Perspectives of war in anime

Armed conflict has always been one of the most powerful and dramatic of human activities. The sight of clashing armies, the individual heroism of warriors and the horrific death of the combatants is at once awe inspiring yet also terrible to contemplate. War also has a cost beyond merely the battlefield, though this seldom receives as much attention; the civilians involved in a war also suffer, often just as much as the soldiers. The real people who decide the course of the war, the politicians and generals, tend to reap the glory, and far too often, are insulated from the dire effects of war. The Clausewitzian idea that war is merely politics by other means results in the people who decide to wage war usually not stopping to think about the human cost of such conflict, but tend to look more at the potential political benefits that they can enjoy through victory. These three different groups, warriors, civilians and politicians, thus tend to experience war in very different ways, and their perspectives on it, not surprisingly, tend to differ very greatly.

War in Anime

Conventional wisdom would suggest that dramatizing such a serious subject as war would be extremely difficult and controversial to do, yet war movies, Anime, novels and comics tend to be both common and very popular. The sheer spectacle of armed conflict makes for an exciting subject, and this has resulted in an abundance of war-themed fiction and non-fiction movies and Anime. The topic of war is thus one of the largest and most popular genres in Anime and manga. In this essay, we will first look at the importance of World War Two, and its impact on the Japanese, and how this has resulted in certain trends among most Anime. We will then examine how Anime depicts the three main groups of people involved in a war: the politicians and generals who plan and orchestrate it, the soldiers who fight it, and the civilians who suffer through it yet are not considered active participants in it. We will discuss how Anime portrays the justifications politicians advance for why they wage war, and argue that these justifications for war usually claim a higher, nobler purpose, such as the attainment of a lasting peace through conflict. We will also examine how these justifications usually have many themes that reflect the ideas of World War Two, and also touch on present day concerns, over Japan’s current national security.

We will also examine how Anime depicts the experience of war through the eyes of the warriors who fight them. We will be looking at the Japanese values of Bushido, Buddhism and Shinto, and how these values were used to great effect to create a “warrior-consciousness” that would ultimately be manipulated by the state during World War Two. We will further examine how Anime explores these values, and how Anime portrays the difficulty of soldiers in the field who must wrestle between obeying orders that clash with their own conscience, and their ingrained sense of duty, that the values discussed earlier have propounded.

Finally we will look at the group that tends to suffer most in war; the civilians. We will be examining how Anime frequently tends to show a civilian distrust and resentment of the military and government, and the historical roots of such resentment. We will then examine how Anime depicts the civilian view that the individual soldier is blameless in war, but the leaders in war are frequently depicted as manipulative and treacherous. The idea of the military stepping in to correct such treacherous political leaders is, at the same time, treated with much wariness by the Japanese, and we will be examining how Anime shows such fears. Law and justice are arguably best left to the civilian administration, and despite fears of its corruption, Anime tends to reflect the perception that the military should not be involved in politics. War Anime tends not to shy away from depicting horrific suffering, emphasizing the plight of the civilians. We will be looking at Animes’ treatment of such horrors of war, particularly on the civilian population. We will argue that Anime tends to depict such suffering at a very personal scale, and discuss the reasons for this treatment. We will also look at the idea of hope and regeneration; how the present war may be bleak, but the future is still bright. Anime tend to have different treatment of this idea, and we will be examining the different ways it has been depicted, and the reasons for such differences.

World War Two and the Japanese Experience

World War Two had an extremely important impact on the Japanese psyche, and this has resulted in their post-war literature, film and Anime being extremely influenced by the experiences of the war. The Japanese were the aggressors during the war, but after losing the war, and suffering the effects of two atomic bombs, the deliberate fire-bombing of their civilian centers and the post-war occupation, the Japanese tend to see themselves as victims during the war. The end of the war came to reveal many atrocities committed by Japanese troops. However, the destructive power of atomic bombings in Hiroshima and Nagasaki seems to have a negating effect on Japanese sense of guilt. With death toll coming up to more than 200,000 and another 270,000 ‘hibakusha’ or ‘bomb affected people’, most Japanese commoners felt that they too are innocent victims of the war. Nonetheless, losing the war also meant the loss of Japanese national pride. Most Japanese were proud of their military which had not lost to any foreign power, hence, may be seen as equally powerfully as other western powers. Not until the end of the war, news of Japanese troops defeat was generally unheard of. Thus, the war dealt a great blow to Japanese pride and moral, a nation proud of its samurai heritage.

