Sunday, 19 February 2017

Book Review: Christ's Samurai: The True Story of the Shimabara Rebellion By Jonathan Clements

Christ's Samurai: The True Story of the Shimabara Rebellion
By Jonathan Clements
ISBN: 1472137418
Price: £13.48 (Amazon UK)

Japanese history has always been a topic I have had an interest in, though there are many aspects of this history which I have not had the opportunity to delve into. The events of the Shimabara Rebellion is one of these areas and so I jumped at the opportunity to pick up this text on the topic by the historian Jonathan Clements. The book is an overview of the events leading to and during the Shimabara Rebellion, tackling it from a multi-layered event in Japanese history as opposed to the traditional view of it as being a simple religious revolt by the Christians of the prefecture.

The text uses a chronological approach to the topic and starts with the introduction of Christianity to Southern Japan through the trade routes with westernised ports in China. It then traces the development of the Japanese Jesuit missions and communities and the difficulties in transmitting the faith. This analysis of the distinctively native form of Christianity and the way in which the Catholic faith was somewhat mutated by local elements entering the language and practices of the local uncatechised peasant communities adds an interesting dimension to the text, reminiscent of Endo’s “Silence” and his description of Japan as a swamp in which the Christian faith cannot grow.

The book then describes the political events leading to the persecution of Christians in japan and the subsequent development of small hidden communities in the islands of the South. Clements’ description of the descent through the use of specific characters of the era assist in creating a narrative and image for the reader. The rest of the book is dedicated to a carefully structured, play by play, image of the Shimabara Rebellion itself which gives the reader a well detailed account of the conflict with reference to contemporary witnesses and documents to show how both sides reacted to specific stimuli and events in the course of the eventual siege of Hara Castle.

The almost novel like narrative and use of contemporary witness accounts makes this book an easy and gripping read, showing Clements’ love of the topic and the people involved. When reading, it does not come off as simply a history book but invites the reader to engage with the characters in a way which is only deepened when the account is supported by quotations from the letters, reports and journals of the historical players themselves. In using this style of writing, Clements has created a historical run down which feels closer to a novel than a non-fiction piece and done so in a way which does not infringe on the academic integrity of the piece as evidenced in the primary sources littered throughout the book.

My only real gripe with the cook is the conclusion. The Shimabara rebellion, on which the book focuses, is given a build up of close to 75 pages outlining the rise and fall of the Jesuit order as a major player in Japanese politics at the time of the Tokugawa Shogunate. Following the conflict, only 19 pages are dedicated to its aftermath. Since Clements emphasises that the rebellion is not simply a religious one he seems to ignore any analysis of the impact of the sudden drop in population on the area or the importance of the conflict as a final fight for many aging Samurai. As well as this, I would have liked to see more of an explanation of the impact of this on wider religious freedom in Japan in the times between the rebellion and the Meiji Restoration. These two areas seem neglected here, especially when compared to the detail in which Clements covers them in the run up.

Overall, I cannot recommend this book enough to anyone interested in either the history of Christianity in the far east or in Japanese history generally. Clements has demonstrated that a history book can be both engaging and academic, and made it look easy. The book is one which is hard to put down and always has the reader wanting to see what happens next in this play by play walk through what was a fascinating and complex time in Japanese history.

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