Friday, March 28, 2008

Maeda Keiji, Stephen Hayes, and The Last Samurai: Pop Culture’s Impact On Historical Studies

One of the best features of the Samurai Archives Citadel is that it’s designed to be inclusive. Virtually anyone with an interest in pre-20th century Japanese history can fit in comfortably there. There are a lot of sites that take up positions at either end of the spectrum-ranging from hardcore academic lists such as PMJS (Pre-Modern Japanese Studies) to historically bereft video game, martial arts, and movie boards. The Citadel can accommodate the members of both. This lets the members with a greater degree of historical knowledge have a place to enjoy themselves with off-the-wall topics, while allowing ‘entry level historians’ a venue to get a firm grounding in ‘real’ history. The dual nature of the Citadel is reflected by the Samurai Wiki (an online source which is recommended to students by many University professors and high school teachers) and the 10 Common Samurai Misconceptions, a section which all new members are encouraged to read. As might be imagined, occasionally the newer members put forth arguments and positions that they support with baggage from their initial interests-be it video games, manga, anime, chambara, martial arts, or half-baked philosophy books. Usually, these musings fall into one of several pop culture categories:

  1. The Modern Sammyrai-would be modern day followers of Bushido and the tenets of the Hagakure, pledging to live their lives by the way of the sword in an honorable manner.
  2. Ninjer-see above, but substitute ‘ninja’ for ‘samurai’. These people believe the outrageous claims and false histories given by such ‘masters’ as Ashida Kim and Stephen Hayes.
  3. Christian Sammyrai-those who place an inordinately large focus on Christian Samurai, and greatly overestimate the impact they had on Sengoku Japan.
  4. Gamers-whether tabletop or video, gamers sometimes display an obsessive need to have everything neatly categorized, and show blind faith in the historical accuracy of their favorite pastimes. This can be seen most readily in the person of Maeda Keiji, a very minor samurai whose major claim to fame was being related to Maeda Toshiie-but a character that is regarded by many gamers as being one of the most significant figures of the age due to being portrayed as such in the ‘Sengoku Musou’ video game series.
  5. Manga, Anime, and Other Fiction-much like video gamers, they can get too caught up in fictional worlds and believe that these works truly present things the way they were. The Shinsengumi (a group which is fascinating on its own merits) is a favorite topic for wild enhancement and crazy speculation.
  6. Jidai-geki programming-a particularly virulent strain of misinformation-situations, objects, and personages glimpsed in chambara films and period dramas are quoted as facts when discussing historical events. The television miniseries ‘James Clavell’s Shogun’ and the film ‘The Last Samurai’ are likely the most notorious examples of this.

