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Analysis / Japanese Spirit

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Here, we will analyze the trope of Yamato-Damashii ("Japanese Spirit") in both Real Life and its use in fiction.

First, it should be noted that in the page quote, Yoruichi is not entirely accurate. The term "Instinct" refers to behavior which is biological in nature and can be done at any time without any form of education or learning. Yoruichi is using the colloquial understanding of "instinct" to refer to any unconscious or automatic behavior, which is inaccurate. For example, humans very much need to learn to walk. It takes several years for a human being to completely master walking, while a horse can do it within minutes. What is being referred to is actually "Heuristics", or the ability for the human brain to turn learned skills or experience into automatic habit and judgment.

However, her definition of "instinct" as stated there is important for understanding the concept of Yamato-Damashii.

Those who study Japanese culture and are well versed in this topic should help expand this analysis for future refinement and further understanding.

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Patriotic Fervor

The concept of Yamato-damashii has existed in some form for centuries. Japan has a long history of national and ethnic pride, partially codified in the Shinto belief that the Japanese islands themselves were divine. In the past, when China was the cultural center of the Asian world, Yamato-damashii was used to draw distinction between the academic and scholarly Chinese values and the simpler Japanese common sense.note 

During the Tokugawa era, "Japanese Spirit" took a backseat to samurai culture and Buddhism, but the cultural emphasis on hard work and self-sacrifice remained. Aside from scholars like Motoori Norinaga, the concept was barely mentioned throughout the centuries afterward, but reached its peak once Japan began to modernize itself. With the entire country desperate to copy, and catch up to, the more advanced West, it became important once again to define what being "Japanese" meant. And for that answer, the state leaders looked to the glory days of Japanese warrior culture.

Honor Before Reason

To understand the use of Japanese Spirit in a Fighting Series, it's critical to know that Feudal Japan only fought two wars against outside forces: the Mongol Invasion of the 13th Century, and the conquest of Korea in the 16th. Unlike many tribes and nations around the world, Japan was never quite faced with a war which threatened the very existence of their culture. Mostly fighting with themselves, they created entirely different standards of warfare based around individual skill, merit and "fair" play. Even in massive campaigns, most battles involved single combat between Samurai, thus the Japanese found foreign tactics, like Mounted Combat and Rain of Arrows (which they adopted and actively cultivated), justifiedly barbaric at the best and unforgivably dishonorable at the worst. Shinto/Buddhist belief and customs have a lot to do with this, as they believed in a very complicated system of karma where someone who lived or died dishonorably would leave behind an evil spirit that would haunt and taint the world for future generations. Thus, dying an honorable death was preferable to living a dishonorable life.

In addition to this, Japanese Spirit also frowns upon over-thinking a problem, especially when dealing with an enemy. Swordfighting evolved into a very fast-paced, fluid style of combat that made it impossible to think during a skirmish—thus, every fight essentially came down to an individual's training, skill, and ability to read an opponent's intent through pure "instinct". Further, samurai scholars posited the benefits of taking to action "within seven breaths".

Values Dissonance: Positives and Negatives

Overall, when viewed positively, Yamato-Damashii is a rejection of emotionless logic and the failure to try because something is difficult or seems impossible. In this sense, it follows the simple creed of "the only way to fail is not to try your best". On the pragmatic level, Yamato-Damshii is intended to refer to "Real Life" insight and ingenuity, and not simply blind optimism. It inspires people to constantly be better, to focus more on uncharted paths than roads already paved, and to retain hope even at the Darkest Hour. One way of looking at how this differs from the west is that, unlike Shintoism or Buddhism, Christianity has a clear disconnect between mortals and the divine; humans should try to be like God, but can never truly BE divine. Further, Judeo-Christians believe that their omni-benevolent and eternal God transcends weakness and mortality. On the other hand, Shintoism believed that every human was born with a musubi, or a divine spark just waiting to be unlocked, and that their deities (or "kami") were mostly flawed and ultimately mortal. This belief in impermanence was another way that Japanese culture became defined by hard work and sincere, determined effort. To put it another way, in the West, "Good" will win with or without human effort, so good people just have to hitch themselves to that wagon. In the East, goodness and effort are the same thing, so evil wins at any point where effort slackens.

With Japanese Spirit, every person is born with everything they ever need to become great in their own way. In short, people who have talent (and are thus higher in the "hierarchy") should not be held back to accomodate for the less-talented, and the less-talented should acknowledge their limitations and perhaps try to succeed in other respects.

