Isaac Meyer

Historian, teacher, podcaster

Tag: Samurai (Page 1 of 2)

Episode 264- The Man of Legend

This week, we cover the story and legacy of the great warrior Kusunoki Masashige. Why does he have the unique distinction of a statue on the grounds of the emperor’s palace in Tokyo? What do we actually know about him?


McCullough, Hellen Craig (translator). Taiheiki: A Chronicle of Medieval Japan

Sato, Hiroaki. Legends of the Samurai.

Brownlee, John S. Japanese Historians and the National Myths, 1600-1945


The Siege of Chihaya, as depicted in an Edo period print by Ichijusai Yoshikazu. Despite his ultimate defeat, Masashige’s stand here was the start of his legend as a valiant warleader.

The siege of Akasaka Castle.

The battle of Minatogawa, by Utagawa Kuniyoshi.

Another scene from Utagawa’s rendering of the battle of Minatogawa.

The aforementioned statue

Episode 250 – Today is the Victory

This week, we take on the legend of Miyamoto Musashi. How is it that a person we know very little about came to be a legend? Could it be, perhaps, that the very fact that we know so little about him for sure is part of the allure of his legend?


Tokitsu, Kenji. Miyamoto Musashi: His Life and Writings.

Kane, Lawrence. Musashi’s Dokkodo. 

Jansen, Marius. The Making of Modern Japan


Musashi wielding two weapons, by Utagawa Kuniyoshi.

A self-portrait attributed to Musashi.

A monument to the Musashi-Sasaki Kojiro duel on Ganryujima.

The entrance to Reigando, the cave Musashi retired to at the end of his life.

Musashi’s grave in Kumamoto.

Musashi fighting the whale, by Utagawa Kuniyoshi.

Mifune Toshiro as Miyamoto Musashi in the samurai trilogy. Note the two swords.

Ichioji, Kyoto. This temple, supposedly where the final battle between Musashi and the Yoshioka school took place, now has a monument to the fight.

Episode 241 – All in the Family, Part 3

This week, we conclude our up close look at the Shimazu family and Satsuma domain with a consideration of how the domain fit into Edo society, and its position in modern Japan.


Sansom, George. A History of Japan, vol 3

Beasley, W.G. The Collected Writings of W.G. Beasley

Hall, John Witney, et al., editors. An Institutional History of Early Modern Japan.

Jansen, Marius B. The Making of Modern Japan.


Sekisho (checkpoints) like this one dotted Tokugawa Japan. This particular example is from Honshu, but the basic principle is the same — the gate allows for controlled access, giving samurai officials a chance to inspect traveler’s documentation.

A marker for one of the old sekisho in Kagoshima itself.

Today it’s a trendy tourist area, but in the early Edo Period, Bonotsu, just a short distance northwest of Kagoshima, was home to a Chinatown from which an illicit smuggling operation of Chinese goods into Kagoshima was operated.

Zusho Hirosato (Shouzaemon), who rescued the Shimazu clan’s finances from near disaster.

The Japanese government and the Kagoshima prefectural government run a museum dedicated to the history of Satsuma and the Shimazu — the Shokoshuseikan, shown here.

Kagoshima today — a modern city with a very distinct regional identity.

Episode 240 – All in the Family, Part 2

This week, we cover the sengoku era history of the Shimazu clan, and their meteoric ascent from  minor lords to major ones in the span of a few decades. Plus, the Tokugawa and the Shimazu, the role of sugar in the Shimazu clan’s fortunes, and the invasion of the Ryukyu islands. It’s a packed episode!


Sansom, George B. A History of Japan, Vol 2. 1334-1615

Turnbull, Stephen. The Samurai Capture a King: Okinawa, 1609.

Turnbull, Stephen. The Samurai: A Military History.

Also, while researching the grounds of some of the castles mentioned in this episode, I came across this fascinating blog that is worth a look.


