Sunday, May 09, 2010

Gamers Guide to Feudal Japan: "Daimyo of 1867"

Every year the Samurai Archives runs its Samurai Fiction contest and every year we get a few entries that are woefully lacking in terms of realistic historical background. Names that couldn’t exist in Japanese are bandied about along with unrealistic depictions of government and culture at any given time. The SA Citadel message board also sees a steady stream of gamers of all varieties looking for available sources to help them out in building more realistic and believable environments and situations for their gaming scenarios. Up to now, there hasn’t been much in the way of resources tailored specifically to this market. There have been RPG’s such as Sengoku, Bushido, or Land of the Rising Sun that have given some background but being tied to a specific rules system sometimes makes them difficult to adapt to other efforts, and information is often abstracted to make it work within the system. Finding what they need in regular history books is possible for gamers and authors, but can be frustrating and time consuming. Filling this void is Different World's recently published gamer’s guide to feudal Japan, “Daimyo of 1867: Samurai Warlords of Shogun Japan”.

Author Tadashi Ehara was born in Sapporo, Japan and is well known in the gaming community. Tadashi was a publisher for Chaosium (and a contributor to its landmark Call of Cthulhu series) and the editor for Different Worlds magazine. In the 1980’s Tadashi received a copy of E. Papinot’s Historical and Geographical Dictionary of Japan. Papinot’s book, despite at times containing outdated information, remains an invaluable reference work. For example, most of the biographical sketches in Steven Turnbull’s Samurai Sourcebook were copied from Papinot (although Turnbull unfortunately did not credit the book or mention it in his sources). Combined with his love for chanbara films and Japanese history, Tadashi decided to make Papinot’s long unavailable book the foundation of a guide meant “for creating more realistic backgrounds for role-playing games, boardgames, miniatures games, and computer games. It is also useful for those writing historical novels, screenplays, graphic novels, comic books, anime, and other creative works”. While it certainly does that, as we’ll see it’s also a useful guide for the Japanese historical community in general.

One of the first things we do when reviewing a book is to check out the types of sources it uses. “Daimyo of 1867” uses many of the better sources available in English. Besides the aforementioned Papinot, it has listings for works by George Sansom, A. L. Sadler, Hiroaki Sato, Marius Jansen, John Whitney Hall, Engelbert Kaempfer, Helen McCullough, Jeffrey Mass, Ivan Morris, Paul Varley, the ubiquitous Stephen Turnbull, and many other authors that will be instantly recognizable to SA members. Even casual sources tend to be reliable, such as A. J. Bryant’s Sengoku Daimyo website and of course the Samurai Archives itself. Absent for the most part are the questionable histories written by martial artists (although the notorious ‘Secrets of the Samurai’ does rear its ugly head), so the book is built upon a solid foundation. Author Ehara further establishes credibility in his introduction by addressing the differences between the Japanese lunar calendar and the western Gregorian calendar, establishing Japanese naming conventions, and providing a pronunciation guide to Japanese. The book features hundreds of black and white photos, maps, woodcuts, paintings, mon, and other visual aids-rare is the page that isn’t enhanced by some sort of illustration.

The book proper begins with a look at the geography, climate, and topography of Japan and quickly moves on to a general summary of Japanese history from 660 BC to 1192 (the period where the Emperors of Japan or the representatives of their court held real power) and 1192 to 1868 (the period that saw warrior rule come to the forefront). This is followed by an excellent 17 page chronology that covers the years 660 BC (when the first Japanese Emperor, the presumably fictitious Jimmu, came to the throne) to 1877 (the Satsuma Rebellion led by ‘Last Samurai’ Saigo Takamori). These 17 pages provide an excellent framework upon which those new to the study of Japanese history could build on. The major roads and thoroughfares of Edo period Japan are examined, with a focus on the Gokaido (the five main routes leading to and from Edo). However, there are more than a dozen other more obscure routes examined that should provide ideas for authors and gamers alike. Ehara then proceeds to address the culture of Japan. Mainly centering on the class structures of the Edo period, other topics include population centers and their numbers, short sections on religion and the monetary system (both koku and coinage), a history of the different Shogunates, and an introduction to the structure and offices of the Tokugawa’s Bakufu.

A gamer’s guide addresses how to use the book’s information to enhance one’s game system of choice, even in how to lend ahistorical campaigns a solid grounding in reality. Many of the more storied legends of Japanese history are presented as examples, such as the vengeance of the Soga brothers and the 47 Ronin. The account of the 47 Ronin’s famous ‘drive-by’ at Lord Kira's estate follows the ‘Chushingura’ version rather than actual history-for example, it has the Ronin fighting dozens of Kira’s guards rather than the three to five they encountered in real life. While this would be unacceptable for a regular history book, it’s fine for a work intended to be used for real, imagined, or legendary situations. Topics such as martial arts training, sankin kotai (the alternate attendance system used by the Tokugawa to both have direct control over the daimyo and deplete their coffers), heirs, marriage, concubines, the role of women, ronin, sanctioned and unsanctioned vendettas, and yes, even shudo (the practice of an older, powerful samurai taking on a young page as a sexual partner) are examined. The gamer's guide section on ninja walks the middle ground between fantasy and reality, making it useful for either type of campaign. A daimyo name generator is given to help provide gamers and authors with authentic names, along with a short section detailing naming conventions, the coming-of-age ceremony, and how to go about choosing an 'auspicious' name.

