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History Tanaka 1587: Japan’s Greatest Unknown Samurai Battle

Tanaka 1587: Japan’s Greatest Unknown Samurai Battle (Retinue to Regiment)

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In 1587 the 1,000-strong garrison of tiny Tanaka Castle in Higo Province (modern Kumamoto Prefecture) on Japan's southern island of Kyushu, held out for 100 days against an army ten times their size sent by the great general Toyotomi Hideyoshi. When the castle fell, it was burned to the ground, and for four centuries the epic struggle lived on only through a handful of letters, two little-known war chronicles and in the folk memories of the local people who continued to make offerings on the now anonymous hillside to comfort the tormented spirits of Tanaka's dead warriors.

In 1986 everything changed. Prompted by the approaching fourth centenary of the battle the local council set in motion a systematic archaeological investigation of the castle site. Many interesting finds were made, but the greatest discovery of all came in 1989 in a distant library when a researcher unearthed what turned out to be Japan's oldest surviving battle map. It featured a detailed drawing of Tanaka Castle during the siege that matched up exactly with the picture that was emerging from the excavation. The unique document also contained so much extra information that, when combined with the archaeological finds, the written materials and local folklore, the almost forgotten siege of Tanaka became one of the best-documented battles in the whole of Japan's samurai history.

Tanaka 1587 tells the complete story of the epic struggle for the first time outside Japan by using the evidence that is available from history, literature, folklore, archaeology and cartography. It is based on the author's translations of the chronicles and the archaeological report together with his extensive fieldwork over many years. The story is presented as an exciting (and sometimes violent) historical narrative illustrated with unique photographs and maps. The contribution of the battle's enshrined spirits to present-day folk religion is also assessed. At the same time, attitudes towards the site's conservation, preservation and celebration provide a fascinating insight into how modern Japan views and exploits its samurai history in a society that has had to come to terms with a violent past.

Before 1987 the siege of Tanaka Castle was virtually unknown beyond its immediate boundaries. Just as thirty years of painstaking work and enthusiastic publicity have transformed its status within Japan, this unique, ground-breaking book will enable Tanaka's story to be understood and appreciated by a much wider international audience.

Latest questions

I am very interested in history, I live in the US and I have been tirelessly trying to understand Americas history dating back to and before 1492. On my desk I have a book "Silence" written by Shusaku Endo, which talks about Portugal missionary to Japan around 1570. I do not know much of Japanese history and I'd like to explore more to understand the background society back in 1500s. This Tanaka 1587 book seems a perfect entry point for me to dive in.

I am going to order the book and start reading it. I wish there can be a reading group we can read and understand this together, otherwise it will be difficult for me without knowing Japanese people, culture and society.

Anyone is interested joining and helping me?

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Stephen Turnbull
Helion and Company
Year of publication
16 October 2019
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