Faculty Author Q&A: Thomas Conlan on “Samurai and the Warrior Culture of Japan”

Written by
Humanities Council, Princeton University
April 18, 2022

Thomas Conlan is Professor of East Asian Studies and History, and Director of the Program in East Asian Studies. His book, Samurai and the Warrior Culture of Japan, 471–1877: A Sourcebook was published as an eBook in March 2022, and in print in June 2022 by Hackett Publishing Company.

How did you get the idea for this project?

When still a graduate student, I started translating a variety of chronicles and documents for use in classes. I was, and remain amazed, at the richness of surviving Japanese sources, and the comparable absence of such works in English. I long had a desire to publish my translations. Rick Todhunter, of Hackett Press, wrote to me in September 2018, asking if I would be interested in doing a sourcebook about the samurai, and I jumped at the opportunity. I completed my proposal in April 2019 and when I visited Japan that summer, I inquired about possible sources, and was able to include some unusual items, such as five swords which contain inscriptions which constitute the oldest writing in Japan, dating from 471, and a ninth century sword which was buried with Japan’s first shogun, or “barbarian subduing general.” I also was able to include and image of a saddle and a cannon that were the possession of a warlord who converted to Christianity and became known as Otomo Francisco. Both have his identical FRCO monogram.

How has your project developed or changed throughout the research and writing process?

I have long been interested in publishing a source reader. Once I was approached to do one for Japan in general, but I was asked to limit pre–1600 Japan to 100 pages. That was unacceptable to me. I thought that many more recent sources have been repeatedly translated, but accounts of those who fought when Japan was engulfed in civil war remained unknown. Some are humorous, others are touching, and still other surprising. For example, it is possible to know that guns first came into Japan in 1466, long before the first Europeans arrived on Japan’s shores in 1543.

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