Indian Wars, Vietnam and Orientalist Fantasy

The “Shogun” Precedent

I was studying Japanese history in grad school in 1980, when the 10-hour miniseries Shogun, starring Richard Chamberlain and based on the best-selling novel by James Clavell, was first shown on television. Set in the year 1600, it was a blockbuster, attracting more viewers than any such series since Roots, and a huge boon to the obscure field of Japanese studies. Enrollments in Japanese language courses shot up immediately. Scholars in the Japan field winced at some of the film’s historical inaccuracies (for example, women in Japan in 1600 just didn’t do tea ceremony), but were delighted at the interest it sparked. Some in Japan were also bothered by the errors, but were happy that Shogun produced positive interest in their country, which had met with what they called “Japan-bashing” throughout the 1970s due to bôeki masatsu or “trade friction.”

In the series, a Dutch ship piloted by the Englishman John Blackthorne arrives unexpectedly in Japan soon before a fateful battle brings Lord Toranaga to power as the shogun (military dictator) of the country. There are Portuguese and Spaniards in Japan already, Catholic missionaries and merchants who have concealed from the Japanese the existence of Protestant Europe and who are determined to maintain an Iberian monopoly on the Japan trade while spreading Catholicism. Their interests are threatened by the Protestant newcomers’ arrival, and they urge Toranaga to execute Blackhorne and his mates as pirates. Instead, Toranaga warms to Blackthorne, frees him from jail and awards him the two swords connoting samurai status as well as a fief. The Englishman rapidly learns Japanese and Japanese ways, and of course, since this is a movie, falls in love with an elite, beautiful Japanese woman. She dies at the end, having collaborated with Toronaga to incinerate Blackthorne’s ship, to insure that he will never leave Japan but remain to serve the shogun.
The Real “Shogun” Story

Shogun was based on a true story more interesting than Clavell’s creation. There was in fact an English pilot, William Adams (1564-1620), who fought against the Spanish Armada, entered the service of the Dutch East India Company, arrived in Japan in 1600, was imprisoned and, after Jesuits accused him of piracy, was interrogated by the warlord Tokugawa Ieyasu. He won the lord’s trust, became one of his advisors as Ieyasu grasped power as shogun, thereafter received a village fief and samurai status, had a mansion in Edo (Tokyo), facilitated the operations of both the Dutch East India Company and the English East India Company in Japan, married a Japanese woman (a Catholic convert, although Adams was Anglican), had two children by her, and died in Japan in 1620. (He also had a wife back in England, to whom he wrote bemoaning the fact that Ieyasu wouldn’t allow him to leave the country. In fact, he could and did leave Japan for the Ryukyus and Siam on commercial voyages; he probably could have gone back to England and lived very well, but preferred his lot in his adopted country. His letters to his English wife don’t mention the Japanese spouse.)

When the first British merchants made their way to Japan in 1611, and met the legendary figure now known as Miura Anjin (Miura was his wife’s surname; “Anjin” means pilot), they were shocked by his samurai haircut, dress, swords, retinue, apparent preference for Japanese company, and fierce loyalty to his Japanese in-laws. They detected his distaste for their own ways, which now apparently struck him as uncouth, and called him a “naturalized Japaner.” He had earlier sent a letter to England declaring that the Japanese were “governed in great civility—I mean, not a land better governed in the world by civil policy.” He’d noted that while the Japanese were superstitious, they held “diverse views” about religion, and their justice was administered impartially.

The real story here is that a man from Shakespeare’s England, a country that had seen much injustice and religious intolerance, could happily naturalize in a pagan island country, separated from his first one by the vast Eurasian continent. Here (according to one Jesuit writing in the late sixteenth century), the people were “superior to other Eastern peoples but also to Europeans as well.” A people who, according to another Jesuit writing in 1577, were “in no sense barbarous Excluding the advantage of religion,” he declared, “we are ourselves in comparison with them are most barbarous.” (This respect for the Japanese obliged the Europeans to fit them into their worldview as necessarily white. Almost all the sixteenth-century descriptions state: “These are a white people”) The film Shogun made the Englishman’s settlement in Japan the result of the machinations of a wily warlord. The real record suggests Adams made up his own mind, deciding that, for him, Tokugawa Japan was preferable to England. Imagine a film organized around that theme: at the dawn of western capitalism, there could be cultures more attractive to Europeans than their own.


