Friday, February 13, 2009

Review: Samurai of Ayutthaya

Title: Samurai of Ayutthaya: Yamada Nagamasa, Japanese Warrior and Merchant in Early Seventeenth-Century Siam
Author: Cesare Polenghi
Publisher: White Lotus Press
ISBN 978-974-480-147-0

When I began browsing the Siam Society bookstore in downtown Bangkok the other day, I did not intend on making any new purchases. However, how could I pass up this small, white treatise on what has become a personal quest in this sweltering tropical country? And in reading it, I see I'm not alone.

In Samurai of Ayutthaya lies the current culmination of Polenghi's work on sorting through the fact and fiction of one of Japan's most famous merchant-adventurers of the early 17th century, while expanding upon the early Japanese international entrepreneurs who flourished in the late Sengoku and early Edo periods, prior to the implementation of harsh restrictions and closing of the country. Some may remember an earlier paper of his, written in 2004, entitled "The Japanese in Ayudhaya in the First Half of the 17th Century" (hosted on the S-A Citadel Japanese History Site). He has clearly delved further with his research, and he presents it here in a concise and readable manner. Perhaps my biggest issue is the question: what has he left for the rest of us?

As it stands, Polenghi certainly appears to have made use of all available scholarship on the issue of Yamada Nagamasa, and he puts forth a strong case that he was a real and important individual in Ayutthaya and Japanese-Thai relations. He also delineates fact from fiction, putting much of Nagamasa's later praise in the proper context of pre-war Japanese nationalism, countering with information from the Siamese and Europeans who were there during, or just after, Nagamasa's term as head of the Nihonmachi (or Baan Yippun as it is known in Thai). He also goes into the question of the general presence of the Japanese in the waters of Southeast Asia, describing the inroads they made and challenges they faced as they briefly connected with the larger international community.

If I were to admit any fault in the book, it would only be its first chapter, and that for personal reasons. Polenghi starts out with an admittedly fictional account of Nagamasa's life; this felt out of place in a book that is otherwise about drawing the facts out of a tangled narrative overlaid with anachronistic and unverifiable accounts. I would prefer it stand alone, perhaps as an expanded work, or something akin to Shiba Ryotaro's treatment of Tokugawa Yoshinobu.

Regarding the rest of the book, however, Polenghi does a terrific job of laying out the story of Nagamasa as he appears in the historical record. He begins with a background of the times in which Nagamasa lived, and the relationship between Japan and Siam, and continues to lay out what evidence remains of the records. Regrettably, most of the best sources were lost when the Burmese sacked and burned Ayutthaya in the 18th century, but enough foreign correspondence remains to plausibly reconstruct what happened. We trace Nagamasa's life, from birth to death, as closely as one could hope. We also catch a detailed glimpse of the lives of the merchants of the red seal ships, which plied the seas in the early 17th century.

I also found the work well annotated, but not in a way that could be considered confusing. Polenghi is also honest about the reliability of his sources, and shows an admirable preference for the more trustworthy texts. That doesn't mean he won't drop in a few legendary tidbits every now and then, but he is clear regarding their origins.

Towards the end, we also gt a taste of how Nagamasa has been handled by his fellow Japanese, particularly in regards to the PR campaign that thrust him center-stage as a symbol of Japanese warrior-explorers in the politically charged pre-war era.

This is definitely a must-have book for anyone interested in Yamada Nagamasa, but it is also recommended for anyone interested in Japan's foreign relations in the early 17th century--a dynamic age when intrepid merchants and soldiers-of-fortune were spreading abroad just as their home government was retreating from the rest of the world.

If you are interested in buying this book, you can help out the S-A website by purchasing it and other books through the Samurai Archives Amazon Store.

1 comment:

  1. Ayutthaya is one of my favourite place in Thailand and I often visit the Nihonmachi - the Japanese Village - which unfortunately was flooded last year but has since recovered.

    A statue of Yamada Nagamasa is also on display here, alongside other replicas and photographs documenting the life the Japanese lead in the Siamese capital.