However, this can be a problem if "talent" is decided only by those with power, and if those without it are outright discarded or shunned. Negatively, Yamato-Damashii has been compared to Social Darwinism, and also to the western concepts of the "White Man's Burden" and "American Exceptionalism" in that it assigns a specific ethnic group with an immeasurably valuable trait. Yamato-damashii is about all the things that makes Japan and her people good, and by proxy, what the rest of the world lacks. Furthermore, it is specifically a condemnation of academia in favor of common sense, adaptive thinking, and individual merit—in other words, if scholarly wisdom indicates that there is a Million to One Chance, yamato-damashii demands that those odds not only be challenged, but beaten. Furthermore, stemming from the code of bushido, a true follower of yamato-damashii will have risked sure-death for their cause at least once. This led to the glorification of kamikaze tactics in World War II, which (contrary to use of this trope in fiction) did not work out so well. And finally, this trope is also partly responsible for the phenomenon of "karoshi", which translates to "death from overwork" in Japanese. In recent decades, Japanese culture has cultivated the existence of the Salaryman and the Otaku, who pursue their respective interests with obsessive tenacity.

Furthermore, remember how, as mentioned above, Japan had never encountered an existential threat to its culture for most of its history? Well, that all changed during World War II, where, for the first time, Japan found itself faced with a foreign enemy which both outmanned and outgunned it in the United States, who, on account of having been founded on a rebellion against its British masters, had virtually no qualms about using "dishonorable tactics" against the Japanese if that's what won them the battle in the end, and whose slow, calculated but steady advance across the Pacific picked off Japanese resistence like an advancing glacier. The Atomic Bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki further demonstrated that America had the ability to erase Japan's existence as a state and a culture with minimal casualties on their end, and even without that the Soviet Red Army was closing in from the north. Faced with a choice between "dishonorable" surrender and the complete and utter loss and subjugation of their land and people, the Japanese government was ultimately forced to accept defeat in September of 1945. To this day, the war is considered a Trope Breaker of Japanese Spirit in fiction, at least on a national level, although more individual takes on this trope persist.

Naturally, there are still traces of this in Japanese culture and media—a minor means of spotting it is with the phrase "Ganbatte! (Do your best!)" in place of the Western "Good luck!"—although some scholars predict it will die out fairly soon. The concept of Kawaisa has been adopted as its chief replacement, although it can be argued that it still promotes a powerful emotional ideal (in this case, cuteness and delicacy) over a logical or unpleasant one. Another possible result of this trope is that Japan at large still has a mistrust of technology in favor of the Good Old Ways.

    Relationship to other Media 

American Comic Book Superheroes

Thanks especially to Dragon Ball Z, American comic books and Japanese shounen have a lot of overlap. Like their Japanese counterparts, American heroes tend to possess an abundance of Talent, Heroic Resolve, and Heroic Willpower. As such, there are many similarities between the two, and in the West, fans of one are often fans of the other.

However, there is one fundamental difference between an American hero and the Japanese hero: their villains. American heroes tend to fight villains who are either roughly the same power level as they or perhaps even a bit weaker. Superman's archnemesis is Lex Luthor and Batman's is The Joker, for example, and neither archnemesis is stronger than their rival. Superman occasionally may face against foes like Darkseid, and Batman may square off against foes like Bane every now and again, but those are the exceptions—and you rarely ever see the two of them training to defeat those foes. We can certainly assume that Batman works out, trains, and learns new things on his off-time, but the only time it's ever shown is when he's out of his element and needs to develop something specific to defeat the current villain.

Japanese heroes tend to defeat villains who are far above themselves. Every Big Bad that showed up in Dragon Ball Z seemed undefeatable when they first appeared. Aizen was certainly portrayed as miles above every other character for the vast majority of Bleach, and the same is true of other villainous characters across Manga like Priscilla and Itachi Uchiha. When the villain isn't portrayed as exceptionally more powerful than the hero, they will tend to take on the role of The Rival, and the rest of the story will be a mad rush for power until the hero and villain duke it out to prove who's tougher. The villain will usually be defeated at their most powerful incarnation—either in their One-Winged Angel form or with the MacGuffin that brings "ultimate power". The Hero thus usually defeats them by overcoming that might with either an 11th-Hour Superpower or The Power of Friendship or some other power born from their resolve and will. This is in stark contrast to American superheroes, who will usually outsmart the more powerful villain (as Superman does to Mr. Mxyzptlk), remove their powers to bring them back down to a defeatable level (as is Batman's go-to strategy against Bane), exploit a Weaksauce Weakness (as Spider-Man does against Electro, Hydro-Man and Sandman), or get help.

This pattern fits the overall Japanese social themes of hierarchy, conformity and in-group versus out-group. In Japanese media, when a weaker character defeats a stronger one, it's usually because the weaker character has now ascended, or "conformed", to the standards of the higher group. At this point, that character typically ceases to represent the "lower" group. This is the difference between, say, Batman defeating a superpowered being by unlocking superpowers himself and Batman using some other method to defeat them that doesn't increases his tier of power. In Japanese stories, the way to overcome is by first conforming.