War is justified: The Politicians’ view

Four days after the war began the government announced that the Anglo-American war would be called a Great East Asia War ‘because it is a war for the construction of a new order in East Asia.’ It entailed the ‘liberation of East Asian peoples from the aggression of America and Britain’, which was to lead to ‘the establishment of a genuine world peace and the creation of a new world culture’.

Japan’s politicians justified the war in Southeast Asia as a means of establishing a regional alliance (the Greater East Asian Co-prosperity Sphere) with its Asian neighbours. They spoke of the notion of ‘war to establish peace’. Many Japanese felt betrayed by their leaders after the loss of the Second World War. As such, themes that speak of the above notion are very commonly found in modern Anime titles, possibly as a snub to the politicians who led their country to its darkest days in history.

War for peace

Ever since the Meiji Restoration (1867) changed Japan from a country ruled by feudal lords and run by warriors, into a modern city emulating the West in terms of industry and culture; Japan continued to modernise unlike their neighbours in the region. In fact, these other countries were subject to colonisation by the Western powers. The primary reason was that Japan learnt from the West to equal the West. As such, Japan also looked to become the leader of Asia because of them being years ahead of their neighbours.

Thus, the plan was to establish a stronghold in East Asia including Southeast Asia, under the notion of leading the nations out of colonialism and into independence. However, countries that were ‘freed’ from Western colonialism were soon forced to serve the Japanese empire. Thus, the irony was that it wasn’t so much about the abolishment of colonialism, but more about who was now in charge! Such was the ideology established by the Japanese War government, to justify their actions in Southeast Asia.

Gundam Seed (2002)

The Mecha Anime focuses on the war between two factions, The Earth Alliance and the Zodiac Alliance of Freedom Treaty (ZAFT). After declaration of war, The Earth Alliance destroyed one of ZAFT’s space colonies, killing more than 200,000 civilians. Thus ever since this ‘Bloody Valentine Incident’, ZAFT began to justify its act of war as an offensive of the cowardly Earth Alliance.

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In a particular episode of Gundam Seed, at a ZAFT supreme council meeting, the chairman of the National Defense Committee Patrick Zala retorts,

“No one wishes for war…To live in peace, happiness and serenity. That is all we wish for. But who is the one who deprives us of our hopes? Who was the one who used us for their own convenience and greed? And continue to use us as Coordinators? We can’t forget…the tragedy of ‘Bloody Valentine’…We fight to protect ourselves. If we cannot protect ourselves without fighting, then we have no choice but to fight!” – Gundam Seed, Episode 07, 12:43-15:00

Evidently, we can see a resemblance in his speech to the War-time Japanese government’s take on its Greater East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere. Just as the ZAFT were being used by the humans, the Japanese also felt the imposition of the Western powers on their ‘brother’ Asian nations. And indeed, the notion of ‘war to establish peace’ is still the uncontested ideology present here.

Loosely linked to this notion of ‘war for peace’ is also the right to use force to prevent further destruction. The Anime titles, Akira and Macross Zero seem to demonstrate the latter notion.

Akira (1988)

This movie revolves around the life of two biker-gang buddies, Tetsuo and Kaneda living in the city of Neo-Tokyo. Tetsuo is transformed accidentally into a superhuman biological weapon; soon he becomes too powerful for himself and ultimately, he destroys the entire city in the process of his demise.

Macross Zero (2002)

This short 5-part Anime centers on the war between two factions the UN and the Anti-UN, and their quest to find the relics of an alien ‘The Birdman’ which would have the power to destroy the world.

Before planning to destroy mankind, The Birdman in Macross Zero proclaims this phrase,
“Did mankind stop fighting? Those possessed by the Kadun of Battle must be eliminated before they cause chaos across the galaxy. The fear, the sadness, the pain, and the anger that are inside people… That’s what the Song of Destruction really is.” – Macross Zero Episode 05

Akira also demonstrates the use of force via Tetsuo destroying the entire city of Neo-Tokyo which was a decrepit city ruled by corrupt politicians and lost morals. It emphasised the need to destroy all the evil in the world, so that peace can be restored once again.

similarities between history and art may be coincidental, but undoubtedly these are possible implications of the Anime writers’ general opinion towards WWII, and maybe even towards war in general.

