Syllabus: Samurai (2011 Fall)

History 501-01 (531): Special Topics
Samurai: History, Literature, Mythology

Prof. Jonathan Dresner
Phone: 235-4315
Class: TuTh 11-12:15, RH 407
Office Hours: MWF 11-12, 1-2, TuTh 9-11
Office: RH 406F


The name samurai conjures up a few images: the sword, the ritual suicide, the one-on-one duel, the armor. But the samurai – a reasonably well-defined class of warriors – were in existence for almost a millenium and went through several fundamental changes in population, scale, authority, mission and values. From the classical era to the modern age, against foes foreign and domestic, in rebellion and as government functionaries, the class of men known as samurai and their families have been at (or near) the center of Japan’s politics, government and culture. Even after their elimination – one of the only times in world history that an aristocracy eliminated itself – the samurai lives on in the memory and imagination, drawing on centuries of accumulated mythology and literature.
This course will examine the samurai as an historical phenomenon, take a look at some of the literary expressions of samurai experience, and discuss the cultural and social importance of this class over time.

Course Goals

In addition to the historical and cultural content, students will demonstrate increasing mastery of critical reading of primary and secondary sources in writing and discussion. “Critical” does not mean “attacking” but “analytical”: putting material in historical and cultural context, drawing appropriate inferences and and deductions from the evidence of the text, and raising relevant questions for futher inquiry.


History is about real people, diverse cultures, interesting theories, strongly held belief systems, complex situations, conflicts and often-dramatic actions. This information may be disturbing. Such is the nature of historical study.
Course Prerequisites and Application
World History to 1500 or World History since 1500, equivalent or permission of instructor is required before taking this course. This course counts towards the History major or minor as a non-Western course.

Textbooks for purchase

  • Ikegami, Eiko, The Taming of the Samurai: Honorific Individualism and the Making of Modern Japan (Harvard University Press, 1995).
  • Takeda Izumo, Miyoshi Shōraku, and Namiki Senryū, Chushingura: The Treasury of Loyal Retainers, trans. Donald Keene (Columbia University Press, 1971).
  • Thomas Conlan, State of War: The Violent Order of Fourteenth-Century Japan, Center for Japanese Studies, University of Michigan. (July 2003)
  • Yamakawa Kikue, Kate Wildman Nakai (Translator), Women of the Mito Domain: Recollections of Samurai Family Life, 1997, Stanford UP.
  • Mark Ravina, The Last Samurai: The Life and Battles of Saigo Takamori, Wiley 2003.

Readings on Reserve

  • “The Tale of the Heike,” excerpts, in Helen Craig McCullough, trans., Genji & Heike: Selections from The Tale of Genji and The Tale of Heike. Stanford University Press, 1994.
  • David J. Lu, Japan: A Documentary History. Volume 1: The Dawn of History to the Late Tokugawa Period. M. E. Sharpe/East Gate, 1997.
  • de Bary, Tsunoda, Keene, Sources of Japanese tradition, Columbia University Press, 1958 (ACLS e-book)
  • Bitō Masahide, Henry D. Smith, II, “The Akō Incident, 1701-1703”, Monumenta Nipponica 2003:2 (pp. 149-170) Stable URL:

Course Website:
Bookmark it. Check it regularly. I will use it for announcements (assignments, special events, extra credit), to maintain the schedule (particularly if it changes), to post handouts (so if you lose or miss one, it’ll be there) and keep a small library of useful links. In the event of a disparity between the original syllabus and the website, the website will be correct: I reserve the right to change readings, test dates, due dates, grade weights and assignments as necessary throughout the semester. This website takes the place of ANGEL for this class, though I will use ANGEL for email, the syllabus and for certain material which shouldn’t be available publicly.


Reading assignments — textbook and documents — must be done before class on the day indicated. Lectures will be rare; discussions will assume that the reading has been done. Reading assignments may be supplemented with online image viewing assignments, video viewing. I reserve the right to assign homework, implement pop quizzes or impose grade penalties if readings are not done on a regular basis.
Regular and substantive participation in discussions is an integral component of this course. I will try to make sure that everyone has a chance to speak up, and if you have trouble speaking up, talk to me privately and we’ll work on opportunities.

