Taiko: An Epic Novel of War and Glory in Feudal Japan – a review

Over this past weekend, I finally finished Taiko: An Epic Novel of War and Glory in Feudal Japan by Eiji Yoshikawa and translated by William Scott Wilson. And by finally finished, I mean – damn, if that wasn’t a hard slog! At something around the 230,000 word mark, and absolutely brimming with Japanese names, it truly was an epic undertaking, but what an awesome book it was.

Taiko is essentially the Japanese court title for the Ruler of Japan – kind of like the Shogun. The book itself is set during the mid 1500’s, during Japan’s Sengoku period – or Warring States Period, and details the power struggles by three of Japan’s most famous warlords, Oda Nobunaga, Toyotomi Hideyoshi and Tokugawa Ieyasu.

While it largely follows the life of Hideyoshi, from misbehaving  brat named Monkey to powerful general, it also recounts Japan’s transition from independently warring provinces, where the power was firmly in the hands of the individual clans and their ruling lords – or Daimyo, and the slow transition into the semblance of a unified country.

As mentioned, it is a long book, and it can be quite difficult staying on top of the characters. There are literally hundreds of Japanese names thrown about, from the provinces and the towns and castles within these, to the various clan personalities and the sizable list of notable retainers within each of these. I think for this reason alone this book will not be for everybody, but for anyone with even a mild interest in Japanese history and culture, this book is a must read.

I will point out that I read this book directly after finishing another one of Eiji Yoshikawa’s books – Musashi – which was equally as long, although despite the large list of characters, was somewhat easier to keep track of. Musashi details the exploits of one of Japan’s most famous swordsmen, and is set literally at the end of Taiko, from the Battle of Sekigahara onwards (1600).

The style of writing is unique and really quite difficult to explain easily. It’s straight-forward and well written, but often jumps between character point of view (omniscient third person) – but in a way that is easy to follow. The translation itself was full of typos with many words missing letters, but it was easy enough to look past these.

What I loved about this book was the way it related the emotions projected by the various Samurai and their relationships with their Lords. For a country that is supposedly quite reserved, the sheer level of emotion expressed in their every action was a joy to read. From the Samurai charging forth into battle, desperate to be in the very front rank, calling out their name to their foe so that after the battle (should they survive) their meritous deeds can be recounted, to the open shedding of tears for a fallen lord. The theme of loyalty, honour and sacrifice come up time and again, and there were many times where I literally felt moved by it.

I mean, how often is it that you come across these mighty general type characters, who are willing to suicide in order to satisfy the enemy and save their own castles defenders? Who would do that these days? Not only does he willingly commit sepuku, but he does so happily, knowing that he’ll save his men – he joyfully cuts open his belly! Gah!

I really can’t recommend this book highly enough. It was a difficult and very long read, but it was such a wonderful illustration of feudal Japan. I’ve been to Japan once before, but I tell you, next time I go back, I’ll be doing the famous castles and shrines tour, don’t you worry about that!


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