Shimazu Yoshihiro, the 17th Shimazu family head. Under his generalship, and then his leadership as daimyo, the Shimazu became a major force in Japanese politics.

The Battle of Mimigawa (1578). The crushing defeat of the Otomo clan signaled the rise of the Shimazu as major contenders to rule Kyushu.

Part of the remnants of the earthworks of Kakuto castle.

An armor set which belonged to Shimazu Yoshihiro.

The old provinces of Japan. Satsuma province is at the very bottom (no. 63). Neighboring Osumi (64) was occasionally under Shimazu control as well prior to the Sengoku period.

Compare this map to the locations of Satsuma and Osumi in the previous one and you can see how far the Shimazu came by 1584.

The remnants of Nakijin castle, wiped out in the one major engagement of the Okinawan campaign.

The gravestone of Jana Ueekata, the onl Okinawan to refuse to sign the final treaty of subordination.

Episode 239 – All in the Family, Part 1

This week, we start a short series on the history of one of the most influential fiefdoms in Japanese history (Satsuma) and the family who ruled it (the Shimazu). How did this little chunk of land on the edge of Japan grow to national importance?


A History of Japan to 1334 AND A History of Japan, 1334-1600. 

Turnbull, Stephen. War in Japan, 1467-1615


Toufukuji castle, the first permanent military garrison on Kagoshima. It predates Shimazu clan arrival in the area by about a century.

The site of the meeting between Shimazu Takahisa and Francis Xavier. Working with missionaries was a requirement of obtaining Western style weapons.

Japanese arquebuses. The first islands where the Portuguese arrived (Tanegashima) was within the bounds of Satsuma domain, and Satsuma was one of the first domains to adopt the new weapon.

Shimazu Tadahisa as a monk. At the end of his long tenure as family head and daimyo, the Shimazu were in a far better position than they had been previously.

The old provinces of Japan. Satsuma province is at the very bottom (no. 63). Neighboring Osumi (64) was occasionally under Shimazu control as well prior to the Sengoku period.

Episode 216 – The Scourge of the Gods, Part 7

This week: what did it all mean?

Listen to the episode here.


Conlan, Thomas. In Little Need of Divine Intervention.

Rossabi, Morris. Kublai Khan: His Life and Times.

Turnbull, Stephen. The Mongol Invasions of Japan of 1274-1281.

Adams, Ryon. Outfought and Outthought: Reassessing the Mongol Invasions of Japan.


Temur Khan, successor of Kubilai. His hair is done in Mongolian fashion for this portrait, but Temur was a Confucianizer just like his grandfather.

A printing plate (left) and example of paper currency (right) from the Yuan dynasty. Paper money was an attempt to fund the dynasty’s wars, but overprinting led to destructive levels of inflation.

The Hongwu Emperor, the founder of the Ming Dynasty who would displace the Mongols only a few generations after Kublai’s death.

One of these days I’ll watch the taiga about Hojo Tokimune.

Younger folks might know Tokimune as the face of Japan in Civilization VI. Incidentally, the “triforce” actually was the Hojo family mon, or crest — it was the symbol of the Hojo family.

Episode 215 – The Scourge of the Gods, Part 6

The 1281 invasion is at the gates (or the seawall, I suppose). How will round 2 play out?

Listen to the episode here.


Conlan, Thomas. In Little Need of Divine Intervention.

Rossabi, Morris. Kublai Khan: His Life and Times.

Turnbull, Stephen. The Mongol Invasions of Japan of 1274-1281.

Adams, Ryon. Outfought and Outthought: Reassessing the Mongol Invasions of Japan.


Japanese forces arrayed along the new defensive walls of Hakata. The walls proved invaluable to holding the city and preventing a large scale Mongol landing.

Samurai and Mongol vessels engage in Hakata bay.

Japanese raiding vessels (right) raid a Yuan dynasty warship. These naval raids were incredibly effective, leading to the decision to lash Yuan ships together for safety — and making the ships vulnerable in turn to typhoon winds.