Several pages of “Daimyo of 1867” are devoted to a listing of samurai themed games, their year of release, and manufacturer. These extend across the entire gamut of gaming-there are boardgames, RPG’s, wargames, miniatures rules systems and figures, card games, computer games, and video games. Many of them are obscure little treasures that even we hadn’t heard of. Ranging from commercial releases such as ‘Legend of the Samurai’ to the quirky and varied home brewed efforts from Warp Spawn Games, we spent the better part of a morning downloading them off the web. Many of the listings can be downloaded for free or at low cost, making this a feature that will be highly appreciated by any gamer. One disappointing aspect of the book was that there was no listing or discussion of chanbara and jidaigeki films, usually a standard component of books of this type.

Until now, most of the material in the book appears in one form or another (although with the exception of Sengoku usually not as accurately as here) in most RPG games and sourcebooks dealing with samurai. 'Daimyo of 1867' sets itself apart from the crowd in the section that takes up most of the book (a little over 200 of its 346 pages). Here you'll find an overview of each daimyo in existence at the end of the Edo period-all 270 + of them. As you can see by the sample page, there's a lot given in each listing. While the listings sometimes vary slightly due to the availability of information, a typical entry will have a province broken down into han, each of which will have it's daimyo's name, mon, domain name, revenue, class (both tozama and fudai daimyo are given the numerical rankings used by the Tokugawa), headquarters castle, succession, biographies of notable ancestors, and related branch families with their locations. Ehara has taken the information found in Papinot's book and presented it in a fashion that not only gathers scattered data into one spot, but also draws attention to things that wouldn't be noticeable in Papinot's text. For example, who would have thought that at the end of the Edo period there would still be four members of the Oda family who were daimyo? That the Go-Hojo, who most thought dispossessed and eliminated by Hideyoshi after the siege of Odawara, would still be tending a domain? That an entire province (Noto) contained no han and did not have a daimyo? Or that the Naito had fully six branches that held daimyo status? This is a real treasure trove of information, and not just for gamers or authors-it would be extremely useful as a reference for would be historians as well. Ehara has also taken the trouble to index these pages using not just one, but four different methods. You can look up entries by han, clans, province, or daimyo name, meaning that you can go straight to what you need without having to dig it out. Want to know what han comprised Echigo province? Where a certain han was found? Where the Yagyu daimyo were located? It can be frustrating trying to look it up elsewhere, but it's easy here. The only shortcoming I can see is that many famous samurai whose clans did not survive into the late Edo period (like the Takeda) or that never regained daimyo status (like the Chiba) have no biographical entries (while of course both the Oda and Uesugi daimyo have listings for Nobunaga and Kenshin). However, the book IS focused on the Edo period and its daimyo, so their lack of inclusion is understandable.

As with any survey of this scope, generalizations are sometimes made and certain topics simplified but make no mistake-there is a cornucopia of detail in the book. Authors can use the information herein to set up scenarios and backgrounds that are historically and culturally accurate. Gamers, especially those of the RPG and LARP persuasion, will be able to do so as well. The emphasis on the relatively peaceful Edo period means miniature enthusiasts and wargamers might find it a bit disappointing due to the lack of detailed information on armor, tactics, and weaponry. However, these concerns are addressed in detail in any number of rules systems readily available-the book can still be used as a complement to these to set up campaigns and battles that reflect real history, particularly in the turbulent Bakumatsu era. Apart from its value to the gaming community and writers, the ‘han’ section of “Daimyo of 1867” along with many of its details on other aspects of Japanese history makes it a useful and handy reference work for amateur scholars. Despite author Ehara’s statement that “This is not a scholarly piece of work”, there was a lot of research, hard work, and care put into the production of this sourcebook. “Daimyo of 1867” is available directly through Different Worlds Publications. You can learn more about the book, check out sample pages, and order a copy HERE-or order through Amazon at the Samurai Archives Bookstore.


  1. Thanks for this thorough and well-written review! Though it looked excellent upon first glance, if I recall correctly, the discussion on the forums had given me the impression that perhaps the book wasn't so good after all. I'm glad to see it redeemed, in your eyes at least. I don't think I'll be shelling out $60 for it any time soon, but as soon as I happen upon it at a more reasonable price (consider that most RPG sourcebooks go for $20-30, and that most history books can be found used for $5-15 if you're lucky), I am absolutely going to snap this up.

    Could be a fantastic resource for adding to the SA Wiki, too, no?

  2. Yep, as long as you didn't use information from the 'Gamer's Guide' section of the book,

  3. I am thoroughly satisfied with my copy of this book, from both points of view (student of Japanese history and RPGer). Tadashi should get great recognition for his excellent presentation and research. I am recommending his book to all my gamer friends who have interest in an historic Japanese setting.