Pop Quizzes

If I find significant numbers of students are not doing the readings, I reserve the right to begin giving pop quizzes in a format to be determined later.

Geography Quiz
At the beginning of the third class (Tuesday, 8/30) I will give a quick ten (10) question quiz on the geography of modern Japan: neighboring countries, islands, major cities. Any student who gets fewer than nine (9) correct, will need to retake the quiz until they get a passing score. I will give the quiz in my office, during office hours or by appointment. Students may take the quiz once a week for the entire semester if necessary, but everyone in the class will pass this geography quiz, and have at least one ‘A’.

Undergraduates will pick two works on samurai to review, one in each half of the course: the first will be a scholarly article; the second, a book. You will have a great deal of freedom to pick topics, but the article must be from a scholarly journal or a chapter from an edited book collection: footnotes, primary sources, the whole works. The book can be on any topic as well, but should be either a primary source in translation or serious investigative work (journalistic or academic). See the Review assignment for more details.
Graduate Students will do the same reviews as the undergraduates, except that they will be responsible for writing two article reviews and two book reviews.

Movie Commentary

We will watch a few relevant movies to supplement the contemporary literature, and discuss the role of samurai in contemporary culture. After a movie viewing, you are responsible for sending me, by email, a brief summary and reaction to the movie (400-800 words) within 24 hours.

Final Exam

The format will be take-home essays and it will be comprehensive; questions will be distributed well in advance. You do not need to do outside research to answer these questions, but you do need to think about them long and hard. Details to follow.


The most important component of your grade on writing assignments will be whether you have used the historical materials available to effectively answer an interesting question. I will give you topics to focus on, but you will have to decide and articulate a thesis, select and present relevant evidence, and make it clear to your reader how the evidence proves your point. I do not generally grade on style, grammar or spelling, unless they are so bad as to obscure the meaning of what you are writing.

Course Administration


Students are expected to behave respectfully towards their peers and instructor. Disruptive behavior, including failing to turn off cell phones during class, will result in penalties and possibly removal from the classroom. This does not mean that there can’t be lively discussions and disagreements, but personal attacks, excessive volume, threatening gestures or words, and failure to give others a chance to speak and be heard are not acceptable.

Technology in the classroom

The use of laptop computers and other devices is permitted only if they are relevant to the material at hand: note-taking, fact-checking, assignment scheduling, etc. Web surfing, video, gaming, email and messaging are not appropriate classroom activities and can be distracting to the instructor and fellow students. You will be asked to leave. Moreover, I expect the lectures and classroom discussions to be reflected in your test and essay answers; if you’re not paying attention, participating and taking notes, you will almost certainly not do as well, gradewise.
The use of recording equipment, audio, photographic or video, or speech-to-text transcription software is not permitted. Alternative arrangements may be made for students with documented disabilities. Students violating this restriction will be asked to leave and may face grade penalties and disciplinary action.
You should check your email at least daily: if you don’t use a university email account regularly, set it to forward mail to your preferred address. I check email regularly: you should hear back from me within 24 hours. If you send me an assignment, I will reply with an acknowledgement. If I don’t reply, I probably did not get the email: try again.

Academic Honesty

Plagiarism will not be tolerated in this course.

Plagiarism is the use of the words or ideas of another person without proper acknowledgement. Plagiarism is intellectual theft; in an educational setting it is particularly repugnant. Plagiarism in my courses will be punished. It’s simple: Anytime you copy words into your own work, you must clearly mark them and acknowledge the source of those words. Anytime you use someone else’s ideas, you must admit it. There are three options: put it in quotation marks and footnote; paraphrase and footnote; or be original. If you have any questions or any concerns about citation format or necessity, ask someone who knows what they’re doing.
Other forms of academic misconduct will not be tolerated either, including the use of unauthorized aid on tests, failing to write one’s own papers, using papers for more than one course without permission. For more detail, see the relevant sections of the University Catalog. None of this precludes group study and discussion: those are actually really good ideas.


