header is screenshot from Ghost of Tsushima
The Spectre of Fascism
Andrew Kiya

“We will face death and defend our home. 

Tradition, Courage, Honor. They are what makes us. 

We are the warriors of Tsushima. We are samurai!”

Thousands of ships stretch out to the horizon, illuminated only by torchlight and the brightness of a full moon. Eighty samurai of the island of Tsushima, all riding their horses, look downhill to the army that threatens to destroy their homes. They are the Mongol Empire, led by Khotun Khan, who have come to invade Tsushima and the Japanese mainland, enslaving and murdering anyone in their path. The only one who can possibly stop this invasion is your character—Jin Sakai, sole heir of the Sakai Clan and samurai under the Kamakura shogunate—and the brave warriors that stand beside him.

These are the beginning moments of Sucker Punch’s Ghost of Tsushima, which proceeds to throw you into a chaotic battle as flaming arrows rain from above and your fellow samurai fall left and right. Jin charges into battle alongside his uncle, Lord Shimura, before his horse is struck down by arrows and he is forced to fight on foot. As the battle rages on and the samurai dwindle in numbers, Shimura states that there is only one path for them. They must defeat the Mongol leader, even if it costs them their lives. Unfortunately, this does not come to fruition; Shimura is captured, Jin is defeated, and all seems lost.

The opening battle, with its bloodsoaked beaches and imagery akin to something out of Saving Private Ryan, is followed by a tutorial which takes you through a village being pillaged. The prologue goes to great lengths to represent the samurai as foolhardy but honorable defenders of the homeland who follow a strict moral code. In stark contrast are the Mongol forces, portrayed as ruthlessly cunning foreign invaders who burn people alive and slaughter innocent villagers in cold blood. 

Dispersed between the game’s bloody enemy encounters are “Haiku Locations” where Jin shows the player that samurai are more than just brutes—that they're also cultured warriors. And while there’s plenty of moralizing against unnecessary killing, violence remains an integral aspect of Ghost of Tsushima, and is imbued with a sense of virtue. The entire game is littered with village after village, encounter after encounter, where by liberating the locals from the invading force, Jin becomes a legendary freedom fighter who saves the island along with his fellow samurai, in an effort to uphold what he believes is “Honor”: Protecting those who cannot fight for themselves.

Ghost of Tsushima’s narrative rarely deviates from this idea of honor, which is arguably the central theme of the game’s story. “We picked this historical period because it provides a great conflict that’s easy for people to immediately conceptualize," says Nate Fox, director of the game. "The fantasy is that you’re a samurai, the conflict is this foreign invasion, and the stakes were very real.” It's common practice for companies like Sucker Punch, among others, to take inspiration from real historical events with real political actors, but skirt the edge of non-fiction by adding in fictional elements, whether characters or whole groups of people. The Call of Duty franchise—World at War and Black Ops in particular—are also good examples of triple-A games that rely on a real-life foreign enemy, be they Japanese, Nazi, or Soviet soldiers, and dramatized, fictional events.

The problems here are obvious. Games have a long-standing issue with portraying non-white foreigners as enemies, and although all of the protagonists in Ghost of Tsushima are Japanese, the issue is no different. In designing its game around an “easily digestible conflict," Sucker Punch once again finds itself exploring the same tired tropes and cookie-cutter enemies.  This fact is represented in how homogenous the enemy attire, weaponry, and camps are in appearance. Contrary to the popular image of the “Mongol Horde,” the Mongol army was at most times made up of soldiers of many cultural backgrounds that were assembled from around the Empire. And although the Mongol forces also included levies from the Korean peninsula and China, the game insists on making all of the Mongol forces speak exclusively Mongolian without English subtitling, giving practically zero background and resulting in an antagonistic force that feels one dimensional. These examples, among others, showcase the Orientalism that informed the game’s setting and design. 

What sets the game apart from its contemporaries and arguably puts it in some dangerous territory, though, is its heavy reliance on Japanese myth. By setting itself almost 1000 years in the past, when record keeping was scarce and limited to lords, monks, and priests, Ghost of Tsushima plays a delicate balancing act between true-to-life historical non-fiction and myth-making. There are benign examples such as "Mythical Tale" quests, which take you on long-form quests to collect special armor, weapon skins, and combat abilities. These missions are told like traditional Japanese folklore, and add an air of mysticism and fantasy to the game. Fun, engaging stuff. Then, there exists entire concepts whose misuse would set off alarm bells to any politically minded Japanese person—myths loved by ultranationalists that were once used as propaganda to justify fascist rule, and eventually to force young pilots to throw away their lives: 

Bushido. The samurai. And the kamikaze.