The need to re-arm Japan’s SDF

In Chapter Two of the Japanese Constitution rewritten in 1946 after WWII, Article 9 states that:
Aspiring sincerely to an international peace based on justice and order, the Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as means of settling international disputes. 2) In order to accomplish the aim of the preceding paragraph, land, sea, and air forces, as well as other war potential, will never be maintained. The right of belligerency of the state will not be recognized.

Accordingly, Japan was withheld the rights to maintain any military force. But it was allowed to have a Self-Defense Force for its own security.

The economic success of post-war Japan has led to its great involvement in world affairs, especially in terms of monetary loans to developing and disaster-ravaged countries. However, one thing that Japan’s government had avoided doing up until the recent Iraq War was to deploy Japanese troops to help in any international crisis. In fact, even the latest deployment of Japanese troops was specifically stressed to be a project to help rebuild Iraq’s war-torn infrastructure; no actual combat involvement.

Questions have been raised about whether Japan can fully contribute to the world, if it cannot maintain a full-fledged military force, unlike the other major world powers that are all maintaining very powerful military forces.

Thus, there is a call to re-arm, to give Japan’s SDF full military capabilities. This is also in light of the recent situations in the world. As USA continues to wage war in the Middle East, it needs to shift its troops away from less important zones like Japan and the Pacific. As such, USA may decide one day to pull out of Japan and its waters completely, leaving Japan to fend for itself in the face of possible threats like North Korea and especially China.

We fight to protect ourselves. If we cannot protect ourselves without fighting, then we have no choice but to fight –Patrick Zala, Gundam Seed Episode

Here, we see the correlation between Gundam Seed and Japan’s current situation. The need to protect one’s self-interests is always one of the top priorities for any country in the world. In fact, it becomes all the more important when countries are situated in ‘sensitive hot-spots.’ Japan itself is located near three possible threats to its sovereignty: China, North Korea and Russia. Recent issues include the Senkaku Islands dispute, the Northern Territories islands still being annexed by Russia, and the Taiwan-China dispute. With Japan being at the centre of this region, it has to find a way to protect itself and the time should be soon.

Critics like Anime writers and newspaper journalists continue to stand in two camps: One on the side of the Liberalists calling for the need to remember Hiroshima to avoid repeating history, and the other camp of Nationalists who see the need for Japan to take up arms once again!

United against a common enemy

A common pattern in most Mecha or War Anime is that the war/conflict involves two major sides: Each side an alliance with its own league of nations or units) grouped to fight for a common goal against a common enemy. This is seen in the reviewed Anime Gundam Seed and Macross Zero.

If Japan was justified in its war efforts during the WWII, then it was none other than the need to ally itself and form an alliance of nations against the common enemy: The European colonialists. However, that notion did not stand well as explained in the preceding section on the Greater East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere.

Using this notion of ‘unity against a common enemy’, war can also be seen in a different light today. War doesn’t have to literally mean a military conflict, but it can also refer to economics if used loosely. Seeing how things are like in the East Asia/ South East Asia region, there have been various alliances brokered due to the need to protect one’s interests. These include the ASEAN, the AFTA and the JSEPA (Japan-Singapore FTA). However, more importantly is the need to protect one’s trade and economy from the cheap booming labour market in China. And this is precisely why Japan needs to act quickly and start forming alliances with its neighbours especially ASEAN to prevent its economy from collapsing.

Frontline of Horror: The Soldier’s Perspective

This section will examine the dilemma that soldiers may face when the orders from the state comes into conflict with their personal values and principles. There will be an examination of the Japanese psyche as the Japanese government made use of religious influences from Shintoism and Zen Buddhism as well as Bushido to attempt to create the “perfect” soldier and how this policy created internal conflicts within the soldiers. As stated earlier, the focus of analysis will be in the context of World War Two (WW2) and the Anime for analysis will be Gundam Wing.

