History of the World According to the Movies: Part 13 – Japan

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No movie could be more appropriate in capturing the spirit of historical Japan than Akira Kurosawa’s The Seven Samurai. Sure it’s not as colorful as Memoirs of a Geisha but at least it was made in Japan with Japanese actors as well as gets a lot more things right about Japanese culture. Of course, in this case, it’s all about samurai. However, Toshiro Mifune’s character technically is just pretending to be one which is considered a capital offense. Nevertheless, this inspired movies like The Magnificent Seven and The Three Amigos.

Believe it or not, Japanese civilization as we know it is actually a late comer in world history. I mean the Mayans were actually a flourishing civilization while Tokyo was still a backwater fishing village. Nevertheless, it is the culture we associate with samurai, kimonos, ninja, geishas, and Pearl Harbor. For much of its history, Japan has always been ruled by an emperor seen as a living god in the eyes of the people, but was really nothing more than a figurehead and real power was usually held by an entity like the Fujiwara clan of the Heian period, the shoguns, or other government infrastructure. Of course, many Japanese movies tend to be structured like westerns usually set in the time of the samurai, especially in the films of Akira Kurosawa since he was from a samurai family. Still, it’s also a culture known for producing one of the world’s first novels called The Tale of Genji written by a lady in waiting named Murasaki Shikibu, one of history’s early female authors. Nevertheless, there are plenty of aspects of Japan that are greatly mythologized in movies with aspects not really stack up to what it was really like. Whether pertaining to samurai and ninja, geishas, or modern times, here are some things that movies pertaining to Japanese history tend to get wrong.

Medieval and Shogun Eras:

Okita Soji was a youthful looking leader of the badass samurai group called the Shinsengumi. (He was seen as a tall, dark, and thin man with high cheekbones, wide mouth, and flat face. Also though the Shinsengumi once started as shogun bodyguards, they soon transformed into a ruthless secret police force with an extremely strict code of conduct and an unflinching readiness to kill. Though they were charged with keeping the peace, they could be occasionally seen as a threat with inter-factional violence and assassinations being frequent. Yet, these guys are heroes in Japanese media.)

Odo Nobunaga was a ruthless and brutal warlord. (Yes, he was, which is why he’s been the bad guy in many Japanese films ever since even though he’s also more like a Japanese Otto von Bismarck known for his genius and cunning. However, unlike Japan’s other leaders at the time as well as the xenophobic tendencies, he was a patron of Western culture and food as well as very lenient toward Catholic Christians and gave missionaries living space to set up churches. Of course, this might’ve contributed to his reputation. Still, he also tried to modernize the Japanese military, opened borders {perhaps to hire foreign mercenaries and buy rifles from Christians}, and attempted to start a Japanese Renaissance.)

Samurai and Ninjas:

Anyone in Japan could become a samurai. (Samurai were born from samurai families, not made. However, anyone could be a ninja.)

Ronin were traveling swordsmen and mercenaries. (Some might’ve been but they were mostly bandits and pirates.)

Being a samurai was cool in any era. (Well, maybe at a time when Japanese nobles were at each other’s throats, yet it basically sucked during the Edo of peace and prosperity since they couldn’t change jobs or earn money {especially if they were ronin with no master, but many ended up becoming bureaucrats} and could only make a living with their martial powers. Also, the possibility of death was very high. And if they were daimyos, they had to spend six months away from their families in Tokyo, who were required to live there.)

During the events of the 47 Ronin in 1701, Lord Asano Naganori was a wizened old man while Lord Kira Yoshiniaka was a young upstart power hungry noble. (It was the other way around since the power-hungry Kira was 60 and the Confucian Asano was 34.)

It was perfectly fine for a commoner to don Samurai armor and pretending to be one. (Commoners who did this were executed. Even touching a samurai was a death penalty offense.)

A half-white Japanese man participated with the 47 ronin. (Sorry Keanu Reeves, but this wouldn’t be a realistic possibility since it’s very likely his dad wouldn’t be a samurai. Oh, and there’s no way in hell he’d have a romantic interest in Asano’s daughter because he died at 34.)

