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Lessons of The Last Samurai

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montage of a man and tiger's eyes
Montage of opening scenes. ©2003 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.

Samurai, among the most popular icons of Japanese history and culture, are often the subject of common myths or simplifications. Those of us who teach in the field of Japanese Studies confront these iconic images in the cultural baggage our students carry into the classroom, most recently from the lavish Tom Cruise vehicle The Last Samurai. Efforts to establish authenticity in this big-budget Hollywood production, with its elaborate sets and meticulously-filmed battle sequences on remote New Zealand locations, collide with an implausible tale of the American hero who goes “native” and survives to teach the Emperor about true Japanese values. But the film also immerses us in a sympathetic portrayal of cultural encounter and transformation, one that reflects many popular and appealing images of Japan.

For Japanese Studies, the problem of incorporating popular perceptions acquired through historical fiction is familiar territory. James Clavell’s Shogun (1975) conveyed a great deal more detail about Japan in 1600 than can be absorbed in a single showing at the multiplex, and, to the surprise of many of their literary colleagues, historians weighing its merits in the teaching of early modern Japan generally found in its favor (Smith 1980). One of the strongest recommendations for Shogun was its opening a door for students to encounter more scholarly and critical accounts of early modern Japan. The Last Samurai offers similar opportunities to engage students, and to illustrate how popular perceptions provide points of departure for a more intelligent, critical appraisal of Japanese history and myths. These top ten lessons are not meant to offer a cinematic critique, but rather to identify areas where, as the film’s director has admitted, “history sometimes took a backseat to drama” (Potier 2003:3), and to flag recent scholarship that aids in appraising mythic representations.

photo of a man wearing a samurai helmet
Still scene from the Fog Battle. ©2003 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.


Notably absent from the film was any reference to particular domains (han) that had served as the principal locus of samurai employment and identity under the Tokugawa shogunate (1603–1868), or to other affiliations to regions, towns, or lineages. The film skirts the issue of how samurai, led by coteries from the Choshu and Satsuma han, had only recently (1868) restored the Emperor under the banner of sonno joi (revere the Emperor, expel the barbarian), and yet came to adopt what is often portrayed as modern (European) standards, including a state-authorized concep­tion of a Japanese national identity. In a major recent study, Burns (2003:187–219) roots the early Meiji strategies for constructing a Japanese identity in the discourse of eighteenth-century nativists (kokugaku) who critiqued neo-Confucian Tokugawa orthodoxy. Burns traces how, through a complex sequence of intellectual lin­eages and appropriations from early modern debates, cultural affini­ties that celebrated things Japanese (often located in the language of ancient texts) came to be deployed to define Japan’s modern nation­al culture; she explicitly sides with Prasenjit Duara in seeing “cul­turalism” (p. 224) as a sense of community that would significantly shape the construction of Japanese nationalism as something not simply reducible to a “modular appropriation” from the West.


statue of a man and a dog
Statue of Saigo Takamori in Ueno Park, Tokyo.

The samurai rebellion led by Katsumoto (played by Ken Watanabe) is depicted as gloriously principled resistance to sordid commerce and rapacious modernity, aiming to restore the rights of samurai, especially following the humiliating ban (1876) on carrying swords and the mandatory cutting of the chonmage (top knot hair style). Katsumoto echoes the heroic figures fighting lost causes from Ivan Morris’s study, The Nobility of Failure (1975), emphasizing how sincerity (makoto) and purity of motive were preeminent Japanese values. Indeed the film’s director Ed Zwick reportedly modeled his story (Potiers 2003) on Morris’ account of Saigo Takamori, a founding oligarch of the Meiji restoration, who rebelled in 1877. However, the vast majority of samurai did not rebel, and it has long been noted (e.g., Smith 1961) how ready most samurai were to relinquish their privileges (and obligations). Saigo’s disillusionment with the clan-clique (hanbatsu) government was rooted in an earlier (1873) inter-elite policy dispute, specifically in the rejection of his call for an invasion of Korea (Yates 1995). His rebellion capped a series of samurai revolts (1874–77) that expressed ferocious opposi­tion to specific government policies and, more generally, to the rapid restructuring and centralization of state authority, but they were not an attempt to return to status quo ante. In defeat, Saigo committed seppuku (ritual sui­cide), but he was posthumously reha­bilitated and memorialized in a promi­nent statue in Tokyo’s Ueno Park. Although clad in kimono in the film and in an even more informal summer yukata in his famous statue, Saigo always wore, even in rebellion, an Imperial Army uniform, and identified himself with the new institutional structures he had helped to create (Ravina 2004).


