How True to History is Tom Cruise's "The Last Samurai"?
Mr. Dresner is Assistant Professor of East Asian History at the University of Hawai'i at Hilo. His research examines Meiji-era (1868-1912) social history. And he is a member of the HNN group weblog Cliopatria.
From the opening voiceover and title to the final scene, The Last Samurai is an historical disaster. I expected it to be bad, based on early reviews (e.g. Paul Dunscomb's social critique and Tom Conlan on samurai mythology and discussions on H-Japan). This isn't surprising, of course: popular representations of historical circumstances are often badly done. But this is distinctively and truly awful. There was real drama and adventure in late nineteenth century Japan that could have been even more powerful, but instead we get a pastiche of Dances With Wolves , Karate Kid , Kagemusha and Shogun .
A quick summary of the movie for those who haven't seen it. Yes, I'm going to give away the ending, but if suspense is what interests you, this is the wrong movie anyway: there is almost nothing about the plot or characters that is surprising or original. In 1876, Nathan Algren (Tom Cruise), a PTSD victim who was once a U.S. cavalry captain under Custer, is hired by Japanese industrialist/politician Ōmura (noted actor/director Masato Harada) to train Japanese military conscripts for combat against a gathering storm of rebellion by "the samurai" who do not wish to modernize their ways. In an early skirmish he is injured and captured by the rebels, and recovers in their mountain village encampment over the course of the Fall and Winter when the snows cut them off from the outside. (This begins the Dances With Wolves section.)
As he recovers, he gains remarkable facility with the language -- and the rebel leader Katsumoto (Ken Watanabe) speaks excellent English -- and becomes impressed with the purity and simplicity of the samurai way ( bushidō), not to mention getting really good at Japanese-style armed and unarmed combat (that's the Karate Kid part). Algren joins Katsumoto to lead the rebels against the Imperial forces trained and led by his former commander (Tony Goldwyn, not Custer, but representing the same mindset). Though the rebellion is tactically innovative, the rebels are limited by their adherence to traditional weapons and are obliterated by modern military technology. (Kagemusha, though in that story the leaders were taken by surprise and had the good sense to be horrified at the slaughter of their followers.) Their purity of spirit and devotion to duty nonetheless moves the Japanese Emperor (the Kabuki-trained Shichinosuke Nakamura II), once a student of Katsumoto, to reject a U.S. arms-for-trade treaty brokered by Ōmura. Algren then returns to Katsumoto's village to take up with Katsumoto's sister, Taka (Koyuki), and her children, whom he has converted from hatred (since he killed the man of the house in the course of getting captured) to deep affection with his simple honor. ( Shogun 's romantic plotline was equally implausible, though for different reasons.)
To be fair, some of the background to the story is reasonably true to life. Japan in the 1870s was in the throes of industrialization and radical social and political changes, the process we used to lump together as "modernization." There were samurai who objected to the changes that directly affected themselves, some of whom took up arms in rebellion (more about that below). There was even a plot to assassinate the historical analogue of Katsumoto (though it certainly did not involve a corps of crossbow-wielding ninja). Westerners in 1876 generally considered the Japanese to be an uncivilized people, inferior to Caucasians in culture, intelligence and character. The Japanese government did pay extravagant salaries to foreign experts in fields ranging from history and law to military technology and technique who could teach Japanese to be experts in those fields. Most of those Westerners spent a few years in Japan and then returned to their homelands. Some Westerners, though, became so enamored with Japan that they remained and became quite expert at Japanese culture, even living and dressing in Japanese style. The Meiji Emperor was indeed a young man (about 25 years old in 1876-77) who was largely a puppet of his advisors.
The score will probably get nominated for an Oscar, though its predictable pseudo-exoticism -- wooden flute and twangy strings leavening an otherwise competent musical backdrop -- is a pretty good metaphor for the entire film. The costumes and sets and scenery and military hardware are precise and proper and the swordplay is first rate (aside from some highly implausible sword-throwing). Even the Japanese language material was fine, though the subtitles were idiosyncratic. The consultants (including Mark Schilling, who chronicled his experience in the Japan Times) did their jobs well enough. And I'm pleased that they showed even a brief snippet of kyogen (comic theater) or a country variation, including participation by the leader Katsumoto. Japan 's deep tradition of humor, including slapstick, sexual and situation humor, is too often lost in the haze of "serious" traditions like Zen and samurai and Nō.
The acting is mostly competent, though there are some standouts. One of the best roles in the film is played by Seizō Fukumoto. Fukumoto is a four-decade veteran of Japan 's samurai and yakuza movies, describing himself as a kirareyaku -- literally, "the actor who gets cut," whose main role is to be killed by the hero in a climactic fight scene. In The Last Samurai he is "The Silent Samurai," whose wordless watchfulness draws Algren's ire and derision, but whose martial skill and valor are undeniable by the end. Though standard Japanese TV samurai dramas are a little less bloody than this film, they feature most of the same good qualities: historical scenery, redemption through honor, and neat swordfighting. When I lived in Japan , my favorite regular hour of TV was Mito Kōmon , the tale of the retired daimyō lord and his samurai retainers who travel the countryside incognito, righting wrongs. I wonder why more of them haven't been made available in the U.S., when there is clearly an audience.
The movie actually gets some of the deeper historical context right, probably accidentally: After a decade of intense social and economic change, the Imperial government in the 1880s began a deliberate program of moral and ethical and historical propaganda, the aim of which was to instill in Japanese a sense of unity centered on the Emperor, particularly on his mythological status as a "living god," a direct descendant of the deities which created Japan. (see, for example, the preamble to the 1889 Constitution) The tropes and themes of this newly constructed nationalism were drawn from Japanese Confucianism, Bushidō and Shinto, with a bit of Prussian constitutionalism for legal structure, and it was transmitted through the most modern institutions of the day: the national education system and the military. This retention and reinvention of tradition led pretty directly to Japan 's imperialist expansion into Asia and the Pacific, so it's a little hard to see the ending of The Last Samurai as a victory for good and right.
Another accidental truth: the Satsuma rebellion, and quite a few of the other samurai rebellions, were rooted in the inability of those samurai to envision duty and honor without status, or to be a part of a nation striving for growth rather than a privileged class with inherent qualities. In this movie attachment to the symbolism of the sword trumps the fulfillment of duty, or common sense. In the real history, a few thousand samurai's belief in their moral superiority as a class, their refusal to relinquish the privilege of offering special service to the nation, and their attachment to the symbols of the past, trumped participation in the political and technological growth of Meiji Japan. But hundreds of thousands of samurai -- the samurai class was about 5 percent of a population of thirty-five million -- transformed their sense of duty and purpose into new forms, serving in national and local governments, working as police, military officers, and teachers, and investing their time and energy and wealth in modern economic development.
What's wrong with this film, then? Well, almost everything else, starting with the basic premises of the plot. Stephen Hunter's deconstruction of Cruise's Algren character is singularly thorough. Japan did use U.S. surplus military equipment, particularly around the end of the U.S. Civil War (1861-1865), but by the 1870s Japan had settled on other models: the British Navy and the Prussian Army (they had started with the French model, but switched in 1871, though they continued to use French officer instructors for a few years). So it is highly unlikely that the Japanese would have hired an American.
By 1876, the Imperial Army was, indeed, a conscript army, but had a strong core of volunteers, mostly samurai, and a pretty well-defined training program. They were not using primitive muzzle-loading rifles at that point, either. Japanese commoners, who are so inept at the beginning of the film that they literally can't shoot if their lives depend on it, had proven quite adept with military technology in the 1860s, when small mixed samurai-commoner militias with breech-loading and repeating rifles defeated much larger Shogunal forces still heavily reliant on traditional spear, sword and arrow weaponry. Those militias formed the core of the post-Meiji Restoration (as the 1868 transition is usually called) Imperial Army. And Imperial forces had a few adventures in the 1870s, including the Taiwan expedition (1874) and the mission to secure the Kanghwa Treaty in 1876, not to mention suppression of a number of domestic disturbances, including both samurai and cultivator uprisings.
The rebellion led by Katsumoto in the movie is supposed to be a scaled down version of the 1877 Satsuma Rebellion led by SAIGO Takamori. It's a shame that the moviemakers didn't take that more seriously, because the uprising, known in Japanese as the "Southwestern war," was a true crisis. Every resource of the new government was called upon, including its modernized shipping lines, rail transport, police forces (who were reorganized into military units), samurai volunteers, officer trainees, and fiscal reserves (the Matsukata Deflation of the early 1880s was partly necessary because of the excessive costs of putting down the rebellion). The rebels, protesting the loss of the traditional privileges and domainal autonomy, were quite well-armed, having seized several local armories early in the uprising: many of their officers were trained in modern methods, and they led both artillery units and riflemen. The rebels were only outnumbered by two-to-one; there wasn't a long, tense run-up to the conflict, as the movie insists; Saigo Takamori was not the leader at the beginning; and the fight ran constantly from February through September, rather than being a pair of battles separated by winter storms. There were other samurai uprisings in the years leading up to the 1877 Satsuma Rebellion, some of which actually resemble the movie more closely, at least in terms of scale and the ease with which they were suppressed. But none of the others were led by men who had been Imperial advisors, as Saigo had been. After 1877 there were no more samurai uprisings. (For more details on Saigo, see Mark Ravina's biography, The Last Samurai: The Life and Battles of Saigo Takamori, which is currently selling considerably better than the official movie guide.)
