Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Stephen Turnbull's "Strongholds of the Samurai: Japanese Castles 250-1877"

While as one would expect, books on Japanese castles are legion in Japan, there's been a dearth of works on the subject in English. Other than Schmorleitz's 'Castles In Japan' (which contains much outdated and erroneous information) and Mitchelhill's 'Castles of the Samurai: Power and Beauty' (which focuses on the value of the castles as an architectural and art form), only the odd tourist pamphlet or Japanese book translated into English (usually badly) has brought these uniquely Japanese structures to the attention of Westerners. Stephen Turnbull's latest release from Osprey Publishing, 'Strongholds of the Samurai: Japanese Castles 250-1877', goes a long way towards correcting this situation. 'Strongholds of the Samurai' collects Turnbull's four prior Osprey books dealing with Japanese castles-'Japanese Castles 1540-1640', 'Japanese Fortified Temples and Monasteries AD 710-1062', 'Japanese Castles in Korea 1592-1598', and 'Japanese Castles AD 250-1540'. Each of the four works was valuable in its own way, and as a collected volume becomes a valuable reference work and a great value.

Turnbull has taken the opportunity to correct some of the errors in the original publications, as well as presenting updated information (such as the recent demolition of the Fujimi Castle ferro-concrete reproduction south of Kyoto). A page by page comparison of the new volume with the original books reveals that the text has indeed been revised and modified-some sections of text have been excised (to avoid covering the same ground twice) and new text has been added in spots, such as an account of the Battle Of Ueno during 1868 that is new to the 'Fortified Temple' section and some new information on the operational history of castles in the Bakumatsu/Meiji era. There's also a new eight page introduction and timeline along with a four page conclusion. The biggest difference between the current collected volume and the original books lies in the photos. Many of the photos have been resized or replaced with completely new ones-many of the old black and white photos are now in color as well (with many of the color ones now being black and white). This is most noticeable in the chapter dealing with Japanese castles 1540-1877-the majority of the photos seem to be brand new. All of Peter Dennis's excellent color plates have been left in, albeit at a reduced size. Dennis is one of Osprey's better illustrators and is exceptionally well suited to the topic of castles. One minor criticism of the book has to do with the sequencing of the chapters-it would perhaps have been better to have led off with the two volumes on Japanese castles, followed by the Korean wajo and then the fortified temples and monasteries. As it stands now, the fortified temple volume is located between the two dealing with Japanese castles. Production value on the book is high, with an attractive dust cover featuring Shizugatake Castle taken from a painted screen in the Osaka Castle Museum. Paper stock is thick and most of the book's 270 pages have at least one visual aid, all of which are in sharp focus or reproduction.

Part 1, Japanese Castles 250-1540, is valuable for what it tells us about early Japanese fortifications. Turnbull uses photos of modern reconstructions and models along with illustrations from period war tales to show us how the early yamashiro (mountain castles) differed from the monster castles of the late Sengoku and Edo periods. Very little of this information has appeared in English (most of it in volumes examining the Taihei-ki or Shomon-ki). From the earliest fortified enclosures of the Yamato state, the fortresses in Dewa and Mutsu erected to defend against the Emishi, the Heian strongholds of the Fujiwara in Hiraizumi, the moated earthworks and walls intended to hold back the Mongol invasions, the mountain redoubts of Kusunoki Masashige, to the early Sengoku yamashiro that presaged the age of the monster castle, Turnbull examines each in detail. Construction methods are explained along with case studies involving how the structures performed when put to the test in battle. Day to day life inside the structure is also explored. There are copious, well thought out maps that show the majority of the locations being talked about and further classifies many by faction and date (the maps being a feature common to every chapter). While there's much to cover here (both in terms of timeline and territory), it's an excellent introduction to the neglected area of early Japanese fortifications.