Bushido, as this code is known, is depicted as driving “the last samurai” to train ceaselessly and to face death without flinching. However popular and enduring, this image of the samurai was largely the modern invention of Nitobe Inazo (1862–1933), who was English-medium-educated in Japan and married to an Ameri­can Quaker. His book, Bushido: The Soul of Japan (1905), written in English, in California, was widely heralded as an explanation for his country’s success in the 1904–05 Russo-Japanese War. Far from invoking hallowed samurai ideals, Nitobe thought he was coining a new word with “bushido” (Hurst 1990). Unbeknownst to Nitobe, the term had appeared much earlier in such works as an obscure early-eighteenth-century manifesto-cum-training manual Hagakure by Yamamoto Tsunetomo (trans. Wilson 1979). Since the consoli­dation of power under the Tokugawa shogunate in the early seven­teenth century, the vast majority of samurai, as retainers on stipends, had shifted to a status more akin to civil servants, living in castle towns, more often than not mired in debt to local merchants. The ideals of bushido developed in a unified, pacified Japan as an expression of yearning for the “world we have lost.” Following Nitobe, many other Japanese literati would continue to invoke bushido to explain Japanese triumphs on the battlefield or in busi­ness, or, like Mishima’s Yukio’s commentary on Hagakure (trans. Sparling 1977), to invoke it as emblematic of the Japanese spirit.


Noel Perrin’s (1979) account of samurai “giving up the gun” during the Tokugawa era has not been generally supported by Japanese historians (e.g., Totman 1980); what changed, in a unified and pacified country, was the need for constant innovation and wholesale deployment of firearms. The rejection of firearms by samurai in the film flies in the face of the widespread adoption of modern rifles and even cannons in virtually all military encounters since the early 1860s, including successive samurai rebellions of the 1870s. Swords would be used when they ran out of ammunition, but access to modern arms and armories was a major objective of most rebels. One notable exception was the Shinp†ren, who, during a 1876 uprising in Kumamoto, used only swords and spears in keeping with their hatred of many widespread Western-inspired changes; their nighttime attack on the garrison slaughtered hundreds of soldiers who were caught by surprise, but they were thoroughly routed by modern weapons by the first light of day. Most samurai rebellions were fundamentally political in nature, fighting over which elite faction would exercise power and where (foreign incursions against Korea and Taiwan preoccupied the Imperial Council through much of the mid-1870s), not over whether to adopt a modern military, science, or technologies at breakneck speed.

photo of a young boy meditating in the snow
Winter village scene. ©2003 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.


The bucolic village setting as an open-air stage for samurai cultiva­tion of their art—martial, meditative or decorative—with unmatched dedication and focus misleads, as most samurai had long since become urban habitués. A point that is largely lost in the movie is how well-educated samurai were expected to be in this era, more often writing reports than waging war. Moreover, practicing the arts, martial or otherwise, was a largely indoor endeavor, as was bathing (not under waterfalls) and meditation (no young boys sitting zazen in the snow). There are a number of places in the film that similarly misrepresent social conventions: samurai women in this period would have had much more elaborate hair styles and lan­guage; they would typically reside with their husband’s family; and samurai families would not eat communally from a common table, but each on their on separate trays —ozen— and women would usu­ally eat separately, after the men (cf. Yamakawa 1992). By adopting contemporary conventions, the film suggests that samurai, at home in an unsullied serene environment, would interact like ordinary suburbanites with a clear sense of mission. There has long been an association in the West with the total concentration and commit­ment of samurai, honing skills as a warrior, even if only as a means to avoid military conflict, and zen (Suzuki 1959). But much less attention has been given to their shifting social milieu, and the relo­cation of samurai to cities during the Edo (Tokugawa shogunate) period. The cultivation of arts by samurai was typically an urban enterprise, a process that significantly contributed to the codifica­tion of cultural practices (tea and ikebana) that are considered emblematic of things Japanese.


