Young Samurai: Way of the Dragon and the Battle of Osaka

The third installment of Chris Bradford’s Young Samurai series shifts modes mid-book, when the action moves from the original Harry Potter-esque bildungsroman mode to the tragic — Young Jack is on the side of the Toyotomi, as it turns out — Battle of Osaka.

[More Spoilers Ahead]1

The book is considerably longer than the first two installments, a common feature of end-of-series climaxes, and continues with the cultural and historical bad habits noted in the first two works.2 At least, being a climactic moment, many of the historical alterations are clarified — if not well justified. There are two substantial changes to the historical record, which explain most of the other distortions: postponing the Tokugawa dominion of Japan until after the Battle of Osaka, and transforming the banning of Christianity into xenophobic nationalism and a popular movement, rather than a geo-political calculation.3 And ninja. Lots of ninja. I’m going to focus on the historiographical oddities this time, though I reserve the right to note new contextual and literary failings.


  1. I don’t really consider that a spoiler; it’s an actual event. Knowing how things turn out is fundamental to historical work. Though I must concede that Bradford’s willingness to mess with the timeline does raise some doubt. []
  2. The Way of the Warrior and The Way of the Sword. Also, the book jacket copy is unchanged. []
  3. Needless to say, the historical changes require substantial alterations to the characters of many historical figures. One can only hope that the bad pseudonyms shield young readers from connecting these caricatures with real people. At one point, the Miyamoto Musashi stand-in orders Jack to commit seppuku, then retracts it and calls it a “little joke.” (72) []


Syllabus Blogging: Modern Japan and World History

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 9:09 pm

It’s been a while since I did some syllabus blogging, but the most interesting course I was going to teach last semester didn’t come through,1 so it’s been a little while since I taught a heavily revised or new course on Japan.

  1. For reasons passing understanding, “US-East Asia Relations: Migration, Trade and War” failed to garner a single registrant. We have a strong military history component to our program, though, so I’m considering breaking it down further, and just doing a course on 20th century US-East Asian wars. It would be really fun if I could co-teach it with my US military historian colleague, but that’s new administrative territory for me. []


Announcements and Remembrances

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 1:11 am

While the discussions on the Asia lists have been a bit wooden for a while, other H-Net communities are lively and thriving, and the book reviews are a fantastic resource. Moreover, I know some of the current leadership of H-Net, and I have great confidence that they’ll take it in interesting directions with new technology and new paradigms. That said, though the leadership, editors, reviewers and participants are all volunteers, they still need money for technical support, infrastructure and other expenses, and we can’t rely on state institutions of higher learning for this sort of thing. Donate!

The 2010 Cliopatria Awards for History Blogging nominations are open through November, so there’s still two weeks to riffle through your archives and pick your best work, and your friends’ best work, and the best stuff off your RSS reader. The categories are, as in the past, Best Individual Blog, Best New Blog, Best Group Blog (which we won back in ’05), Best Series of Posts, Best Single Post, and Best Writer (which Alan Baumler won in ’06). I’m judging Best New and Group Blog, so we can’t win that again this year; otherwise, the field for Asianists is wide open! Nominate!

The 2011 ASPAC Conference will be a joint event with the WCAAS Conference, to be held at Pomona College, June 17-19, 2011. In a remarkable feat of organization, the Conference website is already live and accepting paper proposals, though the deadline isn’t until mid-March. The theme is “Asia Rising and the Rise of Asian America” but proposals on all topics in Asian studies are welcome. Submit! (and let me know if you’ll be there; we’ve never had a blogger meet-up at ASPAC before!)

Finally, a sad note: Harold Bolitho, one of my advisors and mentors at Harvard, has passed away. I had heard, through another of my advisors, that he’d retired due to health issues – a bit hard to believe for those of us who sometimes confuse volume with vigor. He was a substantial scholar, who didn’t write a lot by some standards, but who always had something interesting to say, and a depth of understanding that I will always envy.1 One of the graduate papers I was proudest of, in some ways, was one that I wrote for him, on the Nagasaki visits of Rai San’yo and Shiba Kokan; I was a little surprised to discover a year later that he’d published an article on a similar theme.2 I was pleased, because clearly I had picked a topic that really did have merit – a matter of immense anxiety for a first-year grad student – but I was also somewhat taken aback at how much more depth and substance Bolitho brought to a subject I felt, in my absurd youth, that I had covered pretty well. I’m very sorry to hear that he’s passed on, because he was a great teacher for a young, nerdy, not-yet-historian.

  1. I didn’t realize until now that he’d written a survey text on Meiji Japan, something that I’ve always felt was lacking in the English language literature. It’s a short text, though, and now rather old. []
  2. H. Bolitho , Travelers’ Tales: Three Eighteenth-Century Travel Journals. Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies 50 (1990), pp. 485–504 []


Data Visualization and Data Quality

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 3:28 pm

The inestimable Rob MacDougall is running a course on Digital History, and even better, he’s running it more or less publicly! I’m getting all kinds of ideas here. On the other hand, it sometimes raises surprising problems. The unit on Data Visualization includes an assigned reading that looked like something I might use for historiography, David Staley, Computers, Visualization, and History: How New Technology Will Transform Our Understanding of the Past (M.E. Sharpe, 2003). But when I started looking through it, the first ‘data visualization’ presented was an illustration of Japanese history from William McNeill’s 1963 The Rise of the West that made my teeth clench. Rob asked me to explain what’s wrong with it, which is fair.