The book's second part, Japanese Fortified Temples and Monasteries 710-1602, does much the same for the Sengoku era fortified 'temple towns' of the Ikko-ikki (best represented by Ishiyama Hongan-ji) as well as the temples of the so called warrior monks or 'akuso' (most famously, the temple complex at Mt. Hiei that was destroyed by Oda Nobunaga). Perhaps the most valuable achievement of this chapter lies in delineating the differences between the two factions and how they were reflected both in their social structure and fortification/architecture of each. Again, photos of modern reconstructions and models bring the text alive for the reader. There's much more emphasis in this chapter on the history and development of individual structures (since many of them were well documented or survive to this day) along with how the differing religious philosophies influenced their construction. For example, the Tendai monks of Mt. Hiei rarely built anything in the way of permanent fortifications, trusting that the fear of the gods and kami they could bring to bear upon the superstitious populace would safeguard their complexes from attack. When taken in conjunction with books such as Tsang's 'War and Faith' (a groundbreaking treatment of the Ikko-ikki) or Adolphson's 'Teeth and Claws of the Buddha' (the authoritative volume on monastic warriors), the reader will get a true picture of how the armed religious factions of Japan lived, fought, and worshipped.

The third part, Japanese Castles 1540-1877, has obviously had its scope expanded to include the Bakumatsu and Meiji eras. This is the era of Japanese castles most readers will be familiar with, as it deals with the majority of the surviving structures in Japan. There's much in the way of construction detail, especially in the engineering involved with erecting the massive stone walls and bases many of these structures featured. While it doesn't have the historical details of Schmorleitz's 'Castles In Japan' , there are operational studies showing some of the more famous sieges and also detailing how castle design was influenced by the advent of the arquebus and artillery. Turnbull also points out a common misconception-that a castle keep never doubled as a palace for its owner. While rare, the larger castles (such as Azuchi and Osaka, along with smaller ones like Inuyama) had keeps that served as a palace for their owners. Diagrams showing how castles were laid out to channel invaders along with cross sections of keeps help to demonstrate why these structures proved to be so difficult to attack. This chapter also features by far the largest amount of new photographs. In Turnbull's extensive 'Visiting the Fortifications Today' section at the rear of the book, there's also quite a bit more information found on many of the original existing structures as well as modern reproductions. As a whole, however, the section still leaves the reader feeling that it's only scratched the surface, and that there's much more to be said on the subject of the Sengoku and Edo period castle. Perhaps this will be territory for Turnbull to explore in the future.

Finally, Part 4, Japanese Castles In Korea 1592-98 is perhaps the crown jewel of the entire book. The limited timeframe and location allows Turnbull to go into an incredible amount of detail. This is Turnbull at his best-when he limits his scope and focuses his subject matter, which seems to be the direction his upcoming Osprey releases are taking. Every wajo (the name given to Japanese style fortifications built in Korea during Hideyoshi's Korean invasions of 1592 and 1598) receives a detailed history giving its construction details, dates, operational history, and layout. Many of them also have topographical maps. Each of the 30 sites receives extensive photo coverage, and although none have been reconstructed (due to the ongoing political acrimony between Korea and Japan), one can get a real feel for why not a single one of the wajo ever fell to a Chinese or Korean assault. The accounts of their efforts to do so are among the high points of the book, with the siege of Ulsan in 1598 being particularly noteworthy. There's also an interesting bit on the wajo as economic center with rudimentary 'castle towns' growing up around them, populated by Koreans eager to resume a somewhat normal life.

Overall, 'Strongholds of the Samurai' is an excellent compilation, giving a detailed overview of the development of Japanese fortifications throughout time, social classes, and different countries. At less than half the price of two of the original works, it's also a great value. An attractive volume, it's loaded with photos, prints, color plates, maps, and artwork. The majority of the information given in three of the four chapters has never been seen in English, and author Turnbull is still among the best when it comes to bringing the old legends and stories of Japan to life for the reader. It's a winner-an absolute no-brainer of a purchase if you're missing any of the original volumes, and even has much to recommend it to those who have all four.

Strongholds of the Samurai can be purchased from Amazon through the SA Store here.


  1. There's been some serious doubts raised as to whether the ferro-concrete reconstruction of Fushimi Castle has indeed been destroyed as was stated in the 'Strongholds' book. If anyone knows for sure of the site's CURRENT state, we'd appreciate you letting us know.

  2. The surrounding amusement park was demolished, but the castle towers, gate and garden are still there. You can no longer go inside, but the grounds are open.