The course we all have to teach

Alan Baumler, my colleague from next door has sent along this “call to arms”

As some of our regular readers may remember, there is a Frog tradition of posting our syllabi for comments. One class I will be teaching in Fall is Japan in the Age of the Samurai. Here is the description.

In this class we will examine the development of Japanese society and culture during the age of the samurai, roughly 1100 to 1550. We will look at the development of the class of bushi, their political, economic and military roles. We will also look in depth at the development of a social identity that was flexible enough to include the courtier-warriors of the Heian period and the ronin of Sengoku. This was also an age of considerable social and intellectual change, and we will look at urbanization, international relations and the development of Buddhism as well as changes in rural society and other topics. Readings will include important secondary sources and some primary sources. The course will also involve a research paper.

I was going to call the class “Land tenure and social status in Medeival Japan,” but I was told by pretty much everybody that I needed a better title to attract students. So “Age of the Samurai” it is. Basically we will be covering the late Heian to the end of Sengoku, and it is not a class just about warriors, but they are pretty central to the period. It is a topics class, which means it is mostly for juniors and seniors, and I will be running it more like a colloquium than a lecture class, and all the students will be doing research papers.

So, I need to pick maybe four books to have them all read. I was thinking of using

Helen McCullough trans. Tale of the Heike

Pierre Souyri The World Turned Upside Down

Thomas Conlan States of War: The Violent Order of Fourteenth Century Japan

Mary Berry The Culture of Civil War in Kyoto

Any suggestions? Books to substitue? Things I should be reading as I teach these books? Articles or chunks from other things I should assign? For this type of class I usually make up a reader with a bunch of articles and chapters from other books so any ideas would be most welcome.

I don’t have a lot to add: my own version of this is running currently, and overlaps considerably with Alan’s choices. I am particularly curious myself about the Berry as a course text, since I’ll be getting to it in a month or so. I’m a little surprised not to see any John Whitney Hall or Jeffrey Mass at that level (especially the Mass, for documents). The Cambridge History of Japan for that period might be a good resource, too, though more for the instructor than the students.

So, gentle readers: any other suggestions?


  1. Here’s something related you can try to answer for me:

    Who is the originator of the translation “barbarian-subduing generalissimo”?

    No other comments, really. Looks like some books I should read.

  2. I am also teaching a very similar course at the moment at UCLA that I developed called “Samurai in History and Popular Imagination” that is a topical examination of warrior’s changing social role over the centuries. As it is a seminar-style course that meets only once a week I have students read quite a bit of material from a variety of books and articles. The main texts I assign are Ikegami’s _Taming of the Samurai_ and Friday’s recent _Samurai, Warfare and the State_ since the two act to counterbalance one another somewhat.

    There was a week this past quarter where I had students read an article by Mass but most found it quite difficult to follow. I did not assign anything by Hall but, as I revise the syllabus for the upcomign quarter, I am thinking of adding his dated but still useful article on the development of various “types” of daimyo.

    In order to squeeze this in to an already backed set of readings I will probably cut Souryi. While I admire his full-on appropriation of Amino Yoshihiko’s approach to Japanese history from the periphery, there are just too many mistakes in his text for me to use it at an introductory level, such as his baseless claim that the term “sengoku” was first applied retroactively in the Tokugawa period…

  3. Isn’t that just a fairly accurate translation of 征夷大将軍? 征=subdue, conquer; 夷=barbarian (eastern, specifically. In this case the emishi 蝦夷, but also used for the Americans et al in the bakumatsu period sonno joi (joi being 攘夷) as opposed to the southern barbarians, the 南蛮), 大=great/big and 将軍=general – so ‘great general’ literally.
    (Incidentally, I believe the western barbarians were referred to as 蕃 (as in 西蕃), and this was used for the aborigines of Taiwan. 胡 may have been used for northern barbarians in China (where these all came from originally) but I have not seen it in use in Japan.)

    On topic, can’t really assist with readings etc for the middle ages as that is not my field, though I suspect that the title “Age of the Samurai” will attract too many people who might be looking for the wrong thing. I’m mainly interested in finding out if there is indeed anything beyond the 征夷大将軍 translation than the obvious….

