A brief rant at an easy target

So I’m grading my latest World History quiz, and one of the terms is “samurai.” Being a two semester World History sequence, I didn’t spend a lot of time on the samurai — I had one day to cover pre-1500 Japan and Korea — so the answers were mostly based on the textbook (loosely) or people’s prior understandings of the term1 or on Wikipedia.2 At some point I got suspicious and looked up the glossary definitions at the back of the textbook.3 Most students don’t use it, but sometimes they think it’s a good short-cut for the short-answer identification quizzes I give. It’s a viable suspect.

Here’s what the book said:

Samurai (SAM-uhr-eye) A Japanese warrior who lived by the code of bushido (p. G-9)

Yeah, that’s it. No chronology, no economic or political context, and an undefined foreign term at the heart. A quick survey of the rest of the glossary reveals that most of the other definitions are: a) longer; and b) better. Not all, mind you.

Yeah, I had to check and see if they had, in fact, defined that foreign term.

Bushido (BOH-shee-DOH) The “way of the warrior,” the code of conduct of the Japanese samurai that was based on loyalty and honor. (p. G-2)

Aside from the proununciation error, it looks…. Oh, the Japanese samurai… as opposed to samurai elsewhere? “Honor” is a pretty vague term, too. Again, no chronology, no authorship, minimal context.

I know it’s a minor point, but this text is in its fourth edition and these textbooks go through what’s supposed to be exhaustive reviews by dozens of scholars. So why does the glossary read like a touched-up Western Civ text?

  1. ahem  

  2. the Wikipedia article has a note at the top begging for expert assistance and citations. Any of our readers already wikipedians?  

  3. Bentley and Ziegler and Streets, Traditions and Encounters: A Brief Global History  


  1. A “brief rant,” maybe, but one which is right on target! And maybe Jonathan is too modest to give the full citation for the first note, which is “How True to History is Tom Cruise’s The Last Samurai?” By Jonathan Dresner History News Network, Jan 5, 2004.

    This piece is a classic, full of knowledge and balance, conveyed with energy and clarity. I’ve used it in class several times, along with another classic, Karl Friday, “Bushido or Bull? A Medieval Historian’s Perspective on the Imperial Army and the Japanese Warrior Tradition,” The History Teacher 27.3 (1994): 339-349 (online at http://ejmas.com/jalt/jaltart_friday_0301.htm )

  2. Thanks! I like the Friday piece, too; very solid stuff.

    I didn’t want to belabor the review, just use it as an example of the kind of pop culture we have to teach against. It seems like I get at least one student a year who parrots the “clans and honor, service to the Emperor” themes of the movie. If they came to class once in a while….

  3. Wikipedia is useless when it comes to anything bushido-related. If you go to the “bushido” discussion page and click on the “till January 17, 2007” archive, you will find a sustained attack on Karl Friday from a perspective of complete ignorance, against intelligent articulate defenders who attempted to point out that Karl Friday is a respected historian who has conducted serious research, while William Scott Wilson is not. Judging from the present state of the bushido page, the forces of ignorance have completely won out.

    A similar thing happened on the Wikipedia “Ninja” page, where the hordes of the completely ignorant entirely and completely crushed any attempt to get even a tiny mini-section on the page mentioning that there is some scholarly skepticism about whether there were really mystical ninja warriors like the movies say there were.

    The Bushido page now swallows Nitobe Inazo whole, while the Ninja page does the same for Stephen Hayes. Both of these pages have gone extremely far backwards in quality since I began watching them, and are prime examples of how Wiki’s extreme culture of anti-elitism hurts its value in many cases.

  4. I’ve cited similar examples before, when explaining to my students how Wikipedia preserves “common knowledge” and myth even when experts cite solid research on a topic. I do find it interesting, though, that they’re specifically calling for some expertise and citations. There definitely needs to be some way of indicating the quality of information and contributions, so that good stuff doesn’t get obliterated by yahoos quite so often. But if anyone wants to fight the good fight, more power to ’em.

  5. I gave up on attempting to work on Wikipedia a year ago, as it eventually became as worthwhile as dredging a lake with a soup spoon – there are too many people who subscribe to myth and pop culture when dealing with Japan. The idea of wikipedia is great, but the application is horrendous. Frankly, although it is great for modern cultural and biographical references, as well as sports history, movie synopses, etc., it is abysmal for less studied areas such as Japanese history prior to the Edo period, and the utter lack of anyone beyond anime and video game fans who add to these articles only makes it worse. With that in mind, I enjoy hearing about the poor/lack of sources and poor scholarship – hopefully that will go a long way toward deterring its use in schools – where it definitely should not be used. A few months ago I came across the “Samurai Archives Wiki” – http://wiki.samurai-archives.com/index.php?title=Main_Page – and have been watching it eagerly. It seems to be in the beginning stages, but if the main page can be taken at face value, it looks like it will shape into a far more useful alternative to wikipedia, at least in the realm of japan’s history.

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