One intriguing element that the film could have exploited but didn't was the analogy between the Native American tribe and the samurai clan. Very different social institutions, of course, but historians of Japan have long recognized that the failure of samurai rebels to ally across clan lines in the Meiji era (1868-1912) doomed them to failure against the increasingly coherent national polity. Domainal loyalties plagued Japanese politics and military affairs well into the twentieth century. But the movie clearly can't differentiate between the individual samurai clan and the samurai class. The vast majority of Japan 's ruling elites, the modernizers who are so thoroughly evil in the film, were also samurai (many of them from Satsuma), who made the decision to eliminate their own aristocratic privileges. The vast majority of samurai did not protest, did not rebel, and were rather relieved to be freed from the samurai restriction on earning an honest living to supplement their increasingly meager official stipends.
The most blazingly bad bit of history has to do with the arms-for-trade treaty, and I'm surprised that more commentators haven't noted this. The U.S. didn't need to parlay its military technology for trade advantages in Japan . From 1858 to 1899, U.S. trade with Japan was governed by the 1858 Japan-U.S. Treaty of Amity and Commerce, sometimes known as the Harris Treaty after U.S. ambassador Townsend Harris (played by John Wayne in The Barbarian and the Geisha ). That agreement fixed Japan's import duties at a very low level, established the right of Americans to practice their religions freely and to be tried in non-Japanese courts for crimes committed in Japan, and is considered the first of the "unequal treaties" that clearly established Japan as an inferior nation to the Western powers. The Most Favored Nation clause in the earlier Kanagawa Treaty (1854) meant that this was just a starting place: the U.S. would get every advantage negotiated by any other country with Japan . The Japanese were not in any position to make demands or set conditions in their foreign affairs: they spent three decades proving to the Western powers that they were a "civilized" nation that deserved more equal treatment. U.S. diplomatic treatment of Japan was heavy-handed and unpleasant, but it wasn't tawdry in a grovelling, money-grubbing way; it's bad enough, I guess, that the only American with any depth is the one turning samurai (the other respectable caucasians are British and Irish), but there's no need to pile on indignities.
There are a few minor points which I can't just let slip by:
- The title of the movie is The Last Samurai but the Japanese ideograph which overlays it just says "samurai."
- The opening voiceover refers to the creation of the Japanese islands by a divine sword, which was dipped into the ocean and dripped foam, but every version I've ever seen of Japan's founding myths describes the creation of a single island by foam dripping off of a spear, with the rest of the islands birthed by the gods. Swords don't come up until later.
- The Meiji Emperor didn't speak English, and nobody outside of the most senior advisors saw him without an invitation. And he certainly didn't make important political decisions on the spur of the moment.
- The Ōmura industrialist/politician character is difficult to pin down historically. He might be an amalgam of political heavyweight ŌKUBO Toshimichi, the younger but more radical and economically connected ŌKUMA Shigenobu, with some of the Mitsubishi founder IWASAKI Yatarō thrown in. Industrialists did not have the Emperor's ear (they didn't need it, having close ties to the samurai oligarchs) and Imperial advisors did not jaunt off to other countries to conduct job interviews.
- Most samurai lived in large urban areas, though low-ranking Satsuma samurai were some of the few who lived in the country and also farmed. Even then, nobody lived in the mountains if they could avoid it.
- The method of "no mind" is not "The Force" -- simply a matter of clearing one's mind of distractions and then the right thing will happen. It is a Daoist concept, originally, which became part of the martial arts tradition in China , then in Japan and elsewhere. It is a function of training constantly (certainly over more than four months) so that one can react instinctively, automatically, to a rapidly developing situation. Effortlessness comes after lots of hard work. The Karate Kid got that part right, actually.
- The notion that the samurai have been "protectors of the nation" for nine hundred or a thousand years (and Katsumoto uses both figures) is absurd: the samurai began as rent collectors and estate protectors for the Kyoto nobility, and evolved into an aristocracy in their own right. Only against the Mongols (1274, 1281) can they be considered protectors of Japan ; it's highly unlikely that Katsumoto's clan was in one place that entire time; very few samurai clans survived the century-long civil war (15-16c) and most of those were relocated in the late 1500s. The Shimazu family which ruled Satsuma did originate in the 11th or 12th century, but Saigo Takamori wasn't a Shimazu. Like most samurai, his family attained warrior status in the 1500s and were unremarkable low-ranking retainers until Saigo.
- Taka, attempting to refuse Algren's help with housework, says that "Japanese men don't do that." But many Japanese men did a great deal around the house, just not samurai. The Japanese very rarely referred to themselves as a collective, particularly on cultural matters, as early as 1876-77.
- When they eat, they are consistently shown eating fluffy white rice, but only the wealthiest Japanese ate that regularly, and certainly rural samurai would have been more likely to eat rice gruel and other grains like barley and millet and buckwheat, either as gruel or as noodles, that grow better in upland conditions. And the movie glosses over Algren's introduction to chopsticks, which is not an insignificant event in acculturation.
- By 1877, very few Japanese would have been particularly frightened of samurai, even samurai as backwards as Katsumoto's band, nor would they have bowed en masse. Urban Japanese had gotten over treating common samurai like daimyo lords a long time before.
- Even allowing for Algren's remarkable immersion in Japanese language and culture, the likelihood is pretty small that he'd have run across the Japanese term for "President" in a rural samurai village, but that doesn't stop him from understanding the term when it comes up in a crisis.
- Algren's first experience with armor on the day of the climactic battle is pretty implausible. Even allowing for superior physical conditioning and excellent training and the fact that Japanese armor is light and flexible relative to its Western analogues, there's almost no way he wears it as comfortably as he is shown.
- The samurai warrior-cherry blossom (sakura) motif is so clichéd that I was surprised that it came up at all, and nearly laughed out loud when it came back just in time for Katsumoto's death. Judging by color, the blossoms were plum, not cherry.
Does it matter? Perhaps not. Perhaps it's too much to expect that our entertainments have a factual basis. But now I have to deal with the aftermath, with students who will think that all samurai (all five hundred of them, instead of nearly two million) were pure warriors who lived in the mountains, instead of as underemployed urbanite bureaucrats. I have to explain how rare seppuku (ritual suicide, also known as hara-kiri) was, how tenuous the samurai sense of loyalty, how the Japanese did not "Americanize," and I have to hope that my careful deconstruction can make some dent in the technicolor, surroundsound, adrenaline-enhanced images in their minds. The Meiji transformation of Japan is one of the most dramatic social and economic periods in modern history, and it ties directly to some of the most important turning points and processes of the twentieth century and present. But instead, The Last Samurai is another barrier to understanding, a step backwards in our collective education.
Note: Japanese names are traditionally written with the family name first; the movie credits put the family name last and I follow that for the cast members, but for the names of Japanese historical figures I have put the family name first and in all capital letters on first appearance: e.g. SAIGO Takamori.
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Mane Cai - 1/9/2011
How accurate are The Abyss, The Star Wars Saga, or Avatar, Mr. Dresner? Hahaha! You are ridiculous!
Mane Cai - 1/9/2011
I don't think you'll ever be able to ENJOY a movie, given the degree of criticism towards this film. I never thought for one single moment that either the autor of the novel or the director of the film were trying to record a meticulously exact historical event; they never said it was a documentary. Why don't you just take it for what it is, A-WORK-OF-FICTION? Can't grasp the meaning of the word FICTION? Go find a dictionary!!!
Jonathan Dresner - 9/9/2010
The director and other publicity materials for the movie made great claims about its authenticity and historicity. It's the first movie in decades made about Meiji era Japan, and there probably won't be another for a long time.
Fortunately, having written this piece, I don't have to talk about Last Samurai any more: I just tell them to look it up. That alone is worth it. But I do talk about the difference between Hollywood history and the work historians do and the understanding historians have of what we study. If I ignore it, my students will think I'm an idiot; discussing it substantively gives them a model for thinking critically about the failings of entertainment as education.
Chris Chessick - 9/9/2010
Unfortunately I just got sucked into this critique (albeit several years too late) and I have to say- Have a drink? Take a pill? Relax? We're all impressed by your knowledge of Japan and the samurai big guy but this is Hollywood. It's a movie- not a documentary. If your students don't get that they shouldn't be students. I sincerely hope you don't stand in front of your class arguing the validity of this movie relating to Japanese history. If you do, please know they are all laughing at you after class. Laughing hard like I did.
JJ James - 1/12/2010
I would HATE to see a movie with you. HATE to sit next to you or see a film in your class...though I would most likely enjoy the class otherwise.
I enjoy "historical" movies. I enjoy them because I like history and after I see them I do like to see how accurate they are. But when I saw this movie I did not even think that anything they were showing was accurate or close to real....so I didn't even bother reading up on it. I knew it was 99% Hollywood and all that mattered at the time was I was entertained.
Is it really that much fun to be that nitpicky? I ask because I can get into a complaining mode and it's fun.
I am a writer so I enjoyed your article. I enjoy knowing what is and isn't accurate...I could have done without the overbearing condescension, but I guess that comes with it as a combo meal when you're frustrated to no end.
I saw the Golden Compass and I was annoyed with how belittling it was of people who didn't think like the writer...even though it was just a movie adaptation. I can sort of understand where your jumping out from.
Maybe you'd be more pleased if historical movies (or "historical") put a warning at the beginning to state that these events are fabricated for entertainment purposes or are embellished for such and then state that if one wants to know more they should research and not take the movie to heart.
The popular film of the last month (aside from Avatar) was the Blind Side and that isn't totally accurate and has a bit of Hollywood in it, but more accurate than this film.
I love history and therefore liked reading your tantrum (so to speak =P )though I am late to the game. I thought I'd share my view anyway.