Advising is a very important resource designed to help students complete the requirements of the University and their individual majors. Students should consult with their advisor at least once a semester to decide on courses, check progress towards graduation, and discuss career options and other educational opportunities. Advising is a shared responsibility, but students have final responsibility for meeting degree requirements.

Student Accommodation

Any student with a documented disability who would like to request accommodations should contact the instructor as early in the semester as possible. For more information, contact the Center for Student Accomodations (235-4309,

Professionalism: Preparation, Attendance and Preparation

This is not just a classroom: it is a work space, and you are adults. You are expected to be present and prepared for class time, not only physically but intellectually, and to carry out your assignments in a timely and careful fashion. You are responsible for keeping track of assignments, due dates, and announcements made through the course website.
The essence of scholarship is constructive engagement; the best learning comes from doing. It is very important that everyone keep up with the readings, and come to class prepared to think and talk and question and listen. Asking good questions is an important form of participation. Asking questions which can be easily answered by referencing the syllabus, course website or readings is not.

Absences may be excused for unusual school-related events (not athletic practices), illness or family-related problems, but only if I am informed in advance (email is fine) or you have documentation (such as a doctor’s note). Unexcused absences will affect your professionalism grade. Failure to complete assignments, or consistently sloppy or incorrect work, will also affect your professionalism grade.

There may be days on which there will be a video lecture available online rather than an in-class lecture. Students are not required to come to class on those days. Recorded lectures may also be used to make up a day lost to weather or instructor absence; these are also required.

There will sometimes be homework assignments which do not fall into the above categories which will be considered part of the professionalism grade. The first assignment is to find the student information form on the course website, complete it, and email it to the instructor before the next class.

Extra Credit

I will announce cultural and historical events for which extra credit may be earned. To get extra credit, attend or participate in the event listed, and write a short (under two pages, single-spaced) summary of the event and describe your reaction and what you learned from it. Check the website for current listings. Visits to museums, art galleries, historical sites and other cultural institutions may also qualify. If you know of an event or a cultural institution and would like to have it considered for extra credit, or announced to the class, let me know. Extra Credits are added to the professionalism score at the end of the semester.

Grade Policies

  • All assignments are due in class at the beginning of class on the due date. Hard copy is required for all assignments, unless otherwise indicated by the instructor. Email will only be accepted as proof of completion in emergencies: the student is still responsible to get a printed copy to the instructor as soon as possible.
  • In the event of an excused absence on an assignment due date or testing date, the student is responsible for turning in the work no later than the next class, unless other arrangements have been made.
  • Unexcused late assignments or tests, due to absence, technical problems, etc., will be penalized one grade level (B to C, etc.) per class period late.
  • Even very, very bad (or very late) work is still going to get an F, which is a lot better than a zero. Plagiarism or other violations of academic honesty will result in zero credit on that assignment and may result in an F or XF for the semester depending on circumstances.
  • NOTE: I do not post grades on ANGEL. I will be happy to go over your grades and let you know how you are doing in the course at any time. Come to my office hours, or email me.


Geography Quiz 5%
Attendance, Preparation and Participation 20%
Article Review and Presentation 20%
Book Review and Presentation 25%
Final Exam Essays 30%

Administrative Deadlines and Instructional Holidays are in Italics

Assignments and Tests are in Bold

A more complete version of this schedule can be found on the course website.