Ninjas dressed in black. (Ninjas did not dress in black outfits. They were spies, assassins, contract killers, and covert agents. The last thing they’d want to do is to walk around in something that reveals them instantly. Instead, they dressed up as normal people of the time- anything that’d help them blend in. On occasions when they did need to move around during the night undetected, they wore dark blue, not black, which blends better with the darkness.)

The samurai were brave and noble warriors who followed the bushido serving loyalty to one’s master, self-discipline, respect, and ethical behavior. (Many of them were brutal thugs who used their higher power and social status to oppress the weak. Also, samurai adhering to the bushido varied considerably like how European knights obeyed chivalry {and European codes also had room for honorable suicide}. Oh, and some of them practiced “shudo” or pederasty viewed as a very high and noble form of love {in their mind anyway}. Still, Bushido as we know it might’ve originated as a mistake made by a Japanese historian Nitobe Inazo in his 1905 book and it was used as a method of social control when Japan was placed under a military dictatorship between the 1920s and WWII.)

Samurai were willing to die a honorable death and happy to die in battle than surrender. (While many samurai did commit suicide, most of the time they were forced to due to disgrace. Not to mention, apart from the samurai, most Japanese soldiers in general were conscripted by their warlords. Sort of like medieval Europe.)

Samurai would never betray each other. (Treachery and backstabbing among samurai was commonplace even it was over money or being sore losers.)

The katana was the standard weapon of the samurai. (The weapon didn’t come out until the late Middle Ages, and before then, samurai usually used the tachi or the uchigata. Also, for the greater part of Japanese feudal society, using a sword was usually a last chance weapon for the samurai and they didn’t start carrying swords around until after the fighting was over and usually used it as a fashion accessory to show off their status. Not only that, before the sword became the symbol of the samurai, the samurai were more or less identified as mounted archers and their symbols were a sword and a bow but during the Warring states period, most samurai couldn’t afford a steed. Also, for melee, their first weapon was usually a spear or a naginata. However, to us it would be impossible to imagine a samurai without his long badass sword, even in Japan. Actually as far as weapons go, samurai used just about everything at their disposal. One was known to kill a guy with a homemade wooden oar.)

Samurai thought using firearms was dishonorable. (Samurai were more than willing to use firearms and the Satsuma rebellion was so dangerous because the place was a manufacturing center for cannons. Paintings show Takamori had plenty of guns while the Imperial forces only had swords. Also, he even had a school including weapons training and artillery {which they had since the 16th century}. Not to mention, it’s said the Japanese were designing better guns than the Europeans by the 1870s.)

Samurai and ninjas roamed Japan chopping each other with katanas and shuriken at the slightest provocation. (They were much more disciplined than that. Katana duels were rare and even frowned upon. However, didn’t stop them from fighting butcherfest battles or publicly lopping off peasant heads.)

Ninjas were members of elite government special forces. (They’re more like invisible assassins, spies, contract killers, and covert agents. Think snipers.)

Ninjas got their reputation for invisibility and infiltration because they were very good at hiding as well as possessing mysterious powers like ninjitsu. (They obtained their reputation because they were willing to dress as members of a lower class when no one else in Japan would do such a thing. Peasants were ignored, dismissed, or noticed at all by the upper classes even though they had fierce travel restrictions. Thus, the “invisibility” was psychological. They also had to be expert in survival skills, actual stealth, poisons, assassination techniques, and unorthodox tactics. Not to mention, they used anything they could get their hands on as weapons. Still, many ninjas encouraged rumors of them having magical powers.)

Ninjas originated in Japan. (They may have originated in China. And Japanese ninjas called themselves “shinobi.”)

Ninjas could catch arrows in flight. (No they couldn’t. But they could lie in carp pools all night breathing with a blowpipe before shooting their victims with a poison darts the next morning {though this probably would be in a last ditch effort} and use their sword to deflect arrows shot 30 yards away.)

Ninjas came from the lower classes and were often hired to do dirty deeds honorable samurai wouldn’t do. (Most were actually samurai or mercenaries who worked for them so apparently they would fight in any way they could. And no, they weren’t born in hidden villages and trained to obey nindo.)

Anyone in Japan could own a sword between the 16th and 19th centuries. (Only the samurai were.)

Ninjas would jump around on rooftops in ridiculous clothing. (Real ninja would more likely infiltrate the household staff and poison a meal.)