Joseph Randolph Kidd - 4/19/2008
I have good news for you. There are people like myself who suspect that most of the movie was made up and unrelated to reality. I did enjoy the movie but I came to your site because I suspected there was not much real history in the movie. I mean, if Tom Cruise were to make a movie about the American Revolutionary War, then no doubt George Washington would have been presented as a founding member of the church of scientology.
Hollywood, after all, is hollywood.
The good news is, us old guys know that. The bad news is, young people do not know it.
Any way, I came to your site because I was trying to find out if there was any real truth in the movie (most hollywood movies 'based on a true story' have about one gram of truth and 287 lbs of made up fat)
Now I know and thanks to your efforts, my curiosity has been satisfied and my suspicion verified.
Thanks for your effort.
dan geck - 10/6/2007
this wasn't on the history channel. why not save your big words to write about something important, not a movie in the fiction category. if you want to be picky then look at your comments/criticism about throwing swords. if you notice he threw his short sword and is a real technique according to miyamoto musashi.
nice y though. go back to japan learn some more no it all.
steve julian elliott - 7/31/2005
I would like to congratulate you on such an extensive and insightfull peice of history and i would like to learn more on the japaneese culture and development of this time period, feel free to email myself. toxicsniper
bob banober - 5/17/2005
Most movies based on historical events always throw in some form of fiction or exagerate to make a movie story flow, entertain, excite, and entertain, that is the American way. When I first saw the comercials for the movie I laughed saying "ha, Tom cruise, a white guy as the last samurai." I can say that I remember a very similar story being told by my history teacher, Mr. Thomas at Mt. Gleason Jr. High and Verdugo Hills High School (he taught a great deal of history that was not in the books).
When I saw the movie in the theatre when it came out (I went to see one of the Lord of the Rings movies, but it was sold out) my memory of the events started to click during the movie and became clear during a few scenes towards the last half of the movie. The scenes when the Englisnman, Simon Graham, takes the photo of the Samurai, Captain Algren giving his journals to simon, and the Samurai almost reaching the Gatlin Guns were ringing in my mind of those days in school (I am 31 now).
My teacher spoke of these events because he had read what Simon Graham had written, this was not information out of a text book. In the movie, in the beginning he states he has been trying to write a book about the Samurai. I can even remember when my friend introduced me to the first version of the computer game, Civilization (a history based strategy game) when I was 19. In the game sometimes cavalry or warriors could defeat tanks and marines. My friend and I were in the same history classes, and at the same time we said it was just like the battle where the Samurai almost won.
This article states the movie does not recognize the Samurai that joined Japan's Army, but I do remember in the movie General Hasagawa who was a Samurai that fought beside Katsumoto, and was beheaded in the first battle.
To say that Captain Algren could not learn the ways of the Samurai in such a short amount of time is wrong. He was a highly experienced officer that I would imagine attended West Point, not some grunt that just joined army.
I also remeber after Custer wiped out the mass amount of Native Americans, almost to the point of extinction, Algren who was a drunk toured around the nation telling the tales of his battles with the Native Americans.
Also you grossly generalize the Samurai. Yes most had lost the honor in their ways and were only interested in their social status, but not every single one.
Last why would the United States or Japan even want to admit to this part of history? It does not paint a pretty picture of either side. It is the type of story people in power would want to bury. The United States tries to justify, glorify, and hide what was done to the Natives. This story about the Last Samurai would only contradict it. Japan would hide it for its lack of honor and shame, not to mention the Japanese business men who would not want to let this out. It is not like governments have not covered things up before.
You have done a diservice by not researching this historical moment further. Your students are right in beleiving the movie they saw. It is closier to the truth than your distorted perception.
Michael Hunter - 3/13/2005
I thought the original post was a little too serious. This one goes way beyond. Explains why no one responded
Just curious - do you look at the Christian knights of the Crusades and say that they are a lot like the Taliban and al Qaeda? Fundamenatalist beliefs are rampant, and the only differentiation is the victor who gets to write the history. Other than that, the evil is only interpretation.
Al-Qaeda is evil. Taliban is evil. Those who believe in their causes are not necessarily evil. The samurai depicted in this movie, whether historically true or not, were merely fighting to preserve their way of life against those who would take it from them. The "similiar" groups you speak of seek to brand their way of life on others. Are you so ignorant you cannot see the difference between the two?
I do not propose to try to interpret others motives. You can't. But you really have to get some sense of perspective here.
Something tells me you are probably a lot like al Qaeda and the Taliban yourself. Fundamentalist at the core. Go pick up a book, visit a different country, or meet someone from one who does more than shine your shoes. You might just find something great. Like ideas.
craig e braley - 3/9/2005
Although it may not be true to history we have to remember that it never claimed to be a true story. For it to even have truths in it is a great thing! The movie was good enough to draw me to find out more about the samuri. So before we become too harsh we should look at the educational benefits this movie may draw others to.
Rachelle Shaffer - 1/6/2005
Thank you for your article. I enjoyed it very much.
Is there any historical basis at all for the Nathan Algren character -- any American "samurai" who may have fought in battle during that approximate time frame or any other period?
Curtis S Reed - 12/14/2004
While watching the film, I had a nagging feeling that the topic of japanese Nationalism and romantic perspective of their Samuri past in a way was being used to rationalize the retrograde fanaticism of groups like the Taliban, al Qaida, and other "fundamentalist" groups that are suffering from "future-shock" and are instead "nobly" resisting the evil temptations of modern society and clinging to their "pure" roots.
Did anyone else see that?
Curtis S Reed - 12/14/2004
It's not fair to call the film "Cruise's 'Last Samuri'", since all he did was act a part (and quite well, actually). But the people who are more responsible for the actual contents and interpretation of history are the writers and the directors. So it seems somewhat shallow to judge the film's historical innacuracies and blame it on the presence of Tom Cruise...
Curtis S Reed - 12/14/2004
Mr. Dresner is right about this point. The narration in the movie and also the director's narration on the DVD give the impression they were trying to be very accurate. In reality, I think they appear to have been quite accurate, judging by Mr. Dresner's critique, but they should have been a little more forthright about the fact that they were also taking some leeway with the History.
Otherwise, I think it was a very nice movie.
Curtis S Reed - 12/14/2004
I got a similar feeling from the movie. Unlike the good professors who take historical accuracy as sacrosanct, I allow artists to interpret the history and try to tell a story, tell a perspective, without having to be 100% accurate.
The film evoked an interesting memory...when I was in college I moved to Costa Rica to live for a year. I went through the standard culture shock phases: romantic infatuation with the exotic location, to mild annoyance with the inconveniences, to depression and disdain for the negative side of the culture, to making peace with the differences and finally having integrated so much that I then felt more comfortable in my new environment and did not want to return home...
It was about two weeks before returning home to the USA that I had an intense dream: I was standing on a hillside on one of the Japanese islands, observing a bucolic scene of Japanese farmers and, near the coast, fishermen, when I saw US battleships coming over the horizon, the late afternoon sun gleaming on their iron sides. Their presence seemed ominous and threatening, and I screamed "GO AWAY GO AWAY!" When I awoke, I felt it was a sign that perhaps I should consider continuing my multicultural exploration and go to Japan.
Unfortunately, I had to finish college, and although I tried to hang on to that feeling, and I sought out Japanese friends, studied the language a little, and even dated some Japanese girls for a while, eventually LIFE sucked me back down and I was re-integrated into US lifestyle.
Since then I've married a Venezuelan, learned more languages, and I'm still interested in taking my family (including my two little children) to go live in a new culture. There is NOTHING in this world as invigorating as the adventure of learning a new language, a new culture, and seeing life through new eyes.
So if you are serious about going to Japan--do it. Just try to do it in such a way that you can stay for a year or more.
Curtis S Reed - 12/14/2004
With all due respect, I think you overreact slightly to the movie. I recently bought the DVD from blockbuster without ever having seen it, I just hoped it might be a fun "western/samuri" movie and it turned out to be much better than I had anticipated. But you should note that I'm here now because it sparked some interest in the accuracy of the portrayal, and voila, I read your excellent analysis.
However, I think that films like these are trying to portray a perspective of an historic period or event, and not necessarily attempt to provide a 100% historically accurate representation of the time, the people, and the events. This is an artist's interpretation of a time period and some fictional characters that represent real forces/personalities that impacted the historical events, but I'm sure that the writers and directors were quite sure that not everything was 100% historically accurate. In fact, if you listen to the special feature on the DVD in which the director talks about the film, he even admits that they questioned the ninja scene because they could not get it verified if such individuals existed at that time, "some people said yes, others said no"...but there is no reason why a similar force of assassins could not have existed, since they did indeed exist in China. the notion of a ninja-like assassin using a crossbow should be no less plausible than one using a rifle, and there are advantages/disadvantages to each weapon. I don't know. I really didn't worry too much about it.
Most of your criticism really was hair-splitting. So they didn't get every detail right, who cares? The problem with history is that there is NO ONE interpretation of history. There are definite events that can be said to have happened on specific dates with certain specific outcomes, and that can be portrayed in a documentary, but there is no way to put flesh to characters to breathe life into those events and not provide an interpretation of events that is inevitably biased or distorted. Look how hard it is to get an accurate eye-witness testimony about something as simple as a car accident, much less the demise of the Samuri class.
I am sure that you personally could write an intersting historical treatise on those events, but I wonder how many people would read it? No insult intended, but unadulterated and clinically sanitized history is rarely very interesting to the lay person.
This film could have been worse: it could have taken the perspective of the Colonel who despised the Japanese and thought they were inferior, similar to the anti-Jap films of the '40's and '50's. At least this film showed them some respect.