The embrace of the West, extending from institutional arrangements to sartorial standards, was indeed widespread and the costs of the process heavy. But these costs were borne largely by poor peasants shackled by a substantial land tax, rather than by samurai. Conscrip­tion—which allowed for widespread exemptions of privileged groups—also weighed most heavily on the poor peasants who came to man the modern military ranks The ethos of the samurai was con­sciously invoked in the soldier’s code, emphasizing loyalty, obedi­ence, frugality, honor, and respect for superiors, but this is best viewed simply as a method for autocratic authority to assert control. Even the program for compulsory education, with mandatory school fees and accompanying opportunity costs, bore more heavily on the rural poor. The reduction of samurai stipends and their eventual commutation into a lump-sum payment in government bonds (1871–76), calculated at different rates for different ranks, along with bonuses for those who fought for the Meiji Restoration, came as a blow to many poorer samurai. However, samurai (some six per­cent of the population) were already highly differentiated, so that while the poorer samurai were driven even further into destitution, others fared much better and, overall, samurai skills and resi­dence—literate and urban—tended to prepare them to benefit from the opportunities of the new age.


The convenience of Katsumoto and his son speaking English elimi­nated the need for more extensive subtitles. While one suspects that English would have been exceedingly rare among such circles, the pace of change in education was swift. Literacy rates were already exceptionally high, roughly fifty percent for adult males, and nearly universal for samurai. The shogunate’s Institute for the Investiga­tion of Barbarian Books (bansho shirabesho) had long disseminated “Dutch-learning,” principally in medicine, but by the 1850s many daimyo also promoted foreign-learning, especially of armaments, warships, and navigation. Even the Meiji Emperor, in 1873, took up the daily study of a European language; this was in German, and he disliked it so much he gave it up within the year (Keene 2002:239). Meiji educational experiments introduced four European languages (English, German, French, Russian) across the curriculum in a handful of institutions, which is how Nitobe (lesson #3) came to be educated in English. When Tokyo University was founded with a modern curriculum and institutional divisions (Law, Letters, Sci­ence, and Medicine), the study of literature and history focused exclusively on Europe and America, not on Japan. In the early 1870s, William Elliot Griffis began to publish the first series of English textbooks that, as part of Western learning, were widely adopted. On a tour of Aomori (in Northeastern Japan) in July 1876, the Emperor reportedly listened to speeches in English at a local elementary school—the recitations included Hannibal’s address to his soldiers, a speech by Andrew Jackson to the US Senate, and Cicero’s attack on Cataline—and the Emperor gave each student ¥5 to buy Webster’s Intermediate Dictionary (Keene 2002:326). How­ever, the Emperor complained about Japanese children memorizing English speeches while remaining unfamiliar with Japanese tradi­tions. From 1878, he would back a major shift in educational policy, reemphasizing moral education and downgrading English, a trend that would accelerate in the 1880s.


Extensive use of foreign military advisors, and technical experts in other fields, commonly referred to as yatoi (“living machines”), was a significant part of the rush to modernity (Jones 1980, Pedlar 1990, and especially Rosenstone 1988). But the army modeled itself after the French military, rather than the American, and the navy opted for the British. Americans were much more influential in education (e.g., Notehelfer 1985), with David Murray of Rutgers serving as Japan’s Superintendent of Schools and Colleges from 1873 to 1879 and William Clark of the University of Massachusetts serving as the first president of Sapporo Agricultural College. Scores of Ameri­cans were hired to teach in schools and colleges. Other Western authors were also prominent among the relatively few early transla­tions into Japanese. Scottish author Samuel Smiles’ Self-Help for the rags-to-riches aspirants was one of the first popular volumes; in 1873, the first year to adopt the Western (solar) calendar, half of the lectures (24 a month) given to the Meiji Emperor were from Smiles’ book, largely biographical portraits of self-made men like Benjamin Franklin, chosen as emblematic of Western know-how and practical knowledge (Keene 2002:223). However, the debates that would shape the reorientation of the Japanese state and cement a long-last­ing cultural orthodoxy from the 1880s were wholly domestic, highly complex, and hard fought (Gluck 1985, Pyle 1969), without the guiding hand of any American interloper.


