The Last Samurai [Reading Challenge 2019]

The Last Samurai

by Mark Ravina
Wiley, 2005

[Challenge # 5: A book taking place in Asia (Turkey to Japan, Siberia to Vietnam.)]

I really wanted to like this book. It’s a biography of Saigo Takamori, a Japanese historical hero who might be compared to Abraham Lincoln in American history, a down-home politician who embodied national values and perhaps died for them. Saigo was a politician of the Samurai class towards the end of the 1800s, a time when Japan was experiencing rapid change. The bulk of the change was regarding its struggle to move from a feudal state of disparate kingdoms only loosely united by an emperor to a true, cohesive national state. Envoys from Western Europe and the superior technology they offered exacerbated this change. In Saigo’s lifetime steamships replaced sailing ships and the first railroad lines were constructed. (Before that, everyone walked everywhere.) In the reading the book, I can see how this period of rapid industrialization was directly responsible for Japan’s involvement in WWII and everything that happened after.

I did learn a fair bit about the guy, which was good, and I’d like to know more, so in that sense the author, who was a professor of Japanese History at Columbia, did his job. But it was oh so dry. A fine book with lots of scholarly information, but it’s more of what a biographer would read for background material  — it did not act as a biography itself. Not knowing much about Japanese history I got frustrated with all the names, places, and dates with nothing about them that made them come to life and engagement. The book had no glossary either — you had to look up the glossary on the book’s website. I would have liked a chapter on the samurai and the ruling system of the time as an introduction so things would have made sense.

So, I can’t recommend this unless you have a solid ground in Asian history.


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