An American Samurai

Twenty-four years after Shogun, I eagerly stood in line for the film Last Samurai, starring Tom Cruise, with my wife (a Cruise-fan who, by coincidence, is descended from samurai on both paternal and maternal sides), and our adolescent son. Our teenage daughter had already heard that the film was “really bad,” and I’d heard that it had received some criticism pertaining to the white guy’s implausibly central role in the action. But I figured that any movie about Japan in the 1870s, starring Cruise, would have to center around the white guy, and I wasn’t going to boycott the film just because it did so. Having seen the film, my verdict is: it’s not “really bad.” In most respects it’s quite good. The basic story line is that a Captain Woodrow Algren, a brilliant soldier and veteran of the Civil War and the “Indian Wars,” is recruited by his former commanding officer to sail with him to Japan as a mercenary military advisor to the newly established Japanese government. The regime, headed by a youthful emperor manipulated by westernizing advisors, confronts a rebellion organized by former samurai. “The emperor wants the modern,” Algren is told. “The samurai want the old.”

Algren is clearly supposed to remind us of the disillusioned, traumatized, frag-prone Vietnam War vet. (Those who’ve seen Tom Cruise in Oliver Stone’s brilliant antiwar film Born on the 4th of July will most easily make the association.) He has followed orders and slaughtered Native Americans, and blames his smugly amoral former commander for ordering him to do so. He frankly tells the officer as he agrees to mercenary service in Japan: “I’d happily kill you for free.” But plagued by guilt (knowing he is ultimately responsible for his own actions), Algren has become a prisoner of the bottle. Arriving in Japan, he competently trains government troops (who appear quite incompetent) in the latest U.S. infantry tactics. In an engagement with the rebels, led by one “Katsumoto” (Ken Watanabe), he is taken prisoner following various heroics that much impress the insurgent leader—who conveniently speaks fluent English. Algren, mastering in a few months one of the world’s more difficult languages, is well-treated by Katsumoto and gradually won over to the cause of the rebels, who view themselves as loyal to the emperor but opposed to his corrupt advisors.

In glorious battle pitting sword-wielding samurai against breech-loading and repeating rifles, with cherry-blossoms (in their beautiful transience, the traditional symbol of the samurai born to die young) in the background, Katsumoto is mortally injured. Rather than be taken by the enemy alive, he has Algren stab him to death. (This is an interesting variation of seppuku, vulgarly known as hara-kiri.) Then Algren gets to kill his former American CO, who’s been fighting on the other side. In this inter-American squabble, Americanized bushidô (the Way of the Warrior) overtakes the Way of Gen. Custer.

Rather than facing charges as a result of his actions, Algren is able to barge into a meeting between the Emperor and his advisors, who are just about to sign a treaty with the U.S. granting trade concessions in return for arms imports. Algren, invoking Katsumoto’s name, moves the vacillating emperor into rejecting the unequal treaty.

The story line more or less works, dramatically. But what’s the real history here? The Last Samurai is set in 1876-7, a time when, in fact, the new Meiji regime (established in 1868) confronted the largest in a series of rebellions mounted by members of the formally abolished samurai class, who comprised about 7% of the Japanese population. (It occurred in the southwestern island of Kyushu, not the mountains of Yoshino in central Japan as depicted in the film.) The movie doesn’t make the cause of these rebellions very clear, and implies that they occurred in protest of governmental corruption. In fact they resulted more from the abolition of samurai status, the commutation of samurai stipends into low-yield bonds, establishment of a conscript national army drawn mostly from the peasantry, and the failure of the new regime to launch foreign wars to provide opportunities for battlefield heroism. Saigô Takamori, the inspiration for Katsumoto, left the government in 1873 after powerful colleagues rejected his plans for an invasion of Korea. Devoting himself to the cause of assisting destitute former samurai in his home province, Saigô was called upon by former retainers to head up an insurrection already in progress, doing so with some reluctance out of a sense of feudal loyalty.

