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The First Samurai: The Life and Legend of the Warrior Rebel, Taira Masakado Hardcover – November 1, 2007

4.3 out of 5 stars 10 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Review

"In his lucid and meticulously researched reconstruction of the tenth century rebel Taira no Masakado, Karl Friday illuminates the attitudes and institutions of tenth-century Japan, and explains the enduring appeal of this audacious man who strove to be emperor. Through the life of Masakado, Friday brings alive the patterns of early Japanese warfare, and the complex interaction between central and regional authority.  The First Samurai will remain the definitive study of the legendary warrior and his age for years to come." - Thomas D. Conlan, Bowdoin College

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It is the kind of story from which great tragic operas are made: A brave warrior of noble birth and royal ancestry runs afoul of a jealous neighbor who then ambushes him in the countryside. The warrior and his followers defeat their attackers, only to be targeted by others who now fear his growing strength. Overly impressed with his continued success against his enemies, he becomes consumed with hubris and soon falls victim to his own ambition. Add to this the mystique of the samurai, the pageantry of Japan's tenth-century imperial court, and legends of a flying head whose curse has caused disasters for a thousand years, and this compellingtale becomes a drama of epic proportions.

In The First Samurai, you'll discover the amazing true story of Taira Masakado, Japan's first samurai hero. This gripping account traces the roots of Masakado's bloody feud with local rivals, including his uncles and brothers-in-law. It explains how apparently trifling squabbles grew into years of bitter provincial warfare involving thousands of highly trained samurai.

How could Masakado and the other elite landholders of his region amass and maintain such formidable forces?

What led Masakado to seize control of eight provincial government headquarters, and declare himself overlord of eastern Japan? And why did he fail?

The answers to these questions provide a fascinating glimpse into the political, social, and military structure of tenth-century Japan.

You'll also discover that many popular and scholarly conceptions of early samurai warfare as picturesque, quaintly ritualized, and respectful ofnoncombatants are pure myth. In reality, ambush was the preferred form of attack, and ferocious raiding and looting were typical of the time. These tactics and strategies were partly the result of the nature of samurai combat, but they were also strongly influenced by the political and property structure of the country.

Filled with harrowing battle scenes, enchanting portraits of early Japan, and astounding legends of Masakado's celebrated life after death, The First Samurai is a must-read for anyone interested in the samurai, early Japanese history, and a whopping good tale well told.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 240 pages
  • Publisher: Wiley; 1 edition (November 1, 2007)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 047176082X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0471760825
  • Product Dimensions: 6.6 x 0.8 x 9.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.1 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (10 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #571,001 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By E. Badgley on May 14, 2009
Format: Hardcover
You know, I've always heard the phrase 'never judge a book by its cover', but until recently I've paid it little heed. Thus, when I saw the cover of Karl Friday's book on Amazon I kept putting it off. After all, what meat could there be in a book with bright, flashing colors on the front and a confusing, anachronistic woodblock print shown in relief? In short, it looked like just another of the myriad populist books on Japanese history, designed to get readers to plunk down money just so the author can rehash old material and convey the same vague generalities about samurai warfare. It seemed to be playing off of the success in the English speaking world of the Tom Cruise "you, too, can live out your doomed romantic warrior fantasies" movie, and pandering to the sammyrai fanatics.

On the other hand, it is Karl Friday, who brought us Legacies of the Sword: The Kashima-Shinryu and Samurai Martial Culture, Hired Swords: The Rise of Private Warrior Power in Early Japan, and other notable works, so it was on my list.

Now I'm kicking myself that I didn't get this book sooner. The information on not only Taira Masakado, but on the life in Japan during the 10th century and other famous figures of the time, is absolutely wonderful. Not only that, but it presents the facts in a way that is easy and enjoyable to read. I would easily compare it to other recent biographies, such as David McCullough's "John Adams", which open to the reader not just a dry tome of the dust from a person's passing, but the rich texture of life in their day and age.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
This was an interesting book. You not only learn about an ambitious guy who sort of stepped sideways into rebellion, but about a cut throat world of deviousness and blood. You see the beginning of the end for Kyoto central control and the rising power of the landed gentry. This book would make a great Taiga drama.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
This is very informative and goes into great detail about many things of that time period. Taira Masakado is a very interesting historical figure. The only downside to this book is that it can get a bit boring at times. If you are not really into Japanese history then you probably will not like this book since it isn't historical fiction. It is just an account of what happened during the life of Taira Masakado
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While the book is a discussion of the ups and downs of Taira Masakado, along the way it explains in a fair amount of detail the fight styles (ambushes, small group fighting) of the Heian samurai - how their arms (bow, arrow) and armor influenced military tactics [effective arrow range of 20~30 yards against armor], the importance of mounted cavalry, and the relatively small scale of armies and battles of the time. Very different from the large scale combat of later periods (such as the sengoku period).

The author has extensive training in the old Japanese martial arts (koryu bujutsu) and it shows in his clear explanations. He is also a professor of Japanese history of U of Georgia. Of the three books of his I've read ( Legacis of the Sword, Hired Swords, The First Samurai) this is the most fun to read - the others are quite scholarly.
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Format: Hardcover
I'm a long-term resident of Japan and have no interest in samurai culture. I am, however, interested in Edo history and Taira no Masakado; and since this was the only extended text in English on Masakado, I forced myself to give it try despite misgivings from the egregiously misleading title (which the author himself admits) and the potential for yet another romanticized depiction of the samurai.

In short, this was a fantastic read. It fleshes out Masakado's story and firmly places his actions within the influences of the times. I learned a lot about samurai culture and must admit found it fascinating (without desire to delve deeper).

It's a fairly academic read, yet several sections progress quite dramatically, making for a fast read in spots while others claw their way from reference text to reference text. I like knowing that what I am reading is well-researched and aiming for accuracy, and this book is just that. Completely satisfied. Five stars.
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