Top positive review
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Excellent introduction to Japanese history
on 26 June 2012
As someone long interested in Japanese history, I was in two minds about buying this book. On the one hand, it seemed as if it would gather a lot of the facts I'd learned at different times into an overarching narrative. However, I suspected a lot would be repetitious with not much new information. Luckily, it leaned more towards the former.
The writing style is good, carrying the story along briskly. The narrative rarely sags and covers all the major areas from the mythical beginnings to modern times. Other reviewers have commented on the lsat chapter, which focuses on modern attitudes - I thought it worthy of inclusion, and wished the section on WWII could have been a bit longer (how exactly was Bushido used to serve the needs of the state? Why did Japan have a good reputation for prisoners in the Russo-Japanese war and WWI yet go so wildy off the rails in WWII, and how did that relate to Bushido?) The sections on the more well-known areas such as the Sengoku and Edo periods were brief, as was the author's intent. However, the rise of the samurai in the Asuka, Nara and Heian periods was interesting and probably the part of the book that will be most unknown to an average reader. I enjoyed it a lot, even though the book seemed to pick up speed alarmingly towards the latter part.
One thing I did find odd was the uncritical acceptance of several classic moments of samurai mythology. It's always nice to see ninja given short shrift, but the episode of the 47 Ronin was the standard Mitford tale, with no space given to any rebuttal of the traditional parts of the story. Stephen Turnbull's title 'The Revenge of the 47 Ronin' gives a very different look on the classic tale - this book was published later than 'A Brief History of the Samurai', yet it's strange that Clements makes no attempt to examine this, seeing as he debunks other popular stories. His version of the battle of Nagashino is also a trifle outdated, to the best of my knowledge; at the very least, the emphasis given to the arquebuses is a matter of some dispute. However, these are minor flaws in the grand scheme of things. A good introduction with more scope than the usual Sengoku period fare.