Word Warriors

Japan’s ‘warrior nation’ past affects its ties with China even today

As Japanese imperialism rose and fell, its leaders interpreted and re-interpreted a single distinctive concept: ‘bushido’

In a warning to China on the eve of his first trip to Asia in November 2017, the US president, Donald Trump, called Japan a “warrior nation” that needed to be taken seriously. Trump’s comments are just one example of the widespread view that Japan is a martial country with spiritual roots in the samurai warriors of old. But is it?

Samurai remain among the most recognisable aspects of Japanese culture and often feature in film, television, literature, and art. The events of World War II complicate this image, as the supposed samurai heritage was used by all sides to explain imperial Japan’s behaviour. The legacy of that conflict continues to affect Japan’s international relations, and controversies over history are major obstacles to reconciliation with China.

Portrayals of Japan as a martial country typically focus on the samurai heritage, especially the concept of bushido – “the way of the warrior”. Bushido is popularly seen as an ancient martial ethic that guided first the samurai and later the soldiers of Japan’s modern wars. This view overlooks important aspects of Japan’s history.

Although the samurai who ruled Japan were ostensibly a “warrior class”, they did not experience major domestic or foreign conflict for more than 200 years before the 1860s. Furthermore, there was no widely-accepted samurai ethic in pre-modern Japan – and the word bushido was largely unknown until the 20th century.

Rising power

Many new nation-states emerged during the 19th century, among them all three of World War II’s Axis powers: Germany, Italy and Japan. After the Meiji Revolution that put the country back under imperial rule in 1868, the new government needed to convince the Japanese people to identify with their new nation-state. As in Germany and Italy, many people in Japan were searching for a national identity, and in search of an example, many Japanese thinkers looked to Britain, then ruler of the world’s most powerful empire.

The Britain they observed was experiencing a “medievalist” revival. Knighthood and chivalry were popular cultural themes and many public and private buildings imitated the appearance of medieval castles. These trends inspired some Japanese thinkers around 1890 to search for equivalents in their own traditions. They compared samurai with European knights and proposed bushido as a Japanese counterpart to chivalry and gentlemanliness.

Samurai with sword, c. 1860. Photo credit: Felice Beato/Wikimedia Commons [Licensed udner CC BY Public Domain Mark 1.0]
Samurai with sword, c. 1860. Photo credit: Felice Beato/Wikimedia Commons [Licensed udner CC BY Public Domain Mark 1.0]

Japan’s victory over China in the Sino-Japanese War of 1894-1895 gave bushido a great boost, but also changed it. Before the war, bushido was invoked as a potential equivalent to Western ideals – after the war, the mood in Japan became more nationalistic and militaristic, and bushido came to reflect these sentiments.

The term now implied self-sacrifice, patriotism, and loyalty to the emperor; its promoters now dismissed European chivalry as “mere woman-worship” and inferior to “manly” samurai ideals. This new “imperial bushido” rapidly became an important part of the state ideology, and was widely used in civilian and military education in Japan until 1945.

The bushido boom that took place after 1895 also coincided with a dramatic shift in Sino-Japanese relations. In the years after the war, thousands of Chinese travelled to Japan for study, business, or political exile, and those who arrived in the early 1900s – especially after Japan’s victory in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-1905 – encountered a Japan fascinated with bushido. Chinese students studied the “way of the warrior” in Japanese schools and military academies – like their Japanese classmates, they were taught that bushido was the key to Japan’s modernisation and military successes.

They had little reason to question these teachings, as the evidence was seemingly all around. Instead, influential Chinese reformers such as Liang Qichao searched for their own bushido tradition that could help strengthen China. Chiang Kai-shek (Jiang Jieshi), who later go on to become president of the Republic of China, was a cadet at a Japanese military academy at the time. Chiang was deeply impressed by bushido and sought to instil a similar martial spirit in China after his return.

Loose ends

The imperial bushido ideology was used to indoctrinate the Japanese servicemen who invaded China in the 1930s and attacked Pearl Harbour in 1941. It was not surprising, therefore, that outsiders saw Japan’s wartime activity in the context of bushido and the samurai heritage.

After World War II, bushido was comprehensively rejected as a dangerous ideology. By the 1970s, however, bushido was revived as a cultural explanation for Japan’s recovery and rapid economic growth. This new bushido generally stresses loyalty, virtue, honesty and self-sacrifice, while rejecting overtly militaristic elements.

Decades later, today’s mainstream bushido closely resembles the early theories inspired by idealised European chivalry. A vocal minority on the right is attempting to revive more extreme wartime ideals, taking historical revisionism to sometimes radical extremes – but for now at least, these nationalists remain a political minority. In China, meanwhile, Japanese bushido is understood in a way much closer to its wartime imperial meaning – in part a reflection of just how unresolved the history of World War II still is in East Asia.

The events of the 20th century are a heavy burden on Sino-Japanese relations to this day. Dealing with these issues is further complicated by some of the lingering ideas of national identity, and bushido in particular, which create distance and undermine trust on both sides.

Oleg Benesch, Senior Lecturer in East Asian History, University of York.

This article first appeared on The Conversation.

Support our journalism by subscribing to Scroll+ here. We welcome your comments at letters@scroll.in.
Sponsored Content BY 

Swara Bhasker: Sharp objects has to be on the radar of every woman who is tired of being “nice”

The actress weighs in on what she loves about the show.

This article has been written by award-winning actor Swara Bhasker.