  4. I do an “Age of the Samurai” class that is based loosely on the one Henry Smith does
    at Columbia, covering from Heian to early Meiji. The texts are:
    1. Duus, Peter. Feudalism in Japan.
    2. Ikegami, Eiko, The Taming of the Samurai
    3. Sato, Hiroaki, Legends of the Samurai
    4. Chushingura: The Treasury of Loyal Retainers, trans. Donald Keene
    5. Katsu, Kokichi, Musui’s Story.

    We also read selections from:
    Tale of the Heike
    Hurst, G. Cameron III, Armed Martial Arts of Japan.
    Several Saikaku stories, especially ones about homosexuality.
    Shively, Donald H. “Bakufu versus Kabuki,”
    Helen Hopper, Fukuzawa Yukichi.
    Ivan Morris, “The Apotheosis of Saigō the Great,”

    I have the students write a historiographical review of some historical question from
    the medieval or early modern periods.

  5. Thanks for the advice. I’m still not sure what I will end up doing. I do a lot of Tokugawa stuff in my regular Japan class, so a bunch of good stuff does not really fit here. How bad is Souryi? I just glanced at it and I did not catch any errors, but then I probably would not. I also notice that the trend seems to be running towards Friday and away from Conlan. I must admit I chose Conlan at first because it was cheaper and have not yet sat down with them side by side.

  6. Maybe I am the only one who really finds problems with Souyri (never mind my previous typo, this is the correct spelling…) in his treatment of the sixteenth century. No doubt this is because it is my period of specialization (along with the 17th century) and that even small errors and discrepancies are quite noticeable. In more concrete terms, what bothers me is a mix of relatively “minor” errors – small oversights such as stating “sengoku” is a later term when it was clearly used in a limited number of late 16th century texts and refering to the daimyo Saitou Dousan as having originally been an oil merchant when documents from the Rokkaku family of Oumi unearthed by Japanese historians over 25 years ago demonstrate that it was Dousan’s father who had originally risen to power suddenly from obscure origins, not him. Yet even I realize that neither of these two issues – nor the vast majority of his other factual slip-ups – would be likely to make any difference when teaching a survey course.

    So again, these are admittedly minor points. The major issues come with Souyri’s evaluation of feudalism, his attempts to talk about sengoku daimyo as representing an organizational form in direct opposition to the interests of village “communes” (his word, or at least that of his translator), and his claims that the sengoku period represents a “renaissance” that lead to the development of a new, apparently more rational and modern state (again, this is the way it is phrased in his text). The choice to focus so much attention in his narrative on village “communes,” while admirable and clearly in line with Amino’s sensibilities, also sets up an entire class dynamic that I am not sure is really useful, at least not in the way Souyri resolves the issue when he summarily writes that Nobunaga simply crushed these local communities (which he clearly did not – choosing instead to recognize neighborhood organizations in Kyoto rather than attempt to disband them and offering various village federations protection in exchange for payments rather than trying to destroy them outright). Thus it is not the problem of not having enough details on the sixteenth century that undermines Souryi’s narrative, but rather that he appears unable to put all of the details together to produce a convincing explanation of change. But again, I recognize that my concerns over many of these points are likely to be unique.

    As for the choice between Friday and Conlan, I actually assigned a bit of both. From Conlan I only assigned students his first chapter about the battle exploits of Nomoto Tomoyuki because it makes for lively, and hopefully sometimes disturbing, reading about what it meant to participate in a fourteenth century military campaign. Most historians I have talked to find individual chapters of Conlan’s book to be compelling but tend to feel that the overall argument is rather weak and not well developed. On the other hand, Friday’s book has the benefit of being very well organized, though it does seem to be perhaps too detailed for what most instructors might need in covering the late Heian through late Kamakura period warfare.

    But again, these are just my opinions. I am eager to hear if anyone else has used Conlan or Friday, and whether I am simply being too dismissive in my criticisms of Souyri…

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.