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I’ve just finished reading Stephen Turnbull’s newest book, “The Samurai Capture a King: Okinawa 1609,” an account of the 1609 invasion & conquest of the Kingdom of Ryūkyū by the samurai forces of the feudal domain (han) of Satsuma. Turnbull is easily one of the most prolific writers active today of samurai history, and while his books are for the most part of much higher quality than those associated with what I can only call “sammyrai” history*, he is definitely known for his sloppy scholarship and for the popular/general audience (read: non-academic/scholarly) level of his publications.

All in all, I must say, I was pleasantly surprised. I haven’t read a Turnbull/Osprey book in quite some time, and I guess I had built up some pretty harsh preconceptions (read: extremely low expectations) based on vague memories. To whatever extent that this account can be said to be reliable, Turnbull does provide a very involving, engaging, account of the invasion, in incredible detail. Contrary to my initial expectations and impressions, he does actually use Okinawan sources (not just Japanese ones), and does actually discuss at length the inconsistencies and exaggerations seen in troop numbers in the primary sources. He’s made me aware of primary sources I never knew existed – not only Shimazu family records and things like the Shimazu Ryûkyû Gunseiki and Ryûkyû Gunki, which I might have presumed to exist, but things like the ehon (picture book) version of the gunki monogatari (“Tales of the Records of War”) -something more commoner-level, and more widely available at the time of its publication.

Though I was at first frustrated or annoyed by his Shimazu-centric approach – given that I’m so used to reading things from the Okinawan point of view, and seeing the Shimazu as the attackers, the colonizers, the oppressive overlords – that feeling quickly passed, and in fact, I find his approach most intriguing.

I’m still a little taken aback at his representation of the Ryūkyū Kingdom as aggressive and expansive, when everything else I’ve read has to one extent or another emphasized the martial weakness and relatively pacifist attitude of Ryūkyū. This is perhaps the first (only) text I’ve read that explicitly refers to the Ryūkyū Kingdom as expansive and aggressive, and the first that in any way assumes validity to Satsuma’s claims over any of the islands; i.e. argues that the Ryūkyū Kingdom was aggressive against Satsuma, and that Satsuma felt the need to defend or reclaim their territory. I guess we (aspiring & professional Okinawa scholars) have all fallen into that trap of reading backwards into history a sort of Manifest Destiny on the side of the Ryūkyū Kingdom. However their expansion is described in books by Kerr, Smits, Matsuda, Sakihara, or even Sakai (the top Satsuma specialist), it very rarely has that tinge of aggressive, expansive, conquest.

On a quite related note, I am intrigued by Turnbull’s apparent position on the side of Satsuma in supporting or recognizing their claims to a number of islands which they claimed for centuries but never governed, administered, settled or colonized. At least he admits that the Shimazu never exercised any authority over these islands prior to 1609, but merely claimed them. Perhaps that’s him reading back into history as if those islands which are today part of Kagoshima Prefecture rather than Okinawa Prefecture – seized by Satsuma in this 1609 operation – are therefore, in the imagination, inherently part of Satsuma and always have been.

Perhaps, this is a good thing. Turnbull’s Shimazu-centric approach cuts like a Foucaultian-cleaver (no connection to Foucault’s pendulum; it’s a different Foucault) through the questions and perspectives hidden from us by the webs of prior discourse. We’d become so used to seeing the Satsuma-Ryūkyū relationship a certain way that no one even thought to, let alone dared to, consider the whole thing from Satsuma’s point of view, in a relatively positive light.

I do not wish to paint the book in a wholly negative light. In fact, on balance, I’d say it was quite good. It does an excellent job of describing the invasion in great detail, going far far beyond anything previously published in English, and thus provides a most interesting bit of reading, and a most useful resource.

I do, however, have some issues I would like to raise:

(1) Going beyond simply focusing on events from Satsuma’s point of view, he truly valorizes and lionizes the Shimazu effort, samurai weapons, fighting skills, and strategies. This is perhaps the chief fundamental flaw running throughout all his writing.