Shintoism, Bushido and Zen Buddhism

Religious ideologies, namely Shintoism, Bushido and Zen Buddhism were used by the Japanese government to justify their imperialistic ambitions, gather popular support as well as to “create” the “perfect soldiers”. In Shintoism, the concept of “kami” validated the emperor’s position to wage war against neighboring states while Bushido and Zen Buddhism indoctrinated values of absolute loyalty and honor for the state to the public and soldiers alike. (For a more detailed analysis of these three religions please refer to Appendix 1.)

Soldier’s Dilemma: State vs. Self

As seen from above, the Japanese government manipulated the religions’ ideologies for their own political motives. Other than gathering approval and support from the common people, these reinterpreted ideologies also helped in an attempt to create the “perfect” soldier: a soldier who would fight and win at the cost of his life for the sake of the honor of himself, his family and his state. An example would be the Kamikaze pilots. These pilots were raised up and indoctrinated with the idea of “jusshi reisho” (sacrifice life), that sacrificing their lives for the state and the emperor was honorable. This idea was reinforced as soldiers who died during the war were worshipped at the Yakusuni shrine.

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However, despite the attempt to “brainwash” these soldiers, they still possessed their feelings and beliefs and this would be when a dilemma occurred, when their personal values and emotions clashed with the state directives. Again, using the example of kamikaze pilots, despite what others perceived as “desperate, brave and foolish”, what was not noticed was the dilemma these pilots faced when committing their lives for their missions. An account of a woman who ran a restaurant which these pilots often patronized revealed their internal struggles. Known as the kamikaze’s “mama-san”, she talked about how these pilots knew of the imminent defeat and their lives were “thrown away by their commanders” but could not back out due to extreme social pressures. Today, in the kamikaze museum in Chiran, emotional poems and farewell letters wrote by these pilots revealed their pain of abandoning their families and loved ones for the war.

Anime for analysis: Gundam Wing

Gundam Wing is a mecha Anime directed by Masashi Ikeda in 1995. In this Anime, the year is after Colony 195, when Earth has established space colonies which are orbiting around the planet. These space colonies are oppressed by the Earth Alliance, which itself is discreetly manipulated by a secret society named OZ. Space colonies respond by sending five young pilots and their “gundams” or advanced mobile suits to the Earth and wage guerilla warfare against the Earth Alliance, hoping to eventually end their oppression.

Two examples are taken from this Anime to illustrate the soldier’s dilemma of “state vs. self”. In the first example found in the 13th episode of the series, one of the Gundam pilot Trowa Barton infiltrated a circus which was performing on an OZ military base by disguising as a clown. His mission was to destroy the base and himself in order not to leave behind any evidence which may be used against the space colonies. However, when Trowa was about to explode his Gundam and kill himself, Catherine, a sister-like figure he knew in the circus, stopped him and gave him a punch. She asked Trowa how foolish it was for him to sacrifice his life and how devastated his kins and loved ones would feel if he left them behind. Eventually Trowa abandoned the order to kill himself for the sake of his loved ones.

In the second example shown in the 48th episode of the series, Gundam pilot Chang Wufei was fighting with the leader of OZ, Treize Khushrenada in the final battle and despite being on opposite sides, both actually shared a sense of mutual respect for each other’s characters and the values each believed. Eventually, Treize allowed himself to be killed by Wufei and Wufei despite winning the battle, cried inside his mobile suit in anguish. He felt sad that he did not really defeated Treize and also, he lost a friend who truly understood him despite them being enemies. In this example, the dilemma of “state vs. self” was illustrated as despite achieving the objective of the space colonies in defeating the leader of OZ, Wufei felt the personal anguish of losing a friend as a result.

Distrust and Resentment; the Civilian Perspective

The reverence of the Japanese for such Bushido values as personified by their warrior class clashes with the present distrust and resentment they feel towards the military establishment following the Japanese defeat in World War 2. As stated earlier, the Macarthur Administration re-wrote the Japanese constitution after the fall of Japan to include the pacifism clause. The result today is that the Japanese tend to distrust the military, even though they respect the values claimed by them. This inter-play between pride in their warrior heritage and resentment for the military and politicians that “manipulated” Japan into war can be seen in the depiction of the military and politicians in Anime, as seen from the civilian perspective.

