Gintama and the denial of one’s own atrocities

I recently started watching Gintama on Crunchyroll. It’s a very funny show about a guy named Gintoki who lives by his own odd code of honor while performing odd jobs to get by. He seems lazy and unreliable, but he’s always true to himself and his friends. The show is filled with references to other anime like Naruto, Bleach, One Piece, Prince of Tennis, and probably many more I don’t recognize. Overall I have really been enjoying it.

However, as the story continues further into the overarching premise, I’m more and more aware of the obvious allegory. While at first I simply thought of it as an interesting intellectual exercise, it’s become more troubling to me in light of recent events.

In a nutshell, the plot of Gintama is this: in the Edo period, when Japan was known as the nation of samurai and Tokyo was still called Edo, aliens came to Earth and subjugated the people. The opening narration mentions that the aliens forced Japan to “open their country” and also that they cowed the government through a show of superior force (they fired a huge beam weapon and at least partially destroyed a castle). Subsequently a “no sword” law was enforced, and all the former samurai were forced to find other ways to support themselves, often unsuccessfully. Now the aliens live among the people of Edo, blatantly oppressing them, hiding behind diplomatic immunity.

The parallels with Japanese history are pretty obvious, if you omit certain inconvenient facts. The “opening” of the country recalls Commodore Perry’s black ships, which frightened Japan into agreeing to trade freely with other nations for the first time. The show of force and sword ban bring to mind Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and the subsequent signing of the US-mandated constitution forbidding Japan to engage in warlike activities, including the formation of an army. And the aliens’ oppression of the Edo people calls to mind the Occupation.

What there aren’t parallels for, at least not yet, are the atrocities Japan itself committed in its history. The closest thing are the wars the Edo people fought for over ten years trying to cast the aliens out…but in the context of Gintama, this war is honorable, as the warriors are the victims, not the aggressors. The Anti-Foreigner group that Gin’s war buddy Katsura runs, which depending on your perspective can be called a terrorist group or a group of freedom fighters, seems like something more out of modern Middle Eastern history than Japan’s.

Through all of this, Edo is painted as the victim. And yet the similarities to Japan’s history are too striking to be coincidence.

At first, I thought there wasn’t really much harm in this. It’s an anime. It’s for fun. It’s an interesting story. I’m still not sure the author is trying to make a political statement with his premise. But I do wonder if this premise doesn’t indicate something about Japanese culture, about people’s perceptions about their country and history.

The mayor of Nagoya recently stated that he’s not sure that the rape of Nanjing actually happened. From the Japan Times:

Speaking Monday to a group of Chinese Communist Party members from Nanjing, Kawamura said he was skeptical about whether the Imperial Japanese Army actually raped and slaughtered thousands of Nanjing residents during the war.


“I don’t have any intentions of retracting my comments or apologizing,” Kawamura told reporters Wednesday.


Disputes over the Nanjing Massacre are a constant source of friction in Sino-Japanese relations, and Kawamura’s comments are merely another example of the skewed perceptions held by Japan’s politicans.

This made me wonder if the premise of Gintama doesn’t imply a sort of culture of denial, a general feeling that Japan is a blameless victim.

This sort of thing doesn’t just happen in Japan. Recently, a Japanese translator I follow on Twitter posted a picture from the American History museum in Washington, DC. It was a board on which visitors could stick up Post-It notes with their thoughts about the US’s use of internment camps for Japanese-Americans during World War II. Among the varied opinions, I spotted this one and others like it:

Well…they did attack PEARL HARBOR.

In this case, rather than deny the atrocities happened, people are trying to justify them, but it comes down to the same thing: people seeing what “they” did as horribly wrong, but what “we” did as right and proper. Anything can be acceptable if you assume righteousness is on your side: war, rape, torture, profiteering, prejudice, ignorance, silence.

Everyone wants to believe they are doing the right thing. It can hurt to take a step back and evaluate whether or not that’s really true.

Do we have anything to gain from entertainment that perpetuates our feeling of self-righteousness? Wouldn’t it be better to improve ourselves?

Edit March 22: Tofugu has an interesting post about Japanese textbooks that goes along well with this topic.