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Book Review: Samurai Revolution By Romulus Hillsborough

The Dawn of Modern Japan as seen through the eyes of the Shōgun’s Last Samurai!

samurai revolution front coverThis book, based on twenty-five years of research by Romulus Hillsborough who spent sixteen years living in Japan, joins his growing portfolio of his other works on the pivotal characters and themes of the Bakumatsu Period and the Meiji Restoration bringing many of them together in a welcome work that covers the pivotal period that heralded the end of the Japanese feudal era and the beginning of the industrial and political modernisation of Japan.

Something of a tome ‘Samurai Revolution’ is written as two books. The first covers the conflicting interests of the Tokugawa Bakufu in Edo (modern day Tōkyō) and the Imperial Court in Kyōto and the inter clan alliances which had been forged nearly three hundred years before in the triumphs and defeats of the crucible of the Battle of Sekigahara, and the momentous changes that came about which led to the Meiji Restoration. The second book covers the consolidation of the new Government and its polity and the last Samurai revolt, the Satsuma Rebellion, led by Saigō Takamori.

Some minor criticisms might be levelled at the style of writing. The continual use of the term ‘intercalary‘ for instance which is used to indicate the old Japanese month number and Japanese era year number using the old Japanese calendar system without providing the era year name and the Western year doesn’t help the reader to place events in time as it is generally understood by English readers. It would have been far clearer to have used the format that most writers on Japanese history do; for example Meiji 1 (1868) with either the lunar month or the equivalent Western month. If Japanese history is going to be written for a Western English speaking readership it needs to be written in a way that makes it is easier for the readership to understand, not trying to appear too clever academically.

Whilst Hillsborough’s previous books such as ‘Ryōma: Life of a Renaissance Samurai’ and ‘Shinsengumi: The Shōgun’s Last Samurai Corps’ and the research that went into their writing feed into ‘Samurai Revolution’, the in depth historical narrative that unfolds is told very much from the perspective of the Japanese Statesman and Naval Engineer Katsu Kaishū with many excerpts from his personal narratives. Contrary to criticisms of his other earlier books, references and footnotes abound to the extent that they make this publication a much more serious attempt at a contribution to the academic genre of Japanese history, albeit one written in English.

Katsu Kaishu

Katsu Kaishu

Some minor criticisms might be levelled at the style of writing. The continual use of the term ‘intercalary‘ for instance which is used to indicate the old Japanese month number and Japanese era year number using the old Japanese calendar system without providing the era year name and the Western year doesn’t help the reader to place events in time as it is generally understood by English readers. It would have been far clearer to have used the format that most writers on Japanese history do; for example Meiji 1 (1868) with either the lunar month or the equivalent Western month. If Japanese history is going to be written for a Western English speaking readership it needs to be written in a way that makes it is easier for the readership to understand, not trying to appear too clever academically.

Edo Castle

Edo Castle (end of Tokugawa era; courtesy of Yokohama Archives of History

Katsu Kaishi before surrender of Edo CastleAn additional criticism that has been levelled at Hillsborough is his over use of certain phrases. In ‘Shinsengumi’ it was the over use of the phrases ‘will to power’ and ‘propensity to kill’. In ‘Samurai Revolution’ a similar phrase that seems to be a little over used is ‘went up to the castle’, which is also the title of an entire section. Whilst this may seem colourful and idiosyncratic it can become something of an irritant, detracting from the overall academic tone of the narrative.

A final criticism is the naming conventions Hillsborough uses. Whilst he explains the historical Japanese practice of changing names Hillsborough then attempts to use this in the timeline of his narrative, occasionally using more than one of the names a single character uses which can become somewhat confusing. It might have been better to have been a little more consistent, perhaps by explaining a character’s name changes when they are first introduced and then using the single most common name by which the person is generally known; Katsu Kaishū for instance.

The book brings to life many people who, depending on perspective, emerged from this period either as heroes or villains, who may otherwise have remained unknown to readers of Japanese history in the English language. To this end, and in spite of criticism, Hillsborough has managed to untangle the Machiavellian web of interactions between the major players in this well researched and fascinating narrative, not least of which reveals just how astute Tokugawa Yoshinobu, the last of the Tokugawa Shoguns, actually was.

The overall story, the plots and the sub plots that make up the narrative can be somewhat daunting in their complexity though here patience really is its own reward as they are brought under Hillsborough’s microscope and disentangled. It is patently obvious that Hillsborough is incredibly knowledgeable and very enthusiastic about the subject matter of the book and this imbues the book with a sense of excitement and conveys the adventure that the protagonists were subjected to. Not for the fainthearted this really is a book for the aficionado.

Available at all good bookshops and online stores including Amazon.co.uk

Romulus Hillsborough’s website http://www.samurai-revolution.com/

Details:

Publisher: Tuttle Publishing

Format: Jacketed Hardcover

Date Published:03/25/2014

Illustrations:20 photographs, line art, and maps

Number of Pages:608

Trim Size:6 X 9

Author Profile:

Trevor Skingle was born and lives in London where he works in the field of Humanitarian Disaster Relief. He is a Japanophile and his hobbies are Kabuki, painting and drawing and learning Japanese.

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