In 1877, Saigo led a hopeless rebellion against the Japanese government. Six hundred samurai armed with traditional sword and bow fought the government’s newly trained modern army in an effort to reverse the westernizing changes of the Meiji Restoration. When all was lost, Saigo committed ritual suicide; the institution of the samurai died with him. Three years after Saigo’s death, the government against which he rebelled erected a monument honoring him as a great patriot.
Man uses Saigo’s story as a lens through which to consider the history of the samurai, Japan’s rapid transformation from a feudal society to a modern one, and the ways in which samurai culture colors Japanese society today. He offers detailed explanations of both familiar elements of samurai culture, such as ritual suicide, and less familiar subjects, such as formalized sexual relationships between men. Man himself is never far from the page, whether comparing traditional samurai education with that of a British public schoolboy, visiting a class where a toned-down version of samurai-style sword fighting is taught, discussing the samurai in the context of other “honor cultures” (think street gangs), or explaining Darth Vader’s samurai roots.
Samurai is an engaging look at the final days of a military elite: a great choice if you’re interested in the the story of the last samurai (minus Tom Cruise) or the lasting influence of these warriors on Japanese culture.
A version of this review appeared in Shelf Awareness for Readers.