Tag Archives: history

Review: Bushido, the Soul of Japan

Bushido, the Soul of Japan
Bushido, the Soul of Japan by Inazo Nitobe
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book is short, and accessibly written (provided you view ordinary late nineteenth-century writing as accessible).

When reading this book, it is important to remember two things:

1. It was written in 1900. The approach and the ethics therefore reflect the attitudes and society of the nineteenth century, not the twenty-first.
2. It was written by a Japanese man who had seen the fall of the feudal system, to explain Japanese and, particularly, samurai culture to Westerners. In fact, it was originally written in English and only later translated into Japanese.

Some people have criticised this book for its ethics in general – but I think this is unjust, as it’s a book of its time. Although there are parts which do more than merely raise eyebrows, it is only fair to the book, and to the author, to acknowledge that our ethics are a century away from Nitobe’s. It is unfair to expect a nineteenth-century Japanese man to have exactly the same moral values as twenty-first century Westerners.

Others have criticised the book for its very intent: to explain Japanese culture in terms that Westerners could understand. Again, it’s very easy to criticise from our twenty-first century internet-enabled Western point of view. If we want to know about Japan, or any other country, we can look it up on the internet in a few moments. In fact, nowadays, it’s very hard not to know at least a little about other cultures unless you deliberately shut yourself off.

It was different at the end of the nineteenth century: Japan had only just emerged from its isolation, and not only was its culture strange to the Western world, but most societies were much less multicultural than they are now, so people were less likely to have encountered a culture other than their own.

Thus, Nitobe discusses Bushido with lots of Western and Christian comparisons and examples, because these are what will make sense to his chosen audience.

The result is a very interesting book.

Nitobe himself was born in 1862, so he was eight years old when feudalism was abolished, and ten when the carrying of swords was forbidden. This not only gives Nitobe a unique perspective, but also means that when the book was written, many Japanese people would have remembered the feudal system. To them, it was not some foreign (or even barbaric) practice – it was their own culture. It was normal.

So with this book, there is a strange mix of explanation and defence. Nowadays, it’s shocking to read the story of an eight-year-old samurai boy being order to commit seppuku (ceremonial suicide by disembowelment) and actually doing it. But under bushido – and to Nitobe, who seems to have been of the samurai class himself, or close to it – the story emphasises the strength of devotion to duty, and courage, of even samurai children.

The attitude to women, too, is shocking nowadays. However, it’s important to remember that since this was written in 1900, the attitude to women in the West wasn’t much different. Admittedly, young girls in the West weren’t given daggers in case they needed to commit suicide to protect their honour – but then, neither were boys. If you read much about the life of women in the West during the late 19th century, you do wonder who had the better deal: the samurai girl in feudal Japan, or the middle-class young woman in London.

All in all, this is a very interesting and thought-provoking book – and not the least because it’s not written as a scholarly study by an outsider, but by a man trying to explain (and, in some senses, justify) his own culture. It therefore has the result of telling the reader perhaps more about feudal Japanese society and culture than even the author intended.

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Review: The Victorian House

The Victorian House
The Victorian House by Judith Flanders
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book was excellent.

This is not a book for people who are already knowledgeable on the topic of domestic daily life during the Victorian age in England. Flanders does, however, manage to combine an informative overview with a considerable degree of entertainment value – especially if you read the footnotes, were most of the humour is.

I read this as research for my novel (which will be finished within the next year or so). My novel is set in a Victorianesque world, and this book was excellent for background. Flanders does not get bogged down in detail, but she does manage to get the ‘feel’ of the period very well indeed. One thing that particularly struck me is the sheer filthiness of the cities (particularly London, as the largest city) – Flanders does not just say “it was filthy” but demonstrates by discussing little adjustments people had to make, like not putting out a white tablecloth until a short time before the meal, or it would go grey. This level of atmospheric pollution is something that we just don’t have to deal with in the UK any more, so it’s hard to imagine without the examples Flanders gives.

