Significance of the Samurai Symbol - Japan

Categories: Japan CountrySamurai

When Japan started her journey to discover herself was at a time where Western colonial powers were at their absolute height. Do to the state the world was in Japanese leaders faced many a difficult decision when establishing 'the Land of the rising son' as the 'great nation' which westerners are fascinated with in present day. In her search for muse, both globally and domestically, it quickly became clear that she needed to modernise, industrialise, militarise and most importantly colonise in order to survive in an arena where she may need to clash with imperial giants such as Britain.

In order to support this plan of modernisation they needed a population which was 'loyal, obedient and willing to make many sacrifices for the good of the nation.' (Narroway 2008) And, the elite created the samurai in order 'to promote and empower the people.' (Narroway 2008) On another note, when discussing his importance for the creation of Japan's self-image context is key or as Miss Lisa Narroway explains:

In order to demonstrate the significance of the samurai symbol, it is necessary to place the creation and promotion of the samurai symbol into the wider context of modern Japan.

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During this period, nationalism was articulated as a state-led ideology, requiring the population to conform exclusively to 'official' ideas regarding national identity. Such ideas emphasised national uniqueness and strength, incorporating notions such as the 'family nation' and a mission in Asia into the overall official vision. Through promoting such ideas as part of its ideology, the Japanese state aimed to unify, indoctrinate and to mobilise the national population.

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(Narroway 2008)

When it comes to the creation of this honourable warrior, the state elite wanted a figure steeped in history and had a code of conduct resembling that of the ancient night of Europe, thus bushid? was born. And, of this code of conduct a scholar by the name of Nukariya Kaiten writes:

Bushido, or the code of chivalry, should be observed not only by the soldier in the battlefield, but by every citizen in the struggle for existence. If a person be a person and not a beast, then he must be a samurai-brave, generous, upright, faithful and mainly full of self-respect and self-confidence, at the same time full of the spirit of self-sacrifice. (Nakuriya 2012)

In the quote above one can see the samurai being promoted as the ideal of how individuals should interact with one another and the core values on which they should create a meaningful existence. Mr Nakuriya was not the only one who is of the mindset that one should take on the way of the samurai. At the time, this ideal was part of every day national discourse. In the period between the Meiji Restoration (1867-1912) and the Second World War (1939-45), Japanese politicians made a conscious choice to use several nationalistic symbols, including the Emperor, to push there ideology, In Japan this may well be the case but in the West 'Bushido seemed to fill the void of Western ideology and recover the tainted morality of white violence.' (Shin 2010)

The use of Bushido to promote or at least justify violence towards minorities is especially prevalent in Edward Zwick's The Last Samurai (2003) and some may even goes as far as to claim that the reality he creates on screen around the samurai is fabricated in order to present an pro-American story and basically white washing history. (Shin 2010) So, in short, Zwick's depiction of the samurai is simply a way of voicing white America's wish to return to a time where her hands were not bathed in blood, aka the mass murder if the native americans, and industrialism has not happened. Given this narrative, the movie pushes an agenda which tells viewers that they should return to a 'the good old days.' In the same fashion, it celebrates white heroism by making the viewer aware of this other culture and its superiority but still shows it from the view of the white man. In continuation of this, it may be interesting to take a look at the white man's gaze and how this may have influenced the way westerners see the samurai. According to Fanon, 'ontology is made unattainable in a colonized and civilized world.' (Fanon 1952) When Mr Fanon argues that 'ontology is made unattainable' (Fanon 1952) he is simply of the opinion that whites chose what you are no matter if you are African or Asian. And, this argument seems to ring true when it comes to the way Mr Zwick present the samurai to his audience. It seems the be the same case for every figure presented to a western audience no matter the media.

Updated: Jul 20, 2021
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Significance of the Samurai Symbol - Japan. (2019, Nov 24). Retrieved from

Significance of the Samurai Symbol - Japan essay
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