Summer Reading Notes: Turnbull

After our discussion of the 1590s wars, I did pick up Stephen Turnbull’s Samurai Invasion: Japan’s Korean War, 1592-1598. The book is a great read, and there’s some fantastic detail in it. Like so much military history, there’s a sense in which it’s a story in search of a thesis, but the detailed research, sources and strong (and pretty balanced) background make it worth the time. I was particularly struck by the way in which the Chinese-Japanese negotiations between the major phases of the war excluded Korean representatives, foreshadowing the 19-20c “New Imperialism.” In both the earlier and later instances, Korea was not really a passive subject or empty space, but it’s remarkable how consistently it is treated as such. I was pleased to know that most of what I’ve been teaching about the wars was correct (Talmud says that an error in teaching [Torah, of course] is tantamount to an intentional sin), and next time I go over this in class I have a whole wealth of new material to work with. One of my long-term aims, as I think I’ve mentioned before, is developing a curriculum of balanced and integrated Korea-Japan history, and this is an excellent and accessible example of pretty good work in that vein. Yeah, I’ve got some concerns, and people who know the period better than I might have others, but I think this’ll stand up for a while.

I picked up another of Turnbull’s books, because it was in the library catalog and because I get asked about this all the time: Ninja: the True Story of Japan’s Secret Warrior Cult. I have my doubts, which were not assuaged by the first page [italicized comments are mine, of course]:

For the purpose of definition I shall take the view that the study of ninja is the legitimate study of all aspects of unconventional Japanese warfare [this may be a legitimate object of study, but you have to demonstrate the equivalence of ninja to “unconventional,” as defined by normative and often ahistorical samurai texts, warfare before you assume it], from intelligence gathering to assassination, and from guerrilla warfare to night raiding, and in view of the large number of words used for the practitioners of such operations [which might be a clue to the need for a less overarching analysis], I shall use the term ‘ninja’ except where the context is inappropriate [as defined by the author himself].

Naturally, the rest of the book might relieve me of my skepticism, but the blatantly self-serving nature of these definitions is quite off-putting.

Part of what Turnbull is doing, and this is something I’ve seen others attempt, is trying to explain the factual origins of a myth at the same time that he is debunking [aspects of] it. This is a tough act: the two strains of argument really do strain at each other, and maintaining a credible balance and tension between the two requires that the sources for both be very strong (and be handled evenly and rigorously). That’s rarely the case, though the quality of Samurai Invasion gives me some glimmer of hope. Just a glimmer, though.

I’ve got to get through this soon, because I really want to get back to reading Young [whose concept of “Total Empire” dovetails quite nicely with my research on Japanese government involvement and monitoring of emigration] and Botsman [which came back from Library Reserves yesterday].

1 Comment

  1. Jonathan, what you said about the tough act of both trying to find the factual origins of a myth and debunk it reminds me of a beautiful passage in a book I have been reading of late by Timothy Snyder (The Reconstruction of Nations: Poland, Ukraine, Lithuania, Belarus 1569-1999 – highly recommended). Here is what he says about the dangerous game that is played when refuting myths:

    “Refuting a myth is dancing with a skeleton: one finds it hard to disengage from the deceptively lithe embrace once the music has begun, and one soon realizes that one’s own steps are what is keeping the old bones in motion.” (10)

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