Anime: Subliminal Lessons in Japanese History

By Fred Patten, 2002

Is watching anime educational in terms of learning Japanese history, or just confusing? Most anime does not pretend to be factual and you can usually understand all you really need to know to follow the plot. But some historical references keep reappearing. Are these based upon real events and famous people; the Japanese equivalents of Davy Crockett or the conflicts between the Native Americans and the U.S. Cavalry? Or are they based on famous but imaginary events and characters; the equivalent of Lemuel Gulliver's discovery of Lilliput or the adventures of the Three Musketeers? Knowing the background can increase your understanding and enjoyment of anime.

THE YAGYU CLAN

Jubei-chan Many historical dramas involving samurai and ninja during the 1600s have references to an invincible swordsman named Jubei or Jubei Yagyu, or to a whole Yagyu clan. In some they are the heroes; in others the villains. (Ninja Scroll; Jubei-chan: The Secret of the Lovely Eyepatch; the manga and live-action Lone Wolf & Cub series.) Were they samurai or ninja, or both; and were they real or mythical?

The historical Yagyu clan was founded by Jubei's father, Munenori Yagyu, an expert samurai in the service of Ieyasu Tokugawa, founder of the Shogunate in 1603. Ieyasu appointed Munenori as sword instructor at his newly created Shogun's court.

Jubei, born in 1606, was raised as his father's assistant and was also a master of the Yagyu's Shinkage school of swordsmanship. Jubei and other students of Munenori were often sent as representatives of the Shogun's court to teach swordsmanship to the sons of local Daimyo and their retainers. When Munenori died in 1646, Jubei became the Yagyu clan lord. But he died himself in 1650. One of Jubei's younger brothers, Retsudo, appears as the major villain in Kazuo Koike's Lone Wolf & Cub epic saga, which begins in 1655.

Ninja ScrollThere was a lot of feudal plotting at the beginning of the Tokugawa era. Many lords believed that the Yagyus were less expert sword instructors than agents of the Shogun's spy service, and that they were really sent out to look for lack of loyalty to the new regime.

Pro-Shogun popular legend soon built Jubei and his compatriots in the Yagyu sword academy into samurai who genuinely possessed supernatural dueling abilities, who wandered throughout Japan as loyal agents for the government.

Anti-Shogun legends showed the Yagyu clan as the Shogun's ruthless secret army of assassins. Samurai and ninja were traditionally deadly enemies, but in some dramas the Yagyus publicly posed as honorable samurai while sending out squads of ninja to do their dirty work. Japanese 19th and 20th century popular fiction has shown Jubei and other Yagyus in both versions of the legends.

ODA NOBUNAGA

How about Oda Nobunaga, the warlord during the 16th century Era of Civil Wars who almost succeeded in unifying Japan until he was double-crossed by one of his own commanders and died in 1582? His most loyal deputies, Toyotomi Hideyoshi and Ieyasu Tokugawa, completed the unification in 1603.

YotodenNobunaga is depicted in many historical anime like Yotoden / Wrath of the Ninja and live-action movies like the 1996 Legend of the Devil as demonic; either possessed by devils or having sold himself to evil spirits in order to conquer and destroy Japan.

However, Time Stranger (a 1986 Kadokawa anime movie not yet released in America, not the better-known GoShogun: The Time Etranger) shows Nobunaga favorably as a wise general and potential statesman who, if he had lived, would have modernized Japan instead of isolating it and freezing its culture as Tokugawa did.

In an alternate history under a Nobunaga Shogunate, Japan might have developed naturally as an Asiatic world power during the 18th and 19th centuries, forestalling the European takeover of East Asia in the 19th century.

The reality was that Nobunaga was quick to adopt the firearms of the first European traders to enter Japan. He allowed Spanish Jesuit missionaries into Japan so he could study their Western technology more than for their religion; and as a counter to the reactionary Buddhist priesthood that usually supported his adversaries. Nobunaga apparently felt that he was strong enough to retain control over the changes that they would bring to Japan.

Ninja ResurrectionIeyasu Tokugawa feared the Western influences and banned them, leading to the famous Shimabara revolt of 1637-38 in which 37,000 Japanese Catholic converts who refused to renounce their new faith were slaughtered after a three-month siege by the armies of the third Shogun, Iemitsu.

