Sunday, January 04, 2009

Karl Friday's The First Samurai: The life and legend of the warrior rebel Taira Masakado

You know, I've always heard the phrase 'never judge a book by its cover', but until recently I've paid it little heed. Thus, when I saw the cover of Karl Friday's book on Amazon I kept putting it off. After all, what meat could there be in a book with bright, flashing colors on the front and a confusing, anachronistic woodblock print shown in relief? In short, it looked like just another of the myriad populist books on Japanese history, designed to get readers to plunk down money just so the author can rehash old material and convey the same vague generalities about samurai warfare. It seemed to be playing off of the success in the English speaking world of the Tom Cruise "you, too, can live out your doomed romantic warrior fantasies" movie, and pandering to the sammyrai fanatics.

On the other hand, it is Karl Friday, who brought us Legacies of the Sword, Hired Swords: The Rise of Private Warrior Power in Early Japan, and other notable works, so it was on my list.

Now I'm kicking myself that I didn't get this book sooner. The information on not only Taira Masakado, but on the life in Japan during the 10th century and other famous figures of the time, is absolutely wonderful. Not only that, but it presents the facts in a way that is easy and enjoyable to read. I would easily compare it to other recent biographies, such as David McCullough's "John Adams", which open to the reader not just a dry tome of the dust from a person's passing, but the rich texture of life in their day and age.

Taira Masakado is a figure that is famous in Japan, but his name has hardly made a splash in the English speaking world until this book, which will likely, as Thomas D. Conlan lauds, "remain the definitive study of the legendary warrior and his age for years to come." Friday begins by introducing his audience to the Masakado story as it is known in Japan--his rebellion, beheading, and the subsequent legends of that same vital appendage flying about Japan and causing havoc even as late as the mid 20th century. He illuminates for the reader the common conception of Masakado as the first warrior of the early medieval period to rise up in rebellion and challenge the imperial authority.

However, just has he has laid out the groundwork for you, Friday turns the whole thing on its head. He lays out a cogent argument for Masakado as a victim of circumstances and poor judgment, rather than a committed rebel. Masakado comes off as a an able warrior and administrator who was invested in the imperial system and likely had no real intention of setting up anything else, but he was driven into a position where he felt he had no other choice. In fact, the reader comes away with the feeling that Masakado's entire reputation is quite overblown by later historians, and yet the story of his life is no less enlightening about the times he lived in. In fact, it is because he was an exemplar of his times and not an outlier that a study of his life is of such import.

While examining the actions and motives of Masakado, Friday also examines the lifestyles of the provincial warriors during the Heian period and the combination of centripetal and centrifugal forces that kept court and countryside in balance. He reveals for the reader the economic politics of the often hastily assembled warbands, whose ties to their nominal general were often tenuous at best.

He also dispels the later veneer of romance that later authors were prone to place on samurai warfare, putting pragmatism in its proper historical place. For example, he describes not only the lauds given for men skilled at ambush tactics, but the reasons why they were so necessary in this age of the horse and bow.

His research is neatly referenced, with both in-page footnotes and 26 pages of footnotes at the end of the book. His bibliography is divided into Primary and Secondary sources, and the work contains a helpful index for looking up specific topics.

Admittedly, the swirl of "Taira", "Fujiwara", and "Minamoto" surnames can often make following the complex familial relationships of the time difficult for the uninitiated, but Friday uses that confusion to highlight the all too real social complexity of Heian period Japan.

In conclusion, I cannot recommend this book highly enough. Anyone interested in the history of the samurai and the rise of the warrior class should have a grounding in the provincial warriors of the Heian period, who were adapting the previous ritsuryo military guidelines to the new era of private bands of horsed archers, and this book, by highlighting one such individual, brings that transition sharply into focus.

If you liked this review, and want to have a look for yourself, then why not buy The First Samurai at the SA Amazon Bookstore!