The Anime Barefoot Gen revolves around a small boy who experiences the atomic bombing, losing almost his entire family. The Anime focuses on the individual’s experience in war, looking at the loss and suffering he has to endure. It includes many anti-war themes, and these clearly articulated by characters like Gen’s father. Significantly, such sympathetic characters such as Gen’s father, who denounce the war are themselves killed by the Americans during the atomic bombing, making the viewer further sympathize with the Japanese depicted in the Anime.

The resentment of the civilians for the military is clearly shown in a scene where Gen and his father witness a soldiers’ rally. The soldiers cheer and march down a road, in the opposite direction Gen is going. We then see Gen scoffing at the jingoistic boasts of the soldiers, in a satirical song. Symbolically, the civilians represented by Gen, and the soldiers are walking along the same path, that of war and destruction, but their directions, and perceptions, are completely different. Gen’s mocking of the boasts of the soldiers, by singing about the hardships of war shows the understanding of the Japanese civilian of the horrific nature of war.

This distrust of the military can also be seen in other Anime such as Rurouni Kenshin. Rurouni Kenshin is about an assassin during the Boshin War who fights for the Ishin forces, then reverts to a pacifist lifestyle after the war. However, during this post-war Meiji period, the former assassin, Kenshin, is constantly pursued by figures from his past, either his former comrades or enemies, who cannot escape from the horrors of the war, and have thus brought these horrors into the present peaceful time. This Anime reached out to a huge audience, of different age groups, and of both sexes, as it had interesting characters, and tackled difficult themes such as war, revenge, honor, and sacrifice, and did not trivialize them.

One of the themes the Anime raises is whether or not the military should step in to deal with corrupt politicians. The Japanese distrust of corrupt politicians is only matched by its distrust of the military stepping in to administer civilian law. This can be traced by to the World War Two government of Prime Minister Hideki Tojo, which was basically a military dictatorship. As such, the Japanese today are extremely suspicious of the military attempting to administer civilian justice.

This suspicion can be seen in the Rurouni Kenshin Anime, episodes 15 and 16. Here, a shadowy quasi-military group, the Jinppu-Tai assassinates corrupt politicians, in an attempt to ensure a “clean” government. But, reflecting the Japanese distrust of such actions, it is revealed that the Jinppu-Tai themselves are being manipulated by a corrupt politician! However, reflecting the clashing reverence for Bushido warrior values and distrust of the military establishment, the Anime depicts the Jinppu-Tai as being motivated by selfless intentions, and when they are finally defeated, can much more easily seek atonement, as their intentions were honorable. In contrast, the politician who manipulated them cannot get such atonement so easily, as he began with the intention of amassing power and wealth.

Hope and Regeneration

Post-war period witnessed the demilitarization of Japan and removal of emperor from power, followed by extensive reforms, namely political, economical and educational. These are seen as necessary measures to rebuild the demoralized and devastated Japan; also, transform Japan into a democratic self-governing nation. The political and economic reforms, which included the effective exclusion of militants from politics, liberalization, democratization and unionization, promised to bring peace and stability back to Japan. However, Japan who was then still bounded by its conservative tradition and thinking would not function well in a liberal and democratic system.

Hence, education reform was required to change Japanese ideology. These included the rewriting of textbooks which altered Japanese youth’s perspective of World War Two. Another argument was that Japan would not be able to recover well, if Japanese are constantly haunted by guilt of their atrocities during the war. As a result, Americans advocated a view of history that absolved the blame on individuals and shifted most of the blame onto government officials and leaders. This may be seen as a contributing factor that eventually led to Japanese sentiments of being victims of war.

The success of the reforms also largely depended on Japanese cooperation. The American Occupation forces tried to prevent any anti-American sentiments through careful censorship of media. On the other hand, Japanese generally felt resigned and endured the harsh conditions during occupation, mainly described by the phrase “shikata ga nai”, or “it cannot be helped”, so as to preserve their dignity. Up till now, Japanese still value war time’s traits like perseverance, mental and physical endurance. Several Anime such as Barefoot Gen and Grave of the Fireflies which depict the bombings of Japan generally illustrate this notion. Other themes include the theme of hope and regeneration after destruction. In Barefoot Gen, the sprouting of plants from devastated land and re-growing of Gen’s hair were used as metaphors to illustrate this theme. In Macross Zero, plants growing on the island were also similarly used as metaphors for hope and regeneration. All these illustrated the notion that one must persevere even in harsh conditions and would grow stronger after surviving hardships.

