Young Samurai: The Way of the Sword: Ancient Culture, Modern Politics

Reading The Way of the Sword while listening to the “Restoring Honor” event, I began to wonder if our current shift to discourses of honor and warriors is a side effect of the ubiquity of martial arts in the US over the last 35 years. The values of martial arts, even the most modern ones, include personal and collective honor in ways that were, for a long time, rather absent in most American rhetoric. Sarah Palin said “If you look for the virtues that have sustained our country, you will find them in those who wear the uniform, who take the oath, who pay the price for our freedom.” That’s as good a paraphrase of the Imperial Rescript for Soldiers and Sailors as I’ve ever heard from an American politician.

The cultural and historical problems which made Young Samurai: The Way of the Warrior such a weak hash of Harry Potter plotting and dojo delusions persist in the second book of the trilogy. Like the first volume, it’s a quick read, probably most suitable for middle school/junior high readers, though older readers with an interest in the martial arts won’t find it childish. Historians of Japan, however, will find this gaijin-boy-in-early-Edo tale a test of character not unlike the one the protagonist faces: to get through it, you must ignore exhaustion, overcome moments of sharp pain, focus on the goal, and achieve a state of no-mind…. [spoilers ahead, of course, though the fact that it’s the middle part of a trilogy probably tells you most of what you need to know.]

As I said in my review of the last book, there is a lot of anachronism here regarding samurai culture, in particular the transposition of a fully-developed Hagakure-style bushido and 20th century dojo culture into early 17th century Japan. The books, after all, chronicle the adventures of a teenage English boy orphaned and marooned when ninja kill his father in Japan. Jack is adopted into the Miyamoto Musashi-like Masamoto Takeshi’s family, and begins his training as a samurai in Masamoto’s Two-Sword Kyoto School. The action is in the 1610s — though, as you’ll see below, not the 1610s that we’re familiar with — but for Bradford’s purposes, the culture is timeless.

Most of the anachronisms are minor, but the sheer quantity is, after a while, exhausting. From food1 to women’s roles2 to culture,3 Bradford routinely sacrifices historical reality to creating a familiar cultural milieu for his readers.4 Bradford also has his foreign characters using Western idioms — “The blind leading the blind,” (232) and “In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king.” (344) — but not noting how strange they would sound to the Japanese characters. On the other hand, the Japanese characters talk in koans (or fortune cookies) a lot of the time as well: this culminates in a scene where Jack is preparing for a fight and everyone he talks to repeats their signature aphorism, and Jack then has to remember and use them all during the fight, a triumph of authorial pedantry. (pp. 375-389)

There are some truly weird alterations of history in this book, though, that go beyond behavioral quirks or contextual trappings. While this is a Japan in which Oda Nobunaga ruled the late 1500s5, it appears that in this version of history the Battle of Sekigahara hasn’t happened, and the Tokugawa polity does not, in fact, exist! There is a Daimyo Takatomi Hideaki (Toyotomi Hideyoshi?) who rules the Kyoto region and is the daimyo whom Masamoto serves and who supports the school, and a Daimyo Kamakura Katsura6 who rules Edo and is the patron of a rival school. While Daimyo Kamakura is gathering forces and beginning a nationalistic anti-Christian movement (46, 131, 171, passim), Daimyo Takatomi is maneuvering against him7 and is described as follows:

As you’re well aware, the ruling lord here in Kyoto is Daimyo Takatomi. But Daimyo Takatomi is not just responsible for this province. He governs Japan as one of the appointed regents, and he’s popular among the samurai lords. He likes Christians and foreigners. In fact, he likes them so much, I’ve heard that he’s converting to Christianity himself. (p. 96)

It’s not clear from this or from the context whether Takatomi is regent for the Emperor (who features prominently in the first book) or for the unnamed heir of the unnamed Hideyoshi. In fact, it’s not clear that Hideyoshi unified Japan in this timeline: it’s entirely possible that Oda Nobunaga did it, since he gets credit for most of the interesting military adventures of the recent past, or that Japan never really went through a period of disunity and civil war. Given the frequency with which characters either traveled to China (232, 349) or had contact with Chinese (346), there may not have been a wako pirate problem or invasion of Korea to interfere with the China trade. There are still areas considered “ninja territory” (283) which means that political control over localities is pretty weak. And the final challenges are referred to as “ancient samurai tradition” (352) which, in addition to conflating the school with the entire samurai class, seems to contradict the idea that this is Masamoto’s school, a recent development.

Clearly this is a very different timeline: there were in our history no daimyo outside of Kyushu who converted to Christianity — though the teacher speaking here could just be very wrong — and the anti-Christian movement and gradually escalating persecutions orchestrated by Daimyo Kamakura8 bear no resemblance to the nonchalance with which most daimyo greeted Christianity and foreign contact. Christianity was oppressed in Japan, but it was on orders from Hideyoshi and the Tokugawa Shoguns, and it was based on the dual loyalty problem, not on any theological or cultural revulsion against the religion. Granted, theology was cited in the Expulsion edicts, but I don’t know any credible historian who considers that more than a bit of rhetorical cover for the geopolitical considerations regarding contact with European Catholic empires.

