Dig deeper, though, and not much else holds up. Though the game is set in 1274, during the first Mongol invasion, its 40 plus hours of story span a period that suggests long-term insurgent combat against an occupying force. In reality, the Mongols’ first attempt was a set of brief battles followed by a more protracted second invasion in 1281 that consisted of only a few months of combat. Neither led to the kind of military occupation “Tsushima” portrays. Alongside this is the character of Jin himself, a dour samurai who wields a katana and agonizes over his allegiance to a warrior code centuries before a figure like him could ever have existed.
Well, so what? Most players will understandably shrug at these historical distortions. The game isn’t meant to provide a history lesson; it’s a fantasy version of 13th century Japan meant to provide a fun experience rather than an education. But for those wondering how the samurai really lived, it’s worth surfacing some of the historical details misrepresented by the game, particularly in regard to why some scholars and critics find it uncomfortable to celebrate samurai as uncritically as “Tsushima” does.
The imagined samurai
Whether it means to or not, anyone coming to a piece of historical fiction like “Tsushima” without knowing the difference between what’s fact and fantasy may leave with some impression that it depicts real historical events. It doesn’t help that the game is more clearly inspired by samurai film than any historical record, which means its view of the past is already filtered through a layer of semi-mythological interpretation. History is, after all, a process of telling and retelling stories of how the world came to look the way it does now. And in the case of Japan — a country whose recent past has seen the history of the samurai and Mongol invasions warped to serve horrific purposes — it’s particularly clear how fraught even the most fantastic depiction of the “Tsushima” time period can be.
“Tsushima’s” most important cultural touchstone is, as its American creators at Sucker Punch have made clear, samurai cinema — especially director and writer Akira Kurosawa’s 1950s and ‘60s samurai films. The game has ambitions of transporting players back to feudal Japan, co-creative director Jason Connell told Entertainment Weekly, and Kurosawa’s “Seven Samurai” and “Sanjuro” served as “reference guides” to the team.
The similarities between Kurosawa’s films and “Ghost of Tsushima” are skin deep at best, though. In the films cited — which take place centuries apart — Kurosawa uses a romanticized vision of the samurai to reflect critically on how blind loyalty, the desire for heroism, and class divisions deeply affect his characters. In an article on “Ghost of Tsushima” for Polygon, critic Kazuma Hashimoto notes how the game’s cinematic references “enter into an arena of identity and cultural understanding [its creators] never grapple with.” Hashimoto describes how Kurosawa’s work, far from celebrating the samurai, showed “that they were a group of people capable of the same failings as the lower class, and were not bound to arbitrary notions of honor and chivalry.”
It’s important to note that both of these films, along with plenty of other samurai genre classics, were made soon after Japan’s defeat in the Second World War. They were created in reaction to a political system that used a romantic view of supposedly traditional Japanese culture as part of a fascist empire-building project. Kurosawa, like many of his peers, approached the myth of the endlessly loyal, selfless warrior as one inseparable from the creation of a brutal totalitarian militant government and imperialist expansion. His samurai characters weren’t historically accurate, but their semi-mythological status was used as a historical archetype that could be reclaimed for purposes other than militarism.
That critique and thematic exploration is not really present in “Tsushima.” Jin and his uncle — both romantic versions of a samurai, a class that didn’t yet exist in the time period evoked by the game — don’t question the severity of the violence they engage in or feel uneasy about their elevated place in a hierarchical society. Instead, Jin’s biggest worry is whether it’s dishonorable not to fight his enemies head-on and whether he’s betraying a fabricated warrior’s code. In essence, “Tsushima” is copying what Kurosawa films looked like, without understanding what they were saying.
Instead of a cohesive artistic vision akin to Kurosawa’s, “Tsushima’s” historical liberties terrace up to something entirely different. Some of its mistakes, like Jin writing haiku centuries before the form’s invention, are minor. Others compound to create an image of the samurai that was used as a form of propaganda during a horrific era in Japanese history, a dynamic that sits awkwardly with those familiar with how the warrior class was appropriated and reshaped into a legend by those cheering Japanese imperialism.
Dr. Michael Wert, an Associate Professor of East Asian History at Marquette University, writes in “Samurai: A Concise History” of the complex and decidedly mundane origins of the warriors (or bushi) we refer to as samurai. Far from “Ghost of Tsushima’s” image of a character defined by loyalty to their country and a strict code of ethics, Wert explained in an email to The Post that “the idea that bushi were mighty, deadly warriors is really a 20th century invention.”
Instead of the image “Tsushima” paints of upstanding figures willing to give their lives in pursuit of nothing more tangible than loyalty and pride, Wert explains that “warriors in the Kamakura period were interested in promoting their self-interests [and] gaining land if they were high-ranking enough. Many of the warriors used the Mongol invasions as [a] way to tell the Kamakura regime, ‘Look, I fought, so I want rewards.’” In his book, Wert describes how “throughout Japanese history, people often despised warriors,” especially “peasants, who feared warriors because peasants suffered the most from their looting, pillaging, and collateral damage.”