Tu (8/23) First Day of Classes
Th (8/25) “Goseibai Shikimoku, 1232” Lu, pp. 109-116
“Asakura House Law,” Lu, pp. 175-178
8/29 Last day to enroll or add without instructor permission.
Last day for online enrollment.
Tu (8/30) Map Quiz
Ikegami, Chapters 2, 3
Th (9/1) Ikegami, Chapter 4, 5, 6
Tu (9/6) Last Day to drop without ‘W’
Ikegami, Chapter 7, 8
Th (9/8) Ikegami, Chapter 10, 11, 12
Tu (9/13) Ikegami, Chapter 14, 15
Article Selections Due
Th (9/15) Instructor Absent
9/26 Last day for half tuition refund
Tu (9/20) “The Tale of the Heike,” 22-147
Th (9/22) “The Tale of the Heike,” 147-262
Tu (9/27) Catch-up/Review/Movie
Th (9/29) Rosh Hashanah (Instructor Absent)
Tu (10/4) Article Presentations
Th (10/6) Article Presentations
Article Review Due
Tu (10/11) Conlan, Chapter 1
Th (10/13) Conlan, Chapter 2, 3
10/17 Midsemester D/F Grades Due
Tu (10/18) Conlan, Chapters 4, 5
Th (10/20) Fall Break
Tu (10/25) Conlan, Chapters 6, 7, 8
Th (10/27) “Laws of Military Households (Buke Shohatto)” Sources, pp. 335-338
Kumazawa Banzan, “The Model Samurai,” etc., Sources, pp. 387-392
Yamaga Sokō, “The way of the Samurai,” Sources, pp. 398-400
Bito, “The Akō Incident, 1701-1703” Monumenta Nipponica (2003:2)
Book Selections Due
10/28 Last day to apply for December graduation
Tu (11/1) Chushingura, all.
Th (11/3) Women of the Mito Domain, 148-end
11/7 Last day to drop single course.
Tu (11/8) Graduate Student Presentation: Musui’s Story and Remembering Aizu
Th (11/10) Women of the Mito Domain, to 145
Tu (11/15) Ravina, Chapters 1 and 2
Th (11/17) Ravina, Chapters 3 and 4
Tu (11/22) Ravina, Chapters 5 and 6
Th (11/24) Thanksgiving Holiday
Tu (11/29) Graduate Student Essay Due
Catch up/Review/Movie
Th (12/1) Instructor absent
Tu (12/6) Book Presentations
Th (12/8) Last day to withdraw from entire term.
Book Presentations
Book Review Due
12/13 Final Exam Essays Due 1pm


“Absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men,
even when they exercise influence and not authority. …
The inflexible integrity of the moral code is to me the secret
of the authority, the dignity, the utility of history.
If we may debase the currency for the sake of genius or success or reputation,
we may debase it for the sake of a man’s influence, of his religion, of his party,
of the good cause which prospers by his credit and suffers by his disgrace.”
— Lord Acton (1887)

“Learning without thinking is labor lost; thinking without learning is perilous.” (Analects, II:15)

“A fanatic is one who sticks to his guns whether they’re loaded or not.” — Franklin P. Jones

Graduate Student Addendum

There will be additional readings with associated writing assignments for graduate students. Graduate students will also be expected to do the undergraduate readings and writing assignments, though they will be graded separately, and should be prepared to contribute substantively and consistently to the classroom discussions.

  • Katsu, Kokichi, Musui’s Story: The Autobiography of a Tokugawa Samurai, trans. Teruko Craig (University of Arizona Press, 1988). ISBN-13: 978-0816512560
  • Shiba Goro, Remembering Aizu: The Testament of Shiba Goro, trans. Teruko Craig, University of Hawaii Press, 1999. ISBN 9780824821579

Graduate students will prepare a presentation (11/8) on these books for the class (working together if there are more than one), and lead a discussion on the relevant issues.
Graduate students will also write a 2000-3000 word essay (11/29) evaluating these autobiographical works in the light of the cultural arguments and theories presented in Ikegami.
Graduate Student Grade Distribution

Attendance, Preparation and Participation 20%
Article Review and Presentation (2) 15%
Book Review and Presentation (2) 30%
Graduate Student Presentation and Essay 15%
Final Exam Essays 20%


“Why shouldn’t truth be stranger than fiction? Fiction, after all, has to make sense.” — Mark Twain

“The greatest danger to human beings is their consciousness of the trivialities of their aims.” — Gerard Brennan

“It is useful to ask oneself questions, but very dangerous to answer them.”
— Charles Seignobos, cited in Marc Bloch, The Historian’s Craft


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