The revolt had little progressive content, required some 60,000 government troops to suppress about 40,000 insurgents, almost bankrupted the regime and caused it to squeeze the peasantry harshly to finance the new conscript army. But the figure of Saigô, who committed seppuku as his cause failed, was revered by many people. So there he stands in the form of a huge statue (one of Japan’s best-known monuments), in Tokyo’s Ueno Park to this day. There’s a real man for you, some Japanese will say. (See Ivan Morris, The Nobility of Failure: Tragic Heroes in the History of Japan to get some insight into the Saigô cult.)

Some Necessary Background: Isolation and Capitalism

In the 1630s, within two decades following William Adams’ death, the grandson of Ieyasu ordered the expulsion of almost all foreigners and their Japanese wives and descendents from the country. (Adam’s son Joseph and daughter Suzannah may have been exempted from the order.) The shogun extirpated Christianity, forbade Japanese from leaving the country on pain of death should they ever return, and allowed only a trickle of trade with Europe through a handful of Dutch merchants confined to quarters on a tiny artificial island constructed off Nagasaki. For the next two and a half centuries, Japan was about as aloof from the international trading system as a major nation could ever be. You might say it resisted globalization, and contemporary globalization proponents might suppose it suffered enormously as a result. But on the contrary—since the Tokugawa shogunate forced the samurai to leave agricultural villages and reside in castle-towns, there was a massive wave, unprecedented in world history, in urban construction. By 1700 a larger proportion of Japanese lived in cities than did people anywhere else except maybe Holland. The emerging cities stimulated all kinds of commercial production in the countryside; traditional labor arrangements based on corvée or lifetime service gave way to contracted wage-labor, and the sprouts of capitalism materialized in Japan as they did nowhere else outside of the west.

“Capitalism succeeded in Europe,” wrote the historian Ferdinand Braudel, “made a beginning in Japan, and failedalmost everywhere else.” There were large-scale manufacturing workshops in Tokugawa Japan; legions of wealthy merchants employing such devices as double-entry bookkeeping, letters of credit, and non-negotiable prices; big dry-goods shops named Mitsui, Daimaru, Mitsukoshi (the direct ancestors of the present conglomerates); theoretical works on market economics; employment agencies, etc. Isolated Tokugawa Japan was not backward but relatively advanced as of the mid-nineteenth century.

But just at that point, the U.S. Congress, which saw Japan’s isolationism as not just stupid—and a challenge to Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations, the classical statement of capitalist economics published in 1776—but immoral, authorized a military expedition to Japan to demand that Japan open its doors to the world market. Persuaded that the U.S. would use military force if spurned, the Tokugawa shogunate capitulated, signing a treaty that went into effect in 1859. It opened ports to U.S. visitation and residence, accepted a tariff schedule injurious to Japan, accorded U.S. citizens exemption from Japanese legal jurisdiction, and specified that any privilege given any other foreign power (Russia, Britain, France and other nations were negotiating treaties with Japan) also automatically apply to the U.S. For the first half-century after its forced “opening” (the British allowed the “unequal treaties” they’d contracted to elapse soon after 1900) Japan was forced to participate in global commerce on inherently disadvantageous terms. (This is worth recalling when issues of “unfair trading practices” come up in the contemporary U.S.-Japan relationship.)

There was an immediate currency crisis as the country joined the world system; gold flowed out of the country, the value of laborers’ wages plummeted, silk thread was diverted from domestic consumers to foreign ones. The legitimacy of the regime was undermined, peasant rebellions proliferated, and xenophobic feelings prompted young samurai to attack foreigners and government officials. But gradually the headstrong youth opposing the country’s opening concluded that Japan indeed had to join the international system, and shifted their slogans from “Revere the Emperor, Expel the Barbarian” to “Civilization and Enlightenment” (meaning: learn from western civilization, and seek western enlightenment while discarding the useless heritage of China) and “Rich Country, Strong Army” (meaning: learn the west’s industrial secrets, invest in steel and shipbuilding, and colonize neighboring territory). Dissident leaders promoting such values and in command of some military might succeeded in toppling the last shogun in the Meiji Restoration of 1868. The above-mentioned Saigô was generally with the program, and most samurai embraced it.

