Samurai Revolution – Book Review
The West and Americans in particular, have been long fascinated with Japan. From John Belushi’s samurai shtick of the 1970s to the more recent movies Last Samurai and Letters from Iwo Jima, Japan has rarely left the collective American psyche. Author and Japanese scholar Romulus Hillsbourgh’s latest book, titled Samurai Revolution, is a two-part tale of the pivotal late Edo (1603–1868) and Meiji Periods (1868–1912) of Japanese history. This story is told in part through the eyes of Katsu Kaishū a famed Japanese naval strategist, theorist and statesman. Katsu is a fascinating, if little known, figure whose life’s work was critical to the foundation of modern Japan. Hillsborough quotes extensively from Katsu’s personal writings observations, offering a unique perspective from an eyewitness to history.
The final years of the Edo period were characterized by a struggle to retain Japanese traditions and limit outside—i.e. Western—influence on Japanese society. For centuries, military leaders, known as shogun, governed Japan. Although “officially” appointed by the emperor, the shogun held the actual power and authority of the Japanese government. The shogun limited foreign contact to a handful of European trading partners centrally located (and controlled) in a handful of port cities. Generally speaking, this arrangement worked until the arrival of US Commodore Matthew Perry’s squadron in Edo (modern Tokyo) Bay in 1853.
Perry presented the Japanese with an unprecedented ultimatum in Japanese-Western relations—namely, the Japanese Emperor must receive a letter from US President Millard Fillmore or face the consequences of gunboat diplomacy. Perry’s actions divided Japan’s samurai warriors and government officials into two opposing camps aptly named “Expel the Barbarians” and “Open the Country.” These two movements spent the next 15 years fighting, maneuvering and plotting against one another to decide the fate of Japan. In 1868, the shogun surrendered power, restored the emperor and began democratic initiatives. These events heralded the beginning of Meiji period and the birth of modern Japan.
Samurai Revolution is a challenging book to read or enjoy. Hillsborough spent 25 years researching material for his story, including 16 years living in Japan. He is fluent in the Japanese language and culture. There is no doubt Hillsborough is an expert on his subject matter, but Samurai Revolution struggles to make itself understood by the lay reader. Perhaps aware of the difficulty of addressing so much history in one book, Hillsborough includes a brief explanation of the complex administrative and caste systems used in feudal Japan, a cursory glossary of the book’s major characters, and one very general map of Japan. However, these aides are insufficient given the book’s incredible level of detail, and the reader will be hard-pressed to keep the historical details distinct and clear. Personal naming conventions of the era are problematic as well, with major figures frequently changing their names as they move through society. Further, while there are occasional flashes of brilliant storytelling, too much of the book reads more like a dry historical encyclopedia or dictionary than an engaging narrative.
Despite its aforementioned challenges, Samurai Revolution serves as a compelling and timely warning for America today. Hillsborough astutely captures the serious consequences of self-imposed isolation, xenophobia and failure to adapt to the changing world. Imperial Japanese leaders consciously chose to isolate their nation from outside influences and engagement. Further, they selected and promoted government officials based on family lineage rather than on actual ability or job performance. As a result, Imperial Japan was left with few viable options when Perry’s fleet, and modernity, anchored in Edo Bay in 1853. The United States faces similar choices today, debating its own role on the world stage after more than a decade of war, economic difficulties and a strongly divided populace.
Major Christopher J. Heatherly enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1994 and earned his commission via Officer Candidate School in 1997. He has held a variety of assignments in special operations, Special Forces, armored, and cavalry units. His operational experience includes deployments to Afghanistan, Iraq, South Korea, Kuwait, Mali, and Nigeria. He holds master’s degrees from the University of Oklahoma and the School of Advanced Military Studies.
The opinions expressed in the article are solely those of the author and do not reflect those of the United States Government, the Department of Defense, or the United States Army.