8/29/2019 0 Comments
Non-fiction, history, samurai, ashigaru, women, translation
Book stores abound with romanticized ideals of the chivalrous life of samurai. Between popular and scholarly works, the lives of the elite receive significant attention in written word. Contrary to the title of the work, Samurai War Stories spends a significant portion of the book providing insights into the lives and experiences of the common footsoldier (ashigaru) and women during war in the early-modern era? Cummins’ interpretation of Minami’s translation attempts to provide glimpses into these lives and round out the military history of Japan in the Zohyo Monogatari and women in the Oan Monogatari. Not to leave the samurai absent from the work, it also includes the Musha Monogatari, a collection of lessons, memories, and anecdotes of or by important figures of the era.
Reading the seventeenth-century Zohyo Monogatari conjures images of veteran soldiers sharing their victories and shortcomings around a campfire to enlighten, educate, and frighten untested recruits. Each chapter in the two volumes begins as a soldier, defined by rank and specialization, narrates anecdotes from their military careers. Stemming from their assignments, each chapter contains insightful information stemming from the speaker’s military experience: Beyond the superficial narrative created by this structure, this work contains critical insights into the daily lives of soldiers on campaign.
Like Cummins notes in the introduction, the structure of the dialogues, topics covered, and colloquial dialogue are purposeful inclusions to enhance the character of the work (Cummins 10). This addition makes the work uniquely enjoyable to read as it stands in stark contrast to the lofty language and incredible heroics of samurai stories; these are the stories of soldiers, reminiscent of “No, shit, there I was…” sorts of narratives told over a few choice beverages.
The Musha Monogatari is a listing or retelling in brief the lives and exploits of notable samurai. In these, kernels of samurai lives, behaviors, and values. Reading more like one would expect of a samurai-centered work, the Musha Monogatari’s three sections contain lofty language, high ideals of honor and valor, and largely relate to matters of import only to samurai. As Cummins’ notes, while the details of the stories recalled may be legendary in the scale of their retelling, the kernel of truth that inspired them should inform readers of the daily concerns of the ruling military elite in the Edo Period (Cummins 11-12).
Perhaps the most interesting addition to this collection is the story of the “old nun,” (Cummins 12). The Oan Monogatari retells the sufferings of women and families escaping a castle town after a siege breaks. Though not entirely about women--or at least, not a narrative about women without samurai--this work is important in that it helps to show how the effects of samurai warfare cut across all levels of society and affected men, women, and children.
In addition, Cummins includes an historical introduction to the three works, 16 pages of illustrations in center plates, and a brief encyclopedia of biographies of the famous characters mentioned.
With nearly a dozen works to his credit, largely specializing in ninja-related matters, Cummins is one of the most prolific names in recent publication memory. According to his biographies on Watkins Publishing and in his 2011 work True Path of the Ninja, he received formal education an archaeologist with a BA and MA, the latter in neolithic archaeology. Perhaps what he is most well known for is his work establishing the Historical Ninjutsu Research Team and assisting or producing materials for film and television.
As he explains in his 2017 New Year’s video, Cummins does not speak Japanese and by his commentary, likely will not make efforts to learn the language in the future (Cummins “New Year Message”). Unfortunately, his lack of language skills stands as one of the most prominent points of contention with his works. Readers may reasonably suspect Cummins inclusion in the work of more footnotes than his previous works referencing subtleties of language may be an attempt to overcome this sticking point.
The bulk of the translation work is done by Yoshie Minami. In her author’s section in True Path of the Ninja, readers learn Minami received training in linguistics at International Christian University. Minami possesses both academic training and practical experience as a professional translator. As Cummins, on the other hand, interprets and edits the translation produced by Minami. Readers should bear this in mind when examining and evaluating the quality of the final work produced.
In as much as some of these texts have never appeared in English before, this collection is a groundbreaking publication. With a variety of tone and value of language from the highest highs to the lowest lowes of society, the work cuts an interesting slice into varied strata of Japanese history. In this work, everyone has a voice: the samurai we all read about, the gruff and unpolished common soldiers, and the women and children left in fringes yet still suffering after battle. Unfortunately, not knowing Japanese or translating himself, but rather interpreting and editing the translation of Minami brings the integrity of the translation into question. At best, this collection can serve as a springboard to further studies and, hopefully, will someday inspire a thorough, academic translation.
Reviewed by Edward N. Smith, Budo Book Review
Cummins, Antony. “Antony Cummins New Year Message 2017.” YouTube, uploaded by Antony Cummins, 2 January 2017, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hL-k5VLbN10&feature=youtu.be.
Cummins, Antony and Minami, Yoshie. True Path of the Ninja: The Definitive Translation of the Shoninki. Tokyo: Tuttle Publishing, 2011.
“Antony Cummins.” Watkins Publishing. https://www.watkinspublishing.com/authors/antony-cummins/. Accessed 8/29/2019.
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