But then the new group in power arranged the dissolution of the feudal domains, replaced by prefectures administered from the center. Samurai retainers of the over 250 Japanese barons were suddenly (in theory) servants of a centralized state that had to pay out the stipends to which they were hereditarily entitled. It was too much of a budget burden for the newborn Meiji state. Gradually samurai status was eliminated, such perks as the exclusive right to bear arms taken away from the ancient warrior class, and the samurai stipends commuted to low-interest bonds. Ironically, it was the ruling samurai clique who undertook these radical reforms, effectively abolishing their own class status. The leaders launched a conscript army, drawing mainly on the peasants, although it was to see little action for a generation. The samurai having lost their raison d’être, were encouraged to turn their energies to trade and industry, fields they had hitherto been schooled to treat with contempt. Some finessed the transition; the Mitsubishi conglomerate was founded by an ex-samurai. But many others responded with indignation. These are the reasons for the rash of samurai rebellions in western Japan between 1874 and 1877.


Foreign Employees in “Open” Japan

During that period thousands of foreigners, mostly Englishmen, were employed by the Japanese government as teachers, technology specialists, and advisers. Algren is supposed to be one of these oyatoi gaikokujin (honored foreign employees). But in fact, the Japanese had their military act together pretty well by the 1870s and did not require foreign assistance in suppressing the samurai uprisings, even though the rebellions were raised by troops using whatever latest military technology they could procure. Thus the depiction of Katsumoto’s samurai as champions of “pure” sword-fighting versus modern rifles is historically not just amusing, but rude to the memory of the samurai who were actually very practical in the adoption of new technology. (The musket was introduced into Japan by Portuguese in 1543, and almost immediately replicated and manufactured in massive quantities. There were far more rifles in Japan by 1600 than in Elizabeth I’s England; the Japanese even made design improvements, and exported their own guns to Siam and elsewhere. Guns were not much needed during Japan’s long period of peace—although they were used to suppress peasant uprisings—but sensing the threat of foreign encroachment in the early nineteenth century the Japanese painstakingly translated and carefully studied Dutch texts on military technology.) In 1877, samurai rebels used firearms (Enfield muzzle loading rifles), mountain guns, field guns, and mortars against government forces quite well, actually.

To return to the closing scene of The Last Samurai: The Meiji emperor is just about to sign a treaty with the U.S. exchanging trade privileges for arms. Into this scene barges Tom Cruise/Captain Algren, who for some reason is still at large having aided a rebel and killed a prominent American. The emperor listens respectfully as Algren upholds Katsumoto’s cause and denounces the treaty. Well, part of me thinks: This is excellent. Here’s an alienated ex-pat, who understands the brutality of his homeland’s government very well. He’s seduced by the charm of Japan, and wants passionately to protect Japan from western encroachment.

But the scene, alas, is highly unrealistic. Nothing like this agreement was ever in fact actually contemplated. The key trade agreement had already been forced upon the Japanese through the implied threat of military force two decades earlier. And no foreigner, even as good-looking as Tom Cruise (who would anyway have bristled with unsightly facial hair in this period) could have just popped in on the Meiji emperor anytime in 1877, counseled him about treaties, and moved him to take a stand one way or the other about a treaty, countermanding the Meiji oligarchs who collectively made policy. The movie gets the geopolitics all wrong, granting the U.S. both more and less power than it wielded in Japan in the period. (Soon after the opening of Japan’s ports produced by U.S. pressure, the U.S. became preoccupied by its Civil War and the British became the main foreign influence and trading partner.) But the idea that the imperial regime could have stood up to U.S. pressure in 1877, encouraged by—of all people—an American resident soldier as depicted in the closing scene, is a huge stretch.


