The Edo-Tokyo Encyclopaedia

When I bought this wonderful reference book of Edo-Tokyo history and culture (Sanseido, 1987) at the Kinokuniya Bookstore in Higashi-Shinjuku (Shinjuku Station, East), Tokyo, in 1988, I was writing my novel, Ryoma: Life of a Renaissance Samurai. At over 1,220 pages, it’s been a great reference for around three decades.

Bakumatsu/Meiji Restoration (幕末明治維新)

Though I’ve read, researched, written about – and yes, even lived – this history and culture for 30+ years, the fact that I, an American, born and raised in the second half of the 20th century, have the audacity to publish books about it, boggles the mind (or at least my mind). But I do it because I need to – because if I don’t, who will?

I’m making steady progress with my new book about Shinsengumi. I’ll post updates periodically.

A heartfelt thanks to all my readers!


On the Difficulties of Reading Takéchi Hanpeita’s Letters from Jail

Takéchi Hanpeita, stoic samurai and accomplished swordsman, is the focus of Part II: “The Rise and Fall of Takéchi Hanpeita and the Tosa Loyalist Party” of my new book, Samurai Assassins. After his arrest and imprisonment for seditious activities, he wrote many letters to his wife and sisters, and to his cohorts on the outside who had not been arrested. As I mentioned in a recent post, to the best of my knowledge, Takéchi’s letters have rarely, if ever, been used by Western writers. Perhaps one reason other writers shun his letters is the difficulty of reading them. His letters, particularly those to his wife and sisters, are filled with so-called hentaigana, non-standard and obsolete kana forms, kana being the Japanese syllabary used with kanji (Chinese characters) in the Japanese writing system. Since hentaigana was abolished at the turn of the twentieth century, it cannot be easily read or even deciphered by the untrained eye among Japanese people today.

Nonetheless, as I wrote in Samurai Assassins, Takéchi’s letters to his wife and sisters overflow with the tender feelings of a husband and brother, and include self-effacing humor, complaints, despondency, and melancholy absent in the other letters. As such, they provide a look into the heart of this very important and complex historical figure. An example is the following excerpt from Samurai Assassins:

[A]fter having been locked up for about five months, he wrote to his wife and sister of his commiseration with the “sadness” of the “cherry blossoms that grow pale” in his cell, concluding the letter with the telling words, “I can’t bear that there is nothing I can do”—i.e., that he had no control over his own fate, the fate of Tosa, or the fate of the Imperial Loyalism movement.

[Takéchi’s letters are published in Takéchi Zuizan Kankei Bunsho (武市瑞山関係文書; “Takéchi Zuizan-related Documents”; Zuizan was Takéchi’s pseudonym). The images of the book shown here are from the from The National Diet Library Digital Collection.]


About the Writing of My New Book, “Samurai Assassins”

My new book, Samurai Assassins, was published yesterday, March 24, by McFarland as an ebook. The paperback edition should be out before the end of this month. Samurai Assassins, as I have I have described it here, is the only thorough presentation and analysis in English of the most historically significant assassinations of the Meiji Restoration era, “the dawn of modern Japan.” On a deeper level, it is a study of the ideology and psychology behind the “samurai revolution” – which is why it so well complements my previous book Samurai Revolution: The Dawn of Modern Japan Seen Through the Eyes of the Shogun’s Last Samurai (Tuttle 2014).

I have long been intrigued by the personalities and motives of the assassins in the samurai revolution. I began writing Samurai Assassins soon after completing the manuscript of Samurai Revolution around the end of 2011. In previous books I had written about “dark murder” – a translation of the Japanese term for “assassination” – but in much less detail than in Samurai Assassins. Since “dark murder” had thus far received only cursory, if any, attention by non-Japanese writers, notwithstanding its great impact on the Meiji Restoration, and as a result on Japanese, Asian and even world history, I saw the need to write Samurai Assassins.

I finished writing the book around the end of 2014. I felt confidant that Tuttle, which had published three of my books, would jump at the chance to take this one. So I was surprised, and not a little disappointed, when they refused my proposal. But confident that the book was both original and important – not to mention a “good read” – I contacted several other publishers, and finally settled on an excellent one, McFarland, a self-described “leading independent publisher of academic and nonfiction books.” And they have done an excellent job preparing and publishing Samurai Assassins, for which I am most grateful.


An Indispensible Document for Knowing the Facts Regarding Ryōma’s Assassination

The double assassination of Sakamoto Ryōma and Nakaoka Shintarō on the eve of the collapse of the Tokugawa Bakufu is an unsolved mystery—but only to a certain extent. What is known of the details of the incident, including the circumstances surrounding Ryōma and Nakaoka just before the attack, their actual murders, and the aftermath, is based primarily on accounts from men representing the two opposing sides in the revolution. On the one hand are accounts from two men who claimed to have committed the assassinations. On the other hand are accounts from the victims’ friends, some of which is based on information heard directly from Nakaoka as he lay dying soon after the attack. Most of these accounts are included in a document entitled “Sakamoto to Nakaoka no Shi” (“The Deaths of Sakamoto and Nakaoka”; 坂本と中岡の死).

I relied heavily on this document in writing “Part III: The Assassination of Sakamoto Ryōma” of Samurai Assassins. The distinguished Meiji Restoration historian Hirao Michio described it as “indispensible for arriving at a conclusion” as to the facts behind the double assassination of Sakamoto Ryoma and Nakaoka Shintaro, since it “uses every possible piece of historical material in pursuit of the facts.” (「二人の死をめぐってあらゆる史料をあつかい、その真相を追求したもので、この問題史に一断案を下ろしたものとして、見落とすことを許されない労作だ」(平尾道雄氏)) This document was originally published in 1926 as part of the Sakamoto Ryōma Kankei Bunsho, Vol. II (The image of the book shown below is from the from The National Diet Library Digital Collection.).