Samurai (侍), literally meaning “to follow or serve,” were the warrior landowning class of feudal Japan. This class, by the time of Ghost of Tsushima's events, lived under a special set of rules known as the Goseibai Shikimoku (御成敗式目), where they were told to “stop stealing land from each other,” not to “kidnap any woman you see off of the street, and if you do, pay them fairly,” and not to “[steal] the emperor’s land.” If you were a samurai, you were also given special privileges, including the ability to kill with impunity. This was called Kirisute Gomen (切捨御免), and allowed the samurai to kill anyone who disrespected them as long as they reported them to the authorities.

While they had some restrictions, largely, samurai were still free to take rice taxes as they wished from their holdings. So much of the rice that the peasants grew over the year would be taken for tribute to the emperor that the peasant class would hardly have any left to eat for themselves. In some cases, peasants would be outright banned from eating their own rice, while the samurai and royal court enjoyed the spoils of their labor.

In every aspect, the samurai were a terrible, oppressive ruling caste in society that should not be looked up to. The idea of samurai as the honorable ruling class—as warriors who bravely defended their people from invaders, bandits, and criminals, who were loyal to a fault, and followed a strict moral code—is a faux romanticised version of reality. These ideas were primarily influenced by the writings of Tsunetomo Yamamoto (who wrote Hagakure) in the 18th Century, and later Inazo Nitobe (Bushido: The Soul of Japan) in the 20th Century, well after the samurai's heyday. The samurai that we know today is largely thanks to Nitobe, whose book was a major hit in English speaking countries. Originally written in English, the book—and consequently, its ideas and aesthetics—were reimported back into Japan years later.

Bushido plays a key role in the events of Ghost of Tsushima. Jin struggles between maintaining his dignity by following the “code” of the samurai, and doing anything necessary—be it dishonorably stabbing an enemy in the back, or lacing an entire camp’s drinking supply with poison—to save the island’s inhabitants. In reality, a unified moral code was never set in place for the samurai, and especially not in the 13th century. Nitobe originally wrote Bushido: The Soul of Japan to explain to westerners that, though the Japanese did not have a moral system dictated by religion, because they followed bushido, they were not barbaric. Nitobe would later be criticised by his own Japanese contemporaries for his lack of Japanese sources and overuse of European philosophers to explain Japanese cultural concepts. 

Bushido, and therefore the idea of the morally just samurai, is a myth. Worse yet, the sanitization of the samurai is, in fact, rooted in the fascist history of Japan. Bushido, as Nitobe conceived of it, applied not only to the warrior class but to Japanese people as a whole. This myth was further used in the latter half of World War II in order to bolster morale, and force many soldiers to refuse surrender under the guise of loyalty and honorable death. The Empire of Japan, much like its German ally, used nostalgia and a mythical understanding of the warrior caste to further a fascist cause. The idea of bushido is so influential in the minds of fascists and ultranationalists that, prior to his attempted coup and subsequent suicide by seppuku in 1970, ultranationalist writer Yukio Mishima devoted much of his time toward studying and interpreting Hagakure and bushido.

The ubiquity of bushido in fascist programming is why we have decades of Western media propagating those same myths, and why we see those myths continue to be re-imported post-war. These myths also extend to historical events, where poor recordkeeping and exaggeration of certain details lead to the romanticization of certain periods and events. The invasion of Tsushima is one such example of this. To those who went through the Japanese school system, the Mongol invasion of 1274 as well as the second invasion in 1281 were taught with a focus on the geopolitics of East Asia, as well as its rippling effects on the downfall of the Kamakura shogunate. But to Western audiences, there is another, more infamous myth that the invasion birthed: The kamikaze or "Divine Wind."

While Nate Fox himself states that “History is incredibly important as context for the game,” he then goes on to say that “the original invasion was foiled by a kamikaze, the Mongol boats were sunk by a hurricane.” If history were truly important to Sucker Punch and Nate Fox, however, they would have found out that the records of a typhoon wiping out the Mongol fleet are in fact heavily disputed. The main records in question, known as the Hachimangu Dokun (八幡愚童訓) were written by Shinto priests, who would frequently attribute the outcome of battles—in this case the Mongol army’s retreat—as the doings of God, and by extension their prayers, in order to receive a reward from the royal court. 

Nate Fox later goes on to say that Our hero isn’t a hurricane, he’s a man, and we actually acknowledge that change with his sword that’s engraved with storm wind designs,” providing further proof that Sucker Punch specifically modeled Jin Sakai to be the metaphorical “Divine Wind” that saved the island from foreign invasion. While the term would eventually be used to describe the Special Attack Units of the Japanese Imperial Navy, and subsequently the suicidal dive-bombing technique which they became infamous for, the naming wasn’t just for surface aesthetics: “Kamikaze” was chosen specifically for its ties to Shintoism, as well as its symbol as a divine force that would defeat foreign enemies. The kamikaze of 1274 itself only came into public consciousness during the 20th century—the same way bushido did—by slipping itself into the education curriculum. By choosing to include the kamikaze in Ghost of Tsushima, be it literally or figuratively, Sucker Punch joins a long-standing tradition of Western media inadvertently carrying water for Japanese fascist myth.