Of course, this doesn’t mean just because a person reads manga, watches samurai movies, practices Japanese martial arts, or plays video games that they can’t also have a solid base in historical knowledge-many of the most well versed Citadel members have a major interest in these fields. However, when some nonsensical thread shows up authored by a person who will defend their position to the death, it usually sprouts from one of the pop culture influences listed above-usually leaving the regular members wondering if having an inclusive site is a such a great idea after all. This begs the question-does pop culture have a valid role in aiding the study of history? Specifically, does popular entertainment bring any value to the field of pre-20th century Japanese history?
There’s a strong precedent of pop culture coloring the world of Japanese history. Many would be surprised to learn that much of what we accept as Japanese history in the West is actually pop culture. Edo period playwrights, novelists, musicians, and artists all produced fanciful works that over time became accepted as the truth. Early Western historians drew heavily on these sources and presented them as fact. Perhaps the best example of this is the story of The 47 Ronin, where virtually everything one can read on the subject in the West is based on a puppet play, kabuki drama, or novel. Only in the last five years or so have Western scholars taken a serious look at the event, disregarding secondary sources and attempting to reconstruct the event with contemporary accounts. The state of modern scholarship in the West is excellent-with copying machines, faxes, and the internet all aiding in making primary sources and rare documents readily available to scholars all over the world. However, general histories and surveys still rely primarily on decades old work. The majority of popular samurai author Stephen Turnbull’s works have been based on secondary Edo period manuscripts that discuss Sengoku and earlier events (to his credit, Turnbull’s research has become increasingly involved as better sources have become more accessible). Even in Japan, works produced for the general public such as the Rekishi Gunzou series rely heavily on Edo and Meiji period works for their information-and that information can be as misleading and false as anything found in the mythical war tales of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. Here, it becomes obvious that pop culture was ingrained into Japanese history long before Western historians took an interest in it.
Moving along to modern pop culture, there are rare examples of it that actually do interject a learning element into their presentations. In the yearly NHK Taiga dramas, there are short segments at the beginning and end of the presentations giving historical background to the goings-on. A popular subgenre of video gaming that is beginning to show up in Japan involves historical quiz programs that are presented in the form of a game (there are current efforts touching on the Sengoku and Edo eras and beyond, with an emphasis on the arts, politics, and personalities). Video game publisher Koei (Sengoku Musou, Nobunaga No Yabou, Kessen, etc) is known for including extensive historical dictionaries, factual biographies, period artwork, and other features that are designed to show gamers the historical truth behind the fantasy. The video game Yoshitsune Eiyuden Shura has a huge historical section that would easily be the equal of any introductory college text. Many movie releases on DVD have extras on the discs that delve into the events or time period that the film covers (although many times these are also sensationalized and somewhat inaccurate accounts, such as the extras on The Last Samurai DVD). Animeigo’s Samurai Cinema label included historical liner notes with VHS releases, which now are included on the DVD itself. Some manga and anime releases follow these examples as well. Tabletop gaming (or computer simulations) is perhaps the most serious source of historical information among popular entertainment. Some releases are more along the lines of simulations than actual games. They feature meticulously researched maps, unit counters, and rules that cover practically every facet of period warfare. I t could be argued that playing one of these efforts would teach more about the nature of samurai warfare on a tactical level (including the importance and difficulties of command and supply) than would a book covering the same subject. Note that we’re not talking efforts such as Samurai Swords (Milton Bradley) or Shogun: Total War (Electronic Arts), both of which feature healthy doses of fantasy to make for a more exciting gameplay experience. Rather, we’re talking more about products like GMT’s RAN game, the Takeda series of PC games, and any number of Japanese tabletop simulations such as those published in Game Journal and Command Magazine Japan. One interesting facet of this historical element embedded in pop culture is that many Japanese products that are translated into English ‘lose’ this element. Koei games released in the United States routinely do not include the historical dictionaries. Taiga dramas many times drop the ending historical bumpers. This may be because it is believed that the users of these products overseas are only interested in the entertainment value and will have no real interest in Japanese history, or as a cost cutting/revenue producing measure (not having to pay for someone to translate the dictionary, or using the time gained from cutting the bumpers for extra commercials).
So it seems that there is a minimal learning value imbedded in many sources of ‘samurai pop culture’. However, I believe their real value lies in instilling a desire to learn more about Japanese history and culture. For all the misconceptions, falsehoods, and brutal misuse of the Japanese language in James Clavell’s Shogun (either the novel or miniseries), it has probably been more influential in turning Westerners towards a serious study of Japanese history than any other work. The Last Samurai, an excellent action film which is rife with historical inaccuracies, has had a similar effect. Martial arts, anime, manga, video games-at some point, most every user of these will become curious and want to learn more about the truths that lie behind them. While many don’t like the answers they find and prefer to remain with their dearly held illusions (usually martial artists that can’t believe their dojo doesn’t really have a 1000 year old history, or that the ninja techniques they use have all been invented in the last 20 years), others go on to develop a solid grounding in many areas of Japanese history-be it political, military, cultural, or economic. Films, games, and other works of fiction are also excellent jumping off points, introducing new avenues to explore and questions to be answered. The planned ‘Samurai 101’ forum on the Samurai Archives hopes to help many of the curiosity seekers and newbie historians along as they make the transition from fantasy to serious study.
There is a place for pop culture in the world of academia. Used correctly, these fonts of entertainment can not only impart rudimentary facts and information but also help guide their users to more involved and appropriate sources. Rather than incurring scorn and ridicule, they should be seen as a tool in stimulating an interest in Japanese history. Judging from the fact that there are far, far more people involved in the study of Chinese history than Japanese, this can only serve to bring some much needed fresh blood into the field. While it can be frustrating for long-time forum members to see neophytes extol the virtues of Bushido, haggle over who would win in a fight (samurai vs. ninja/knight/professional wrestler/etc), or claim to be harboring centuries old ninja secrets, just remember: we all had to start somewhere, and it was probably at a point just as ridiculous. Now you’ll have to excuse me-I’m going for Izumo Okuni’s 5th weapon in Sengoku Musou, and that fringed parasol is proving to be tough to get…

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Trip to Kyoto

I am currently in Kyoto. I will have to follow up this post with pictures later, since I can't upload them from this hotel computer. I spent some time at Mibu temple, the site of Serizawa Kamo and Hirayama Goro's graves, and a large stone bust of Kondo Isami. Next door is the Yagi residence, where the Shinsengumi lived for a time. I walked through the room that Serizawa and Hirayama were sleeping in when they were attacked, and touched the desk that Serizawa fell over dead on. Didn't notice any blood stains though.

Before that, I had went to Nijo castle and walked the grounds. That was my second or third time there, but it is still interesting. For the first time I went to the grounds of the Kyoto imperial palace. I didn't actually get inside the palace itself, but the grounds are huge. They take up quite a large portion of the city center.

I also went to the Kamo river, to Sanjo bridge, the site of various events such as the Sanjo Seisatsu incident, and the location that Kondo Isami's head was displayed. I also had the misfortune to have a pizza-man (round cake thing with pizza filling) torn from my hands by a hungry hawk by the riverbank - something I was definitely not expecting. I still have a nice cut on my right hand from it. On my way back, I stumbled on the gravesite of Toyotomi Hidetsugu, and 46 of his vassals slain by Hideyoshi in 1595.

Took a trip to Higashi and Nishi Honganji, but I wasn't terribly impressed. Both temples look the same, and there isn't a lot to see.

Today I went to Kodai-ji, and visited Kitamandokoro's (One/Nene) gravesite. Also went to the Shishi graveyard nearby, and visited Sakamoto Ryoma and Nakaoka Shintaro's graves, as well as Kido Takayoshi, and four or five dozen slain Choshu and Tosa men, killed during everything from the Sakuradamon no hen to the Ikedaya Incident. The entire area around Kodai-ji has a very Kyoto-ish feel to it, with Jinrikisha men carting around Geisha, Maiko, tourists, and various Kimono-adorned women. There is also a giant fake Buddha statue thing between Kodai-ji and the Shishi graveyard. Not sure what it is, and I didn't really want to pay the money to find out.