Daimyo lords had court jesters. (Contrary to Ran, they didn’t. But Ran is a feudal Japanese version of King Lear so it’s forgivable.)

Mori Motonari’s two oldest sons were real jerks. (Well, while Ran is somewhat based on the Motonari legend, his three sons were loyal and talented in their own way. And all were unable to break the 3 arrows together. Still, Motonari was a real guy and daimyo family disputes like in Ran did happen. So Akira Kurosawa didn’t need to stray too much from historical accuracy to set Shakespeare in Japanese history.)

Ninja fighters used nunchuku as well as hidden blades and clawlike weapons. (They never used nunchucks. They only used a clawlike Neko-te but only for climbing. And no, they probably didn’t use swords taller and wider than a grown man.)

The Ninjas outlasted the samurai. (Ninjas faded away in the 1600s after existing for 200 years while the samurai were abolished in 1868.)

Ninjas fought the shogun. (The shogun was their #1 customer.)

Ninjas were a single group. (There were various clans who had their signature techniques.)

Ninjas used suriken and swords. (Samurai used the former. However, historians believe ninjas used a standard wakizashi or chokuto type swords of the period.)

By the 19th century, samurai had been “protectors of Japan” for 900 to a 1,000 years. (They originally started out as rent collectors and estate protectors for the Kyoto nobility and later evolved into an aristocracy in its own right. Also, they were only considered protectors of Japan during the two thwarted Mongol invasions. Oh, and they only became prevalent in Japanese society in the 11th century.)

Japanese people were still frightened of samurai by the 1870s and bowed to them en masse. (Urban Japanese had gotten over treating common samurai as lords for a long time.)

Modern:

In the late 19th century, the Japanese government hired American advisers to modernize their army and these consisted of Civil War veterans. (The Japanese in the late 19th century did hire foreign advisers to modernize their army, but they were mostly French and German, not American. That is because they looked to France and Prussia as their military models {though other countries did have American military advisers after the American Civil War}. Oh, and five chose to stay and participate in the Satsuma Rebellion and the inspiration of the Tom Cruise character actually didn’t surrender to the Emperor {though the Japanese government would unsuccessfully demand extradition to punish him for 12 years}.)

Saigo Takamori died from Gatling gunfire. (He committed seppuku which was ritual suicide or hari kari.)

During WWII, Japanese kamikaze pilots were ordered to use their planes as missiles because it was disgraceful to face defeat. (Actually the kamikaze pilots were ordered to run their planes into American ships during WWII because it was the first time that Japan ever used planes in war and the training the pilots received was hardly adequate. In other words, running a plane into something was just an effective way to use the plane.)

The Japanese samurai sword was easy for Americans to master. (It’s doubtful that a 40-something alcoholic Civil War vet, even one with great hair, would master chopsticks much less the samurai sword. And I’ve tried chopsticks which are very hard to master.)

The geisha coming of age in Pre-War Japan was much more of a makeover, it also involved her getting intimate with a client and wowing patrons with dancing prowess using platform shoes, fake snow, and strobe lights. (From Moviefone: “The geisha coming-of-age, called “mizuage,” was really more of a makeover, where she changed her hairstyle and clothes. It didn’t involve her getting… intimate with a client. In the climactic scene where Sayuri wows Gion patrons with her dancing prowess, her routine – which involves some platform shoes, fake snow, and a strobe light – seems more like a Studio 54 drag show than anything in pre-war Kyoto.”)

Commodore Matthew Perry was given a sword by the shogun which was stolen by Japanese isolationists. (Not a likely story.)

Samurai fought the Meiji modernization out of noble goals. (From Wikipedia: According to History professor Cathy Schultz, “Many samurai fought Meiji modernization not for altruistic reasons but because it challenged their status as the privileged warrior caste. Meiji reformers proposed the radical idea that all men essentially being equal … The film {The Last Samurai} also misses the historical reality that lots and lots of Meiji policy advisers were former samurai, who had voluntarily given up their traditional privileges to follow a course they believed would strengthen Japan.”)

The Meiji Emperor was referred as Emperor Meiji in his lifetime. (He wasn’t called Meiji until after his death. While living, he would’ve been called Emperor Mutsuhito.)

