Proverbs 1:20 depicts wisdom calling out in public. She cries out on the streets, in the market, and at the city gate. This picture of wisdom actively pursuing people and offering knowledge to all reminds me of how accessible knowledge is to those who seek it and how one can find it even in the most unlikely places. An example of one of these unlikely places that I recently discovered was a children’s book about the ancient samurai.
I have come to realize that I enjoy children’s book retellings of Japanese and Chinese legends. Several of my favorite children’s books that I have discovered and reviewed in recent years are Heart of a Samurai and Where the Mountain Meets the Moon, and my list of future books to read includes Samurai Rising: The Epic Life of Minamoto Yoshitsune. One reason for my interest in this genre is that these stories are often refreshingly different from Western stories. While I enjoy Greek and Norse myths and European fairy tales, a collection of Asian stories often offers a pleasant change. The storytelling style is unique, the characters and settings are exotic, and the themes can be intriguing. Browsing a library shelf recently, Sword of the Samurai: Adventure Stories from Japan by Eric A. Kimmel caught my eye. Unsure whether I had read it before and intrigued by the title, I decided to try it and discovered that the children’s book is well-told, entertaining, and thought-provoking.
Kimmel divides Sword of the Samurai into short episodes that each tell a different tale. Each section begins with a short description of life or beliefs in ancient Japan that relates to the succeeding story. This arrangement mixes historical facts with stories in a way that makes learning about Japan and the samurai fun and memorable, which would be especially good for young readers. The narrative is very readable and contains excellent descriptions that enrich the story with the perfect amount of detail.
One of my favorite aspects of this book is the humor in the stories. Although most of the stories involve battles or conflict of some kind, some of my favorites focus on other aspects of life in the time of the samurai. Several of the legends have clever characters and scenarios that made me laugh out loud. Unlike the wiliness of Greek mythological characters, these samurai have an understated cunning that I find more palatable than in a lot of Western stories. The samurai respond humbly when they outwit their enemies, rather than bragging about their success.
What surprised me more than the storytelling and humor, though, is the themes Sword of the Samurai deals with. The stories touch on a wide variety of subjects, from women’s place in society to the acceptability of violence to what makes a true warrior. Many of the ideas that the stories promote and accept as normal are very alien to Western culture, and the stories contain wise advice as well as warnings. For instance, while loyalty to family and leaders is admirable, these stories demonstrate how samurai could go too far in attempts to honor the people they served or represented. The stories commemorate valor, wisdom, patience, and justice but show little of love or kindness. One of the saddest examples of this is when a leader attributes his success in deescalating a dangerous situation to his lack of emotion. The character explains, “Human life must mean nothing to us…especially the lives of those we love best” (82). He sees love and emotions as a hindrance to protecting others because they can lead to fear and anger. The cure here seems worse than the disease, though. As these stories demonstrate, fearlessness was an influential ideal in Japanese culture to be obtained at all costs, but a fearless attitude could often become a heartless one, leading to horrible atrocities.
As it turns out, I had read Sword of the Samurai before, but I am glad to have rediscovered it. This book provides a good introductory examination of some of the contrasts between Japanese and Western culture in a well-written, enjoyable format that will appeal to a range of audiences. Whether readers are looking for a fun set of stories, an intriguing view into another culture, or thought-provoking themes, Sword of a Samurai by Eric Kimmel is a good book for the job. What I appreciate most, though, is how this children’s book reminds its readers that one can learn from unexpected sources and find insight in even the most unlikely places where wisdom cries aloud.