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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 Japan to hone his skills in swordsmanship, partaking in ridding the land of evildoers, and abiding by principles of a certain code of honor called Bushido. And one may wonder how this image came about when the history behind this elite, social warrior class is far from reality (though certain figures did partake in such activity)? Pop culture is mainly to blame for this image, for it is the various mediums of pop culture that feeds the masses these highly romanticized characters, portraying highly exaggerated characters of what the samurai were or should be. By romanticizing an element of Japanese history as momentous as the samurai, it provides a sense of nationalism and unity in one’s own history, giving Japan international identity in a world so caught up in self image.

            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 of Japan after the Emperor fell out of power (Turnbull). After a state of peace was reigned in by Tokugawa Ieyasu following hundreds of years of civil war, and two unstable governments, bakufu, the role of the samurai again changed. Now, the samurai were a military caste with no wars to fight, and while some sought other professions or ways to occupy themselves, the majority became unemployed or a burden on society, until they were gradually abolished as a social class following the reclaimation of power by the Emperor Meiji in the 1860's (Turnbull). Though there is much more to tell, this history must be abridged for the sake of analyzing how and why these warriors came to be so exaggerated.

            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, Edo period, there was no code of honor, for had there been, many of the warfare tactics used would not have been possible. One must remember that samurai were just ordinary people, born into a higher status (samurai-archives). This is not to say that there were never any honorable or noble samurai. There were certainly great men among them, evidenced by records of men such as Takeda Shingen, Yagyu Munenori, Minamoto no Yoshitsune, or Shimmen Musashi Miyamoto, but character traits and principles to live by vary from person to person, and in that aspect nothing was different from how it is today.

            The same goes for the typical pilgrimage throughout Japan to hone one’s swordsmanship skill. This misconception is similar to the misconception of Bushido in that individual skill with a weapon varied from person to person. Not all samurai practiced heavily with a sword, therefore not all samurai were master swordsmen. Though there were many great samurai swordsmen, one must look at the situation realistically in that if the samurai did not train with whatever their weapon may be, which many chose not to, they would not be particularly effective in a battle. Writings such as the Go Rin no Sho, Koyo Gunkan, or the Budo Shoshinshu, clearly show that many did devote their lives to their swordsmanship, however this was not the case with all (samurai-archives). It is even foolish to say that all samurai used katana. Samurai were versatile in their choice of arms in battle, and it is often thought that firearms were shunned and viewed as dishonorable. The fact is that firearms were embraced by samurai, and skill with a teppo (musket) was no less regarded than skill with a sword. The Japanese had no problem borrowing ideals or technology from other nations, which is evident in Japanese history, so naturally when the gun came along, samurai were not oblivious to the fact that it was far superior to the bow (samurai-archives). This type of misconception places samurai on a much more human level than previously regarded.

            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 Japan’s unwesternized heritage”(Developing Maturity). It gives international audiences an impression of what the Japanese or Japanese history stands for, while giving the Japanese audience a way to be proud of their origin and a definite identity.

            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 Hollywood movies like The Last Samurai. As inaccurate of a movie as it was, American filmmakers mimicked the overstated qualities of the samurai that they saw in Japanese popular culture to further spread a relatable character who finds some sort of enlightenment in a romanticized Bushido to American audiences.

            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.

Works Cited

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 Japanese Soul." Japan Pop! Ed. Timothy J. Craig. East Gate, 2000. 138-153.

Turnbull, Stephen. Samurai: The Warrior Class of Japan. PRC Ltd., 1982.

West, C.W., and F.W. Seal. The Samurai Archives. <http://www.samurai-archives.com>.