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Posts Tagged ‘samurai archives’

Samurai Archives Forum Gets Major Update

In Japanese History on March 18, 2015 at 6:13 am

Samurai Ākaibusu Fōramu (the Samurai Archives Forum)


Let your freak flag fly

A really cool thing just happened the other day.

So when I first tried to learn a little bit about Japanese history, one of the only credible online resources was a website called Samurai Archives. This was way back to 2002. I was brought there by Google, Yahoo, or whatever we used back then[i]. The site featured articles on famous samurai, convenient timelines of certain eras that were great for perspective, and a fairly dynamic forum. I checked the site from time to time over the years to come.

Years later, on a whim I searched for “Japanese History” in iTunes – pretty sure nothing would be there – when suddenly I saw an old familiar face: the Samurai Archives podcast[ii]. (OK, the podcast itself wasn’t a familiar face, but you know what I mean.) Anyhoo, the SA Podcast immediately became a staple of my core podcast routine.

Eventually, I would start JapanThis! and when the subject matter became more history-centric, I was again found myself drawn to the Samurai Archives site. In particular, I came to the forum. The forum is where people asked questions (sometimes very obscure questions). Ideas were hashed out, knowledge was shared, and epic nerd fights broke out. And while I wasn’t a contributor to that community, I was definitely lurking and learning; in time, our paths would cross and I am proud to call some of the movers and shakers at SA my friends.

A little SA humor.

A little SA humor.

This Is Touching and All, But You Said Something Cool Happened

Right. So, the SA forum was powered by an ancient version of phpBB. The last time I used phpBB was c. 2004 before the collision of chat clients with the rise of MySpace gave birth to “modern” social media. I don’t know the version history of phpBB, but the forum had become a dinosaur. You couldn’t even “like” or “favorite” something, for FFS[iii].

So the cool thing that happened was this: the Samurai Archives Forum was updated.

Actually, it hasn’t just been updated. It’s been reborn and this couldn’t have happened at a better time. Japan is already seeing record numbers of foreign tourists. Interest in Japanese history in the English speaking[iv] world is clearly increasing and the build up to the 2020 Olympics is going to guarantee a boom in the Edo Period. I also guarantee you that interest in the Sengoku Period and Kamakura Period will also grow due to their connection to Edo.

The new forum is starting completely from scratch here.

I’m a little giddy because the new forum assigns various ranks[v]. One of those ranks is sign-up order. Old school peeps may remember Trillian. You had serious cred on Trillian if you had a number that showed you were an early adopter. I’m user #5 on the new SA forum and I’m pretty proud of that.

The old forum isn’t gone, though. It was active for about 10-15 years and had attracted 220,118 Japanese history fans. Now it’s archived here. It’s footprint on the web is so strong that you can generally search directly from Google, “samurai archives forum” plus whatever term you’re looking for and it will come up.

Anyways, this is great news both for the site and for Japanese history lovers everywhere. You can connect with like minded people, ask questions, help others by answering questions, and engage in all sorts of discussions about your favorite aspects of J-history. It’s also a fantastic place to share resources and book recommendations. And while the old forum is archived, this new forum let’s you make your own mark on the future of fandom, discussion, and research of Japanese History. I hope to be more active there myself since the new forum is so much more user friendly. So, see you there soon!

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[i] My web mail address at the time was definitely Yahoo. But if memory serves me well, MSN Messenger and AIM reigned supreme, but a dying framework called BBS was still the center of online communities. Daring, but ultimately “iffy” attempts at social networking services came and went. I’m looking at you, Friendster and MySpace. RIP, y’all.
[ii] Their 15 part series, Intro to Japanese History, is pretty much required listening. I myself go back from time to time and re-listen because they really pack a lot of interesting stuff from various angles. The art history, military history, and archaeology expertise that comes from some of the hosts is the sort of stuff that is often looked over. Another episode entitled Military History Lesson: Strategy Vs Tactics – A Sengoku Example, is also required listening. I’m not a big fan of samurai warfare and military affairs, but in a martial culture like old Japan, you have to have a certain amount of understanding of it. Before this episode, I thought strategy and tactics were synonyms. Boy, was I wrong! Some of the knowledge I took away from this episode helped me understand the nature of castles and castle towns a little better, too.
[iii] C’mon, I “like” and “favorite” shit left and right like a monkey with an iPhone.
[iv] And by “English speaking world” I don’t mean countries where English is the native language, I mean countries where people can read English language books or communicate via SNS in English.
[v] The old forum had ranks, too.