The depiction of the Meiji Emperor as a virtual prisoner of his own advisors failed to convey the dramatic transformation of his office and the active part played by its occupant. The adoption of com­pletely new imperial rites, state rituals, public holidays, and cere­monies recast, quite literally, how the emperor was seen (Fujitani 1996). The Meiji Emperor ventured out of the palace to tour much of the country like no other Emperor in history; according to Keene (2002:162–3), he was probably the first emperor, ever, to have seen either the ocean or Mount Fuji. Although cautious in interacting with his advisors, who installed him as sovereign in the Restoration, by the mid-1870s he was an active participant in the determination of policy. His father, the Emperor K¬mei, had been profoundly xenophobic, but the Meiji Emperor often met with foreign digni­taries and visitors, and adopted the symbols and conventions of modern (European) monarchs, such as the rather out-dated Euro­pean style uniform with Western-style sword that he wore from the early 1870s. However, his tours of the country and interaction with ordinary Japanese and foreign dignitaries alike were increasingly restricted from the 1880s, and his place in the Japanese imagination would be remade through the construction of the Emperor system, notably with the Meiji constitution (1889) that enshrined the auton­omy of the military and adopted widespread censorship.


photo of a young man in a robe
Scene from the Emperor and his teacher sequence. ©2003 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.
several carriages walk by people
Tokyo street scene. ©2003 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.

Maneuverings of elites, between rapacious modernizers and uncom­promised anachronists, fails to convey the most significant tensions in the political arena, notably in overlooking the Movement for Freedom and People’s Rights (jiyu minken undo), to say nothing about the social changes sweeping the country. The West was a model, not only for “official nationalism” (Anderson 1983:94–9) but also for what came under the banner of people’s rights and democracy. Local-level politics also became an arena for construct­ing new identities, loyalties, and affiliations at a time of significant economic transformation. Complex shifts in political fortunes of competing cliques coincided with far-reaching social changes on the ground; narratives of those who lived through this era demonstrate how fast-paced and fluid the dynamics were in these few decades (Ozaki 2001, Shibusawa 1994). The best of recent social history (Steele 2003, Walthall 1998; but consider also Gluck 1978, Bowen 1980, Wilson 1992) reminds us of the diversity of ways that com­moners—not simply samurai—sought to make sense of the new institutional arrangements and cultural mores that accompanied the opening of Japan, and how they sought to change them.


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Bowen, Roger W. Rebellion and Democracy in Meiji Japan: A Study of Commoners in the Popular Rights Movement. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1980.

Burns, Susan L. Before the Nation: Kokugaku and the Imagining of Community in Early Modern Japan. Durham: Duke University Press, 2003.

Clavell, James. Shogun: A Novel of Japan. New York: Dell, 1975.

Fujitani, Takeshi. Splendid Monarchy: Power and Pageantry in Modern Japan. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996.

Gluck, Carol. “The People in History: Recent Trends in Japanese Historiography.” Journal of Asian Studies 38:1 (November 1978):25–50.

Gluck, Carol. Japan’s Modern Myths: Ideology in the Late Meiji Period. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1985.

Hurst, G. Cameron III. “Death, Honor, and Loyalty: The Bushido Ideal.” Philosophy East & West 40:4 (October 1990):511–27.

Jones, Hazel J. Live Machines: Hired Foreigners and Meiji Japan. Vancouver: Uni­versity of British Columbia Press, 1980.

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Potier, Beth. “Zwick ’74 Premiers ‘Samurai in Cambridge.’” Harvard University Gazette November 13, 2003, 11.13/11zwick.html

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