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The Samurai

45 minutes
First broadcast:
Thursday 24 December 2009

Melvyn Bragg and guests Gregory Irvine, Nicola Liscutin and Angus Lockyer discuss the history of the Samurai and the role of their myth in Japanese national identity.The Samurai have a fearsome historical reputation as a suicidally brave caste of Japanese warriors. During World War Two, kamikaze pilots were photographed climbing into their cockpits with Samurai swords, encapsulating the way the myth of the Samurai's martial ethos kept its power long after their heyday. But the Samurai's role in Japanese culture is much more complex than that. They were deeply engaged with Zen Buddhism and Noh Theatre, and sponsored haiku poetry. After their role in Japan's century of civil war, ending in the early 1600s, they became part of the country's civil service. A 250-year peace toppled them into identity crisis.In the 19th century, with the arrival of the West, they played an important role in the establishment of a Japanese nation-state, not least by restoring the Emperor to power. And in the 20th century the mythological version of the Samurai, designed in part for Western consumption, became integral to a newly forged national identity.Nicola Liscutin is Programme Director of Japanese Studies at Birkbeck College, University of London; Gregory Irvine is Senior Curator Japan at the Victoria and Albert Museum; Angus Lockyer is Lecturer in Japanese History and Chair of the Japan Research Centre at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London.


    Blomberg, C, The Heart of the Warrior; origins and religious background of the Samurai system in feudal Japan (Routledge Curzon, 1994)

    Irvine, Gregory, The Japanese Sword, the Soul of the Samurai (V&A Publications, 2000)

    Irvine, Gregory, 'Collecting Japanese arms and armour: a European perspective with an emphasis on the collections of the Victoria & Albert Museum' in Oriental Art, Vol. LV No.1, (2005) pp.37-46

    Lidin, Olof G, Tanegashima, The arrival of Europe in Japan (NIAS Press, 2002)

    Perrin, Noel, Giving Up the Gun: Japan's Reversion to the Sword, 1543-1879 (David R. Godine, 1988)

    Sinclaire, Clive, Samurai: the weapons and spirit of the Japanese warrior (Salamander Books, 2001)

    Turnbull, S, The Samurai, a Military History (London, George Philip, 1977, reprinted in paperback, Curzon Press 1996)

    Varley, Paul, Warriors of Japan as portrayed in the War Tales (University of Hawaii Press, 1994)

    The Tale of the Heike (various editions): the first of the great war tales, describing the decline and defeat of the Taira clan, which led to the establishment of the first shogunate in the late 12th century

    Conlan, Thomas, State of War: The Violent Order of Fourteenth-Century Japan (Center for Japanese Studies University of Mic 2003)

    Berry, Mary Elizabeth, The Culture of Civil War in Kyoto (1997)

    Yamamoto Tsunetomo, Hagakure, The Book of the Samurai (various editions)

    Kokichi, Katsu, Musui's Story: The Autobiography of a Tokugawa Samurai (Univ. Arizona Press, 1991)

    Ravina, Mark, The Last Samurai: The Life and Battles of Saigo Takamori (Wiley, 2005)

    Ikegami, Eiko, The Taming of the Samurai: Honorific Individualism and the Making of Modern Japan (Harvard University Press, 1997)

    Inazo, Nitobe, Bushido: The Soul of Japan (various editions)


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