Jonathan Dresner - 11/8/2004
Because the movie makers presented it as "history" and as "accurate" and as based in reality. It's a fine movie, sure. But the distortions, errors, and misrepresentations outweigh the effort they made to make it a good movie, from the perspective of a historian.
Pamela M. Cordova - 9/8/2004
You sound jealous of Tom Cruise. I wouldn't even be on this network if I hadn't watched the movie last night. Because of the movie I have learned a great deal about the Samurai, and I can still like Tom Cruise and look forward to the next adventure.
Pamela M. Cordova - 9/8/2004
You sound jealous of Tom Cruise. I wouldn't even be on this network if I hadn't watched the movie last night. Because of the movie I have learned a great deal about the Samurai, and I can still like Tom Cruise and look forward to the next adventure.
Pamela M. Cordova - 9/8/2004
I watched the film on VHS last night, and I really enjoyed it. That is why I am commenting today. I appreciate Mr. Dresner's article, I just don't understand why he has to be to "catty" about it.
Jonathan Dresner - 7/16/2004
Sorry, but this goes beyond "not perfect." And I've been in this business long enough to know that dramatic fictions, particularly movies, create images and presumptions that can be very hard to shake off.
I'm glad you got something positive out of the movie. But the historical narrative, which is my field, is corrupt beyond redemption. I don't mind people making movies with good messages (though I have my doubts about this one) but if they're going to use historical figures and events, it behooves them to be at least a little careful.
damien gnotta - 6/7/2004
some people dont understand that everyone knows its a movie. they are not gonna be accurate to the T. Braveheart is a perfect example, great movie and had a real positive affect on people. The same goes with The Last Samurai. Even if its not totally accurate, its message is clean and pure. I for one, have changed my life around after seeing it. I have started trying to seek that inner peace that the eastern beliefs have talked about for so long. Movies like this one instills great feelings of honor, peace and respect. I was a student of sholin kung fu and kenpo since i was little, but those didnt do anything for me like this movie did. Im not gonna move to Japan or try to be a Samurai like in the movie. I have a long bloodline of warriors (meaning my family has been in every major war as far back as recorded history goes). But my main issue here, is that people love to attack the movies. they see something that they feel they cannot obtain so they say, "oh this is wrong" or "its not exact, so its horrible". Hopefully they can watch it again and just be happy with the feelings it tries to give us.
p goethe - 3/21/2004
Some historians made incorrect generalizations about samurai prior to the Tokugawa era.:
History Channel Needs to Screen Its Historians Better
Why use an unknown historian who makes major assumptions (and is wrong) when there are historians who research broadly and competently? For The History Channel special on Samurai warriors, they could have chosen Stephen Turnbull, who is pretty much the western world's leading authority on Samurai. Another good choice would have been WILLIAM SCOTT WILSON. Instead we get a misinformed historian who tries to rewrite Japanese history based on a few minor examples and narrow research.
In response to several erronous articles about the Samurai, I post the following response:
Last Samurai: Movie Myth or History?
Samurai - Not Exactly What We Thought They Were
The Truth about Samurai: It's Unlikely Tom Cruise's Film Will Get it Right, Says Bowdoin Professor
Good Movie, But Not Good History?
Sacramento, California, USA
Mr. Wlliam Evans, Staff Writer
CC: Editor, Sacramento Bee
CC: History channel
CC: Stefan Lovgren, C/O Editor,National Geographic magazine
Regarding your December 9, 2003 article entitled "'Samurai': The latest saber film to savor" (http://www.sacticket.com/static/movies/news/1209samurai.html), you included information from a historian named Tom Conlan of Bowdoin College. I would like to bring your attention to an article in Archeology Magazine where Mr. Conlan's assertion of Mongols use of bombs against Samurai were found to be incorrect. His conclusion was based on an artwork depicting a Samurai being thrown from his horse during a Mongol - Samurai battle by an explosion caused by a aerial bomb. He claims that the 13th century art work was altered and the depiction of the bomb was a "later addition".
The article, along with photos of the bombs recovered from sunken Mongol ships used in the attempted invasion of Japan can be seen here:
Volume 56 Number 1, January/February 2003
RELICS OF THE KAMIKAZE
Excavations off Japan's coast are uncovering Kublai Khan's ill-fated invasion fleet.
BY JAMES P. DELGADO
"In his recent book In Little Need of Divine Intervention, which analyzes two Japanese scrolls that depict the Mongol invasion, Bowdoin College historian Thomas Conlan suggests that a scene showing a samurai falling from his horse as a bomb explodes over him was a later addition. Conlan's research masterfully refutes many of the traditional myths and commonly held perceptions of the invasion, downplaying the number of ships and troops involved and arguing that it was not the storms but the Japanese defenders ashore, as well as confusion and a lack of coordination, that thwarted the khan's two invasions. But his suggestion that the exploding bomb is an anachronism has now been demolished by solid archaeological evidence. Moreover, when the Japanese x-rayed two intact bombs, they found that one was filled just with gunpowder while the other was packed with gunpowder and more than a dozen square pieces of iron shrapnel intended to cut down the enemy. "
I am bringing attention to Conlan's mistake because I feel he has made another very serious error in his conclusions about bushido. I strongly disagree with Mr. Conlan's assertions in your recent article that "Bushido was largely created to justify the existence of warriors who had nothing to do during centuries of peacetime" . This statement is in direct conflict with a large body of Japanese historical writings. I feel that Mr. Conlan has again made a conclusion without examining all of the facts.
He also states:"I have a very different take on what the Samurai are, were, than the later ideal," he said.
The myth of the Samurai is just that. The folkloric vision of the Samurai - a loyal warrior, ready to die for his cause, riding into battle with his sword - bunk. In fact, the Samurai, or at least the ideal with which we are so familiar, were born in peace.
"Loyalty has been grossly exaggerated. Warriors were interested in reward and recompense. Conlan found evidence that warriors moved from one side to another depending on the reward they would receive"
Mr Conlan's comments can also be seen here: http://www.collegenews.org/x2957.xml
and he has appeared on National geographic specials and the History Channel's special on Samurai.
I would like to make you aware that many of his generalzations are incorrect and misrepresent the values of the warriors.
It should be noted that Bushido was central to a warrior's courage and there is plenty of documentation of it from the 13th century onward. In fact, a pivatol battle fought by one Torii Mototada helped enable Tokugawa Ieyasu to consolidate control over the country of Japan. Torii Mototada cited the code of Bushido in his farewell letter to his son as his reason for staying behind in a doomed castle, even though he could have easily escaped. Mototada also warned his son against aspiring for lordship and desiring money. in his last words, he asked his eldest son to raise his siblings to serve Ieyasu, "even if every province in Japan were to turn against him, you will serve his clan and his clan alone. You will never set foot in another fief till the end of time" Fushimi castle fell after its defenders founght down to the last man. Mototada killed himself rather than be taken alive.
The writings of the warriors mention it specifically as their reason for sacrificing themselves and for their actions over the course of their lives. Bushido along with other social influences in Japanese life including Buddhism, Shinto, and especially Confucianism and the works of Sun Tzu were responsible for the warriors lack of fear during battle and extreme loyalty to their lords.
One 16th century Samurai, Kato Kiyomasa went so far as to threaten his men with banishment or being forced to commit seppuku if they didnt follow Bushido or if they strayed to far from martial arts training by studying poetry and plays.
It should also be noted that Japanese society from the earliest recorded history respected those who showed a balance in life: "BUN BU Ryo Do" "The pen and the sword in accord", if you will. A well balanced person being one who is an expert in literature and art as well as the blade. One of the early words for "warrior" consisted of two kanji representing harmony between "bu" and "bun" signifying a well rounded, educated person. From japan's earliest writings in the 8th century there are references to the "literary men and warriors whom the nation values" (Shoku Nihongi 797AD)
Over and over again there are examples of writings of lords and warriors (1200ad to 1600ad) who quote buddhist philosophy and order their descendants to show compassion and mercy for the other social classes. I would be happy to cite dozens of examples of their wisdom, philosopy and devotion to "the way of the warrior".
As with all examples, there are exceptions and Mr. Conlan treats the exceptions to the example as "the truth". One must keep in mind that Samurai were often fighting for their lives and those of their families. If another army stood in the way, it was "kill or be killed". There is no way to sugar coat this or make excuses. However, to say that Bushido was largely the invention of peace time is very irresponsible and an insult to those who showed great discipline and gave their lives in its name. Make no mistake about it, Bushido is what gave men their courage and carried them through the age of warfare in Japan. Mr Conlan could have not been more wrong.
Ideals of the Samurai (1982) - Translated by William Scott Wilson. Every Chapter directly contradicts Conlan's statements. they are the actual writings of the warriors themselves from 1200AD to 1600AD.
Buke No Kakun by Yoshida Yutaka
The message of master Gokurakuji
Hojo Shigetoki (1198-1261AD)
Shiba Yoshimasa (1359-1410AD)
The regulations of Imagawa Ryoshun
Imagawa Ryoshun (1325-1420AD)
The 17 articles of Asakura Toshikage
Asakura Toshikage (1428-1481AD)
The 21 precepts of Hojo Soun
Hojo Nagauji (1432-1519AD)
The Recorded words or Asakura Soteki
Asakura Norikage (1474-1555AD)
The Imamizudera monogatari
Takeda Shingen (1521-1573AD)
Opinions in 99 articles
Takeda Nobushige (1525-1561AD)
Lord Nabeshima's Wall Inscriptions
Nabeshima Naoshige (1538-1618AD)
The Last statement of Torii mototada
Torii mototada (1539-1600AD)
The Precepts of kato Kiyomasa
Notes on regulations
Kuroda Nagamasa (1568-1623AD)
Sengoku No Busho by sasaki ginya
(Attachment to email)
Sent: Saturday, February 28, 2004 11:05 PM
Subject: Samurai article
Statements contrary to Mr. Conlan's conclusions. i have attached two
statements of actual warlords who played a major role in history. i have
dozens more examples which i will be happy to provide. (Conlan asserts emphasizing the samurai code "is the way of Death" was made up years after the wars were over during the Tokugawa era. as you can see here, they clearly spoke of Bushido and the duty of the warrior to die in the 16th century)
in some of the examples, the warriors explicitly mention the writings of confucious and the I Ching
and Sun Tsu by name. they also stress the importance of loyalty and filial
loyalty. they speak of Karma and reincarnation and the importance of
Buddhism. In some cases, these men were also Buddhist priests who condemned
the wanton taking of life!