“There was never any agreed upon, codified ‘bushido’ in Japanese history,” Wert writes, referring to the code of warrior ethics ascribed to the samurai and debated by the characters of “Tsushima.” “Most of the time, warriors were engaged in other pursuits related to their ‘work’ or hobbies [or] political maneuvering with other warriors, nobility, or clergy.”
In his story for Polygon, Hashimoto describes how “the “modern” bushido code — or rather, the interpretation of the Bushido code coined in the 1900s by Inazō Nitobe — was utilized in, and thus deeply ingrained into, Japanese military culture.” And this is why the depiction of “Tsushima’s” samurai can be unsettling for some.
The bushi were a 20th century invention — a way to turn premodern warriors into role models for a new national culture. In the 19th century, after nearly 200 years of official isolationism, Japan reentered global politics as a newly formed nation-state determined to avoid the fate of its colonized neighbors in Asia. During this era’s wars and sociopolitical reinventions, the romantic image of the samurai and the formalization of a supposedly traditional bushido code came to be used, as Wert puts it, to encourage “every citizen … to be like a samurai and buy into the military ethos.” This manifested particularly in propaganda surrounding the first Sino-Japanese and Russo-Japanese wars and reached its apex during the 1920s through to the 1940s.
At this point, as Japan became increasingly focused on proving itself as a military force on par with America and the European powers, bushido became a way to, as Dr. Emiko Ohnuki-Tierney puts it in her book “Kamikaze, Cherry Blossoms, and Nationalisms,” provide “modern soldiers of various social backgrounds, fighting with tanks and guns, and crouching in trenches” with a philosophical worldview that “symbolically equated them with the samurai of the past."
The kind of samurai depicted in “Ghost of Tsushima” didn’t exist. It was only much later, during the centuries of relative peace of the Tokugawa shogunate and the nation-building decades of the late 1800s and the 20th century that their supposed attitudes and behaviors were developed. To that end, their characters are based not on history, but on a creation of nationalist rhetoric employed to militarize a nation that proceeded to invade many of its neighbors in the late 19th and mid-20th century. The decision to portray a character like Jin, a 13th century warrior, in the same way that Japan would later mythologize the samurai for nationalistic purposes is worth discussing. It becomes even more disconcerting when connected with an invasion that has similarly served a rhetorical point for Japan’s ultranationalists throughout history.
A Useful Invasion
The trouble with echoing this view of history, by Sucker Punch or any other storytellers, is that it follows in the footsteps of those who in the past did the same to inspire a nation to follow an imperialist agenda. Such an approach masks the past rather than illuminate it, washing away the lessons historical study provides to inform our future.
A few of the key points from the Mongol invasion that the game either obscures or ignores: As Stephen Turnbull describes in “The Mongol Invasions of Japan 1274 and 1281,” the invasion was spurred, in part, by failures in regional diplomacy and pirates from Japan raiding the Asian mainland. Given that, the invasion could be seen as retaliation. Moreover, the game’s heroes aren’t depicted as the self-interested, ordinary warriors of Kamakura Japan who fought against the invasion in hopes of material reward, but rather those serving a higher-purpose, protecting their people and island. Finally, the invaders were not entirely Mongolian as “Tsushima” depicts, but rather incorporated forces from modern Korean and Chinese regions conquered by the Mongol Yuan Dynasty.
The last point is particularly notable, because for “Tsushima” the only distinction that matters to the game is the invaders were outsiders, they were the enemy. Unsettlingly, though likely coincidentally, that’s the only distinction that mattered to the nationalists who often invoked the myth of the samurai during Japan’s imperialist era.
Turnbull notes also how the invasion led to a xenophobia that spurred the invasions of Korea in 1592 and other East Asian countries in the 19th and 20th centuries. It’s no surprise that stories of the invasions could provide fuel for right wing nationalists like Sadao Araki and Seigo Nakano, two important architects of the exceptionalist, bushido-influenced ideology of Imperial Japan.
While innocuous to those who see and play “The Ghost of Tsushima” solely as a video game, the depiction of the same sort of samurai invoked by historical hard-liners is a little alarming to those more familiar with Japanese history. The myth of the samurai — an unrelentingly loyal warrior, selflessly sworn to fight for the nation while upholding a virtuous code that makes him superior to his enemies’ base motivations — can be used for frivolous entertainment or, when employed by artists with either naive or revisionist motivations, help reshape cultural attitudes in ways that history shows us can have nightmarish consequences.
None of this is to say people should not play and enjoy “The Ghost of Tsushima,” but at a time when scholars are noting the rise of an ultranationalist party in Japan that seeks to revise the country’s constitution and an effort to challenge or invalidate accounts of war crimes by the Japanese military during the 1930s and 40s, it is worth further exploring the archetypal origins of the samurai depicted in the game. That history, what really happened, can provide a much clearer lens when engaging in the ongoing, ever-evolving work of defining our modern world.
Reid McCarter is a freelance writer and editor whose work has appeared at The AV Club, GQ, Kill Screen, Playboy, The Washington Post, Paste, and VICE. He is also co-editor of books SHOOTER and Okay, Hero, edits Bullet Points Monthly, and tweets @reidmccarter.