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‘A Brief History of the Samurai’: offers thrilling take on Japan’s ancient warrior class

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On reading Jonathan Clements’ brief history of the samurai, first published in 2010, you can’t help but see parallels with the recent blockbuster television series “Game of Thrones.”

A Brief History of the Samurai, by Jonathan Clements.
365 pages
ROBINSON, Nonfiction.

Clements’ recounts centuries of samurai power struggles, bloodshed, one-upmanship, courtly intrigues, revenge, betrayal, cunning, conquests and defeats — all that’s missing are dragons. But as Clements’ relates in his closing chapter, Return of the Jidai, the samurai are a potent symbol, ripe to be mined both for epic TV dramas as well as cod psychology books and self-help manuals.

It’s a mammoth task to squeeze 700 years of history into just over 300 pages, and Clements has had to be selective, picking his battles and his heroes and villains. His real skil lies in his ability to condense yet still portray the richness of samurai culture.

The book kicks off in earnest from the early years of Kyoto’s imperial dominance, when the samurai class were first established. Originally, the term “samurai” (or, “to serve”) had a derisive connotation. Over the next 11 chapters, a central underlying theme examines to what extent the warriors were reformers or “blinkered fools who opposed modernization in favor or an impossible, medieval time warp.”

Clements’ has a knack for writing suspenseful sure-footed conflict scenes: His recounting of the Korean invasion led by samurai and daimyo Toyotomi Hideyoshi reads like a thriller. If you’re looking for a samurai primer, Clements’ guide will keep you on the hook.

Read archived reviews of Japanese classics at jtimes.jp/essential