Most of the writings stress the importance of "the way of the warrior" and
what it means to live a life of courage and strength, balanced by kindess to
The following was written BEFORE the Tokugawa shogunate during the era of
intense warfare preceeding it. Kato Kiyomasa was one of the most ferocius
samurai who ever lived. He insists that his men follow Bushido, even to the
point of threatening them.
"The Precepts of kato Kiyomasa"
here is what i found on kato Kiyomasa (1562-1611)
(IT begins with a description of how one's day should begin "Rise at 4am to
practice martial arts", how to dress, what kind of food to serve to guests
"plain brown rice", and how a samurai should behave)
"One should put forth great effort in matters of learning. One should read
books concerning military matters, and direct his attention exclusively to
the virtues of loyalty and filial piety. reading chinese poetry, linked
verse, and waka is forbidden. One will surely become womanized if he gives
his heart such knowledge of such elegant and delicate refinements. having
been born into the house of a warrior, one's intentions should be to grasp
the long and the short swords and to die"
"the practice of Noh Drama is absolutely forbidden.....A samurai who
practices dancing, which is outside of the martial arts, should be ordered
to commit seppuku."
"if a man does not investigate into the matter of Bushido daily, it will be
difficult for him to die a brave and manly death.Thus it is essential to
engrave This business of the warrior into one's mind well."
"The above conditions should be adhered to night and day. if there is anyone
who finds these conditions difficult to fulfill, he should be dismissed, an
investigation should b quickly carried out, it should be signed and sealed
that he was unable to mature in the Way of Manhood, and he should be driven
To this, there is no doubt"
To all samurai
Kato Kazuenokami Kiyomasa
This was written before the Tokugawa Shogunate. the writer specifically
mentions "the way of the warrior"as his reasons for his actions. Tokugawa
would not have come to power were it not for this bravery.
In the year 1600, Tokugawa Ieyasu began campaigning east to Aizu, leaving
the strategic Fushimi castle in the care of Torii Mototada. Both men knew
that the forces of Ishida Mitsumari (Vassal of the Toyotomi and in league
with Konishi Yukinaga) were approaching and would attack the castle as soon
as Tokugawa left. Tokugawa expressed concerns that the castle's forces were
insufficient, but Torii insisted that the castle would fall even if its
forces were multiplied by ten times. He told Ieyasu to take his troops from
the castles defense and employ them in the east. The destruction of the
castle certain, both men spent their final evening together talking about
old times. On August 27, the combined forces of Ishida Mitsumari and Konishi
yukinaga arrived to lay siege to the castle which held out against
incredible odds for more than ten days. Torii Mototada and 300 of his men charged into battle 5 times before falling exhausted into Fushimi castle. Torii Mototada and his garrison fought
down to the last man. Torii Mototada killed himself rather than be taken alive. "A young samurai from the opposing forces waited patiently while Mototada committed seppuku and then removed his head" His tactic enabled Ieyasu to make gains further east and
consolidate control over the country.
The Last Statement of Torii Mototada (1539-1600AD)
(written by Torii to his son Tadamasa a few days before the fall of the
castle. It is a moving account of unbending and selfless loyalty of vassal
to master, and expresses in very clear terms that the true meaning of being
a warrior is to die in battle.)
Recently there has been the report of an uprising in the Kamigata area, and
that a large number of rebel daimyo who have fallen into the evil scheming
of Ishida Mitsunari will first lay siege to this castle and are now making
such preparations with large forces.
For myself, I am resolved to make a stand within the castle and to die a
quick death It would not take much trouble to break through a part of their
numbers and escape, no matter how many tens of thousands of horsemen
approached for the attack or by how many columns we were surrounded. But
that is not the true meaning of being a warrior, and it would be difficult
to account as loyalty. Rather, I will stand off the forces of the entire
country here, and without one one-hundredth of the men necessary to do so,
will throw up a defense and die a resplendent death. By doing so I will show
that to abandon a castle that should be defended, or to value one's life so
much as to avoid danger and to show the enemy one's weakness is not within
the family traditions of my master Ieyasu. Thus I will have taken the
initiative in causing lord Ieyasu's other retainers to be resolved, and in
advancing righteousness to the warriors of the entire country. It is not the
way of the warrior to be shamed and avoid death even under circumstances
that are not particularly important. It goes without saying that to
sacrifice one's life for one's master is an unchanging principle. As this is
a matter I have thought over beforehand, I think that circumstances such
that I am meting now must be envied by people of understanding.
You Tadamasa, should understand the following well. Our ancestors have been
personal vassals of the Matsudaira for generations........
(Mototada gives a lengthy history of how his father served Tokugawa's
ancestors, naming the names of his ancestors)
"Because lord Ieyasu is well aware of my loyalty, he has left me here in
charge of the important area of Kamigata as Deputy of Fushimi Castle while
he advances toward the east, and for a warrior there is nothing that could
surpass this good fortune. That I should be able to go ahead of all of the
other warriors of this country and lay down my life for the sake of my
master's benevolence is an honor to my family and has been my most fervent
desire for many years.
"After I am slain you must lovingly care for your younger brothers......."
(Mototada tells his son to raise his younger brothers and to offer
themselves to Ieyasu as soon as they are able)
"They must be determined to stand with Lord Ieyasu's clan in both its ascent
and decline, in times of peace and in times of war; and either waking or
sleeping they must never forget that they serve his clan and his clan alone.
"To be avaricious for land or to forget old debts because of some passing
dissatisfction, or to even temporarily entertain treacherous thoughts is not
the Way of Man. Even if all of the other provinces of Japan were to unite
against our lord, our descendants should not set foot inside another fief to
the end of time........."
(the section continues with several vows of loyalty to Ieyasu)
I am now 62 years of age. Of the number of times I have barely escaped death
since the time I was in Mikawa I have no Idea. Yet, not once have I acted in
a cowardly way......
(There is a lengthy section where Mototada advises his son to listen to
older retainers for advice)
"The entire country will soon be in the hands of your master lord Ieyasu. If
this is so, the men who served him will no doubt hope to become daimyo by
his appointment. You should know that if such feelings arise, they are
inevitably the beginning of the end of one's fortunes in the Way of the
Warrior. Being affected by the avarice for office and rank, or wanting to
become a daimyo and being eager for such things.......will not one begin to
value his life?"
"And how can a man commit acts of martial valor if he values his life? A man
who has been born into the house of a warrior and yet places no loyalty in
his heart and thinks only of the fortune of his position will be flattering
on the surface and construct schemes in his heart, will forsake
righteousness and not reflect on his shame, and will stain the warriors name
of his household to later generations............"
(Mototada gives his son advice on how to run the affairs of the clan and
ends his statement with this
Be first of all prudent in your conduct and have correct manners, develop
harmony between master and retainers, and have compassion on those beneath
you. Be correct in the degree of rewards and punishments, and let there be
no partiality in your degree of intimacy with your retainers. The foundation
of man's duty as a man is in "truth". Beyond this, there is nothing to be
Conlan can read it and weep........the date is 1412 and i have dozens more examples just like this one......
*Imagawa Sadao 1325-1420 AD
-A leading general and strategist of his era, he was also a leading scholar and poet famous for historical writings and poetry. Student of Nijo Yoshimoto,His family were a cadet family of the Ashikaga named after their manor at Imagawa in Mikawa Province. His father was governor of Suruga Province, appointed by Shogun Takauji and married into the court nobility. in 1361 Imagawa sadao backed the Northern court in its dispute with the southern court, defeating Hosokawa Kiyouji at Yoshino. Afterwards, he returned to Kyoto and became a Buddhist, taking the first name "Ryoshun". In 1370, Ryoshun was sent to Kyushu to control the area as military governor, since bakfu control over Kyushu had began to fall apart. He spent the next ten years in this position and pursued his literary studies as well.
In 1395, the Shogun, yoshimitsu began to fear that Ryoshun had become too powerful and posed a threat. Ryoshun was ordered back to Suruga to resume his governorship there, where he spent the rest of his life studying and writing literature and poetry. He is famous for amoung many works "Michiyukiburi" a writing of his travels and poetry, "Nan taiheiki" a historical work, and "the Regulations/Imagawa Wall Inscriptions", written for his brother Tadaki in 1412, using Kanbun. the regulations are very respected and used as a model for proper values by traditional Japanese.
He emphasizes that a warrior must be a man of both military might and of literary education.. Ryoshun was opposed to the excessive taking of lives as a Buddhist, but he reveled in his life as a warrior. He was a Confucian and cites the Chinese classics as his influences. He commanded respect for one's family and stressed the edicts of Loyalty and duty to one's master. Ryoshun is seen as the ideal example of the warrior in balance and harmony with the "BUN and BU".
The Regulations of Imagawa Ryoshun
"Without knowledge of Learning, one will ultimately have no military victories."