He spends time praising and in fact worshipping through his words the amazing technology and craftsmanship of the samurai katana. He then goes on to describe the other weapons, ships, flags, banners and other signalling methods, and strategies and tactics as though they are all glowing, superb elements of what made the samurai the greatest warriors in all of history. Unprofessional, subjective, inaccurate, and extremely one-sided, I should think that if I had written something like this, I would be embarrassed of myself.

He describes the Shimazu forces as having excellent intelligence, liaison, and communication in such a manner that it seems not an objective, factual description, but a celebration of their amazing martial prowess; by contrast, he portrays the Ryukyuans as totally lacking in strategy, tactics, or planning, reacting far too late at every step of the way, their defenses incompetent to the point of being laughable. These are what we, at Wikipedia, call “peacock words.” Calling anything excellent, amazing, or brave just to lionize that side colors the description in a way that’s not only subjective and potentially inaccurate, but is indeed unprofessional for any self-respecting scholar.

Again, while these may be accurate descriptions, and he does in fact quote directly from primary sources to describe the utter chaos that erupted as peasants and commoners gathered their possessions on carts and horseback and fled for the hills, somehow it is in the way that he describes it which paints a picture not of sympathy for the outgunned Ryukyuans, whose tiny kingdom was destroyed in one fell swoop, but of glorious, valorous victory for the Shimazu over foolish, primitive, incompetent islanders.

On another crucial point, Turnbull again fails to represent the nuances of the history. He gives a fairly thorough overview of the ways in which Satsuma hid its presence in the islands, and the complex reasons for doing so (Chinese trade through Ryūkyū as a tributary was contingent on the Chinese belief that Ryūkyū was still independent, since China was not trading with Japan at the time). But then he neglects a key point: namely, that most scholars today believe that Beijing was well aware of what was going on, and chose to continue playing the game as it benefited them in whatever way. In misrepresenting this, Turnbull continues his pattern of exaggerating and celebrating Shimazu ability, failing to present a more accurate and objective account.

(2) No footnotes or endnotes. No idea which statements are coming from which source, or which page. Imagine how much side information is left out by not having footnotes.

(3) While it would be difficult to say that Turnbull made any true mistakes in representing the ranks and titles of the Ryukyuan aristocracy, discussion of it is absent, and that still frustrates me a bit. This is what happens when you don’t have footnotes.

He represents the individual known as Kyan ueekata, which might be translated as “Magistrate of Kyan” or “Lord of Kyan”, as if Kyan were his name, rather than his domain. He mentions princes, describing them as the king’s son and brother, completely failing to acknowledge that “prince” was a rank within the aristocracy that was often held by those not directly related to the royal line. Were these individuals actually the king’s son and brother? I’m not sure. Maybe he was misguided by their title of “Prince”. Or maybe he’s right.

He represents Rizan, ueekata of Jana, who was also known by the Chinese-style name of Tei Dô (Zheng Jiong), as “Jana Teido”, mixing names & titles incorrectly, with no care for macrons, and with no explanation whatsoever of the different names and titles of Okinawan aristocrats. This would have been the perfect opportunity to make use of footnotes…

(4) A horribly unprofessional lack of consistency in the use of macrons. I know this sounds quite nitpicky, but in truth it’s no different than correct spelling. Typos I can excuse – such as the flubbing of a date on one of the otherwise very keen date flags that run along the margins heightening the sense of action and drama by providing a timeline of events. But when you consistently, throughout the book, spell Ryūkyū correctly (indicating the long vowels that would distinguish it from the short-voweled Ryukyu) and Ōtomo incorrectly, as Otomo, that’s a problem. Non-scholarly, public consumption book or no, I should think that Dr Turnbull of all people – an obvious enthusiast for the dramatic and exciting narratives and biographies of clans and of individual samurai – would care to get this right.

This happens throughout the book. The name of the kings, that of the Shō dynasty (not Sho) is rendered correctly, but things like Ōwan, which he explicitly translates or describes as “the great bay” and Ōshima (“Great Island”), are rendered as Owan and Oshima, which in Japanese can only mean “small bay” or “honorable bay” and “small island” or “honorable island”, respectively, the Ō for “great” never being represented by a short “O” vowel sound.

