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The Last Shogun: The Life of Tokugawa Yoshinobu    by Ryotaro Shiba order for
Last Shogun
by Ryotaro Shiba
Order:  USA  Can
Kodansha International, 2004 (1998)
Hardcover, Paperback

Read an Excerpt

* * *   Reviewed by Mary Ann Smyth

I never had an interest in learning about anything Japanese. No bias. Just had other things on my plate. But my daughter teaches World Cultures to ninth grade classes. She and my granddaughter made a trip to Japan with a group from school and fell in love with that country and its people. What with having students from a school in Japan visit and my daughter's family building her a portable Japanese Teahouse to teach the formal tea ceremony, I finally woke up. Time to learn a little more about what has so interested my daughter.

I started with The Last Shogun, an incredibly fascinating book written by an incredibly fascinating man. Its author, Ryotaro Shiba, is one of Japan's best-loved writers of all time. He was cited as a person of cultural merit in 1991 and was conferred the Order of Culture in 1993. He died in 1996. The Last Shogun was published in Japan as a novel, for historical novels were Ryotaro Shiba's forte. It's not a novel in the strictest sense of the word. The author took the facts about Tokugawa Yoshinobu's life (1837-1913) and created a book of reality that reads like fiction. It holds the reader's interest, while imparting the life of an extraordinary man who was, indeed, last (fifteenth) shogun of Japan. It was translated into English by Juliette Winters Carpenter.

During the period of time that Admiral Perry was trying to open Japan to the world, Tokugawa came to power kicking and screaming all the way. He had no desire to be shogun, but feeling that it was his destiny, he succumbed to pleading and took that office. He was a very interesting man as well as an interested man. He welcomed anything new to his vision and became proficient in western ways as well as mastering the traditional arts of Japan. Never bored, he flung himself from acquiring one skill to another: polo, oil painting, photography, calligraphy, embroidery as well as sword play and martial arts. A loner, he often rode horseback for hours at a time. He never complained of isolation even though he was put under house arrest several times in his life.

Tokugawa was famous as an orator. He could speak for hours, hold his audience in sway, and convince them to his way of thinking. Like his father, he was attracted to the ladies. Tokugawa Yoshinobu left behind twenty-one living children, not all from the same mother, of course. I felt great sadness at the infant mortality rate. Even the great houses of Japan were not immune to losing children at birth or in their infancy. Dying young was not an unusual occurrence.

Tokugawa Yoshinobu lived in an exciting period of time, for both Japan and the West. Any history buff would delight in this book, as would others like myself, interested in learning more about Japanese culture. Absorbing reading.

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