"Cormorant fishing and falconing are pleasures that uselessly destroy life. They are forbidden."
"it is forbidden to pass the death sentence on a man who has committed a major crime without full investigation"
"It is forbidden to use favoritism and excuse a man who has committed a major crime"
"It is forbidden to bring about one's own excessive prosperity by means of exploiting the people and causing the destruction of shrines."
"It is forbidden to tear down one's ancestors' family temples and pagodas, thereby embellishing one's own domicile"
"It is forbidden to forget the great debt of kindness one owes to his master and ancestors and thereby make light of the virtues of loyalty and filial piety."
"It is forbidden that one should, acting disrespective of the Way of Heavan, attach little importance to his duties to his master and be overly attentive to his own business"
"It is forbidden to be indiscriminate of one's retainers good or evil actions and to distribute unjust rewards and punishments."
be mindful of the fact that, as you know the works of your own retainers, the master knows yours in the same way.
"It is forbidden to disrupt the relationships of other people, and to make others anguish your own pleasure."
"It is forbidden to put others profit at a loss and, recklessly embracing one's own ambition, increase one's own power"
"It is forbidden to be disregardful of one's own financial status and to live too far above it or below it"
"It is forbidden to have contempt for wise retainers and prefer flatterers, and to have one's actions be influenced by those conditions"
"One should not be envious of someone who has prospered by unjust deeds. Nor should he disdain someone who has fallen while adhering to the path of righteousness."
"It is forbidden to be given up to drinking and carousing and, in gambling and the like, to forget one's family duties."
"It is forbidden to be prideful of one's own cleverness, and to ridicule others about everything"
"When a person comes to one's home, it is forbidden to feign illness and thus avoid meeting him."
"It is forbidden to enjoy one's own tranquility, and to retire a man without adding to him some stipend."
"It is forbidden to be excessive in one's own clothing and armor, while his retainers go about shabbily."
"One should be highly reverential of Buddhist priests and treat them with correct manners."
"Regardless of a person's high or low position, it is forbidden to disregard the law of karma, and to simply live in ease."
"It is forbidden to erect barriers in one's own domain and thus cause distress to travelers both coming and going"
THE ABOVE ARTICLES SHOULD BE KEPT IN MIND AT ALL TIMES
"It is natural that training in the martial arts is the Way of the warrior, but it is important to put them into actual practice. First, it is written in the Four Books and Five Classics(The Analects, the great learning, the doctrine of the mean, the book of mencius and The Odes, the Book of History, The book of Changes, The Book of Rites and the Book of Spring and Autumn annals) as well as in the military writings that in protecting the country, if one is ignorant in the study of literature, he will be unable to govern.
Just as Buddha preached the various laws in order to save all living beings, one must rack one's brains and never depart from the Ways of both Warrior and Literary Man."
"From the time one is young, he should associate with companions who are upright and not even temporarily be taken in by friends of low character. just as water will conform to the shape of the vessel that contains it, so will a man follow the good and evil of his companions. This is so True. Therefore it is said that the master who governs his domain well loves wise retainers, while the man who exploits the people loves flatterers. this means that if one would know the heart of the master, he should look to the companions who the master loves. One should truely take this to heart. To prefer friends who are superior to him, and to avoid those who are his inferiors, is the wisdom of the good man. however, considering this to be true, it will not do to be overly fastidious in one's choice of people. This is simply saying that one should not love those who are evil. This is not limited to the man who governs the country, for without the love and respect of the masses, all matters are difficult to acheive.
First of all, a samurai who dislikes battle and has not put his heart in the right place even though he has been born in the house of the warrior, should not be reckoned amoung one's retainers. many famous generals have made this admonition. Next, if one would wonder about the good and evil of his own heart, he may think of himself as good if many people of both high and low positions gather at his door. And, even if one invites many people, and still they neglect him and he has no comrades, he should think of his own conduct as being incorrect.
Yet, I suppose there are two ways of having the gate crowded with callers. there are also occaisions when the people are fearful of the masters' iniquity, are exploited by the high handedness of his retainers and opposed by the plots of his companions, and will gather at the gates of the authorities complaining of their afflictions with explanations of their distress. one should be able to discern such situations well and to correct the artbitrariness of his retainers. He should entrust himself to the wise sayings of the ancients and follow the conditions of the law.
A man who is said to be a master should, in the same way the sun and the moon shine on the grass and tress all over the land, ponder day and night with a heart of compassion into matters of rewards and punishments, for his vassals both near and far, and even to those officials separated from him by mountains and sea; and he should use those men according to their talents. It is possible that there are many examples of men becoming leaders of samurai, and yet being negligent and lacking wisdom and ability, and thus incurring the criticism of men both high and low. Just as Buddha preached the various laws in order to save all living beings, one must rack one's brains and never depart from the Ways of both Warrior and Scholar.
In Governing the country, it is dangerous to lack even one of the virtues of humanity, righteousness, etiquette and wisdom. IN adhering to correct government, , there will be no rancor from the people when crimes are punished. But when the government makes its stand in unrighteousness and the death penalty is passed, there will be deep lamenting. and in such a case there will be no escaping the retribution of Karma.
"There is a primary need to distinguish loyalty from disloyalty and to establish rewards and punishments. It is meaningless to divide up the administration of the domain if one's vassals commit useless acts in their own interests, have no ability in the martial arts, and do not sustain their underlings. And though one can say that the treatment of his vassals in the division of the fiefs has not differed since the time of his ancestors, differences in conduct and authority are dependant of the same frame of mind of the present master.
Being born into a family that has from the beginning earnestly known the Way of Battle, it is truely regrettable to wastefully tamper with the domain, support no soldiers, and receive the scorn of all."
Thus the above is written
in the 19th year of Oei
Reiko Hanishi - 2/1/2004
Today I saw "Last Samurai" in Yokohama. First I couldn't stop sniggering but eventually felt being harassed. Why, Hollywood still makes a "noble savage" movie in the 21st century.
I never personally knew my grand-grandfather, who had a tiny domain in a nothern rural area in Japan, but I thought this movie was a kind of insult to him and our ancestors.
It was a great relief to know, even in U.S., there are people like you. Yes I also believe the biased description of other culture should be corrected. Outside of US, I saw many people started to hate US people after being suffered from incredible ignorance about the world history and culture. (I mean the "world")
Thank you, Dr. Dresner. What you did will be more than it looks like now, for the future of your country.
Your review was perfect but I'd like to add 2 personal comments.
(1) The first gun arrived at Japan in 1543, and we established large gun manufacturers in 2 years. After a couple of decades, Japan had the largest number of guns in the world. Samurai fancied them and eagerly used them in battles more than 300 years before the time of this movie. This is the Japanese way. We love state-of-art technologies from ancient period.
(2) When I was a kid, I learnt a different version of this "Last Samurai" story.
One reason why Japaneses were so hurry in modernization was the Optium War in China. Many group of young samurai considered the wave of the colonialism would arrive at our country soon, and started to struggle the way to protect our country (even though they didn't have any experience, as you pointed out). Soon they found out the old myth of Bushido was useless, and they would not be able to complish their purpose as far as they kept loyalty to Shogun, then they broke the Shogun's law in order to buy weapons from abroad and send a few members to study in Europe. They were not materialistic people and didn't stick to a physical sword. Their patrioric slogan in later days, "Japanese spirit with western talents" describes well their feelings. They prefered to hide a sword in their mind and carry a western saber instead.
They didn't feel anything to the emperor at that time, but they found him convenient for a new icon of the unified Japan in order to conduct the social movement against Shogun, in which Saigo was one of strong leaders.
However, after they defeated the shogunate system, they finally went too far. They didn't really recognized they also destroyed feudal hierarchy that the raison d'etre of samurai class depended upon.
Many samurai in lower classes or in rural domains had been kept uninvolved and uninformed outside of the movement, and now they were left miserably poor, unemployed and not able to adapt to the new system. Some say Saigo's rebellion is a trgetic way of taking his responsibility to that poor people by fighting loosing battles. He and his men didn't fight by so-called "honor", a childish fantasy.
Miguel Arndt - 1/28/2004
There is a fine book by Mitsuo Kure and Ghislaine Kruit named "The Samurai" with lots of fine pictures of Japanese reenactments.
In Japan there are actually many reenactments with display of Armour (old an reconstructed) and plenty of matchlock firearms with actual firing.
Internationally there is an black-powder muzzleloader category named "Tanegashima" wich is contended with japanese style matchlock-guns.
Miguel Arndt - 1/28/2004
It is very difficult to be sure what weapons where exactly used in small conflicts of that era ass innovations followed quickly one to another, and there was commonly a parallel presence of very different stages of military technology.
You mentioned the Franco-Prussian war of 1870-71. It was indeed fought with infantry arms already obsolete at that point. The Prussian Drays needle gun was introduced as early as 1848 and the French Chasepot was only an improved copy of the same principle. Second line units (Franctireurs and Militia on one side, Landwehr on the other) used still muzzle-loaders. There where lots of more modern breechloaders available at that time. Even one of the smaller contendients, Bavaria, had a more modern gun: the breechloading Werder-gun, which already used an encapsulated metallic cartridge.
In the American Civil War, was not such a uniformity of weapons as in the Franco-Prussian war. The standards ranged from smoothbore muzzleloaders to repetition arms like the Henry carbine or the Spencer guns.
In the same year the ending of the Franco-Prussian war, Germany introduced the first Mauser Gun, (Model 1871). A few years later an improved repetition Gun (Mauser 71/88) and finally the Mauser 1898, German standard infantry weapon until the end of W.W.II. Other armies had an even faster sequence of modernisations throwing their surplus material on international markets.