As always, there are gray areas on both sides. Some superheroes do fight stronger enemies—Spider-Man is a chronic underdog. Some Japanese heroes do exploit a lame weakness rather than fight force with force (Naruto has used this tactic more than once). And some American stories do employ an 11th-Hour Superpower to defeat a superior threat (Superman is, after all, is the Trope Codifier of New Powers as the Plot Demands). However, in aggregate, there are clear formulas the two genres employ.

Common Tropes And Plot Structure

This section will list and examine the most common tropes of Japanese Spirit. Not all of these tropes are present in every work, but most of them pop up often. Further, this list is mostly comprised off of a Shōnen plot structure. Other genres will often borrow or utilize elements of this structure, but remember that Shōnen is typically meant for young boys and thus is filled with life lessons befitting Japanese society. Traditionally, girls were not expected to have these traits, although that is slowly changing.

    Central Themes 

    Hero Traits 

Past Sins

Past Sins are some sort of tragedy or Dark and Troubled Past that occurred to set the hero on their current path. Usually, the point of these tropes is to provide a past wrong for our hero to eventually right, and to personify him as Laser-Guided Karma toward our Big Bad.

Good Karma

Good Karma are good things that happened (before or after the hero was born) which typically symbolizes the Aesop that the story is advocating, but also explain why why the hero is special enough to BE the hero.

Heroic Resolve

Heroic Resolve is a collection of motivations for our hero that will ensure that they never give up, and why they embody the moral of the story.


"When one has made a decision to kill a person, even if it will be very difficult to succeed by advancing straight ahead [...] The Way of the Samurai is one of immediacy, and it is best to dash in headlong."

Certainty is taboo in these types of stories. If we're assured that something is scientifically impossible or that something will last forever, that will eventually be proven false. To emphasize this point, most Shōnen heroes are idiots, or at the very least, Book Dumb. The Smart Guy will usually be on hand to help them out, but the protagonist will usually be more hot-headed than studious. If science plays a part in the hero's victory, it's as a foundational or supportive role and is ultimately useless if the combat phase fails.

Hero Power Level

Heroes come in three flavors: those who start at rock bottom, those who are the strongest on a local scale but still weak compared to the antagonists, and The Ace, who just beats everyone in the setting. The third is a Discredited Trope in contemporary stories.

Misery Builds Character

"If one were to say what it is to do good, in a single word it would be to endure suffering. Not enduring is bad without exception."

Heroes tend to suffer. This does not kill them but make them stronger.

    Villain Traits 

Villain Motives

"You can struggle, but you'll never beat me. The real world isn't that easy."
Ryōta Kise, Kuroko's Basketball

Villains are usually extremely jaded or nihilistic. The villains embody the way reality supposedly works, versus the hero's more romantic idealism. The world is harsh, so they personify that harshness.

Villain Power Level

Villains are usually seemingly undefeatable. Again, since they embody "reality", anyone stupid enough to oppose them or unlucky enough to get in their way are little more than pebbles caught in a hurricane. Their abilities, therefore, are broken compared to others'. The exception to this are some variations of The Rival, who is usually equal to the hero, or at best, slightly better.

Villain Failings

Villains typically have a Fatal Flaw which involves being mistaken about the way they THOUGHT the world worked, taking an easier path than the protagonist did, or becoming convinced of their invincibility. In short, the villain became complacent. When this is discovered within the story, it spells doom for the villain. In classic samurai literature, it's considered a fatal flaw to ever be sure of one's abililties, or to prioritize victory. Someone who is weak but persistent is considered more righteous even if they fail.

    Conflict Progression 

Fight Setup

Even if the focus of the story is on friendship, teamwork, and constantly expresses that no one is useless, the final battle will almost always come down to a one-on-one duel against the Big Bad. Friends will likely be on hand to lend "support", usually meaning that they will hope and believe in the hero as hard as they can.

David Versus Goliath

The first phase of the fight will reinforce the seeming invincibility of the villain while the hero struggles just to survive. The villain may take the time here to explain how their abilities work, in an attempt to break the hero's resolve by reminding them that they are fighting someone who represents the natural order of things.

Darkest Hour

If the hero does manage to prove a threat, the next phase of the fight is to bring the villain up to their full power, and quite often, the hero will let them do it. If the penultimate phase of the villain's plan was to gain this "ultimate" power, they will succeed in doing so right at the eleventh hour.

11th-Hour Superpower

At their Darkest Hour, the hero will reflect on everything they've learned in the story, or on how much they or their loved ones will suffered. S/he will tap into some sort of hidden power that defeats even the villain's.

Fight Resolution

At the end of the fight, we will usually know a lot more about the villain than at the start of the battle. Sometimes, villains will have flashbacks before they're defeated, and sometimes, the hero will gain an insight into why they're fighting. In the end, though, their resolve is inferior to the hero's. Further, since the hero typically defeats them in their most powerful form, this is a decisive victory which proves the overall superiority of the hero.