From civil war to manga: why samurai romanticization saved Japanese nationalism

Written by: Alyah Albader

When you think of Japan, one of the first things you’d think about is the samurai – either that or a string of popular anime and manga. Beyond these two polarized cultural phenomena, the modern trends of anime/ manga and the mythological entity of the samurai, there is a metaphysical connection that dates back over a century thanks to the agency of romantic nationalism. But how so? 

The Meiji state (1868-1912) was born from the ashes of civil war and exploitation of international powers – the failures of the previous Tokugawa government (1603-1867). These failures troubled the new state and led to Japan’s transition from a medieval feudal state to a militaristic, bureaucratic regime. The former social structure was altered to mirror and challenge opposing Western threats – attempting to prove itself equal to its foreign bullies.

During the 19thcentury, European nations were renowned for portraying a positive and superior image of their culture for foreign visitors – projecting national chauvinism. This led to the romanticizing and over-exaggeration of European concepts such as chivalry. European utilization of chivalry became the model for Meiji state’s performative integration of Bushido (samurai code of honour) into Japanese nationalism.

The ‘way of the samurai’ narrative used to legitimize the new Meiji state was far from the original source material it draws inspiration from. Meiji Japan’s romanticization of the fragmented samurai class acted as a glue for a new national identity. The state in some ways was like the Brothers Grimm – retelling a mythological past to legitimize the national present. Japan’s mirroring of European culture wasn’t only to legitimize itself against foreign threats, it also legitimized the people against a crisis of will and acted as a link between the members of this reinvented identity and a mystified past. When the Meiji period began, many samurai from the Tokugawa era were reintegrated into the institution as political actors and the romanticized narratives of the Bushido acted as a guide for a warrior class to find their role in a world without war.

This romanticization of the samurai surpassed the Meiji state into modern Japan, testified through the likes of anime and manga. This modern narrative of the samurai provides constructive criticism of the Meiji institution and calls out its romanticization of former socio-political constructs – eliminating any national chauvinist bias. 

In the manga Rerouni Kenshin for example, following a period of industrialization, it presents Western technology and innovation as an essence of corruption to Japanese culture and traditions – utilized by immoral villains in the story. This reflects Japan’s long history of aggression to foreign influence, disgusted by their greed and barbarism. The manga also highlights Meiji Japan’s fear of capitalism, viewing it as an instigator for increasing Western aggression and the cause of their external threats. 

Symbolizing Japan’s compromise of its isolation and pride, collaborating with the Dutch and the British for military and naval assistance in the 19thcentury was seen as a necessary evil against a western-dominated international system. The moderate approach of modern media reflects Japan’s confidence of its place in the international order and no longer insists on proving itself to its Western contemporaries. 

Another example of criticality and self-awareness in modern media is loyalty. The samurai in the Meiji period played the loyalty card if it benefited them, switching allegiances to whoever paid more – presenting traits of greed that the Japanese hated in the “other.” This explains the Meiji state’s romanticization, as it feared seeing the other in its national ideal. 

Loyalty is later twisted through its romanticization of Seppuku (ritual suicide). The samurai were set as an example of ideal Japanese nationalism, encouraging self-sacrifice under the emperor’s name in WWII. Examples of this include suicidal missions of Kamikaze pilots and the sinking of the Battleship Yamato. This romanticization fed the nationalist autocracy of Meiji Japan, sacrificing individual autonomy and determinism for the autonomy of the Meiji institution and the emperor by extension. 

A stark contrast to this, the anime Samurai Champloo tackles this discourse of loyalty in the first episode. Jin, a main character, asks an opposing samurai, “to serve your lord and do his bidding, is that honor? […] Even if that lord is a piece-of-shit nobody?” 

Another example is in Rerouni Kenshin, where the driving essence of the story is the consequences of the samurai who have betrayed and switched allegiances in the Boshin Civil War – a war which led to the foundation of the Meiji state. This exhibited the agency of the samurai and how betrayal was prevalent in the historiography. Ironically, Japanese media offers more truth to the samurai in comparison to the narrative of the Meiji state – a governing body with former samurai in their ranks.

Besides the ideological and historiographical implications this romanticism may have induced, it still, in a way, saved Japanese nationalism. Japan was faced with quite the conundrum: were they to mirror Europe’s military and ideological capabilities to prove their worth in a “might makes right” system, or were they to stubbornly stick to their feudal traditions at the risk of foreign exploitation like their Asian neighbours? The answer is obvious now, but whether that decision and how they chose to execute it was what was best for the nation, we won’t know. What we do know, however, is that the samurai now remains a historical legacy and inspiration for modern Japan no matter the iteration. I will leave you to reflect on this quote from Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s policy speech to the Diet in 2007:

Image by 内閣官房内閣広報室 (CC BY 4.0)

“Yukichi Fukuzawa once said that the samurai spirit is distinguished by ‘a willingness to face daunting challenges and persevere to accomplish the tasks.’ It must have been that challenging spirit, which dares to take on difficult tasks optimistically, that enabled our country to forge the modern Japan from the Meiji Restoration. Let us join hands together to carve a bright future, believing in the potential of our country and ourselves.”

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