Sunday, August 13, 2017

Mount TBR #40

I read this book for the Mount TBR Reading Challenge hosted over at My Reader’s Block from January 1 – December 31, 2017. The challenge is to read books that you already own.

A History of Japan, Volume II: 1334-1615 - Sir George Sansom

The three centuries covered represent an era among the most troubled in Japanese history. In 1333 the Emperor Go-Daigo restored imperial power after knocking off the Kamakura Shogunate which was established in 1192 by Minamoto Yoritomo. But the Kenmu imperial restoration was short-lived. An irreconcilable conflict between the court aristocracy and the warrior class emerged with new struggles that ended with the Ashikaga, a branch of the Minamoto, who rebuilt the shogunal government establishing its headquarters in the Muromachi district of Kyoto.

But the new Ashikaga government failed to deal with the forces that made it the weakest of the three military governments of the times. The increased power of the great feudal lords, or daimyo, who established and maintained troops in their territories by employing warrior, or samurai, vassals, seriously jeopardized stability. On the one hand, the lords refrained from paying taxes to the shogunate and on the other, they gradually increased their territories at the expense of weaker neighbors. The same governmental officials who were responsible for controlling the provinces on behalf of the shogun became local military leaders and feudal lords.

The struggles that the feudatories took up in order to seize the most territory reduced the country to anarchy in a short time. As the daimyōs feuded among themselves in the pursuit of power in the decade-long and bloody Ōnin War, loyalty to the Ashikaga grew increasingly stressed, until it erupted into open warfare in the Sengoku (country at war) period. Reinstatement of order was the task of the three towering figures of Japanese history: Oda Nobunaga (1534 - 1582), Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1536- 1598) and Tokugawa Ieyasu (1542 -1616). Sansom clearly and interestingly covers the military movements which ended on October 21, 1600 with the Battle of Sekigahara, the decisive clash that brought about the establishment of the Tokugawa shogunate.

Meanwhile, the Europeans had arrived in the Japanese archipelago. In 1543 some Portuguese merchants landed at Tanegashima. They introduced Japan's first firearms, which revolutionized the traditional techniques of war in Japan. Jesuit missionaries, led by Francesco Saverio, bravely undertook Christian preaching in the country. Nobunaga was impressed with Jesuit learning and manners and with his benign approval the Jesuits converted thousands of Japanese people in all walks of life. Hideyoshi did not impede Jesuit efforts until one evening in 1587 when he unaccountably banned Jesuit missionary work and placed restrictions on their movement and work.

In 1603 Tokugawa Ieyasu became Shogun and established the seat of government in Edo (today Tokyo). He imposed absolutism on the daimyo and oppressed the peasants unmercifully but assured the imperial court its honorary prerogatives at the same time.

Sansom was writing for both the specialist and the thinking lay reader. He organizes clearly and condenses essential events of politics, sociology, and economics. His interpretations are careful and rest on scholarship at a high level. Sansom’s critical insight combines a vast erudition and an extraordinary ability to write lucidly. I recommend this book to the reader seriously interested in the topic.

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