The image of the samurai is almost synonymous with Japanese history for many people: the honor-bound, bow and sword wielding individual warrior on horseback. It could have been very different. When the early Japanese Court was trying hard to adopt the massed infantry tactics of China, a series of defeats to an impressive “barbarian” guerrilla warrior from the north changed the military culture of the country.

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For Further Awesome Reading…

A History of Japan to 1334

The OG—Sansom wrote a comprehensive history of Japan that is readable and scholarly at the same time, while still respected many decades later. Volume 2 is even better, although it covers events centuries later than those of this podcast.

Heavenly Warriors: The Evolution of Japan’s Military, 500–1300

When my own history professor assigned this way back when, she made clear it was a “counter” narrative to a lot of how Japanese history had been interpreted for many decades. It’s a great companion source to something like Sansom.

Before you listen…

The samurai era conjures up many ideas for most of us: honor codes, poetry, tradition, and splendid warriors with legendary swords. This image was never truly accurate, but it was gone by the 1540s. The once-glorious capital was half in ashes, the old lords had nearly all been destroyed, and the country had been in anarchy for two generations. It was a time of total disaster, but also a time in which the class structure was fluid enough that a simple peasant would rise in time to reunify Japan, restore the prestige of the samurai … and erase any opportunity for men like him to do the same again.

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For Further Awesome Reading….

Hideyoshi by Mary Elizabeth Berry

The best and most expert source for the true history of the life of the great man, as well as the greater context of the Japan that had come before him and the Japan in which he lived.

A History of Japan 1334 – 1615 by George Sansom

Sansom was a beast at narrative history in the old style, when the idea was to tell the story of the facts in a compelling way rather than to get yourself published for saying something, anything, new. This is my main reference for the whole fascinating period from the ascendancy of the first Shogunate to the dawn of the last.

Taiko: An Epic Novel of War and Glory in Feudal Japan by Eiji Yoshikawa

For fun, high drama, visual detail, and a more immersive reading experience, this historical fiction biography of Hideyoshi is a great read!

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