Taiko: An Epic Novel of War and Glory in Feudal Japan

Author: Eiji Yoshikawa
Translator: William Scott Wilson
U.S. publisher: Kodansha
ISBN: 9784770026095
Released: October 2000
Original release: 1941

Taiko: An Epic Novel of War and Glory in Feudal Japan is the second work by Eiji Yoshikawa that I have read. Taiko is probably Yoshikawa’s best known work in English following Musashi, another of his epics, which I have also read. Yoshikawa was a prolific author in Japan, particularly respected as a historical novelist, but only four of his works are currently available in English, the other two being his telling of The Tale of Heike and his memoir Fragments of a Past. Taiko was first released in Japan in 1941. The English translation by William Scott Wilson was initially published in 1992 by Kodansha International and then again in 2000. Like Musashi, the English edition of Taiko has been abridged from the original. I’m not entirely sure how long Taiko was to begin with, but the shortened version of the novel is nothing to ridicule with well over nine hundred pages of dense text.

Taiko begins in the year 1536. At the time Hiyoshi, later known as Toyotomi Hideyoshi, was only a troublesome young boy the age of six. The novel follows him and the tumultuous state of Japanese society as he becomes one of Oda Nobunaga’s most trusted retainers. Nobunaga is extraordinarily ambitious and ruthless in his methods striving to unite Japan under his own banner. It’s a dream that can’t be realized without the aid and efforts of Hideyoshi and Tokugawa Ieyasu, who would go on to found the Tokugawa Shogunate. The prospect of unifying Japan is not an easy one. After the collapse of the Ashikaga Shogunate, the country was thrown into a state of chaos with many clans fighting each other in order to claim the power to rule.

The most difficult thing about reading Taiko is the sheer number of characters involved in the story. Someone might be thoroughly introduced only to die or otherwise meet fate a few pages later. An added challenge to this is that many of the characters undergo multiple name changes as the novel progresses. Taiko is divided into ten books. At the beginning of each of these sections, a brief list of prominent people and places is given. This is very useful, but a more comprehensive and complete register would have been even more helpful. Some familiarity with feudal era Japan would be extremely valuable for or perhaps even expected of someone undertaking to read Taiko. It’s not always clear why certain people or references that are made are important without a basic understanding of the the historical context of the story. The constantly shifting politics and alliances can likewise be difficult to follow.

Taiko is described as an epic for good reason. It is a long and complicated novel, capturing the end of the Warring States period and the following attempt at the political unification of Japan. Many of the characters pull off some very impressive diplomatic and military maneuvers. The near constant state of war allows Yoshikawa to write brilliant battle sequences and when there isn’t fighting there is plenty of political intrigue to keep everyone occupied. Taiko provides an immersive, and at times even inspiring, experience of sixteenth century Japan. However, the novel’s length, even abridged, is certainly felt. There really isn’t much character development, although people might exhibit sudden changes in behavior, and even the narrative arc comes across as somewhat flat. Perhaps Yoshikawa was too constrained by the historical realities of the period. But there’s some great stuff in here, too, and I’m glad I took the time to read Taiko.


Author: Eiji Yoshikawa
Translator: Charles S. Terry
U.S. publisher: Kodansha
ISBN: 9784770019578
Released: July 1981
Original run: 1935-1939 (Asahi Shimbun)

I first learned about Eiji Yoshikawa’s epic historical novel Musashi while looking for a translation of Miyamoto Musashi’s Book of Five Rings. The group of people I was asking for recommendations insisted that I give Yoshikawa’s fictionalization of Musashi’s life a try as well. Yoshikawa’s envisioning of Musashi has been the inspiration for a large number of samurai films and is the basis for Takahiko Inoue’s manga series Vagabond. Musashi was originally serialized in Japan between 1935 and 1939. The English translation by Charles S. Terry was published by Kodansha International in 1981. The book doesn’t indicate it anywhere, but apparently the English edition is actually an abridgement. The original is nearly four thousand pages long. However, the English translation’s nine hundred seventy pages of relatively small print is not really anything to scoff at, either.

Much of Yoshikawa’s Musashi is based on historical reality and while they are fictionalized (and it is important to remember that), many of the events and people portrayed actually existed. Musashi is one of Japan’s most notable and recognizable swordsmen. Musashi begins with the aftermath of the Battle of Sekigahara in which a young Musashi, then known as Takezō, fought and managed to survive. It ends with one of Musashi’s most famous duels as he faces the highly skilled Sasaki Kojirō. In between, the novel traces his efforts to develop his own style of swordsmanship, resulting in the foundation of his innovative two sword technique. At the same time, Japanese society is undergoing great change as the Tokugawa shogunate more firmly establishes its control over the country.

Although the novel’s title is simply Musashi, the cast of characters is quite large. In addition to Musashi, the tale also follows those who seek to be close to him, his peers and rivals, friends, adversaries, and mentors. Many of the encounters between these people seem to happen by chance or fate, and sometimes the coincidences are a bit much, but it does make for a good story. For the most part, the characters grow and change as the novel progresses. Some of the changes happen suddenly while others develop more naturally over time. Musashi, too, is a significantly different person by the end of the book than he is when it first begins. He may be a legendary swordsman, but in Musashi he is shown to be completely human as well. He, like all the other characters, makes mistakes and stupid decisions, but he is shown to be willing to learn from them.

The pacing of Musashi is much more leisurely than one might expect for a novel about a man striving to better himself by following the Way of the Sword. Although Musashi is constantly training and is involved in many cinematic duels and battles, most of the book is of a quieter, more philosophical bent. Musashi brings what he learns from everyday life to his swordsmanship and in return applies the Way of the Sword to his way of life, believing the two are one and the same. Some might feel the novel drags on, and its length is certainly felt even in abridged form, but I was actually quite happy with it. I would like to read the novel in its entirety, but Terry’s translation and abridgement is excellent. While it occasionally feels slightly disjointed, overall the narrative flows very nicely. However, the ending comes abruptly. In some ways this lends to the creation of the myth and legend of Musashi, but it still seemed very sudden to me. Regardless, I am very glad I took the time needed to read and experience Yoshikawa’s Musashi.