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Barefoot Gen VS Grave of Fireflies

Though some themes are similar across war Anime, there are some differences to be noted in Barefoot Gen and Grave of the Fireflies. Both Anime depicted the sufferings of war experienced by Japanese commoners during the war. However, they contrast with each other. Barefoot Gen seems more optimistic and it ended with a happy ending. Also, there seems to be some efforts made to rewrite history by showing the existence of pacifist in war time Japan. This can be seen from the scene where Gen’s father openly criticized Japan imperialist government in the presence of his young children. This character may seem to be quite unrealistic at war times, given that his criticism might actually put his whole family in danger. On the other hand, Grave of the Fireflies is more pessimistic and ‘dark’. Death and helplessness are prevalent themes and it has a sad ending. Barefoot Gen was targeted to be exported outside Japan, explaining the strong anti-war themes that are articulated by ordinary Japanese like Gen’s father. This counter-factual depiction places the Japanese in a far more sympathetic position, compared with the reality, in which few ordinary Japanese would have dared publicly utter such anti-war sentiments.


Japanese Anime on war takes many different perspectives. Each perspective tends to depict war in extremely contrasting positions. The politicians would tend to argue the justifications of war, and would make their case out to be one where they are forced into conflict. Of course, this reflects the ‘ideal’ which present day Japanese society wishes to see; that they were forced into a conflict in World War Two. Present day concerns, particularly involving China can also be seen in the growing justification for military action, as depicted increasingly in Anime. In understanding the perspective of the warriors who fight the battles, it is crucial to look at the traditional values of Shinto, Buddhism and Bushido, and how these come together in influencing the warrior’s outlook. It is not surprising that the civilians who suffer the most in war would have such distrust and resentment towards the military, and this is depicted accurately in many Anime. They experience firsthand the horrors of war, and this inevitably shapes their opinions. Atonement and regeneration are themes that are also seen in war Anime. Good intentions always allow for easier atonement, no matter the barbarity of the action. Similarly, regeneration reflects the need for Japanese society to feel optimistic about a post-war period, which is often filled with uncertainty. While these themes would appear to be strongly linked to World War Two, they are also fairly universal, and can be applied even today. Japanese war Anime is heavily influenced by World War Two experiences, but increasingly, present day concerns are being seen in Anime.


Shintoism is more appropriately understood as sets of traditional beliefs rather than an official religion due to its coverage and intermingling with other ideologies such as Buddhism and Confucianism during different periods of history. The fact that Japanese people view Shintoism simply as a way of life instead of a specific religion enables it to co-exist with Buddhism for centuries.8 Despite the apparent fusion with Buddhism, Shintoism does possess unique values and beliefs of its own. One such belief is the existence of “kami”, which refers to the spirits (mitama) that reside in anything that “possess powers of an extraordinary and eminent character, or deserve to be revered”.9 Things which can possess kami include birds, beasts, plants, trees, seas and mountains or even activities such as education or war. The concept of kami is important as it played an important role in the origins of the first Japanese emperor Jinmu, who was thought to be the descendant of the Sun Goddess (Amaterasu). The imperial dynasty established by Jinmu about two thousand years ago has remained till even today as the notion of the emperor as the holy symbol of Japan still holds.

Another important role played by this concept of kami is the validation for the emperor to start WW2 through State Shintoism. In 1882, Shintoism was institutionalized and split into State (Kokka) Shintoism, which was financed and managed by the government and Sect (Shuha) Shintoism, which was privately supported. State Shintoism was used to gather support for the central administration and its nationalistic ambitions as it helped to “suffuse the national mind with notions of a noble past rich in great traditions” and “a superior racial stock”. Also, the emperor, thought to be the descendant of the Sun Goddess, was “granted” the divine right to rule not just Japan, but the whole world, thus justifying the outward conquests of the Japanese military as State Shintoism “fed the flames of ethnocentric chauvinism”.