Another interesting area is the illustration of how limited many middle-class women’s lives were – again, something that we find it difficult to appreciate from our twenty-first century standpoint. We might intellectually know that the Victorian period was probably the one in English history where women’s rights and status in society reached their lowest ebb, but Flanders provides illustrative facts, including that since women were supposed to spend their lives catering to their families (particularly the men), pretty much the only way for a woman to get some time to herself was to be ill – which provided a cast-iron excuse for retiring to one’s bedroom and closing the door. It provides an interesting alternative viewpoint on the fragile Victorian lady – women’s health was generally poorer than men’s because of their poorer diet and lack of fresh air and exercise, but being a professional invalid definitely had its attractions for any woman who wanted to escape the endless round of service to others. This was something I hadn’t even considered before, and it’s the sort of thing that shines a light from a different angle and makes everything suddenly look different. One example Flanders gives is Florence Nightingale, who spent many years as an invalid – but managed to drive huge changes in public health by writing from her bedroom. Would she have been able to do that work if she had – as society expected of a woman – either got married and spent her life looking after the husband and kids, or moved in with a relative to act as an unpaid housekeeper?

This kind of little detail often gets missed from the big histories, and it’s vital for anyone who wants to reproduce the world (or something like it) because it is important for how people lived in their day-to-day lives. Writing big plot events pushes the story along, but writing the background detail makes it feel real.

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Review: Hints to Lady Travellers: At Home and Abroad

Hints to Lady Travellers: At Home and Abroad
Hints to Lady Travellers: At Home and Abroad by Lillias Campbell Davidson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Recommended for: anyone who wants some contemporary background on travelling culture of ladies of the middle- and upper-classes during the last decade or two of the nineteenth century

The original edition of Hints to Lady Travellers was written by Lillias Campbell Davidson, and published in 1889. This was about the time when ladies travelling alone had mostly ceased to be shocking; this is a handbook for the lady who wishes to travel (even to such wild, remote places as Wales or Scotland) but isn’t quite sure how to go about it, what she should take with her (or not), and what she might might encounter on her travels. It is therefore for the ‘ordinary’ lady traveller – not the adventurous explorer intending to journey to Patagonia or China. This edition, however, does have quotes from the writing of such adventurous lady explorers and travellers as Helena Petrovna Blavatsky (Hindustan – lots of turbans, not many stockings); Mary H. Kingsley (West Africa – husband considered necessary equipment for traversing rapids); Lady Florence Caroline Dixie (Patagonia – take a sheath knife and a revolver; mules are more useful than horses).

Some of the advice is now completely outdated, such as the advice, in case of emergency, to leave a member of the “stronger sex” [i.e., a man] to manage matters “without the hampering interference of feminine physical weakness.” Or the advice that, when travelling by steamer, it’s useless to have one’s maid travel third class while one travels first. One should either dispense with the maid entirely, or defy convention by upgrading her to first class.

On the other hand, some of the advice has definitely stood the test of time, such as the advice, on taking a room or apartment, to note any damage to the room or fittings and bring it to the attention of the landlady in order to avoid being charged for damage that was already there (the authors states that she knows of “one bedroom carpet, stained by the overflow of a bath two years ago, which has since been charged to the account of, and paid for by, some ten or twelve consecutive occupants of that self-same room.”

This book is fascinating, though, because it’s a window into a world which no longer exists. A world where travelling by railway (or by tricycle) could be an exciting and somewhat scary adventure, and where rival railway companies, if they were quarrelling, might deliberately act to make passengers miss their connections. It’s also a world where, although women were starting to move beyond the confines of the home, they still saw themselves as fundamentally weaker than, less capable than, and in many respects inferior to, men.

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Damascus Steel (pattern welded) Knife Blade

Damascus Steel Eating Knife

Damascus Steel Eating Knife

This is a picture of a section of my damascus steel knife blade. It’s only a section because if I pan back enough to get the whole knife in the shot, you can’t see the wavy patterns on the blade. The wavy patterns are made by folding the metal over and over, and then when the knife is finished, etching with acid to bring out the pattern.

The handle is silver-mounted bone. It was made by Tod some years ago.

It’s a beautiful piece of kit and one of my prized possessions. In today’s society, where machine-produced goods are cheap, it’s nice to own good quality items made by skilled craftsmen.