Sunday, May 25, 2014

What I'm Reading Now: A Dragon's Head and a Serpent's Tail by Kenneth M. Swope

The book I am reading now (as you probably guessed from the title), is called A Dragon's Head and a Serpent's Tail. It covers the Japanese invasion of Korea in the 1590s (what the author calls the First Great East Asian War). I first read a book on the subject for a class in college and when I tried to hunt down a copy of the book I had read (Samurai Invasion by Stephen Turnbull), it was too expensive for me and was not on Kindle. So I found Swope's book and started to read. I am only about 30 percent of the way through, but it is already proving to be an illuminating work about a little-known period of history.

The book traces the development of Ming military fortunes before the conflict, as well as those of Japan and Korea, but the focus is clearly on the former, detailing the Chinese struggles with rebellious vassals in the northeast and southwest. When it comes to Japan, Swope gives a bit of explanation regarding the unification under Oda Nobunaga and Toyotomi Hideyoshi's assumption of his mentor's mantle as the imperial regent (Kampaku) of Japan. The author also explores the weaponry of each of the combatants, noting that the Japanese generally had greater man-for-man firepower because of their widespread adoption of the harquebus  and katana, while the Koreans and Chinese had naval and artillery superiority. In fact, Swope asserts that the Japanese were probably among the best armies in the world in terms of doctrine and equipment, an assertion which seems valid when compared to the equivalent European armies.

Of course, the bulk of the book is taken up with an examination of the war itself, and this book is a blow-by-blow account of the Japanese conquest, and Ming reconquest, of the peninsula. The litany of names makes it hard to follow if the reader is not well-versed in East Asian history, and the lack of maps often reduce each place to insignificance for the general reader.

The pattern of Japanese aggression that culminated in that nation's defeat by the Allies in 1945 can perhaps be seen to have started during this period. The rationale employed by Hideyoshi (to grant land to loyal retainers, acquire more food and living space, and to gain an empire) were used in the Meiji period to justify wars against the Chinese and Russians, and in the 1930s and 1940s to justify the invasion of China and the attacks against Dutch, British, and American possessions in Asia.

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