonathan Clements

As with all of his books, Dr. Clements has a gift for including the events and details that most readers would naturally ponder while interacting with history. This is probably the best single-volume Samurai history for general readers available.

Samurai Revolution: The Dawn of Modern Japan Seen Through the Eyes of the Shogun's Last Samurai by Romulus Hillsborough, 2014

Samurai Revolution: The Dawn of Modern Japan Seen Through the Eyes of the Shogun's Last Samurai by Romulus Hillsborough, 2014

Our next title, Samurai Revolution: The Dawn of Modern Japan Seen Through the Eyes of the Shogun's Last Samuraiby Romulus Hillsborough, arrived in 2014. Mr. Hillsborough lived in Japan for 16  years after graduating from a California State University (he doesn't say which one) with a degree in English.

This book is a departure from the styles of several other histories I've read. It centers on a few characters, especially Katsu Kaishū (勝 海舟, 1823-1899), son of Katsu Kokichi (勝 小吉, 1802 – 1850), author of the controversial biography Musui Dokugen ("Musui's Story"). 

This is a hefty book, and it took me a while to read it. Some of the chapters are massive, requiring at least 45 minutes of reading time, while others -- chapter 16 for example -- are tiny, needing less than 5 minutes!

I recommend this book for those who prefer to stay grounded with one or two characters while reading history. The book is well-written but may be more appealing to specialists of the late 19th and early 20th centuries in Japan.

Samurai: A Concise History by Michael Wert, 2019

Samurai: A Concise History by Michael Wert, 2019

The next title, Samurai: A Concise History by Michael Wert, arrived in 2019. Dr. Wert is a professor at Marquette University. This is truly a concise book, with only 126 pages in the printed edition. This book focuses on realism and busts myths about Japanese history and the samurai, which I appreciated. However, at times it seemed to cover material at either a too high or too low a level for a "concise history." I am pleased to see continuing scholarship in this area however.

Zen at War, 2nd Ed, 2006, and Zen War Stories, 2003, by Brian Daizen Victoria

Zen at War, 2nd Ed by Brian Daizen Victoria, 2006

Zen War Stories by Brian Daizen Victoria, 2003

I recommend reading the next two titles as a set. They are Zen at War, 2nd Ed and Zen War Stories, both by Dr. Brian Daizen Victoria. In addition to being a Buddhist priest in the Sōtō Zen sect, he also earned a M.A. in Buddhist Studies from Sōtō Zen sect-affiliated Komazawa University in Tokyo, and a Ph.D. from the Department of Religious Studies at Temple University. 

These two books are well-reasoned, thorough, clear, compelling, and worth your time. If you have any familiarity with Zen teachers who were active during Japan's imperial era, this book will likely shock you. This book shows that so many of these famous "thought leaders" -- D. T. (Daisetsu Teitaro) Suzuki (鈴木 大拙 貞太郎, 1870-1966) is one I knew -- were generally completely happy to use Zen as a means to justify, promote, and conduct war, for the "benefit" of the conquered peoples.

These books reminded me of the many aikido practitioners who repeat concepts of "world peace" supposedly attributed to teachers like Morihei Ueshiba (植芝 盛平, 1883-1969), unaware that these exhortations generally meant world peace by virtue of being conquered by Imperial Japan. If you're a serious student of Zen, this book will probably trigger the five phases of denial. I hope you can perserve until acceptance.

The Historical Sociology of Japanese Martial Arts by Raúl Sánchez García, 2018

The Historical Sociology of Japanese Martial Arts by Raúl Sánchez García, 2018

The next title is The Historical Sociology of Japanese Martial Arts by Dr. Raúl Sánchez García, 2018. I was reluctant to purchase this book because of the low rating on Amazon. The one positive review was written by one of the author's colleagues and sources. The author holds a PhD from Universidad Politécnica de Madrid, Spain and is a lecturer in the sociology of sport at the School of Sports Science, Universidad Europea Madrid, Spain. He has practiced diverse combat sports and martial arts and holds a shōdan in Aikikai aikidō. 

Despite my reservations, I bought the title for my Kindle and I enjoyed reading the book. The author noted that he had to rely on secondary English language sources, as he is not conversant in Japanese. I accepted that aspect of the book, and found his reliance on the available English sources to be generally appropriate. 

It is impressive that Dr. Garcia wrote this book in English, as Spanish appears to be his primary language. Still, I believe his editor should have taken a closer look at the text. For example, his use of the term "ape" or "aped" to refer to mimicry seemed odd. I also sensed that there was a bit too much common Japanese military history repeated in the text.

The book did include one of my favorite figures to appear in any title thus far:

Martial ryū origins and transmission during the two cycles of violence and their aftermaths, Raúl Sánchez García

The key theme that I took from this book appeared at the beginning of chapter 4:"The stabilisation and systematisation of the classical martial ryū (koryū) was favoured by the more peaceful times after each of the two cycles of violence of the Two Courts period [1336-1392] and the Warring States period [467-1573]." In other words, it was during the relative peace following wars that "martial arts" developed in Japan. 

This is counter-intuitive. Wouldn't martial arts develop during the wars? It seems that while war is happening, there is little time or energy for formulating and systematizing the elements of a martial art. 

Finally, I really enjoyed elements of the epilogue where the author compared Japanese arts to French duels of the 17th century, English boxing of the 18th century, and German duels of the 19th century. I would love to see this expanded into additional materials.

Martial Arts and the Body Politic in Meiji Japan by Denis Gainty, 2013

Martial Arts and the Body Politic in Meiji Japan by Denis Gainty, 2013

I bought Martial Arts and the Body Politic in Meiji Japan because so little is available about the Greater Japan Martial Virtue Association (Dainippon Butokukai) in English. The author of this book, the late Dr. Denis Gainty, was really the only author I could find who addressed this important element of Japanese martial arts history.

Overall I enjoyed reading this book, although I focused more on the historical aspects and less on the "body" parts. (Sorry for the "dad joke.") I was pleased to be able to access many documents that are only still available in Japanese, thanks to the author's skills with the language. For example, it would be wonderful to see an English edition of the 1971 title 明治武道史 : 史料 / Meiji budō shi : Shiryō by Ichirō Watanabe. 

I'd also like to note that I was touched while reading the obituary for the author. He clearly left us far too early.

Bonus: The Mongol Invasions of Japan 1274 and 1281 by Stephen Turnbull and Richard Hook, 2010

Before leaving, I wanted to include a bit of art from a title that I forgot to include in my Survey of Stephen Turnbull Samurai Texts. You can find this in the 2010 title The Mongol Invasions of Japan 1274 and 1281. They are the work of one of my favorite illustrators, Richard Hook.

Hakata Bay, 1274, Richard Hook

Hakata Bay 1274 explained, Richard Hook and Stephen Turnbull

Hakata Bay, 1281, Richard Hook

Hakata Bay 1281 explained, Richard Hook and Stephen Turnbull

This book, like all of the Osprey titles to which these creators have contributed, offer a wonderful combination of prose and art.


For next month's reading, I'm probably turning to the 8 titles in the Bruce Lee Library. While I have used them as resources and written about them, I have not read them sequentially and thoroughly. 

As I am having shoulder surgery tomorrow, I wanted to get this document published today, and then take a few days off from my reading schedule.

Finally, I just realized that I've read 100 books using my newest schedule and methodology. My current plan has another 188 books to go, from May 2021 through December 2022. Near the end of 2021 I will work on refining the plan for 2022 and begin planning 2023.

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