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Last Shogun: The Life Of Tokugawa Yoshinobu Paperback – 1 Aug 2004
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About the Author
RYOTARO SHIBA is one of Japan's bet-loved writers of all time. Working as a newspaper reporter, he began to write 1959 received the Naoki Prize for his novel The Owl Castle. His many works, which often present new interpretation of turbulent times such as the Meiji Restoration, have had enduring success with Japanese readers. He was named a member of the Japan Art Academy in 1981, cited as a person of cultural merit in 1991, and was conferred with Order of Culture in 1993. Shiba died in 1996.
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Top customer reviews
Ryotaro Shiba, was a prolific writer in Japan, but has received a distinct lack of recognition in the West. This is perhaps because what he writes (as seen in the Last Shogun), really falls between the cracks of western genres, being neither an outright historical biography nor outright historical fiction in the style of a Cornwall or an Iggulden. Instead the Last Shogun reads in translation a lot like Dening's life of Toyotomi Hideyoshi , in comparison to Western writing traditions like a modern Plutarch or Xenophon. That said I found Shiba's work easier to read than Dening, with the end product being a broadly enjoyable and broadly factual account of the life of Yoshinobu Tokugawa.
The work is chronological taking us through Yoshinobu's childhood in the Mito family, through to his adoption into the Hitotsubashi family and rise to become Shogunal Guardian and eventual Shogun, the fall of the Bakufu and his life after the Meiji restoration. It is clear throughout that Shiba, holds Yoshinobu in high regard and in some respects the work is a defence of him, something that Yoshinobu would have been grateful for given his own sense of history. Shiba also recognises Japan's debt to Yoshinobu for the transfer of power from the shogunate to the emperor. This does sometimes mean that Shiba avoids criticism and works to distance Yoshinobu from the shinsengumi and other less palatable incidents of the times.
The novel is well worth reading, especially for those with an interest in the Meiji era, it really opens up the other side of the story, which often focuses on the imperial faction. The work is well written, accessible and helps to provide a really good starting point for anyone wishing to understand the period.
Keiki was born into an offshoot of the Tokugawa family that made his chances at birth of later becoming Shogun extremely small. However, succession was more flexible than simple primogeniture, and Keiki's adoption into another branch of the family and the deaths of other contenders made him the logical choice for Shogun when the vacancy arose in 1858. Pressured by foreign forces and internal dissent, at that stage there was still probably an opportunity for a strong Shogun to reunite the country and secure the future of Tokugawa rule. But the Shogunate advisors feared Keiki's very strength, and opted instead for his malleable teenage cousin. After eight years of civil strife and poor leadership, upon the cousin's death the advisors turned in desperation to the candidate they had previously stymied, but it was too late. Not only was it impossible by 1866 even for a man like Keiki to maintain the status quo, but a strong Shogun paradoxically ruled out the House of Tokugawa playing some reduced role in the new constitutional arrangements that followed the restoration of Imperial rule in 1868.
Shiba is seen by the Japanese as one of their best writers in any genre, but sadly not many of his books are available in English. While at times his playful style does feel very much translated in this English edition, he has a talent for character that will engross anyone interested in the fascinating period that was the end of the Shogunate and the birth of modern Japan. Ryotaro Shiba vividly captures both Keiki's greatness and his contradictions. Highly recommended historical biography.
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Case in point: Nariaki supposedly had Yoshinobu sleep w/ 2 swords drawn right next to his head so that he would be careful to maintain a posture of sleeping on his back. Regardless of whether this statement is true, how can the reader ascertain this w/o sources? While it may be the author's intent to have an historical narrative interwoven w/ a fictive writing style, I believe this regrettably may be looked at as a work that is being used for college courses. (I say this b/c my used copy was highlighted on supposedly important passages.)
In short, I believe that those who want a genuine, in depth, if sometimes tedious look at the Bakumatsu period go to Albert Craig's "Choushuu in the Meiji Restoration" or Mark Ravina's "The Last Samurai." Regardless of the fact that this was written by a Nihonjin (a Japanese person) should matter little to those who would like some sort of analyses w/ the thesis' pertained w/in a book classified by Kodansha (the publisher) as something that can be taken as historical fact.
The introduction to the book laments the loss of the historical narrative in the Western world, and it's easy to see why. Shiba's well-researched account of Yoshinobu's career becomes a gripping page-turner (and this really *is* a history book!). The intro positions Yoshinobu as a figure standing at a critical crossroads in world history (one of many in the history of Japan) , and laments him as a man who came too late to power to influence the future of Japan for the next century. Because Shiba presents Yoshinobu as a wily and far-seeing (if self-serving) genius, the narrative quickly becomes an engaging read; you really want to see how a man as intelligent as Yoshinobu could lose to the anti-shogunate forces. Shiba goes to great lengths to emphasize that Yoshinobu foresaw the demise of the shogunate and wanted nothing more than to avoid becoming its leader, yet he finally shouldered the burden. Yoshinobu, of course, knows he cannot defeat the surge of Imperial loyalists, and resolves to prevent a bloody civil war by dissolving the shogunate and abdicating. In spite of what is acknowledged by history as a brilliant move, Yoshinobu was wracked with angst for the rest of his life over perceived disloyalty to the Emperor and anger over the betrayal of Satsuma, the powerful Kyushu domain led by men like the famous Takamori Saigo.
Contrast this excellent book with the entertaining "The Last Samurai: The Life and Battles of Saigo Takamori" by Mark Ravina, which shows the Satsuma perspective: Saigo and his allies in the Shimazu clan were infuriated by being constantly outmaneuvered by the clever Yoshinobu!
I think the primary reason for this book's success in English is the translation by Juliette Winters Carpenter. Though my Japanese is poor, the translation preserves the style of Shiba while still conveying his wit and intelligence. It really seems to me like reading a Japanese book in English, instead of reading an English book based upon a Japanese one. It's easy to understand Shiba's deep appreciation for Yoshinobu throughout the book, and I honestly think the translation alone is worth five stars.
If you wish to know more about Japanese history - or history in general! - why not pick up Shiba Ryotaro's outstanding story of the life of Tokugawa Yoshinobu? It is an immensely satisfying read that will have you scrutinizing every account of the Meiji Restoration as you wonder, "What if Yoshinobu had....?"