10 Ways to Learn Japanese History

In Japanese History on October 8, 2013 at 5:17 pm

What is a good book about Japanese History?


I get a lot of private messages about the blog, and in the last month or two I’ve gotten a few that were asking more or less the same thing. Here’s one reader’s e-mail:[i]

I’m a JET living in Saitama and working in Tokyo. Sometimes I get lost reading your blogs because I don’t know the basics of Japanese history. Your Japanese Eras page is great, but sometimes I see other era names come up that I don’t recognize. I want to educate myself on Japanese History as a whole but I don’t know where to begin so can you recommend some books or websites for me to come to grips with Japan’s long history? I haven’t really studied Japanese either so I’m looking for English books.

This is a great question. And to everyone else who asked similar questions and I told to wait[ii], I’m going to answer all of your questions today.

When I started this blog, I wanted to explain Japan to foreigners in basic terms. If you go back and look at the earliest blogs, they were pretty simple and assumed the reader didn’t know anything. But as the focus has become more and more specialized, I’ve found it harder and harder to be general and beginner-friendly. I think I’ve gone past the point of no return on that one. But for those of you who are trying to keep up, this page will arm you with all the goodies you need to come up to speed in some ways.

japan a cultural history (book)

Japan: A Short Cultural History
George Bailey Samson

I picked this book up about 12 years ago while killing time at Penn Station in NYC. I had never read anything about Japan or Japanese history at the time. It was a cheap paperback that I could read on the train while commuting. I read it once during some summer commutes in NYC. A few years later, after learning a little more about Japan history and having visited Japan twice, I re-read it. It was even better the second time[iii]. I don’t have the book here with me in Japan, but I have fond memories of this book.

It was written in the 1930’s and I had no idea at the time that it was a classic survey of Japanese history; I was just looking for some light reading. So this is great, broad overview of the history of Japan. Because of its age, modern academics may level some criticism at this book, but for the beginner, it’s accessible, clear, and is a great launch pad into other areas of Japanese history and culture. I recommend you start here.

the life of tokugawa ieyasu (book)

The Life of Tokugawa Ieyasu
A.L. Sadler

This is another book I just picked up randomly. By this time, I could shop on the internet easily and I found a used copy and was delighted to find the locations of the Tokugawa shōguns’ graves in one of the indexes. No matter what long term fans of Japanese history think of this book, it pointed me in the right direction towards my goal of surveying all the Tokugawa shōguns’ graves; a goal I still haven’t attained (10 years later).

This book was first published in the 1930’s, so while scholars of today may have some bones to pick with it, it is a classic. Understanding Tokugawa Ieyasu is one of the keys to understanding the Edo Period, but the man himself barely lived in the Edo Period. He was very much a product of the late Sengoku Period and as such the door that he helped close very much affected the door he helped open. People who love Japanese history tend to get burned out on Ieyasu over time, so it’s best to learn as much as much about the dude as you can in the beginning. This book is a great place to start.

edo the city that become tokyo (book)

Edo, the City that Became Tokyo: An Illustrated History
Akira Naito

I’m recommending this book without having actually read it cover to cover. I don’t even own it. But I have seen it from time to time and what I saw looked like Coffee Table Book PLUS. And the PLUS would be “plus awesome.” It’s not a survey of Japanese history, but it is a survey of Edo-Tōkyō history, and as such, it’s relevant to JapanThis!.

I like pictures and maps and drawings to accompany historical writings (something most historians suck balls at doing – the pictures are always a lazy afterthought). That’s one of the reasons I try to include so many picture here. If you want pictures to enhance your history reading, you’re probably gonna dig this book.

the tea ceremony (book)

The Tea Ceremony
Sen’o Tanaka & Sendo Tanaka

My grandmother-in-law gave me this book. She’s a tea master to some elite families and I’ve had the pleasure of enjoying tea with her, but I haven’t undergone any training yet. That said, this book has helped me understand tea culture in Japan a lot. It especially helped me with my recent article on Yūrakuchō. It’s also helping me bond with my grandmother-in-law, which is fascinating.

