Thursday, May 19, 2016

Samurai Rising: The Epic Life of Minamoto Yoshitsune by Pamela S. Turner

I made the mistake of reading this book thinking it was fiction, but it is historical nonfiction. Because it takes place in the 12th century there is not much dialogue. Sixty pages of footnotes including the dialogue the author show the difficulty of mixing fact with legend, but Turner handles it well. She adds her own humor making this adventure story hard to put down. I'll be surprised if she doesn't win some nonfiction award.

I got lost in the story once I stopped looking for a fiction narrative. The story begins during the time of Japanese history when the samurai took control of the government from the Emperor, making the royal family more of a figurehead than the controls. Two samurai clans, the Taira and Minamoto, fought for control with the Taira taking the emperor hostage and brutally chopping down rivals. They let the baby Yoshitsune survive who lived with the monks before running away as a teenager to become a samurai warrior. His legendary, reckless military tactics helped his brother overthrow the government in a civil war that lasted five years. Yoshitsune was a brilliant strategist and won some critical battles defeating the Taira clan, but he was arrogant, headstrong, and politically ignorant alienating top commanders. His brother,Yoritomo, felt threatened by his popularity and other commanders fed his suspicions.

The legend plays out like a tragedy with the brother, Yoritomo, gaining complete power and sending assassins to kill Yoshitsune who ironically was the reason he had so much power. Yoritomo's suspicious nature and fear of losing power led to him killing off almost all of his loyal followers throughout the years leaving his family and relatives unprotected after his death and easily killed by rivals. This reminds me of Stalin who killed off those closest to him and any who questioned his policies. Yoritomo was an excellent politician who gave into his fears once he became all-powerful.

Yoshitsune was critical to winning several battles as a hit-and-run commander. He'd lead small bands and cause chaos among the enemy. He was a skillful horsemen and had good fortune on the sea driven by confidence. However, his lack of naval experience later in life caused him to make a critical mistake at sea that cost him the chance to rise up against Yoritomo. Throughout his life, Yoshitsune's impulsive, arrogant attitude made him fearless in war but showed he did not have the political experience or foresight to determine possible moves by his enemies. He didn't seem take notice of who he angered or slighted as his superiors and in the end this cost him his life.

History shows different definitions of heroes in cultures. The Vikings hero was a loyal, courageous, aggressive, and scornful of death. They dominated in military strategy on the seas. The samurai were courageous, not afraid to die, and excellent swordsmen. However, the Taira clan was best at sea and the Minamoto clan was best on land with horses. Yoshitsune used this to his advantage in warfare. Samurai were not loyal and would switch sides easily. The society had stratified classes with the commoners at the mercy of those in authority over them. They did not have rights and the samurai, wealthy, and elite had no problem killing commoners in their way in their quests for power. Students will like this book with its focus on martial arts, warfare, heroes, and conquest.

5 Smileys

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