Why I Read It: When I was a kid, I watched the Shogun mini-series on television with my father. Then, when I was on my back healing my surgically repaired ankle with the other one freshly sprained, I read the novel.
Summary: The samurai: who they were, what they carried, their ethos, the wars they fought and their role in Japanese history.
My Thoughts: The author's research was spectacularly done, and this book shines because of it.
The author, who was inspired by the examination of a single samurai sword, carries us through the length of Japanese history, and sets us in place with a topography of the country. He examines the rise of the samurai class and its ultimate demise. And he introduces us to the shoguns, the samurai, the ronin and all of the others who played parts in the sweeping pageantry of Japanese feudal history.
The book is lavishly illustrated with ancient tapestries and modern photos of the weapons, armor and ceremonial dress of the samurai, as well as the castles they built, stormed, decimated and rebuilt.
Several themes stand out. First, the overwhelming sense of loss of life is ubiquitous. Battles were huge, and nobody was spared. Thousands died through time in the name of one master or another, with many innocents slaughtered along the way. And many more took their own lives in a suicide culture that was revived with the kamikazes of World War II. To a westerner, it's unnerving.
Second, the ingenuity and creativity in warfare is interesting, to say the least. During one battle, samurai lashed burning torches to a herd of bulls and sent them charging into the enemy (fire was a major weapon throughout Japanese history). Once, in a show of force, an army cut off the noses and ears of fallen enemies, loaded them onto a ship and let it drift downriver to their surviving opponents.
Miller explains, too, how under the Tokugawa shogunate, the country saw an unprecedented period of peace, lasting for two and a half centuries. During these days the samurai, as warriors, were marginalized, and sought other ways to retain their societal status. Western contact led to a crumbling of the class, as the Japanese found out how much more advanced other countries were in terms of weaponry and military tactics. (The story of Will Adams, on whom James Clavell's Shogun is based, is included). The last medieval-style battle in the world was fought in Japan. By the 1870s, the samurai were officially gone, by decree.
The history is laid out in a straightforward style, on timelines and, in the appendices, in tables. There are tales and themes of Japanese history into which I'd like to dig deeper, thanks to Miller's work.