Further typoes include the description of Naminoue (“Above the Waves”) Shrine as Nama no ue (“Above Freshness”) on one of the maps, and Name no ue (“Above Licking”) on a caption. This is possibly the fault of copyeditors, but Turnbull knows Japanese – if this was his own mistake, then shame on him for not taking the time or the bother to notice the vast difference in meaning he’s created, to the point that I, quite honestly, saw “Nama no ue” and had no idea what or where he was talking about.

On a similar note, and I am sure this is the fault of the Osprey editors or book designers, and not of Dr Turnbull, the date flags which run alongside the margins, keeping the energy of the narrative going by marking off events and providing a timeline, do not correspond at all to what’s described on their respective pages. I love these flags – I think they’re a great feature. But when the siege on Nakijin is described in the text on pp32-37, and the timeline flag in the margins for these events is found on p43, that’s a problem. Throughout the book, the narrative runs way ahead of the flags, such that the flags for the mid-point events of the conflict are found on pages describing the surrender and aftermath.

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All in all, if you’re interested in the subject, I cannot but recommend this book. It is by far the most detailed account available in English, is filled with wonderful illustrations and maps, and is a relatively easy read (not too dense at all). But if you are truly serious about researching the topic, I would suggest that you double-check any and all facts gotten out of this book. Turnbull frustratingly does not include any footnotes or endnotes, but at least there’s a bibliography.

As for the price, I’ve gotten things only slightly shorter, and of great scholarly importance (read: things that form the foundation of my own research; things I cite all the time) for free, through my universities’ subscriptions to JSTOR. Had this been published in a journal rather than as a separate book, you too could have downloaded it totally for free, provided you were associated with a university. I’ve also bought books far longer, thicker for $20. In fact, half the books on my shelf are 4x the length of this one, and less than 2x (or even less than 1x) the cost. But, it’s hardly a totally absurd price to pay; I’ve seen academic books and museum catalogs that go for hundreds of dollars.

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*Books which exaggerate and falsify the martial skills of samurai and ninja, maintaining and reinforcing the absurd stereotypes of ninja magic and unreal, superhuman samurai ability seen in video games, anime, and other forms of fiction. The kind of stuff aimed at or primarily consumed by teenage martial arts enthusiasts obsessed with exotic weapons, bushido, and the like, who aren’t even on the level of ‘armchair historian’, let alone proper scholar.

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My hits spiked when I wrote about politics, but even then I still didn’t get any comments, despite the potential of my words to be quite offensive… But then the point of writing a blog isn’t to write what will get hits or what will get comments, but simply to write what I am interested in sharing. Now, if only companies thought the same way, allowing creators to make marketing decisions instead of marketers – if companies produced and marketed and sold things they wanted to share with the public, rather than things their marketing research shows will sell… If the ultimate goal were to produce a worthwhile, meaningful, creative product and not simply to make the most profits…

Anyway, this weekend I noticed a bookstore in Harvard Square, Raven Used Books, that I never noticed before. I wonder how long they’ve been there. My goal of course was not to buy but simply to browse while killing time, but of course, in the end, I ended up buying several books. Hey, when you happen upon things for relatively cheap (under $15) that you never expected to find outside of the SOAS library, you have to jump for it.

Studies in the Institutional History of Early Modern Japan

Studies in the Institutional History of Early Modern Japan

Studies in the Institutional History of Early Modern Japan (John W Hall, Marius Jansen eds.)

A rather dry title, to be sure, but this is an academic book after all. A collection of essays on various aspects of the economic, political, and social structures of Edo period Japan, this book contains quite a number of articles that, I get the impression, are fairly foundational, and certainly ones of great relevance to topics I enjoy and intend to pursue research on.

Includes articles on feudalism, urbanization, economic structures, and Tokugawa law, as well as several articles focusing upon Tosa and Satsuma, though these are used not as interesting topics unto themselves but merely as examples exploited for the purpose of advancing abstract theories about historical interpretations of political/economic/social structures, an approach that I harbor a distaste for. Still, it’s great to have all these articles collected up in one book rather than having to rely on photocopies made from individual academic journals, etc, which would have been quite time and money consuming.