This book really emphasizes the history and architectural and design elements of tea ceremony as a Japanese cultural phenomenon. It won’t really teach you how to do tea ceremony. But, of course, that’s the point. It’s an aesthetic. You’ll have to learn the art from an accomplished tea master. But this book will definitely prime you for the world you’re stepping into.

musui's story (book)

Musui’s Story
Katsu Kokichi

OK, I’m not even exaggerating when I say that this may be one of the best books in the world. Hands down. A middle class hatamoto (direct retainer of the shōgun) writes a book to his son about how to grow up and be a good samurai – a noble example of leading by example, which was the samurai’s role in the Edo Period – but in teaching said lesson he just tells crazy stories bragging about what a fuck up he was. Imagine a book written by your craziest friend that was just a bunch of “This one time, I was sooooo wasted that…” stories. Imagine those stories being in the late Edo Period – all with the premise of “Son, one day you’ll grow up and be a man. And I want you to learn from my mistakes. But, OMG, this other time, I went drinking and whoring in Yoshiwara and…”

Needless to say, Kokichi’s son grew up to be the legendary Katsu Kaishū who saved the Tokugawa, saved the city of Edo from destruction, saved Edo Castle, and assisted in a reasonably bloodless transition of power from shōgunate to imperial court.

The awesome thing about this book is it will shatter any romanticized ideals you may have about samurai. It humanizes them by showing you what daily life was like for middle class samurai families at the time right before Commodore Perry came and Japan fell into chaos. This is, quite literally, the calm before the storm. It’s fascinating and you won’t be able to put it down.


You wanna podcast? We gotta podcast!

You’d think there’d be a lot of podcasts about Japanese history, but there aren’t. But there are a few very unique and very awesome people who have pioneered the Japanese History podcast world. There are thousands of books on Japanese History but in this day and age some people don’t want to read or just don’t have the time. In that case, get your podcast on. I’m also going to talk about a few other online resources.


a short history of japan (podcast)

A Short History of Japan
Cameron Foster

First, I’d like to introduce A Short History of Japan which made for an awesome and fun survey of Japanese history from the obscure mythological beginnings of the Yamato Court up to an abrupt ending at the beginning of the Edo Period. I know that I’m not the only one who has been kept hanging since the podcast stopped.

This podcast is great for the beginner because the host, Cameron, doesn’t assume any previous knowledge of Japan or Japanese History. Nevertheless, he goes into detail on a number of issues[iv] that were awesome for me because if this were a book, my eyes would have glazed over. But in this format, it’s fantastic.


Samurai Archives

I’ve been referring to these guys for solid information on Japanese History since the first time I got interested in Japanese history. I kiss their collective asses regularly on JapanThis! – as anyone who actually clicks the embedded links I painstakingly add to every articles knows.

Originally a website featuring a wiki, original articles, reference materials, interviews and one of the nerdiest community forums I’ve ever seen, in recent years they started podcasting. Episodes 10-24 are a panel discussion-style survey of Japanese history from pre-historic times up to the unification of the realm under Toyotomi Hideyoshi[v]. This is an excellent place to start your path into Japanese History. The best thing is that these guys cite their sources, so if you find something you like, they’ll tell you where to get more material[vi].

If you’re looking for an awesome podcast that is still going, then this is the one for you. Since that initial survey they did, the podcast has covered a broad range of topics – often with a skeptical and un-romanticized view of old Japan[vii]. Many, but not all, episodes require a certain familiarity with the chronology and major events. But just by listening, you’ll start to get a feel for the world you’re stepping into. They have a decidedly academic but off the cuff approach. They’re undeniably the rock stars of Japanese History on the internet. I can’t recommend them enough.

japan world

Japan World
Chris Glenn

Recently, I’ve really been digging this guy’s site. Although it’s a bilingual site, for beginners, it’s probably a bit intimidating because the content is mostly Japanese. But if you’re interested in Japanese History, consider subbing to this RSS feed and think of that as a chance to improve your Japanese reading skills while still getting some quality interviews and articles in English, too.

