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The “Badass” Samurai in Japanese Pop Culture
By Nino Moscardi
When the concept of the historical samurai is perceived,
what is it that normally comes to mind? The representation of the samurai to
the masses is typically the “lone warrior” stereotype, traveling
In order to analyze how and why samurai are romanticized
in Japanese popular culture, it is first necessary
to provide some history to define what samurai really were. Samurai were a
military elite, evolving through a series of rebellions as central government
grew weak from absence of devices to protect quickly growing shoen,
or private rice farms, in the mid 800 A.D. Since shoen
were products of private agreements, essential defense of these estates was
agreed upon privately by the small landowners and farmers of each individual
shoen (Turnbull 16). Thus, the samurai were born. As time
went on, the samurai grew in number and power and eventually played a much greater
role in history, acting as servants of their provincial daimyo, or lords, during
feudal periods, and servants of the shogun as well, who was the military leader
Perhaps the most romanticized element of the samurai
in popular culture is their strict adherence to a code of morals rooted in principles
of honor, loyalty, devotion, and martial practice, more aptly named Bushido.
The fact is that Bushido was less a code of honor, and more a strategic manipulation
by the Tokugawa bakufu, government, to keep local
daimyo subservient by stressing loyalty to one’s lord. The Tokugawa were extremely
paranoid about civil war, and rightly so, since the only two other governments
had failed due to constant warfare. Thus, they employed measures including a
fabricated code of honor to keep samurai and local daimyo allegiant to the shogun
(samurai-archives). Previous to the Edo jidai,
The same goes for the typical pilgrimage throughout
The third most common misconception of Japanese history comes with stealth, and clad in black. Or it is more accurate to say that they did not come clad and in black. Ninja were not mystical assassins that the entire world makes them out to be. Ninja were samurai. They were not disgraced or shamed into performing stealthy tasks or used magical hand signals to conjure spells as is the common falsity. Daimyo who were in need of reconnaissance, assassination, or any other task that required infiltration of enemy territory would call upon a samurai to do so. Ninja were simply samurai performing ninja activity, not an individual whose only duty was to perform stealthy jobs (samurai-archives). The fact that they dressed in all black and jumped across rooftops is a lie as well, stemming from bunraku puppet theater, in which the puppeteers would dress in all black on stage to give the impression of invisibility to the audience. The best way to not be seen, as the samurai knew, was to blend in with the enemy. Thus, this was the main method of stealth utilized (samurai-archives).
Much can be said for the reasons why samurai are so
romanticized in Japanese popular culture today. One of the most important reasons
perhaps, is that by romanticizing an aspect of one’s own history, it gives a
sense of pride and nationalism. By exaggerating qualities of the various historically
noble men and expanding that image onto the whole of a social class, audiences
accept samurai as a more respectable medium. When popular media provides the
romanticized samurai, it builds confidence in the audience in how the samurai
were in real life, even though such was not the case with all samurai (Developing
Maturity). However, it does give the impression that samurai were infused with
a sense of loyalty and honor, and when pop culture projects this through its
various mediums, it bestows the audience with the same impression (Developing
Maturity). Such was the case with much of the manga
during World War II. Manga was blamed by Americans for being overrun with “Bushido”
type qualities, helping to fuel Japanese nationalism. Especially by targeting
younger audiences such as teenage boys, pride in one’s own history can be more
easily instilled. This is not to say that these romanticizations
are done to promote nationalistic rebellion, though that may be true in some
cases, but are more so done in order to give the Japanese an international identity
in a world in which defining oneself is extremely difficult.