Japan as Alternative

Like Shogun, Last Samurai depicts a preindustrial Japan able to engage the west on its own selective terms—a Japan commanding the westerner’s respect, even humbling him and causing him to rethink his relationship to his own culture. (I say “him” because there were very, very few western women up to the 1880s.) It exalts Tom Cruise with an implausible role in events, but the film hints that the American does, at the end, settle down in Japan (with a woman whose husband he has killed), having become thoroughly alienated from his own due to his experiences in its ugly wars. Japan, that is, conquers him spiritually. Quite a number of Victorians, actually (most notably, the journalist Lafcadio Hearn), did settle down in the country in the late nineteenth century. There were many reasons. Some were captivated by the culture generally, admiring its aesthetics or its openness to ideas. (Darwin’s theory of evolution, taught at Tokyo Imperial University from early on, met with an enthusiastic reception—to the delight of foreign scholars whose advocacy of the theory met with religious opposition at home. All three volumes of Marx’s Capital were translated into Japanese before they were available in most European languages.)

Some enjoyed the matter-of-fact, largely taboo-free attitudes towards the body and sex. Many western men found Japanese women fascinating, not because of their putative docility rumored in ports around Asia; the stereotype of the doll-like playmate entertained by the curious foreign man arriving in Japan typically collapsed soon after he disembarked, as in the case of French naval officer Pierre Loti recounted in his Madame Chrysanthème (1888). What struck the western male about the Japanese female was less her femininity contrasted to the supposedly masculizing western female model, than her expression of aspects of Japanese culture (including some moral and martial qualities) that happened to invite his admiration. We get some sense of this in Last Samurai.

During the twilight of the samurai, an extraordinary range of prominent foreign men, from Hearn to Sir Edwin Arnold to the Portuguese diplomat-writer Wenceslau de Moraes, the Anglo-Irish journalist Frank Brinkley, the Scottish linguist and historian James Murdoch, pioneer seismologist John Milne, architect Josiah Conder and J. P. Morgan’s millionaire nephew George Dennison Morgan, all married Japanese women. “Interracial marriage” was highly controversial at this time, in the west and in Japan, although in Japan there were some who (influenced by a misreading of Darwin) positively advocated Caucasian-Japanese intermarriage in order to “enrich” the Japanese gene pool. Morgan’s family ostracized him. Arnold’s wife, on the other hand, was recognized as a member of the British nobility. The perception of the Japanese as a “white” people worth mixing with at many levels persisted into the twentieth century. When the Japanese triumphed over czarist Russia in 1905, the victory had to be explained in racial terms. An American scholar declared that the Japanese were the most “un-Mongoloid” people in East Asia, and must have “Aryan blood in their veins.” Well, of course. How else could they have defeated Europeans?

Last Samurai depicts a disillusioned American war veteran embracing the code of bushidô, moved by the example of Katsumoto, in order to regain his self-respect. It is an orientalist fantasy. The real story is that of westerners encountering a culture not only as sophisticated as their own, but capable of defending itself, while what the somewhat over-rated historian Walter Lefeber calls “the clash” between the U.S. and Japan began in the nineteenth century. Samurai rebels didn’t need foreign mercenaries to organize them, assist in their belly-slitting, or represent their cause to the Emperor during the early Meiji period. Some westerners, on the other hand, needed Japan to lend them an escape from themselves. In this Japan provided, maybe continues to provide, a vital service. There should be a movie about this.

GARY LEUPP is Professor of History at Tufts University, and Adjunct Professor of Comparative Religion. He is the author of Servants, Shophands and Laborers in in the Cities of Tokugawa Japan; Male Colors: The Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa Japan; and Interracial Intimacy in Japan: Western Men and Japanese Women, 1543-1900.

He can be reached at:








Gary Leupp is Emeritus Professor of History at Tufts University, and is the author of Servants, Shophands and Laborers in in the Cities of Tokugawa JapanMale Colors: The Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa Japan; and Interracial Intimacy in Japan: Western Men and Japanese Women, 1543-1900 and coeditor of The Tokugawa World (Routledge, 2021). He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, (AK Press). He can be reached at: