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Eastern Shades: A Look at the West's Obsession With the Samurai

Jamal is a graduate of Northeastern Seminary and writes on a broad range of topics. His writings are based on other points of view.


The game Ghost of Tsushima is one of my favorite all time games: Period.

I’m a long-time martial artist as well as a gamer. And I’m very particular in both areas about which games or styles I choose to partake in. Ghost blew me away not just with its combat style and excellent storyline, but the game is single-handedly one of the most gorgeous I’ve ever seen. It’s changing atmospheric presence completely absorbs me into it and I'll often find myself on it for hours on it before realizing the time.

That said, there were criticisms about the game that I read up on as well regarding the era it takes place. Set during the first Mongol invasion of Japan in 1274, it sets the player as the protagonist, Jin Sakei who is the last survivor of the samurai defense of the island against the invaders as they set up a beachhead to move further onto the main islands of Japan.

In this aspect and regarding the details of the ill-fated battle, the game was dead on. The samurai lost and lost badly. From here however, the liberties start taking place. The armor and weapons weren't right for the historical period. There was no real active resistance on the island tragically to the Mongols. There was one in particular however that strikes a familiar chord to me.

That criticism being how the game feeds off the ‘heroic’ image of the samurai warrior. The knights of Asia in Western media’s eyes, bound by honor and death to their lords and higher ideals of honor and sacrifice. But it’s exactly that: a Western ideal.

Talk to anyone from Asia, Japanese included, and they’ll most likely tell you that the samurai were just as ruthless, murderous, and corrupt as any other social or warrior class in world history. So this aroused the question in me why we Westerners continue to have such rose-tinted glasses about Japanese samurai?

From Manglobe studios.  Samurai Champloo was a 2004 anime series that blended historical Japan with hip hop themes.  Its a classic image of cross cultural fascination.

From Manglobe studios. Samurai Champloo was a 2004 anime series that blended historical Japan with hip hop themes. Its a classic image of cross cultural fascination.

Cold Turkey Exposure

Western pop culture- American especially-first became aware of the samurai after the Second World War. The bloody Pacific campaign between the United States and the Imperial Japanese Empire from 1941 - 1945, was winding down as the Allies were approaching the main Islands. However, the closer they got, the more desperate and fanatical the Japanese defenders became. Chief among these red flags was the infamous banzai charges, where Japanese soldiers would mount suicidal frontal assaults on entrenched U.S. positions.

By this time, the brutality of Japanese soldiers was already well known. They were known for outright killing soldiers and civilians alike, sometimes by beheading them. Japanese pilots were said to shoot up parachuting enemies whose planes they had shot down. And it was not uncommon for them to show a fanatical tenacity towards choosing death rather than surrendering or to claim some sort of victory by slamming their planes into American warships.

However, other than the kamikaze attacks, banzai charges introduced American culture the most to it's first interpretation of the samurai spirit. That it was about extreme loyalty to the Emperor of Japan and a perceived lacking any fear of death. Captured samurai swords from dead Japanese officers further helped entrench the idea that curved weapon embodied that spirit. Throughout the following post-war period as Japan was rebuilt under American jurisdiction, a movie came out in 1954 that further cemented the image of the noble samurai to the west called Seven Samurai.

Directed by the famous Japanese director, Akira Kurosawa, it detailed the story of a ragtag band of seven samurai in various stages of class, hired to defend a small town against bandit raids. Besides being a global success, it helped fashion the image of the Japanese warrior with his katana the same way the western movie genre fashioned the image of the American cowboy with his colt six-shooter. Funny enough this comparison was made into the 1972 spaghetti western, Red Sun, pairing together for the first time the two cultural icons.

Samurai popularity slowly grew in American culture and with it, ideas about what Japanese culture as a whole was about. It wasn’t only American business but Japanese business as well that capitalized on this. They recognized Japan's most recognized global symbol and exported it through movies, anime and manga, which by the turn of the century had become commonplace for the Millennial generation (the irony being that before 1853, samurai were known for the exact opposite of this export).

More modern movies such as 2003’s The Last Samurai further encouraged this stylized image of the warriors as honor bound swordsmen. Even martial artists and modern soldiers would reference them, though in somewhat of a back-handed way, saying that real combat was not about honor. An implied reference to the popular image of samurai culture. Assassins Creed, a game franchise about a fictional assassin cult throughout history, was hoped by many fans to use Japan as a potential backdrop for one of its games. And Ghost of Tsushima was just the latest incarnation of this.

Thanks to the internet however and more global familiarity, there’s a growing awareness that the samurai, like the American cowboy or Mafia, weren't as glamorous as they were made out to be for so long. Most people are aware now that there was more nuance to the historical warriors other than what the media portrayed them as. So then why the fascination still?

