The Wargamer

26 May 2017

Book Review: Samurai Revolution

The Dawn of Modern Japan seen through the Eyes of the Shoguns Last Samurai

Published on 1 MAY 2014 4:12am by Paul Robinson
  1. feudal japan, background / research material, asia

Most wargamers, gamers and modellers have some awareness of the Samurai of Japan either through the “early” period typified by the Gempei Wars or the later “Warring States” period that commenced the rule of Japan by the Shogun; the Emperor being relegated to a mere ceremonial figurehead.   

Samurai Revolution takes us to territory less familiar perhaps to most people; to the end of the rule of the Shogun and the restoration of the Emperor as head of a truly modernised Japan. 

The author, Romulus Hillsborough, originally from California lived in Tokyo for sixteen years becoming immersed in the culture, language and history of Japan.  He travelled widely to visit the key locations where the subjects of his book lived and died.  He has also written two other books covering this same period; Shinsengumi-The Shogun’s Last Samurai Corps and Samurai Tales-Courage Fidelity and Revenge in the Final years of the Shogun.

Samurai Revolution is two books in one.  The first part sets out the wild and gory events between 1853 and 1868 (the Meiji Restoration of the Emperor) when the final Shogun was ejected from power.  The second part covers the first ten years of the restoration in which the new Imperial Government tried to consolidate power and bring in new industry and techniques (including military know how) that put Japan on an equal footing with the powers of the West (and within a few decades develop sufficiently to soundly defeat one of the “Great Powers” of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries-Russia!).  However the new order had a major problem in dealing with the Samurai class.  This group were deeply dissatisfied with the new world that was developing and a class that had valued loyalty and constancy found it difficult to cope with such rapid modernisation. The Satsuma Uprising of 1877 was the result of this dissatisfaction and ended, ultimately, with the end of the way of the Samurai!

The author quotes throughout the book from the journals, letters and histories of Katsu Kaishu.  He served the Tokugawa Shogunate in a number of important military posts.  A sort of latter day Japanese Samuel Pepys he was a prolific writer, helped found the modern navy of Japan and became supreme commander of the Japanese armed forces, earning the title of the “shogun’s last samurai”.  Thus we are provided with the view of someone who was not only a witness to, but a participant in these tumultuous events in nineteenth century Japan.  Thus Mr Hillsborough provides the reader with a grand historical narrative supported by the insiders view. 

This is definitely not a mainstream military history book of the type usually reviewed here at The Wargamer but it is well researched and also well written.  Like all books dealing with a culture and language not familiar to a “Western” audience naming conventions take a little getting used to and for someone not familiar with the history of the Shogunate from the late 16th and early 17th centuries there is a lack of immediate historical touchstones.  However given the impact Japan had in the early twentieth century, its crushing defeat in the Second World War followed by a massive reversal of fortunes leading to it becoming one of world’s economic powerhouses this book is worth reading to understand where that Japan came from.

“Samurai Revolution” available now in hardback from Tuttle Publishing, normal price $29.95 (ISBN 9784805312353). 

http://www.tuttlepublishing.com/books-by-country/samurai-revolution-hardcover-with-jacket