The caption reads

In addition to information about costume, architecture, and other forms of material culture, the figures in the diagram convey meaningful information through gesture and body language, the shading of figures, their relative sizes, and their location in the diagram

That’s all true, as far as it goes. The problem, of course, is whether the diagram is conveying accurate and clear information, and on both accounts it fails. I realize that I’m being a little unfair: the McNeill book was a survey text written almost a half-century ago, and the diagram is being used as an example of potential; it’s not being cited as an up-to-date description of Japanese history that would be acceptable today. Still, it’s worth talking about.


The Lead Poisoning Thesis

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 11:17 pm

Some research is startling, and some research confirms what we already guessed or assumed, but there’s some research which falls between these categories: research which reveals things that should have been obvious, if we’d been thinking about it clearly, or asked the right questions earlier. Siniawer’s argument about the consistency of violence in Imperial Japanese politics falls into that category, as does the new transnational migration scholarship that sees migration as a multi-directional, multi-generational process. I’m sure you have other examples

In the same vein, there’s new archaelogical research from Kitakyushu, announced on LiveScience with the headline “Lead Poisoning in Samurai Kids Linked to Mom’s Makeup.” A study of 70 sets of samurai class remains included several of children:


Judge Ooka’s Sidekick, part two: The Ghost In the Tokaido Inn and In Darkness, Death

After reading the last two installments in the Hooblers’ samurai detective series, I got hold of the first two. There are still two I have not read, obviously, but based on these four, I can’t seriously recommend the series: the misinformation and errors just outweigh any value that they have as presentations of Edo life or culture.1 The authors’ notes can’t save these books, because even good information is twisted into such blazingly implausible scenarios that no real understanding could survive, and there’s no end to the errors. [Spoilers, of course, because I don't really want anyone to read these books!]

  1. I still maintain that the last book, A Samurai Never Fears Death is decent, but it’s clearly the exception. []


Judge Ooka’s Sidekick: A Samurai Never Fears Death and The Sword that Cut the Burning Grass by Dorothy & Thomas Hoobler

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 12:36 am

Wandering through the children’s section of our local public library with my son, I encountered a new-to-me children’s mystery series based in Tokugawa Japan. The books are by Dorothy and Thomas Hobbler, and are piggybacking on the Judge Ooka character. Unlike certain other Japan-based anglophone fictions, these feature a cast of entirely Japanese characters, though the protagonist is still young and enough of a fish-out-of-water to justify significant exposition. The “Authors Note” in the back of each book briefly lays out the historical and cultural foundations of the story, and clearly notes which elements are “completely from the imagination of the authors.” (Sword, 210) Though I noted some anachronisms and some larger issues, on the whole these were surprisingly good in both detail and theme.

The books are the adventures of Seikei, an Osaka-born merchant class boy who is adopted as the son and heir of Judge Ooka in the 1730s. That kind of adoption was relatively rare, but well within contemporary norms, and the unusual nature of class-jumping adoption is fairly well integrated into the stories. The characters are a bit flat and the issues broadly drawn, but that’s not unusual for children’s fiction; more importantly, they are some of the most genuinely and humanely Japanese characters I’ve encountered in my sojourns into this literature. [Spoilers follow, of course]


AAS 2010: Annexation Centennial

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 12:39 am

Final exams crash onto my desk tomorrow, but I’m as organized as I can be in advance, so I thought I’d do a little belated AAS blogging, especially about the pair of panels on Saturday commemorating the centennial of Japan’s annexation of Korea and the 50th anniversary of Hilary Conroy’s groundbreaking study of same.


Frog in a Well Guides: A Basic Guide to Resources on Japanese Colonialism

Filed under: — K. M. Lawson @ 8:06 pm

Here at Frog in a Well we have attempted to occasionally go beyond our role as a publisher of three group weblogs on the history of East Asia. Though it still has very few entries, our Frog in a Well Library contains some primary historical documents. The East Asian Libraries and Archives wiki contains a slowly growing collection of entries with useful information about libraries and archives in East Asia, as well as other information on databases, organizations, and links to other similar resources.

We would now like to announce a new addition: Frog in a Well Guides. Here we would like to host a collection of guides, created by students or scholars of East Asia. We currently imagine these to be primarily bibliographies or research guides tailored to specific areas of research on East Asia. It is inspired by other wonderful existing resources such as the Modern Chinese History bibliography, the Korean History Bibliography, and most of all the wonderful work by students of Professor Henry Smith’s Japanese Bibliography course at Columbia University.

All the guides will be published with a Creative Commons license to allow the greatest possible freedom in using them, and we welcome edited, revised, or expanded versions of existing guides by new authors. Also, each guide will have its own page on the EALA wiki where anyone may leave comments, or recommendations for others to incorporate in future updated versions.

Our first guide has been contributed by our own Sayaka Chatani, PhD Candidate at Columbia University:

A Basic Guide to Resources on Japanese Colonialism

The EALA wiki page for the guide, if you have suggestions can be found here. Many thanks to Sayaka for contributing this.


History Carnival #84: After the Tweeting is Done

The History CarnivalI’m very pleased to be hosting my 6th History Carnival, and I thought it would be fun to extend the carnival into a new medium this time: I’ve spent the whole day Tweeting the carnival at my twitter feed. Sharon Howard created a dynamic archive of the carnival, which can also be found by using the hashtag #HC84. I still haven’t entirely fallen in love with Twitter — 140 characters is very, very short — but I’m enjoying the flow of information it facilitates, and the way microblogging’s supplemented my regular history blog reading and writing. It exists in a very productive gray space between professional and informal communication.

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