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A deleted scene from 2003's The Last Samurai, depicting Kiri-sute gomen, where immediate executions on civilians were allowed.

Eyes Wide Shut

Part of our obsession with samurai, even with its flaws, is because it's an exotic cultural phenomenon. The closest Western equivalent to samurai in Western culture is the knights of medieval Europe, and more than a few nerds have fantasized about what a match up between them would look like. The fact that it comes from an unfamiliar culture and that despite being a stereotype, that there is some truth to their honor concepts, lends samurai a certain pass.

And to be fair to the West, there have been more attempts to humanize the samurai. Ghost of Tsushima, while at first seeming like it glorifies the samurai, actually does go into some of the dirtier details of how people perceived them. There are several references as the game goes on to their insistence that their goals are the civilian's goals and all their resources should therefore be devoted to their cause: regardless of what it actually cost the common people. There are stories too of corrupt samurai you have to deal with as well and their tendencies to wipe out entire clans if their will was resisted.

Even as far back as Seven Samurai, there were windows that showed their world not as clean as they were made out to be. One of the sub-plots in the movie is how one of the seven, a seemingly crazed vagabond samurai-wannabe named Kikuchiyo, actually turns out to be from a town that suffered under the class during Japan’s many wars. When the group discovers that the town they had signed on to defend had in fact killed other samurai in the past, its Kikuchiyo who defends the people by calling out the samurai’s constant wars and turmoil that brings people to such depravity.

While in truth, we would find the behaviors and more detailed ideals of what samurai culture entailed abhorrent, that they still believed in some kind of code somehow elevates them in many people’s minds. They overlook the unpleasantness. The idea that while in the West someone can look you straight in the face and pledge loyalty and break it five minutes later, compared to someone with a samurai spirit that meant what they said and would follow up on it no matter what. To an gaijin or outsider, it's an appealing, if perhaps somewhat impractical goal.

More than that though is the image of the katana sword.

As alluded to earlier, both in its unique shape, legendary sharpness, and often application for beheading, the katana embodies the more positive aspects of the samurai. In the West, we prefer simple and easy ideas to swallow rather than nuanced and complicated. Facts like how the historical conflict that Last Samurai was based off of was not about samurai honor, but about a class that was desperately trying to cling on to their social status and power, are easily lost on us. What matters isn't the truth, but the ideal that we are familiar with. What's more acceptable and perhaps somehow above our own cultural cynicism.

Both in its alien aspect and in our distrust of our own value system, the image of the samurai stands as a powerful idea to us. Even though to the Japanese people, it's much more skeptical and in some ways funny.

"According to one of the interviewees, samurai, a word that originally meant “servant,” were “probably the greatest warriors the world has ever known.” This is precisely the kind of unprovable hype that might turn a viewer off, though the dramatic portions of the program strive to make it seem so..."

- - Anderson, John, 2021/02, Age of Samurai: Battle for Japan’ Review: Feuding Lords and Their Fighters, Wall Street Journal

Mutual Fascination

I feel it's fair to say however that this idealism does go both ways. Japan has been just as guilty of glamorizing aspects of Western culture as we are of glamorizing theirs. Perhaps the most known example is karaoke. There are locations in Japanese cities where people will try their best to sing American songs-arguably horribly. Or 1950’s American culture with the stylized hair, nice cars, and penchant for smoking. Or even most recently hip hop culture which newer generations since the 1990’s have taken a huge liking to, grafting it into their anime and music fields like Samurai Champloo, but often oblivious to the background it comes from.

The saying about the grass being always greener on the other side of the fence absolutely applies to how the two cultures see each other. We look at each other through slanted-gazes that distort truth and fiction. And while there can be problems with this, there are also benefits.

Consider how before World War Two, the Japanese were taught to look down on others, especially other Asian cultures, as inferior. Similar to how Nazi Germany saw Eastern Europeans and Russians, these peoples’ inferiority made them worthy of being conquered. They deserved what they got, especially if they surrendered and still expected fair treatment.

Now, despite issues with how their Imperial history is taught in schools and some lingering animosity among some of them and in certain areas, by and large the average Japanese doesn't want to go to war at all. They profit from their cultural image and they have used it to become one of the most successful nations and cultures in world history.

Likewise, most Americans no longer look on Japanese people as the bastards who bombed Pearl Harbor and committed atrocities across the Pacific. At best, they see that as the past and that modern Japanese are not their ancestors. So we indulge in their anime, games, and visit their country to briefly-or maybe permanently-partake in what they offer.

The idea of the samurai in the western mind contributes largely to this relationship. It clearly has its problems, no one argues that. But it has also been part of the process where successive generations of Americans are opening up to other cultures.

© 2021 Jamal Smith

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