An Edo period print of the 2nd typhoon.

Wrecks of Mongol vessels from the 1281 invasion, like this one discovered in 2011, are shedding new light on our understanding of both the invasion itself, and of medieval Chinese shipbuilding techniques.

General Tran, who led the war effort against the Mongols in Vietnam, remains a cultural hero to the Vietnamese people. His skillful generalship also prevented Kubilai from amassing a new force for a third invasion.

Episode 213 – The Scourge of the Gods, Part 4

This week, we cover exciting topics like meteorology and internal Mongol family politics! But wait, there’s also a bit of Zen theology dashed in to spice things up!

It’s an eclectic week on the podcast for sure!

Listen to the episode here.


Conlan, Thomas. In Little Need of Divine Intervention

Turnbull, Stephen. The Mongol Invasions of Japan of 1274-1281

Adams, Ryon F. “Outfought and Outthought: Reassessing the Mongol Invasions of Japan.”


An ink painting by Yosai Kikuchi from the late Edo Period depicting the 1274 typhoon. The exact nature of the storm remains unclear, but the story has retained popularity throughout Japan’s history.

Discovered Mongol shipwrecks like this one (from the 1281 campaign) help us investigate the truth (or lack thereof) behind the stories of the “divine wind.”

This isn’t really super relevant to this week, but I found this example of a Yuan dynasty hand cannon too cool not to include.

A park in Jingmen, Guangdong commemorating the final Yuan dynasty victory over the old Song dynasty in 1279. The final destruction of the Song absorbed a great deal of Kublai’s attention between the invasions.

The divisions of the Mongol Empire at the time of the war between Kublai and Kaidu. Green is Kublai’s territory, Grey is Kaidu’s, and purple is that of the Ilkhan Abaqa.

Episode 212 – The Scourge of the Gods, Part 3

This week I promise we’ll actually get to the 1274 invasion. But first, how were the samurai who defended Japan organized, and what weapons did they use?

Listen to the episode here.


Turnbull, Stephen. The Mongol Invasions of Japan of 1274-1281.

Conlan, Thomas D. In Little Need of Divine Intervention: Takezaki Suenaga’s Scrolls of the Mongol Invasions of Japan. 

May, Timothy. The Mongol Conquests in World History.


Modern practitioners of kyudo, or the martial art of archery, use a weapon very different in composition from Kamakura era samurai. Yet the basic structure remains the same, particularly the size of the weapon and unusual placement of the grip.

A Kamakura armor set; this particular one was for the heir of a major shugo family, and is thus more ornate than normal.

This detail from a scroll depicting the Mongol invasions gives you a good sense of the relative equipment of both sides.

This map labels both Tsushima and Iki islands, the first two targets of the 1274 invasion. Hakata bay is just to the left of the name Fukuoka.

A depiction of the 1274 combat. Note the exploding bomb in the center.

Episode 211 – The Scourge of the Gods, Part 2

This week: why did Kublai go to Japan? A quick overview of the tensions that led to the first invasion, and a look at the armies of Mongols and Chinese that would fight it.

Listen to the episode here.


Turnbull, Stephen. The Mongol Invasions of 1274 – 1281.

May, Timothy. The Mongol Conquests in World History.

Conlan, Thomas. In Little Need of Divine Intervention.


The reconstructed walls of Xiangyang. Though these walls are from a later time than the Mongol invasions, they give some sense of how imposing the original works were.

A Song dynasty river warship with a traction catapult attached to it. Warships like this one kept the Mongols out of south China for decades.

A basic schematic for a counterweight trebuchet. This design helped the Mongols break through the walls of the Chinese fortress of Xiangyang.

A reconstruction Mongol bow unstrung, strung, and at full draw. The bent horn tips add extra power by enabling the bow to flex more.

Lamellar armor from one of the predecessors of the Yuan (the Jin Dynasty). You can see how the loose arrangement of scales provides protection but also keeps the armor relatively light.

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