From the Archives–Samurai: The Last Warrior

I’m currently embroiled in proofreading the endnotes for The Dragon From Chicago.  It’s a headache-inducing job, but it is the one part of the book in which no one can catch the errors except the writer.  (Probably the person who made one of them. )  Instead of hoping I pick up speed and can squeeze out a new post, here’s post that ran in 2013 for your amusement.

John Man combines travelogue, history and social commentary in Samurai: The Last Warrior, using the story of Saigo Takamori, popularly known as the “last samurai”, as his central focus.

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 or the lasting influence of these warriors on Japanese culture.

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