Legends of the Samurai

Legends of the Samurai
Hiroaki Sato
Overlook Press, 1995
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Hiroaki Sato’s book, Legends of the Samurai, is a most interesting book. It is not necessarily a “fun” read, nor filled with all sorts of nifty little facts and tidbits about martial arts. Instead, it is a book with interesting content that gives the reader a very good glimpse of the mindset of the Japanese warrior as it developed over the years, from the warriors of mythological times through the Heian period and up to the more well-known bushi of the Sengoku Jidai (Era of Warring States). One very interesting aspect of the book is that Sato’s translations retain much of their original Japanese voice, and are not over-prettified by modern literary conventions. This gives readers a flavor of getting it “straight from the horse’s mouth,” and imparts a greater sense of authenticity than would be the case if these warrior tales and essays were simply told for entertainment’s sake.

Sato begins the book with an introductory essay, where he describes the historical development of the warrior class, its distinctive culture and his methodology in preparing the translations. A poet himself, he discusses at length the bushi’s love, and use of, poetry, as well as more the sanguine aspects of beheading one’s enemies and ritual suicide. He follows this with a chronology of Japanese history, including the dates of both significant military events and the appearance of literary works that chronicle them. At the end of this introductory section is a brief genealogy of the Minamoto, or Genji, clan. These last two sections alone make the book a useful reference for people interested in Japanese martial culture, though the genealogy is a fairly basic one and I wish it had been presented in more detail, along with those of the Taira (Heike) and other prominent families of the early periods of Japanese history.

The book is divided into four sections, arranged chronologically. Part One, “Samurai Prowess” is primarily a collection of tales about men who skilled in the martial arts. These stories were taken in large part from the Konjaku Monogatari (A Collection of Tales of Times Now Past), a twelfth-century story collection, and ends with a story of a warrior in the early 1200s.

Part Two, “Battles Joined,” is composed of stories about famous warriors and their battles. Sources include a government chronicle, epic narratives written in the Chinese-style, and contemporary accounts. The stories in this section cover a number of the famous individuals and events of the Heian through Warring States periods and ends in the latter sixteenth century.

The third section is titled, “The Way of the Warrior.” It presents writings by a number of members of the warrior class in the early to middle Tokugawa period, allowing them to speak in their own voice. Many of the excerpts are by men of letters, rather than hardened soldiers, so there is a wide range of viewpoints that provides a contemporary view of warrior society, ending in the first half of the eighteenth century.

Part Four, the final section, is “A Modern Retelling.” It is a story written in the early 1900s of a real event in the early Tokugawa period (mid-1600s), when a young warrior decided to follow his lord in death by committing an act of ritual suicide without official permission. It was written by a man who was both an influential writer and army officer who was moved to look at the past actions and thoughts of Japanese warriors in an effort to understand why his friend, another famous general, also committed suicide upon the death of the Emperor Meiji. It serves as a more contemporary view, written as it was by a man who was himself of the warrior class, of what is, to us, a distant time and place almost unimaginable, only dimly seen.

As I said at the beginning of this review, this book is not really “fun” to read. It’s not unpleasant, or grim, by any means, just dense with content and sort of, well, a touch alien. I think that the translator has done an excellent job in preserving the voice and the sense of the original pieces. His use of notes to explain historical and cultural details that would otherwise be obscure to readers unfamiliar with classical Japanese society and literature is helpful and does not detract from the presentation of material. All in all, a good and *useful* book to have for people interested in the martial arts and Japanese culture. I recommend Legends of the Samurai without reservation.

You might also enjoy Castles of the Samurai, Code of the Samurai, and Samurai: An Illustrated History.

Meik Skoss

Copyright ©1998 Meik Skoss. All rights reserved.