This website is one to watch. I don’t think there’s been a website like this for Japan History yet. It’s run by one Chris Glenn who has a host of media credits and is involved in many efforts to spread Japanese culture far and wide.

wiki - history of japan



If you haven’t looked here yet, then maybe you should. In terms of a general chronology, Wikipedia isn’t half bad[viii]. All of the resources I mentioned above have much more interesting angles, but if you just need a quick crash course, then this is good.

Crash Course

Speaking of crash courses - here’s how Japanese history is generally viewed from a western, narrative view. The mispronunciations “eedo,” “bukoofoo,” and “tiyotomi hiday yoshi” plus the bizarre claim that the emperor abolished the bukoofoo and restored imperial power to himself make this well worth the watch[ix].

UPDATE: I knew the Samson and Sadler books would catch me some flak. These are both books I bought blindly years ago (and have fond memories of). They were some of the first books I ever bought on Japanese History… about 10 years ago, if my memory serves me well. I included disclaimers along the lines of “some modern academics may have problems with these books.” Well, sure enough, some did.

One of said academics who teaches a survey course of Japanese History is Mindy Landek. She has a great blog and a Twitter feed that I highly recommend.  Her substitutions were these:

These books could be replacements for the Samson book that I recommended.

As for a biography of Ieyasu, yes, I know Sadler’s 1930’s book must be outdated, but I haven’t read any more recent book on the topic. So if anyone else wants to recommend a bio of Ieyasu for beginners, please leave it in the comments below to share with us all.

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[i] They wouldn’t let me use their name, so I didn’t. If you send private messages, please let me know your preference, too.

[ii] Or I didn’t reply to (just because I’m busy, nothing personal, ok?)

[iii] Because I had more context.

[iv] The spread of Buddhism and the arrival of guns and gun powder come to mind.

[v] With a brief mention of Tokugawa Ieyasu at the end; the implied joke being that there were no real samurai in the Edo Period… an idea no doubt put forward by the inimitable Nate Ledbetter.

[vi] Something I should start doing… but can you imagine the amount of footnotes I have then?

[vii] While it’s probably not everyone’s cup of tea, there is a serious military perspective as well. One member, Nate, is a career military dude who brings the martial reality of the Sengoku Period through rational and skeptical analysis – something that is generally overlooked in Japanese History.

[viii] I wouldn’t trust them on specializations, including etymology.

[ix] If I were recommending a fun survey course of world history for high school kids, I would recommend this series because it’s fast paced, witty, and makes history look cool

Samurai Archives Podcast (part 2)

In Japan, Japanese History on July 18, 2013 at 1:31 am

When I listen to my own voice or way of speaking, I want to throw up a little bit in my mouth.

I can write pretty good, I think[i]. At least I’ve been told that. But I’m not such a well spoken guy. So I was nervous to record a podcast with the guys from Samurai Archives, who have been championing the awesomeness of Japanese History since before I knew from [ii]. But as a long time fan of all the hard work they put into making a serious yet fun bastion of Japanese History in English on the interwebs, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity.

In the Anglosphere, Japanese History is kind of a rare animal. Those of us who are passionate about it need to stick together.

So without further ado, here is part 2 of my dorky voice discussing all sorts of shit about Tokyo and Japan with Chris and Nate from Samurai Archives.

I suck at Word Press, so there’s a chance that clicking the picture won’t work. If that’s the case, you can use this link:

And my final note, if you like Japan This (on Facebook, Twitter, Word Press or anything, and you’re interested in Japanese History, I highly recommend subscribing to the Samurai Archives Podcast and bookmarking their site. And if you use, please use through their site so you can throw a few pennies their way to maintain their servers and all the other work that goes into keeping their site up and… well, basically, just to say “thank you!”



Part One is here:


[i] How do you like that grammar? lol
[ii] The fact that I still might not know  from is intentionally implied, so don’t think I have a big head.

Edo Period Caste System and the Arts?

In Japanese History on February 21, 2013 at 4:57 pm

Just reposting another amazing podcast by the crew at Samurai Archives.

EDO part 2

I have much admiration for these dudes. Great stuff.  I hope you all like it too!

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