Stephen Turnbull has become a mark of quality for me. Any time I pick up one of his books, I know that I am in for a serious and entertaining history lesson on Japan's old warrior castes. Currently a lecturer in Far Eastern Religions for the University of Leeds, Turnbull knows his stuff. As with all his books, this one is also covered in photographs and ancient pictures, bringing to vivid life all the history.
"Samurai and the Sacred" combines two of his major focuses, the Samurai and Japanese religion, and takes an indepth look at the spirituality and the effects of religion on Japan's warrior caste. The book takes a historical focus, going from the ancient Shinto beliefs, up to Buddhism, the "Christian Century" and the return to Shinto and the Emperor cult.
Like with his other books, such as Ninja: The True Story of Japan's Secret Warrior Cult Turnbull seeks to demystify and de-Hollywood the ideal of the Samurai as a spiritual warrior poet, devoted to his calling and passionate in his beliefs. This, he says, is an image created later by the "armchair samurais" of the Meiji period, those who still held the rank and title passed on by their ancestors, but who had never actually held a sword in combat. In order to justify their now-useless place in Japanese society, they wrote books and offered themselves up as a refined example of a perfect Japanese person that the rest of society could follow.
As often is the case, the true history is much more interesting, with warrior monks burning down neighboring temples in demand for more money, and Christian samurais marching on Korea with crucifix back-banners and rosaries buried under their armor. Particularly interesting was the groups of hidden Christians who maintained their beliefs in silence for centuries, yet when freedom of religion was granted and they revealed themselves to the new Catholic church, they were so disgusted with the changes the church had made over the centuries they declared the Catholic church to be heretics, and they the true preservers of the faith.
The only drawback would be considering this a study of Japanese religion on the whole. "Samurai and the Sacred" does touch upon these issues, but it is concerned solely with how the samurai approached religion, and not the majority populace. That part of the book is wide but not deep, and it might be a good idea to have a background in those areas before reading this one.