Bushido refers to the code of moral principles which the samurais (bushi) are expected to follow. The ideology of Bushido has survived the changes of times and remains relevant to Japanese society today, as seen from the zaibutsu (huge companies) which resemble the clans of the past r ather than merely companies. Employees of zaibutsu are considered as “warriors” for their “clans” in this “war” of business who are demanded utmost loyalty to the zaibutsu.

The sources of Bushido consist of mainly Shintoism, Confucianism and Zen Buddhism. Shintoism offered the undying loyalty to the emperor through the “reverence for ancestral memory” and patriotism to the state through the portrayal of Japan as “more than land and soil from which to mine gold or to reap grain–it is the sacred abode of the gods, the spirits of our forefathers”. Confucianism, on the other hand, offered the political-ethnical concept of hierarchical obedience while Zen Buddhism offered the belief in the “disdain of life and friendliness with death”.

Bushido consists of several principles such as justice, benevolence and politeness. However, the two main principles which were repeatedly emphasized by the Japanese government throughout the Meiji and the WW2 period were those of honor and the duty of loyalty. Honor placed utmost importance on the extreme sense of shame15 which was brought about by failure or misconduct. Such an emphasis motivated the soldiers to rather die in the war than to surrender or return from failure of winning. The duty of loyalty existed early in Japan’s history in the form of feudal fidelity16 and was reinforced through Bushido which demanded absolute loyalty to the sovereign.

Zen Buddhism

Zen Buddhism is a subdivision of Buddhism which originated from the fusion of Indian Mahayana Buddhism and Taoism. Zen Buddhism proposes achieving enlightenment by seeing through the “essential nature” which constitutes everything that exists.17 The focus is on intuitive understanding and self-knowledge as the essence of Zen Buddhism cannot be attained through intellectual knowing or a rational mind.

During the Meiji Restoration and the WW2 period, Zen Buddhism was also subjected to political manipulation by the Japanese government. Two central features of this ideological discourse were the promotion of “loyalty to the throne, patriotism, and national unity” as well as the “Japanese spiritual burden”. The principles of non-dualism (funi) and no-self (muga) were used to justify the absolute conforming to the Japanese government represented by the emperor as the Japanese people are “of one body and mind with the state” and that “they cannot exist without the state”.20 As for the “Japanese spiritual burden”, it was not unlike the “white men’s burden” used by the Western Imperialists to justify their colonization of the East. The promotion of this “burden” was based on Japan’s assumed superiority in terms of spirituality and morality and the desire to “liberate” and “educate” their supposedly more inferior neighboring states.21 Both ideologies were mainly used to gather approval from the Japanese people with regards to the Japanese government’s military and colonial ambitions.


Hayes, Declan. The prospects for war in Japan, the Toothless Tiger. Boston: Tuttle Publishing. 2001.

Sir Reed, Edward J. 1880. “Chapter III: The Shinto Religion” in Japan: Its History, Traditions and Religions London: William Clowes and Sons Limited, p.40

Sakamaki Shunzo. 1973. “Shinto: Japanese Ethnocentrism”. In Moore, Charles A. eds. The Japanese Mind: Essentials of Japanese Philosophy and Culture. Japan: Charles E. Tuttle Company Inc, p. 26, 31

Scott, David and Doubleday, Tony. 1992. “What is Zen?” The Elements of Zen. Great Britain: Element Books Limited, p.02, 06

Tarling, N. A sudden rampage: the Japanese occupation of Southeast Asia, 1941-1945. London : Hurst & Company. 2001.

Akiyuki, Nosaka, Grave of the Fireflies. 1988

Ikeda, Masashi. Gundam Wing. 1995

Otomo, Katsuhiro. Akira. 1988.

Fukuda, Mitsuo. Mobile Suit Gundam Seed. 2002.

Kawamori, Shoji. Macross Zero (OAV). 2002.

Nobuhiro, Watsuki. Rurouni Kenshin. 1996

Keiji, Nakazawa. Barefoot Gen. 1983

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About the author

Nadia Petrova

I'm running this blog because I love Japanese culture, especially the art of geisha. When I was a little girl, I used to dream of becoming a geisha myself. In my spare time, I enjoy watching good anime and reading some manga.

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