Oriental religion and folklore have always seen evil spirits lurking everywhere; which is why Europeans were originally depicted as "foreign devils" with an oni's horn. Nobunaga's eager acceptance of European firearms and his hospitality to Portuguese traders and Catholic missionaries made it easy for his enemies to depict him as selling out to or being possessed by demons who sought to use him to take over Japan. Ninja Resurrection: The Revenge of Jubei shows Jubei as the Shogun's agent who infiltrates the Shimabara Christians, and discovers that their leading priests are actually disciples of the Devil.

This is not modern anti-Christian prejudice as much as a dramatization of the Shogunate's fears (after listening to the English Protestant seaman Will Adams) that Catholicized Japanese would be ordered by their priests to overthrow their traditional nobility and turn Japan over to the Pope.

QUEEN HIMIKO

The legendary Queen Himiko has been shown throughout anime from the serious Phoenix: Yamato to the silly Flint, the Time Detective as the first or the greatest ruler of the prehistoric Yamato kingdom, who began the unification of Japan into a single nation. Did she really exist?

Written Japanese history started in the 700s A.D. and is considered fairly reliable only back to about 400 A.D., when Yamato's primacy was already well established. It is difficult to separate history from mythology earlier than that. Ancient Chinese documents indicate that Himiko may have been a real ruler around the mid-200s A.D., though more like a tribal high priestess or a leader of a council of clan chiefs than a queen in the modern sense.

More disturbing to Japanese tradition is a disputed theory that Himiko may not have been a native Japanese, but the leader of a tribal migration from Wa in modern Korea who conquered and intermarried into the Yamato tribes.

THE DESTRUCTION OF TOKYO

Akira Many Sci-Fi dramas are set in a futuristic Neo-Tokyo or MegaToyko built upon the ruins of the 20th century metropolis after it was destroyed in a near-future devastating earthquake (Voltage Fighter Gowcaizer), or in the rubble of the still-destroyed Tokyo (Suikoden: Demon Country). Stories set in today's Tokyo may contain allusions to the Great Kanto Earthquake, which Japanese viewers will automatically know all about.

The Kanto region is the coastal area of Honshu that includes Tokyo and Yokohama. On September 1, 1923 an 8.3 magnitude earthquake leveled Tokyo. Not only was the quake considerably greater than America's most famous, the April 1906 San Francisco quake (7.8), but Tokyo was an older and more densely compacted city whose wooden buildings were flimsier and extremely vulnerable to fire. Within hours, almost 100,000 people were dead and most of Japan's national capital was burned to the ground.

But this great tragedy was also a great opportunity. Japan had emerged from World War I as the only world power in East Asia. The government wanted to turn its capital city from a feudal town into a modern metropolis that could compare favorably with the major cities of Europe and America. But tradition and powerful conservative interests made it difficult to clear away historic buildings and widen streets. The earthquake created a blame-free go-ahead for massive urban renewal.

Cynics quipped that if the earthquake had not occurred naturally, the government would have had to manufacture one. This attitude is dramatized in horror fantasies such as Doomed Megalopolis, where the quake is deliberately caused by the wizard Kato who awakens the giant dragon under the ground (the cause of earthquakes in Asiatic folklore) to destroy the old city for evil purposes.

GOVERNMENTAL COVER-UPS

Robotech Macross Saga A more subtle reflection of modern Japanese attitudes toward national governments can be seen in many s-f plots in which a united Earth government attempts to carry out a massive cover-up. A good example is Macross / Robotech, when the inhabitants of Macross Island in the SDF-1 return to Earth after a year lost in space, and learn that the government will not allow them to land because it had already told the world that they had all been killed.

Many American conspiracy dramas feature high-ranking villains in the government, but they are usually depicted as individual rogues or a small conspiracy. In Japan it is usually the whole government, all the time that is lying to the people. This is a legacy of centuries of rule by nobility that usually cared little for the lower classes, culminating in the military-dominated government of the 1930s and wartime 1940s which everyone knew regularly lied to the public.

WHERE CAN I LEARN MORE…?

If you are intrigued by a historical reference in anime, information is usually easy to find. Anime is designed to be enjoyed by the average public, not historical experts, so most references are to events and characters that are so well-known that they can be found without much trouble in encyclopedias, general histories of Japan, or Internet websites through a search-engine. Knowing the background will make the characters and events more meaningful the next time you encounter them!