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BOUND TO PLEASE / Life of superstar Yoshitsune depicts samurai culture

The Japan News

By Hiroko Ihara / Japan News Staff WriterSamurai Rising:The Epic Life of Minamoto Yoshitsune

By Pamela S. Turner

Charlesbridge, 236pp

He is a man of genius in his work and brings about a turning point in history. He is charming, popular and a favorite of the monarch. The son of a broken family, he eagerly wants the affection of his elder brother, who distrusts and ultimately kills him.

The glorious but tragic life of Minamoto no Yoshitsune (written as Minamoto Yoshitsune in this book) is the main theme of “Samurai Rising.” A general who lived from 1159-89, Yoshitsune is acclaimed for winning all the critical battles to defeat the Taira family, who were also called the Heike. This victory contributes to the end of the long-standing reign of the Imperial court and helps Yoshitsune’s brother Yoritomo inaugurate the rule of the warrior class, which lasted until 1867.

Author Pamela S. Turner based this work on the epic account “The Tale of the Heike,” the historical chronicle “Azuma Kagami” and many other books and papers, as well as her interpretations of incidents and issues in that era. It’s primarily aimed at young readers of English, to make them more interested in Japanese history by focusing on this “superhero” and the civil war period in which he lived.

Unlike “The Tale of the Heike,” which often confuses readers with its abundance of names, Turner limits their number to the minimum possible.

It also provides useful information on samurai culture, such as the definition of a samurai, the origin of their seppuku ritual of suicide and information about their swords. Yoshitsune fought at various places across the main island of Japan, and the book contains maps showing these places and the author’s tips on them. Readers may well be inspired to go there. This makes the book well worth reading for adults and Japanese people, too.

As will be the famous Letter from Koshigoe on P. 118. It is said to be one of the most appealing letters in Japanese history. It is also one of the most controversial letters among researchers. Yoshitsune wrote this letter to convince his brother of his loyalty to him. His brother didn’t accept his sincere statement, indicating his ruthlessness to Yoshitsune. This part in the book, however, implies a situation that is different from the widely accepted one. Its chapter notes say: “If this letter is historically accurate, it reveals a very proud and stubborn man [Yoshitsune] who is incapable of humbling himself even when his life depends on it.”

Another section provides an example of what we can learn from history: “The partnership forged between the brilliant general Yoshitsune and the brilliant politician Yoritomo seemed ideal. Yet within six months, pride and jealousy would fracture the brothers’ relationship.”

The author may not have intended this, but there are some useful lessons here:

1. Siblings aren’t always on your side.

2. Be careful of other people’s jealousy, particularly if you’re talented.

3. Avoid making enemies among your colleagues. (Yoshitsune doesn’t get along well with Yoritomo’s favorite retainer.)

4. Hear both sides before you judge. (Yoritomo comes to distrust Yoshitsune by only listening to the retainer’s negative opinions about Yoshitsune.)

If the famous brothers had followed these do’s and don’ts, Yoshitsune wouldn’t have been recorded as a tragic hero. However, the worlds of noh, kabuki, film and drama, as well as many other entertainments, would be much less interesting without the inspiration he has provided to so many.

Where to Read

Anywhere, when you want to have the image of Yoshitsune in your mind.

Maruzen price: ¥2,951 plus tax (as of April 29)Speech

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