A Military History of Japan: From the Age of the Samurai to the 21st Century

By Overton, J. | Naval War College Review, Summer 2017 | Go to article overview

A Military History of Japan: From the Age of the Samurai to the 21st Century


Overton, J., Naval War College Review


A Military History of Japan: From the Age of the Samurai to the 21st Century, by John T. Kuehn. Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger, 2014. 299 pages. $75.

Japan is at an inflection point. Depending on how particular peoples and nations view this enigmatic country, it now either is turning away from rightly enforced demilitarization and back toward the more martial and expansionist policies of its past, or is working to become a security provider concomitant with its economic power. A Military History of Japan is therefore a timely work that will add studied moderation and critical analysis to the argument regarding the path on which the country is located now and down which it is likely to progress in the future.

This book goes well beyond a traditional historical narrative. The author follows Japan from its origin myths up to the present time, adding elements of geographic determinism and cultural anthropology as well as his own experiences. The military and warfare aspects obviously receive the most focus, but they are not, and perhaps cannot be, separated from the overall history of the country and culture.

In the first chapter, "From Sun Goddess to Samurai" the author helps explain Japan's nature by telling its creation story and examining how landscape, climate, outside influences, and internal competition shaped Japanese development and societal worldview. Around the eighth century CE, when that first chapter concludes, the seminal samurai culture, and an overall Japanese culture distinct from those of neighboring Korea and China, is in place, one the author argues still manifests itself in Japanese society. The following chapters chronicle the subsequent maturation of Japan's political and military power structure. The many accounts of royal machinations and specific battles may confuse or lose those not well versed in Japanese geography or language, but those the author includes do add to the story of how and why Japan's military evolved as it did. These middle chapters also shed light on the Japanese military's actions during the first half of the twentieth century, and on the still-tense relationship between Japan and its neighbors, much of that distrust predating World War II. …

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