All women growing up in India, South Asia, or anywhere in the world frankly; will remember in some form or the other that gentle girlhood admonishing, “Nice girls don’t do that.” I kept recalling that gently reasoned reproach as I watched Sharp Objects (you can catch it on Hotstar Premium). Adapted from the author of Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s debut novel Sharp Objects has been directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, who has my heart since he gave us Big Little Lies. It stars the multiple-Oscar nominee Amy Adams, who delivers a searing performance as Camille Preaker; and Patricia Clarkson, who is magnetic as the dominating and dark Adora Crellin. As an actress myself, it felt great to watch a show driven by its female performers.

The series is woven around a troubled, alcohol-dependent, self-harming, female journalist Camille (single and in her thirties incidentally) who returns to the small town of her birth and childhood, Wind Gap, Missouri, to report on two similarly gruesome murders of teenage girls. While the series is a murder mystery, it equally delves into the psychology, not just of the principal characters, but also of the town, and thus a culture as a whole.

There is a lot that impresses in Sharp Objects — the manner in which the storytelling gently unwraps a plot that is dark, disturbing and shocking, the stellar and crafty control that Jean-Marc Vallée exercises on his narrative, the cinematography that is fluid and still manages to suggest that something sinister lurks within Wind Gap, the editing which keeps this narrative languid yet sharp and consistently evokes a haunting sensation.

Sharp Objects is also liberating (apart from its positive performance on Bechdel parameters) as content — for female actors and for audiences in giving us female centric and female driven shows that do not bear the burden of providing either role-models or even uplifting messages. 

Instead, it presents a world where women are dangerous and dysfunctional but very real — a world where women are neither pure victims, nor pure aggressors. A world where they occupy the grey areas, complex and contradictory as agents in a power play, in which they control some reigns too.

But to me personally, and perhaps to many young women viewers across the world, what makes Sharp Objects particularly impactful, perhaps almost poignant, is the manner in which it unravels the whole idea, the culture, the entire psychology of that childhood admonishment “Nice girls don’t do that.” Sharp Objects explores the sinister and dark possibilities of what the corollary of that thinking could be.

“Nice girls don’t do that.”

“Who does?”

“Bad girls.”

“So I’m a bad girl.”

“You shouldn’t be a bad girl.”

“Why not?”

“Bad girls get in trouble.”

“What trouble? What happens to bad girls?”

“Bad things.”

“What bad things?”

“Very bad things.”

“How bad?”


“Like what?”


A point the show makes early on is that both the victims of the introductory brutal murders were not your typically nice girly-girls. Camille, the traumatised protagonist carrying a burden from her past was herself not a nice girl. Amma, her deceptive half-sister manipulates the nice girl act to defy her controlling mother. But perhaps the most incisive critique on the whole ‘Be a nice girl’ culture, in fact the whole ‘nice’ culture — nice folks, nice manners, nice homes, nice towns — comes in the form of Adora’s character and the manner in which beneath the whole veneer of nice, a whole town is complicit in damning secrets and not-so-nice acts. At one point early on in the show, Adora tells her firstborn Camille, with whom she has a strained relationship (to put it mildly), “I just want things to be nice with us but maybe I don’t know how..” Interestingly it is this very notion of ‘nice’ that becomes the most oppressive and deceptive experience of young Camille, and later Amma’s growing years.

This ‘Culture of Nice’ is in fact the pervasive ‘Culture of Silence’ that women all over the world, particularly in India, are all too familiar with. 

It takes different forms, but always towards the same goal — to silence the not-so-nice details of what the experiences; sometimes intimate experiences of women might be. This Culture of Silence is propagated from the child’s earliest experience of being parented by society in general. Amongst the values that girls receive in our early years — apart from those of being obedient, dutiful, respectful, homely — we also receive the twin headed Chimera in the form of shame and guilt.

“Have some shame!”

“Oh for shame!”




“Do not bring shame upon…”

Different phrases in different languages, but always with the same implication. Shameful things happen to girls who are not nice and that brings ‘shame’ on the family or everyone associated with the girl. And nice folks do not talk about these things. Nice folks go on as if nothing has happened.

It is this culture of silence that women across the world today, are calling out in many different ways. Whether it is the #MeToo movement or a show like Sharp Objects; or on a lighter and happier note, even a film like Veere Di Wedding punctures this culture of silence, quite simply by refusing to be silenced and saying the not-nice things, or depicting the so called ‘unspeakable’ things that could happen to girls. By talking about the unspeakable, you rob it of the power to shame you; you disallow the ‘Culture of Nice’ to erase your experience. You stand up for yourself and you build your own identity.

And this to me is the most liberating aspect of being an actor, and even just a girl at a time when shows like Sharp Objects and Big Little Lies (another great show on Hotstar Premium), and films like Veere Di Wedding and Anaarkali Of Aarah are being made.

The next time I hear someone say, “Nice girls don’t do that!”, I know what I’m going to say — I don’t give a shit about nice. I’m just a girl! And that’s okay!

Swara is a an award winning actor of the Hindi film industry. Her last few films, including Veere Di Wedding, Anaarkali of Aaraah and Nil Battey Sannata have earned her both critical and commercial success. Swara is an occasional writer of articles and opinion pieces. The occasions are frequent :).

Watch the trailer of Sharp Objects here:


This article was published by the Scroll marketing team with Swara Bhasker on behalf of Hotstar Premium and not by the Scroll editorial team.