General Omura Masujiro was still alive by the 1870s. (Sure he developed a Western-style army during the Meiji Restoration, but he was killed by a conservative samurai in 1869.)

The Americans agreed to sell their guns to open trade with Japan. (This is utter fiction.)

Rebelling samurai during the Meiji Restoration would be perfectly willing to wear their own traditional armor. (They’d actually be wearing more modern style garments like western-style uniforms.)

General Bonner Fellers had to convince General Douglas MacArthur to exonerate Emperor Hiriohito. (Exonerating Hirohito and the Imperial family was originally MacArthur’s idea though it was a far more complex issue than portrayed in Emperor. Oh, and the process to investigate him took five months instead of 10 measly days.)

General Bonner Fellers had an affinity for Japanese culture and was in love with a Japanese foreign exchange student during his college years. (He was actually a commie-fearing member of the ultra-right John Birch society. There’s no evidence whether he had a romantic relationship with any foreign exchange student in college {the Japanese exchange student he met at Earlham was only a mere friend and probably a guy} but he was more of a psychological expert who designed MacArthur’s strategy to demoralize the Japanese people. Oh, and his wife accompanied him on some of his visits {who he’d been married to since 1925}. Also, his effectiveness as an intelligence officer was questioned during the American Occupation of Japan.)

Emperor Hirohito and his family were exonerated from being tried as war criminals because they were innocent. (Their exoneration had more to do with American post-war planners fearing that executing him would cause cultural and political chaos across Japan.)

General Douglas MacArthur had his photo taken with Emperor Hirohito as a diplomatic expression of Japanese-American cooperation. (It was also used as American propaganda to convince the Japanese people that the Emperor was a very small man {who many considered a god}. He also convinced Hirohito to renounce his status as a god-on-earth.)

The Meiji Emperor spoke English, had people see him without invitation, and made important political decisions at the spur of the moment. (Only the most senior advisers were allowed to see Emperor Meiji without invitation, everyone else no way. Also, he didn’t speak English nor make any important spur of the moment decisions.)

Japanese industrialists had the Emperor’s ear and Imperial advisers conducted job interviews in other countries. (Imperial advisers did no such thing. Also, industrialists had no need of the Emperor’s support since they had close ties to samurai oligarchs anyway.)

Miscellaneous:

Kimonos were easy to remove. (Modern kimonos, yes. However, many Pre-modern Japanese aristocrats would wear layers upon them. A stripper in a Heian period court kimono style would have a long time taking the whole outfit off.)

Geishas fully painted their lips in historical Japan. (They’d either paint only the top, bottom, or center of both. Fully painting of lips didn’t come into Japan until after WWII.)

Geishas were prostitutes. (Sort of but not anymore, they were primarily entertainers, hostesses, and conversationalists at teahouses where men went to unwind after a day at the office, though love affairs and sex trades did occur. Still, until Japan banned prostitution in the 1950s, it was only just one of their many services but they spent most of their working time playing music, dancing, storytelling, and reciting poetry.)

Geishas wore a beehive as their traditional hairdo. (The wrapped their hair in a bun and wore a large wig over it. Maiko wear it in a very different fashion.)

Only women were geisha. (The earliest were men.)

Carrying weapons in the Emperor’s presence was perfectly all right. (No one was allowed to bear weapons in the Emperor’s presence in historical Japan.)

Seppuku was completely voluntary and common in historical Japan. (Sometimes samurai were ordered to commit ritual suicide if  one failed miserably and brought disorder to the clan. Still, it was very rare.)

Japanese men didn’t do any housework. (Many did a great deal around the house and rarely referred themselves as a collective, particularly on cultural matters.)

Most Japanese ate fluffy white rice. (This was only a regular grain staple for the most wealthy. Rural samurai and commoners probably would’ve eaten rice gruel and other grains such as barley, millet, and buckwheat, either as porridge or noodles.)

Tokyo had its name in the 17th century. (Tokyo wouldn’t be referred by its present name until 1868. At that time, it was called Edo.)

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2 responses to “History of the World According to the Movies: Part 13 – Japan

  1. You forgot about Tora,Tora, Tora. That was more realistic, right?
    It’s better that they didn’t eat just fluffy white rice- it’s not very nutritious.

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