What many westerners, linking to positive Japanese reception of Ghost of Tsushima in defense of the game, seem to misunderstand is that many Japanese are unaware of fascist imagery and myths, much like many Americans are unaware of white supremacist or fascist imagery. Many point to the perfect Famitsu scores, the rather positive reception from Japanese players, and approval from the Kurosawa estate as evidence of the game’s quality and accuracy. They seem content with this surface-level justification, rather than seeking out more nuanced perspectives on Japanese history, including its relationship with propaganda. 

Media like The Last Samurai and Ghost of Tsushima are particularly harmful in that they act as vessels to re-import old myths originally created and promoted as political propaganda. To those familiar with Japanese history, particularly its imperialist past, many aspects of said media will come off as dangerously right-wing. The focus on the bushido code, the portrayal of samurai as noble warriors and, in Ghost of Tsushima’s case, a heavy reliance on a foreign invader narrative, all serve as markers for a piece of media that strikingly resembles ultranationalist propaganda. 

Yet, ironically, what saves Sucker Punch from any form of political backlash within Japan seems to be the fact that the studio is Western. This echoes The Last Samurai's initial reception. There seems to be a sort of blind spot, or of lower expectations for Western game studios covering foreign cultures and histories, and it is a perspective that is very much present in player reviews. One could ask, “How would the game have been received in Japan if the studio had been Japanese? Would Japanese audiences have been more skeptical of its messages?” There is already buzz on Japanese social media about Tsushima being a “Netouyo (Internet Right-wing) Game,” and while many seem to be having light-hearted fun playing as a powerful samurai/ninja, we can already see a growing interest from more nationalist crowds. It's in both the lack of historical context within the media object itself and the public’s general ignorance that ultranationalism thrives, as we can already see in the way the game is being used to push fascist narratives.

(CW: Anti-Chinese and anti-Korean racism, imperialist apologia, and rape)

Shohei Ohsawa, an influential ultranationalist with close to 20,000 followers on Twitter who was recently fired from Tokyo University for promoting anti-Chinese hate speech, had this to say about the game:

“「中国人が韓国を経由して攻めてくる」という、まさに反日左翼 vs 保守日本人の戦いになってます。” [Ghost of Tsushima is about Chinese people invading Japan through Korea. It is definitely a fight between anti-Japanese leftists and conservative Japanese people.]"

Ghost of Tsushima やってると慰安婦問題なんて嘘っぱちだって分かるし、やっぱり日本の侍が外国人を犯すわけないよな、でも逆はありそうだから外国人の発想だよなって思うよね。” [Playing Ghost of Tsushima, you can tell that the Korean Comfort Women issue is fake. It's obvious that Japanese samurai would never rape foreigners, but the opposite would definitely happen, so you can tell that it's the idea of a foreigner.]"

It’s not required for a videogame to be historically accurate. Fiction and myth all have a part to play in media, especially in videogames. But when covering a culture that is not your own, of a myth that is so intertwined with a nation’s dark and horrible past, and of a history so prone to revisionism, stereotypes and generalizations should never be on the table. Ghost of Tsushima, even with its high quality Japanese voice acting, beautiful landscapes, and thorough research into local geography, nonetheless falls into this trap.

The ending of the game is supposed to be a heartbreaking conclusion between father-figure and son, and of Jin’s final choice between embracing an honorable end or going down the dishonorable path of the Ghost and rejecting the title of Samurai. While Jin was able to defeat Khotun Khan, it comes at the cost of giving the Mongol forces the ability to craft poison, and Jin is condemned by the shogun and his own uncle. Shimura is tasked with killing his nephew Jin, and the final showdown ultimately ends in a choice between helping his uncle die, or leaving him to his own devices. While I love a good moral conundrum, neither of the choices presented truly make a difference to the central message of the game. Even in sparing his uncle, Jin still upholds a mythical understanding of honor, constrained by the fictional paradigm of bushido. 

There was a second Mongol invasion in 1281, and the ending of Ghost of Tsushima seems to imply a forthcoming sequel, most likely set on the Japanese mainland. While Sucker Punch appears open to criticism, the second invasion has a much more complex political and historical background, as well as comparatively more recordkeeping, in contrast to the first invasion. On the one hand, this could be an opportunity for Sucker Punch to break down a lot of myths surrounding the samurai, and go for a more realistic portrayal of the warrior caste. Whether or not the period’s complexity will affect the game’s outcome and storytelling is to be determined, but one thing is certain: the scars of Japanese imperialism are still fresh, and the risk of reopening old wounds still exists, especially when you consider the ruling party in Japan has ties to ultranationalist groups. And while Japanese fascism may seem like an antiquated problem that's good and gone, the risk of falling into the same patterns, pushing the same myths, and fueling the same fires are still there.


Andrew Kiya is a half-Japanese writer/streamer based in Tokyo, Japan. You can find him talking about Japanese politics and videogames on his Twitter or Twitch.