Some smaller armies of that era were paradoxically equipped with more modern arms than these of the big powers. So the Turkish forces at Plewna used M1872 Martini-Peabodys and Winchesters M1866 defeating the Russians still armed with modernised muzzle loaders and a few single shot breech loaders. Egypt, Argentina and Spain were soon armed with American Remingtons and later with mauser-repeating guns even before these where adopted by Germany.
Sadly I can not assure which weapons where used in the Japanese Bakufu uprisings. The only resource I found, makes an obscure mention of imported French guns, probably sniders " á la tabatiere" or Chasepots needle guns. But I wouldn´t be sure there where not more modern guns, even repeaters, as they where available and being sold world-wide by private companies and businessmen
Jonathan Dresner - 1/26/2004
Katsumoto is a highly modified version of SAIGO Takamori, who did lead a rebellion in 1877. See the article above for more details.
Kim - 1/25/2004
Can someone please tell me whether a samurai warrior by the name of Katsumoto actually existed and if so did he actually lead a significant rebellion? Or is the character of Katsumoto totally ficticious?
Jonathan Dresner - 1/18/2004
You're certainly right about the troubling single-sided cultural message of the movie. The notion of pure culture possessed by an elite, closed group does indeed feed into the most retrograde ethnic nationalisms. There were other reviewers who commented on similar themes, so I was trying to keep my review to specifically historical issues.
But I'm quite sure that Tom Cruise has no interest in historical veracity, except insofar as it helps sell the movies. The good news is that there is almost no way to write a sequel to "Last Samurai" without completely abandoning historical realism.
Little Green Lemon - 1/18/2004
I would like to congratulate you on this excellent review of Tom Cruise's the Last Samourai. I'm far from being an expert of Japanese history and culture, but I have been reading a few books with generalities and elements that already allow me to realize it when I'm being presented with a products full of historical and cultural flaws. From what I heard around me in the theater, I was probably one of the only people who weren't glossing over Tom Cruise's "marvelous performance" and the so-called "enlightening experience" that these people thought had been revealed to them.
However, besides all these historical and anthropological inaccuracies that make this movie such a bad one and that you have so skillfully pointed out, there are other aspects of the overall message that really bothered me.
It was this manicheistic and simplistic opposition between the samourais, represented as the gardians of the essence and spirit of Japan, and the Meiji councelors, depicted as mean, vain and corrupted by the barbarian West, trying to destroy the Japanese
culture in order to facilitate the task of the invaders. This way of locking up a culture within a pseudo-original core on which the whole society depends for its survival fits exactly in the extreme-right wing nationalistic schemes. Basically, saying, as Tom Cruise does,
that Samourais are the depositary of the Japanese culture is the same as considering the Medieval knights as the core of the European cultures. During most of the movie, I thought I heard Christoph Blocher (a Swiss right-wing nationalistic National Councelor) yodling or Jean-Marie Le Pen singing Joan of Arc's praises! Indeed, in Tom
Cruise's movie, the "true" Japanese are the rebel Samourais and their enemies, led by Omura, are "fake" Japanese, or Japanese that have been so corrupted by the outside forces that they are not anymore recognizable as Japaneses, having "forsaken" the true ways of their
There was also another underlying populist message in this movie: basically, it was America against America: on the one hand, you have Omura, backed-up by the US embassy and a set of American business men who want to sell
modern weapons to the Emperor; those ones represent the evil materialistic, progress-driven, modernity-oriented elite of the US. On the other hand, you have a commoner, victim of the American army that forced him to do horrible stuff during the wars against the Indians, who joins up with the Samourais presented as the defenders of
people's heart and essence. And in the middle of these two forces, you have a wimpy Emperor who doesn't know what he should do, but finally, in the end, regains the memory of his cultural roots, the Bushido! Yeah, right!
All in all, what you get is the most retrograde and xenophobic story he could have come up with. I'm sure Pat Buchamann would love it.
Dear Sir, I think you should contact Tom Cruise as soon as possible, before he comes out again with "The Return of the Last Samourai"!! Please!
Josh Greenland - 1/17/2004
Now that you mention it, I recall that Japanese people are big fans of "full auto" ranges (legal in certain states, including Arizona) where you can use submachineguns, true assault rifles and other small arms that fire multiple rounds per single trigger pull.
So there should be no legal boundary to wealthy Japanese or hobby clubs setting up a reenactment or oldstyle gunrange centers outside of Japan.
Jonathan Dresner - 1/15/2004
There is only one crime that I'm aware of for which someone can be prosecuted even though it happened overseas: engaging a child prostitute.
There's no reason for a Japanese overseas to conceal their identity if they are obeying local law. In fact, if you wander the tourist districts of Honolulu, there are a number of firing ranges catering to the Japanese tourist trade, where interested customers can rent guns, buy bullets and, "have a blast." It seems to be legal; it must be expensive, because they give out $100 coupons.....
Josh Greenland - 1/15/2004
"I'm not aware of a substantial reenactment community in Japan. Their firearms laws would significantly complicate the matter, as it is nearly impossible for a private individual to own, much less fire in an open field, a firearm of any kind."
The question I didn't ask as I write my previous post, was, is anyone firing 19th century Japanese firearms in a group setting or doing reenactments outside Japan, to get around Japan's gun laws? If there were, would the participants have to keep their identities hidden if they were Japanese citizens?
Jonathan Dresner - 1/15/2004
I appear to have fallen into error. I can see some of how it happened: I put two and two together -- forgot to check to see if two really was two -- I got four, but in this historical instance the answer really is three.....
My first mistake was the non-military buff's traditional conflation of "rifle" with "encased bullet," forgetting (if I ever knew it) that there were rifled muskets. My second was the assumption that military technology advanced in straight lines: the use of breech-loading and repeating rifles in the Civil war did not immediately result in their adoption by major militaries around the world (though I'm quite sure I don't understand why not, given the immense force-multiplier effect).
I read a fascinating article recently (not new, but I hadn't paid it much mind until I assigned it to my students: Conrad Totman in Najita and Koschman's Conflict in Japanese History) about Shogun Tsunayoshi's belated attempt at military modernization: the Shogunate really wasn't that far behind the Imperial loyalists, but they never got much of a chance to catch up before events overtook them. It really was a touch and go situation: closer, even, than I realized.
But this is an error I should not have made. Thanks for your kind correction.
Ed Moise - 1/13/2004
I am sure it is obvious that the third paragraph of my last post was garbled. What I meant to say about Craig's book was
"I saw nothing indicating that any repeating rifles or breech loaders had arrived in Japan in time to have been used against the Bakufu. On the contrary, the impression I got (especially from pp. 325 and 353) was that the rifles referred to on p. 316 had been the most advanced weapons involved."
I found more detailed information on the weapons used in the Meiji Restoration, apparently based on better sources, in Conrad Totman, "The Collapse of the Tokugawa Bakufu, 1862-1868" (University Press of Hawaii, 1980). It seems clear from this book (especially p. 433) that both sides in the fighting that ended the Bakufu used significant numbers of muzzle-loading single shot rifles, and neither side used significant numbers of more advanced weapons, breech loaders or repeating rifles.
The weapons superiority of the Choshu and Satsuma foot soldiers lay in the fact that a large proportion of them had good quality, modern muzzle loading rifles. The proportion of men with such modern weapons was much lower in the forces of the Bakufu.
Ed Moise - 1/13/2004
Last night I spent some time with Craig, "Choshu in the Meiji Restoration," reading what seemed the most relevant section pretty carefully and skimming some of the rest. I found no indication of either breech-loading or repeating rifles. On the contrary, what I found on p. 316 was a reference to Choshu having purchased 7300 rifles. "Of the 7300 rifles, 4300 were Minies, the weapon with which the American Civil War, which had ended only a few months earlier, had been fought.... The other 3000 were older weapons..."
Minies (rifles firing the "Minie ball") had indeed been the most common infantry weapons in the American Civil War, but they were muzzle loading, not breech loading or repeating rifles.
I saw nothing indicating that any muzzle loaders or breech loaders had arrived in Japan in time to have been used against the Bakufu. On the contrary, the impression I got (especially from pp. 325 and 353) was that the rifles referred to on p. 316 had been the most advanced weapons involved.
In Westney I see a reference on p. 173, too brief and vague to be very convincing, to the arrival of breech loading rifles in Japan in the early 1860s. The first reference to a particular model of rifle having arrived is on p. 175, which describes a purchase of needle guns (breech loading but not repeating) in 1870. I don't see any repeating rifles.
Is there something I am somehow failing to see in one or both of these works?
Jonathan Dresner - 1/12/2004
Mr. Greenland asks "what kinds of pre-existing interests tend to augur well for Japanese history students?"
I have to think about that for a while, to be honest. Here are a few preliminary thoughts:
** Experience with Japan itself, not its decontextualized productions. Extensive intercultural experience of any kind, really.
** Interest in the real world, rather than media.
** Interest in historical processes rather than military history or political drama.
** Interest in the roots of the present (that's how I got into history, anyway).
Students who come to my classes with these kinds of motivations tend to be better at handling the complexities of real history and real intercultural study.
Jonathan Dresner - 1/12/2004
I'm not aware of a substantial reenactment community in Japan. Their firearms laws would significantly complicate the matter, as it is nearly impossible for a private individual to own, much less fire in an open field, a firearm of any kind.
There are people who like to dress up in traditional dress for festivals and such, but very few people who seem to enjoy reenacting pre-modern living conditions, even for a brief period.
But the martial arts communities preserve a great deal of the social and physical culture of the 19th century, being direct descendants of samurai fighting schools (except for Okinawan Karate, of course).
Josh Greenland - 1/11/2004
"There was discussion about that on H-Japan, and I think I'm on the side of the Earl Kinmonth, who said that Japan is not a subject in dire need of advertising...."
From my point of view as a non-academic lifelong resident of the urban Pacific Rim, Mr. Dresner is correct. Americans already show great interest in all things Japanese, from Japanese comics, video cartoons, martial arts and entertainment television to technology, history and politics. Many work for Japanese companies and a surprising number of us have lived in Japan. We don't need another "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" to ramp up the enthusiasm.
"...students who come to history classes as fans of pop culture are frequently both disappointed and disappointing."
I have no trouble believing this. If you're willing to tell us, Mr. Dresner, what kinds of pre-existing interests tend to augur well for Japanese history students?
Josh Greenland - 1/11/2004
You are no doubt aware of Civil War reenactors, 19th century hunting camp habitues and the "buckskinners" who handle historically-correct black powder firearms in the US. Are there groups of people who handle or shoot old-style Japanese firearms?
Jonathan Dresner - 1/11/2004
My main sources on weaponry are: Albert Craig, "Choshu in the Meiji Restoration," which says that pro-Imperial forces were armed with both breech-loading and repeating rifles, many of which were Civil War surplus (after 1865), and the repeating rifle was indeed an important addition to the forces of the North in the Civil War; D. Eleanor Westney, "The Military" in Rozman and Jansen's "Japan in Transition: From Tokugawa to Meiji", which offers a concise history of the shift in models and problems of the early Meiji military, including the substantial challenge presented by the Satsuma uprising.
The guns carried by Shogunal forces in 1853 were undoubtedly 17th century-style heavy muskets, though a few more modern weapons had been coming into Japan since the 1840s (Westney).
And, for pure pleasure and rich texture, I recommend Shiba's autobiography "Remembering Aizu," which gives a view of the late Tokugawa and Early Meiji from the perspective of a youth from a staunchly pro-Shogunal domain.
Ed Moise - 1/11/2004
Dr. Dresner wrote that "in the 1860s . . . small mixed samurai-commoner militias with breech-loading and repeating rifles defeated much larger Shogunal forces still heavily reliant on traditional spear, sword and arrow weaponry."
I lack specialized knowledge here, but I am startled enough to request that he cite some sources.
In the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, the infantry of both France and Prussia were armed with breech-loading rifles, but I am not aware of a significant number of repeating rifles used by infantry on either side in this war. If the Japanese had in the 1860s actually been ahead of the major powers of Europe in the adoption of repeating rifles, I would have thought the story would have been interesting enough so I would have seen it before this.
On the other side, the shogunal forces that had lined up on the shore to meet Commodore Perry, in 1853, had carried quite a lot of guns; I would not have expected that they would have gone backwards in technology between then and the battles of the 1860s.
rg - 1/11/2004
It's actually worse than sad. The US is the most powerful country in the world. Our ELECTED officials truely make world wide decisions. So when you have so much of the electorate basing it's world view on crap from Oliver Stone (see Hollywood) it's a problem. Couple that with the rabid liberal partisanship of the majority of colleges/universities and you end up with a misinformed body of voters. I really don't want some devout Seinfield/Ophrah groupie with a liberal arts MBA/PHD deciding world policy... in short "..life is NOT like a box of chocolates."
rg - 1/11/2004
Hollywood is a ridiculous farce! For every 1 one person "turned on" to do a little research on truth there are (depending on the success of the movie) thousands who leave with a shallow idiot interpretation.
I find it less than amusing that while so many Americans will riducule the rather bizarre rantings of Pat Robertson they'll soak up crap from Olivar Stone. High tech, well produced, smooth entertainment doesn't make it true (or even credible) ...it just makes it slick. Big screen Ophra, if you will, mind food for the mindless.
Josh Greenland - 1/10/2004
Jonathan, thanks for this informative and entertaining review.
Bill Heuisler - 1/10/2004
"...probably better history than Last Samurai..." Good, That makes me want to read Sadler and Totman...and Clavell all over again.
Thank you for your time, and Happy New Year.
cassandra - 1/10/2004
Such as it has always been. Shakespeare got some of his history right, some of it wrong, and in the case of Richard III was involved in spreading poisonous propaganda. I think the recent Amadeus, Shakespeare in Love and the Elizabeth were magical theatrical productions, but horrible histories. Gods and Generals attempted accuracy was is pilloried as a disastrous bore.
Jonathan Dresner - 1/9/2004
I haven't reread or reviewed Shogun in many years (really not since I started serious study of Japanese history). My recollections: Tokugawa Ieyasu's stand-in is reasonably true to what we used to think we knew about him, but more recent scholarship has cast some of his sagacity into doubt. Will Adams was a real English ship captain, who did serve the Tokugawa and who was probably partially responsible for the shift towards seclusion, though it wasn't finalized until two decades after Ieyasu's death. The Portuguese and Spanish and Jesuits and Franciscans were mixing business, religion and politics shamelessly. The culture of tea and Zen which I remember being featured in the movie was not well presented but was very popular among the upper-class samurai at the time, thanks to Sen no Rikyu and his patron (and executor) Hideyoshi. The romance, though, was pure orientalist junk.
Overall, it was probably better history than Last Samurai, but that's not saying much. Clavell generally did a Michener-type job, reading basic current scholarship as the basis for his work (like Sadler's bio of Ieyasu, which is still considered pretty authoritative in terms of facts, if not interpretations; I think Totman's bio is closer, but only if you read it in conjunction with Berry's political analysis of Hideyoshi).
I really don't remember much more, and my syllabi still need some work.
Bill Heuisler - 1/9/2004
Would you kindly take a moment - in the same spirit you examined Cruise's movie - to give a very brief review of Clavell's "Shogun", one of my favorite novels.
The long, detailed novel was supposedly based on Ieyasu Tokugawa, the warlord who conquered most of Japan and created a unified Japan. While reading it many years ago, I became so immersed that I recall thinking some of the dialogue in an awful pidgin Japanese and feeling admiring empathy for that cool, brutal ethos supposedly embraced by Samurai. A wonderful experience, a great novel. Was Clavell approximately accurate...I hope?
Thank you in advance for your valued time.
Jonathan Dresner - 1/9/2004
Your sarcasm aside, that's why I don't usually go to (or show in my classes) historical drama: the drama almost invariably trumps the history.
But as a teacher of history, I know (and this is confirmed by every other teacher I know) that these dramas are watched by millions of people who don't really understand the difference between historical drama and documentary, between events and processes, who think that having a "historical consultant" means that everything is "accurate."
So yes, you're right, it's not a surprise. That doesn't mean that it isn't a problem.
cassandra - 1/9/2004
So Hollywood got it wrong again on historical facts? Wow, I'm absolutely gobsmacked. Given Hollywood's unblemished record of producing historically accurate productions, there should be a congressional investigation of this theatrical fraud on a public ignorant and unwary of how easily they can be manipulated.
C.R.W. - 1/6/2004
For an historically appealing and commendably detailed review.
As for the movie, well, haven't seen it yet(!)
Herodotus - 1/6/2004
You may have seen this piece:
Buried deep in there is the fact that the number of people who study Japanese across the country has increased dramatically since 1997.
A good piece, though a little long!
Jonathan Dresner - 1/6/2004
There was discussion about that on H-Japan, and I think I'm on the side of the Earl Kinmonth, who said that Japan is not a subject in dire need of advertising and that students who come to history classes as fans of pop culture are frequently both disappointed and disappointing.
Matt Norman - 1/5/2004
Fair enough, though I think the technically correct term would have served your purpose as well. I enjoyed your piece and while you may lament the damage control you will have to do with students, this film,though seriously flawed, will generate greater interest in Japan. This could boost enrollment in courses and get people to read serious books on the period. Hollywood is a horrible source for history but it can turn people on who otherwise might not be interested in subjects such as the Meiji restoration.
F.H. Thomas - 1/5/2004
I also wish to associate myself with Mr. Clark's comments. Prof. Dresner fairly often hits one out of the park, and has done so here. This deserves a much wider publication.
More such, please!
David Salmanson - 1/5/2004
The problems with putting it in AHR are a) by time AHR hits the library shelves the DVD won't even be in the remainder bin, hardly useful for explaining why you are not seeing the movie to the nut in the cubicle across the hall who loved it b) who reads AHR? I have a PhD and don't read it, the Upper School I teach at doesn't get it and it is hardly a general interest publication (indeed, were it not for Perspectives and its job ads that come with the subscription, I suspect nobody would get it, it is a journal without a purpose but that is a different discussion.) and finally c) the article will reach a much wider audience here in a timely fashion. HNN may have problems, but reaching an audience ain't one of them.
Peter K. Clarke - 1/5/2004
This is a thorough and historically competent analysis. It is the sort of article, rarely found on HNN, that actually does what HNN says it is about: reveal the complexities of history beneath, and often in contradiction to, simplistic popular depictions. Well done, Jonathan Dresner. This piece deserves a better forum. AHR, for example
mark safranski - 1/5/2004
A commendable review !
Jonathan Dresner - 1/5/2004
I didn't want to get into the technicalities of Townsend Harris' career: he also wasn't recognized by the Japanese as a representative of the United States for purposes of negotiation for a while, so his status as consul was pretty tenuous, too. That's why I left "ambassador" lower case: to indicate function, not title.
Matt Norman - 1/5/2004
Dresner is incorrect when he refers to Harris as an "ambassador." Harris was a consul, as the US did not even adopt the rank of ambassador until 1893 because it was believed that only monarchs appointed ambassadors.