Even in the discussions of combat, which is supposed to be Bradford’s forte, there’s an immense amount of sloppy work in this book. There’s the clichéd scene where a brash young bravo duels an older, calmer warrior, and gets efficiently dispatched. There’s the Hong Kong Cinema inspired move by Masamoto Akiko, turning her caught leg into a base for a cartwheel kick, then riding the momentum to land on the neighboring roof. There’s constant references to “the fighting stance,” (e.g. 233) as though there were only one. There’s the preternaturally perceptive blind staff master who trains Jack, et al., in blindfolded balance-beam combat and runs off the green-eyed ninja master almost single-handedly. Sensei Kano9 at least has one of the best lines in the book, when the ninja tries to exploit his blindness with scattered spikes: “Tetsu-bishi, how uninspired.” (343, then he pole vaults over them!) In the running for most bizarre detail is that one of the girls at the rival school has “blackened teeth and fingernails that had been sharpened into claws.” (169)10

Then there are the moments where the characters, in order to move the plot along, must be a little dim. One of the teachers claims that “Iron is full of impurities that weaken it.” (85) One of Jack’s schoolmates is confused when ninja show up in the snow wearing white because “ninja always wear black” (225) though in a society with a substantial ninja problem, the concept of camouflage would have to be pretty well known. Jack is assured several times that the anti-foreign political winds won’t affect him because he’ll be a tough and dangerous samurai, ignoring the fact that skill in combat has very little to do with freedom from oppression for small, visible minorities. (e.g. 177) Jack publicly accuses a schoolmate and rival of cheating in a competition, and none of the adults question his statements or investigate.11 Jack breaks (briefly) under torture (337), which is quite out of character, and fails to recognize the difference between xenophobic prejudice and distrust of an individual who routinely cheats. (326)

There were a few unexpectedly nice touches. The gold-leafed tea room (79) represents an authentic strain in Tea in the 1500s and early 1600s, and suggests that Takatomi is supposed to be an alternate Hideyoshi, but with a very different character. Bradford also correctly notes that tea was not yet an English drink. (82) Though I can’t say I care for it as a plot device, there was a tradition among medieval warriors of premonitory dreams. (e.g. 120) And the Zen parable that teaches that enlightenment gets further away the harder you try is nicely deployed by one of the teachers. (256).

At this point, I have to read the third book, just to see how the alternate timeline comes out, or if Bradford will clarify the bizarre historical process that brought us to this point. As far as these two books go, though, no disclaimer12 can possibly cover for the history, culture and writing which are on display here.


  1. Sushi and Tempura unlikely at formal banquet, p. 38. Sashimi unlikely as student food, p. 87.  

  2. A daimyo daughter invited to a tea ceremony with her father, p. 43. The budding romantic triangle between her, Jack and Masamoto’s daughter. The fact that the daimyo’s daughter and Masamoto’s daughter — among others — are coequal students at Masamoto’s school.  

  3. Hard to know for sure, but seems early for origami, especially as Zen metaphor, and the crane isn’t a symbol of peace yet. (90-92, passim). I’ve never heard of hallucinogens used as meditative aids or tests of character in Japan. (358). And while elite samurai were probably mostly literate by this time, the attempt to bar Jack from participating in a critical rite of passage because he can’t write his name in kanji is a maneuver straight out of the 20th century bureaucratic playbook. (45).  

  4. and their teachers and guardians who want the books ‘educational’  

  5. and led assaults on ninja territory, (254)  

  6. a fascinating mix of historically implausible names, continuing the tradition he began in the first book with Masamoto’s sons Yamato and Tenno  

  7. with Masamoto’s help as a diplomatic envoy (150), which clearly breaks any remaining literary connection between Masamoto and the nearly unemployable Musashi  

  8. Using the term “Daimyo” as a cognate for “Lord” is awkward, at best, but I don’t want anyone thinking that the Kamakura bakufu was somehow involved in this. It’s not that far gone  

  9. Yes, Bradford uses “Sensei” as an honorific prefix  

  10. The blackened teeth aren’t really bizarre, except that she’s the only female Jack encounters in either book who does this, and it’s entirely inappropriate for an unmarried teenager.  

  11. This happens all the time in the Harry Potter books: when it’s necessary for the plot, the adults are completely oblivious to things like Quidditch equipment behaving radically differently than normal. The other laughably obvious Harry Potter borrowing in this book is a Patronus moment. (363)  

  12. Young Samurai: the Way of the Sword is a work of fiction, and while based on real historical figures, events and locations, the book does not profess to be accurate in this regard. Young Samurai is more an echo of the times than a reenactment of history.”  

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