Stephen Turnbull, The Lost Samurai (Frontline, 2021)
You might not think that Stephen Turnbull has anything left to say after having written umpteen books on Japan’s Samurai warriors, but you would be wrong. This book takes us into the world of Japanese mercenaries in Southeast Asia from 1593 to 1688. It is a fascinating but sometimes brutal story of competing powers and factions and the men who fought for them.
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Turnbull acknowledges that he deals in terms of convenience. Southeast Asia is loosely defined but shaped to fit the story. As for the Samurai, they were not Samurai in the classic, romantic sense but most were initially traders turned pirates, the Wakō. Others were left over fighters from the Sengoku Period of almost continual warfare; some were exiled Christians, while more were already resident in Japanese enclaves abroad. Turnbull notes that mercenaries were common in southeast Asia and hired on contracts of various lengths. They included men from many areas, including Europe. It just so happened that the Japanese were rather good at it and developed a fearsome reputation that frightened the enemy but made their masters suspicious.
As you might expect, it was the intrusion of Europeans into the region that created employment for so many of the Japanese mercenaries, though native powers had few qualms in using them too. Many of Turnbull’s sources are European, however, and that perhaps skews the evidence towards greater European emphasis. Fittingly, it was the Spanish in the Philippines who were the first to employ Japanese mercenaries for their schemes to invade China, which came to nothing, but their assault on Cambodia in the 1590s proved more fruitful albeit temporarily so. Japanese mercenaries here also found themselves useful as state executioners on a grand scale against rebellious natives. Turnbull describes the weapons and tactics of the Samurai; while they possessed unmatched bravery, they proved susceptible to European firepower. Nevertheless, the Samurai were used in attack and defence, and as bodyguards. Turnbull visits Siam, a long-standing recruiter of mercenaries through the trade system, then he describes how the Dutch were the most enthusiastic employers of Japanese mercenaries, recruiting directly from Japan. Of note here, is the role of the Japanese in the Dutch wars with the Portuguese, Spanish, and English for the Spice Islands, the Moluccas. But like the other Europeans, the Dutch began to distrust the Japanese, leading to the end of their employment from 1623. Similarly distrustful, the Spanish feared a Samurai invasion of the Philippines. The Dutch had a better case though, when in 1643, ‘native’ Japanese mercenaries helped defend Cambodia against the Dutch, which in reality proved to be a massacre of the Europeans. The Dutch also lost in Taiwan in 1662 with the ‘Iron Men’ playing a leading role. These were probably Japanese mercenaries, according to Turnbull, and they were the last recognised as such in the region.
Turnbull is without peer in bringing the complex world of the Samurai to a public audience yet works like this demonstrate that he is no lightweight historian. This is also a bit of a detour for Turnbull, away from the history of Japan he clearly loves and into southeast Asia with its ancient civilizations and early modern European interlopers. Turnbull follows the sources, sketchy as they might be sometimes, to paint a colourful picture of individual and collective exploits, some of them very gruesome indeed. He also provides the background and context for the use of Japanese mercenaries, which uncovers a familiar but alien world in many respects. The structure of Turnbull’s book is short, self-contained chapters like an edited book of essays on a theme, and it works well, though some chapters are deeper than others. Readers interested in the Samurai and southeast Asian early modern history will no doubt enjoy this book.