In doing so, it gives the Japanese a medium of delineating who they are via
their own history, exaggerated or not. The suggestion that the samurai may not
have a place any longer in modern culture is evidenced by the “answering of
a yearning for continuity with
Romanticizing samurai in Japanese popular culture can also act as a vehicle for escapism. In order to escape from the present, pop culture provides fantasy worlds in which anything is possible, one of which is in fact the past. Escapism caters a method of presenting the audience with otherwise impossible images that are now possible through the mediums of anime, manga, or literature (Izawa 140). For many Japanese today, social culture is “often seen as blanketed under stifling layers of politeness and formality, characterized by endless bowing,” allowing for justification of imagination in which they are provided with fantastical images in the privacy of their own mind (Izawa 139). The exaggeration of samurai in escapist fantasy exploits the audience’s imagination by going back to a world long gone and looking at it in the best light possible. By overstating the samurai’s devotion to a martial way, and their specific codes of honor, the medium of pop culture can show a more fantastic story as opposed to a realistic one. Probably one of the most ideal examples of this is the anime Samurai Champloo, in which fight scenes are choreographed with moves that are not even humanly possible, yet seem second nature to the main characters. Even the characters themselves display amplified “Bushido” qualities. Jin, the quiet, wise, samurai, is created to be the obvious and overt follower of a clear set of principles, while Mugen, the rowdy tough-guy, only shows a conscience when trouble arises, yet both characters clearly show unhuman skill with their weapons, that of which could only be possible through escapist pop culture.
Another key in the popularity of this image of samurai can be applied to a younger demographic. Anime, manga, and even literature in which this image of the samurai appears is often used to attract younger audiences (Boys Are Forever). Given the history of civil war in which the samurai thrived, the topic of these warriors automatically implies violence and emphasis on action, a key in attracting a teenage demographic. Various mediums of pop media such as anime like Ninja Scroll, literature like Musashi, or manga like Vagabond (based off of Musashi) are accurate portrayals of the point trying to be made. All three were tremendous successes in their own right, and each had intimate portraits of violence to attract readers (Boys Are Forever). Audiences now base assumptions off of the stereotype of samurai of all being noble warriors and equating that to automatic violence, since the only attraction there could possibly be from this stereotype is the violence.
Perhaps the main draw in terms of cross culture appeal
is the fact that romanticized samurai in Japanese pop culture provides recognizable
icons for those overseas and across international borders. Hyperbolizing the
samurai in such a way that they appear as a whole to be a loyal body of master
warriors provides international interest in certain characters due to admirable
traits. By magnifying something uniquely Japanese, not only are Japanese audiences
instilled with a sense of identity, but foreign audiences are compelled to take
an interest in a culture so different from their own (Iwabuchi
104-5). Recognizable icons in pop media are the vehicle to gaining recognition
from those foreign audiences. For example, the anime Rurouni
Kenshin has gained international fame due to the fact
that the main character of Kenshin Himura is portrayed as an
honorable samurai in atonement for past sins. Foreign audiences can relate to
a character with a dark past and admire him for attempting to make up for whatever
crime he may have committed. Such is also the case with
Japanese popular culture fails to depict the samurai for what they actually were, people. Instead it overstates them as a legendary caste of invincible, honorable warriors. However, it is this exaggeration that provides Japanese audiences the sense of nationalism and identity that socially bonds them, while also fabricating an escapist fantasy with which to shun the formal world. There is also certainly no doubt that this image of the samurai is immensely popular, catching on in not only Japan, but all across the world as it attracts viewers to the history, however inaccurate it may be, of an culturally enriching country. But what seems to be forgotten in constant analysis and examination is that, maybe, sometimes people just realize truthfully that the samurai are just really damn cool.
Gravett, Paul. "Boys Are Forever." Manga: 60 Years of Japanese Comics. Collins Design, 2004. 52-73.
Gravett, Paul. "Developing Maturity." Manga: 60 Years of Japanese Comics. Collins Design, 2004. 96-115.
Iwabuchi, Koichi. "Localizing "Japan" in the Booming Asian Media Markets." Recentering Globalization: Popular Culture and Transnationalism. Duke UP, 2002. 85-120.
Izawa, Eri. "The Romantic,
Passionate Japanese in Anime: A Look At the Hidden
Turnbull, Stephen. Samurai: The Warrior Class of
West, C.W., and F.W. Seal. The Samurai Archives. <http://www.samurai-archives.com>.