Some articles of particular interest:
*”Foundations of the Modern Japanese Daimyo” – John Whitney Hall
*”The Consolidation of Power in Satsuma han” – Robert Sakai
*”The Castle Town and Japan’s Modern Urbanization” – John W Hall
*”Bakufu versus Kabuki” – Donald Shively

Southeast Asia in the Early Modern Era: Trade, Power, and Belief (Anthony Reid, ed.)

Another collection of academic essays, another book providing good foundational sources. I’m far less knowledgeable, experienced in the field of Southeast Asian studies than in Japanese, but from what I gather, many of the scholars featured here, particularly the book’s editor, Anthony Reid, are big names in the field, and not only reliable, but would also serve me well as core reading.

As I may have mentioned in a previous post, I wrote my MA thesis on Japan’s commercial and diplomatic relations with Southeast Asia in the 17th century, focusing particularly on relations with Ayutthaya (Siam/Thailand) and southern Vietnam under the Nguyen lords. Japanese history tends to be fairly inward-looking (just look at the previous book, Studies in Institutional History), focusing on culture within Edo, politics within a domain (han), trade routes and economic systems within the country. It is also the study of a country which thinks itself quite homogeneous. And so, to talk about maritime history, overseas trade, the colorful multi-ethnic, multi-cultural ports of Southeast Asia was an exciting change of pace for me. It is easy to fantasize and romanticize about adventurers on the high seas, interesting characters who fled Japan or were exiled and sought fortunes overseas. Samurai fighting on elephantback alongside Thai forces against Burmese invasion; Japanese silk traders in Viet Nam dominating the market despite their inferiority of numbers against the Chinese, driving prices up and driving the Dutch crazy. Japanese from well-to-do Osaka merchant families marrying into the Nguyen noble family which ruled southern Vietnam. … And to just imagine the ports themselves, what a vibrant and exciting place they must have been, seeing the kind of intercultural exchange one rarely sees in early modern Japan, with its strictly controlled international interactions.

Some articles of particular interest to me:
*”Nguyen Hoang and the Beginning of Vietnam’s Southward Expansion” – Keith W Taylor
*”Restraints on the Development of Merchant Capitalism in Southeast Asia before c. 1800″ – J. Kathirithamby-Wells
*”The Vanishing Jong: Insular Southeast Asian Fleets in Trade and War” – Pierre-Yves Manguin


Japanese Castles AD 250-1540 by Stephen Turnbull

A far less scholarly book than the previous two, Turnbull’s writing tends to be marketed towards the young enthusiast who thinks samurai and ninja are kewl and want to learn more about the real thing. Which isn’t really something I can fault anyone for; after all, that’s how I got into it, that’s how a lot of people got into it, his books are cheaper, far easier to find, and far easier to read than the proper scholarly books.

His books tend to be short, covering the topic in a rather cursory manner, going into way too much detail on some points and leaving massive gaps in the big picture. But he does focus on a topic for its inherent interest, and is not simply using this as an avenue to discuss historiographical theories. I also get the impression from those who do take military history a bit more seriously that Turnbull misinterprets his sources and often takes them too literally, uses some sources excessively and others not at all, and just plain fails as a reputable scholar (and thus a reliable source) in general. A good read, and mostly accurate in its content, but perhaps not quite enough so to quote from, cite from, in a formal dissertation or essay. Outside of the fact that he has no inline citations or footnotes whatsoever, listing his sources only in a works cited in the back, giving the reader therefore no indication of which assertions are derived from which sources, I have only one real quibble with his writing that I myself have noticed. He very rarely mentions controversies or uncertainties as a proper scholar should, making assertions (for example, in this book,) about the relationship between the Yayoi and Jomon people, the Korean origins of the Yamato people, the colonial status/identity of Mimana (the Gaya Confederacy, which he misspells as Minama) as if they are fully accepted truths without even hinting at the fact that these are things that are in fact hotly debated in the academic community.

Nevertheless, all of that aside, it is a book which focuses well on its topic, covering “Japanese Castles AD 250-1540” in greater detail, more straightforward language, and with more pictures and illustrations than any historian whose focus is on historiographic analysis of social trends in political structures of the economic impact of whether or not feudalism is a valid word to apply to Japan ever would.

For some reason I cannot fathom, the professional proper academic community looks down upon, or outright ignores, military history. … So, for what it is, Turnbull’s works can be quite interesting and valuable.

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