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Thursday, May 26, 2016

“Warriors of Medieval Japan”, by Stephen Turnbull

288 pages, Osprey Publishing, ISBN-13: 978-1841768649

Warriors of Medieval Japan by Stephen Turnbull – one of, if not THE greatest, western scholars on medieval Japanese military history – is in fact an omnibus edition of three previously published Osprey books covering Japanese Ashigaru foot soldiers, Ninja covert agents and mercenaries, and Sōhei monk warriors and their brethren, Yamabushi, along with a new section on Samurai, the military nobility and officer caste of Japan. As the title indicates, this book is about the warriors from Japan’s medieval age, a period lasting from 1467 to 1638, also called the “Age of the Warring States”; the years before and after are also addressed as appropriate.

The first part is a basic introduction and chronology, covering the contents and the time period, before moving on to the Samurai, with Turnbull covering the usual material while providing some seldom-heard (at least by me) information on the warrior class, including something about groups called ikki, which were alternates to the usual samurai route of either service to a daimyo or going rōnin, a samurai with no lord or master. The ikki were more egalitarian groups, composed of members from all strata of society, usually though not exclusively religious in foundation, and most of them were destroyed by either Oda Nobunaga or Toyotomi Hideyoshi, both powerful daimyo or feudal lords, during the wars of the Warring States. We also learn about the jizamurai, a social class that served as a sort-of meeting point between the poorest rural samurai and the wealthiest peasant farmers. There’s quite a bit more here, all of it very well written.

Next comes the Ashigaru, the spearmen, archers, and harquebusiers who served as the rank and file in so many Japanese armies. They weren’t as glorious, as colorful, or as well recorded as the Samurai, but they did their part and then some. Turnbull especially covers the Battle of Nagashino in which the peasant Ashigaru mowed down thousands of samurai cavalry with their guns. The author covers their use in sieges, organization and command, their life on campaign and their experience in battle. There’s the usual fine Osprey art in this section and all through the book by Angus McBride, Wayne Reynolds, and Howard Gerrard, too. Next comes a section on ninja, and if you’re as old as me (don’t ask) you probably can remember the ninja craze from the 80s and after, during which these guys got turned into magical supermen. Thankfully, Turnbull manages to both dispel the myths while playing up just how these mercenaries were really used. It does become obvious why and how they earned their reputation, though, as the ninja were a cross between Special Forces and spies, doing all sorts of assassinations, intelligence gathering, and sabotage in war and peacetime. This was a truly eye-opening section. Last comes the warrior monks, the Sōhei and Yamabushi. I never knew before reading this book that the Japanese Buddhist monks were so militant or well-armed (they seem to have been using guns before even the Ashigaru) or that they once held so much influence over the Imperial government that they were referred to as akuso, “evil monks”, by many. These monks were also often part of the aforementioned ikki and fought their own small-scale wars against the Samurai, many of which ended with brutal massacres. Again, to me this was all very new and a delight to learn and read. The last section has a glossary, a bibliography, and a listing of various museum collections.

I have to make clear is that this is not a book that one just sits down and reads; I attempted to do just that but there is just too much information to absorb that way; furthermore I don’t think that it was written to be read that way. It reads more like a reference book or a text book as the writing, though informative, is rather dry and academic. For all that it is packed full of incredibly interesting info on all the warrior classes of ancient and medieval Japan; Turnbull is where you go for all things Japanese.

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