What is it about?

Despite the novel’s continuing popularity in Japan and abroad, literary scholarship has largely ignored this novel, a void my article addresses by studying this text against the background of Japanese modernity in general and fascism in particular. I argue that Musashi’s eponymous protagonist, as an ideal samurai, provided a stable ground outside of the shifting space of modernity while still serving the purposes of a nation-state at war. The novel achieves this in two distinct ways: first, using contemporary Zen Buddhist discourse it portrays the “Way of the Samurai” as an unchanging essence. Second, it uses the language of Zen aesthetics to portray “fascist moments” that erase both the distinction subject-object and the moral consequences of violence. Yoshikawa’s figure of the samurai thus embodies the contradictions of the Japanese nation-state in its project of “overcoming modernity.”

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Why is it important?

Despite its status as bestseller (millions of the book have been sold in Japan and abroad), "Musashi" has been largely ignored in western scholarship on popular culture. But his influence on modern ideas about Zen and Samurai is indisputable: any Japanese book about the historical Musashi first struggles to detach this person from the one portrayed in Yoshikawa's novel. Moreover, the association of Zen with the martial arts remains current today, despite very little evidence for this association prior to the twentieth century. Overall, this article allows us to understand how "tradition" functions as a (fascist) resistance against the uncertainties of an economically globalizing world.


A popular image of samurai that remains with me is that of Wesley Snipes meditating in the vampire-flick "Blade." The idea that samurai were masters of meditation remains a common one in cultural productions in Japan, Europe, and the US. However, it is important to see this portrayal as a product of our time that has very little to do with historical reality. It participates in an orientalist rhetoric surrounding "Japan" that continues to misrepresent the country, causing numerous misunderstandings.

Dr. Ben Van Overmeire
Saint Olaf College

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This page is a summary of: Inventing the Zen Buddhist Samurai: Eiji Yoshikawa'sMusashiand Japanese Modernity, The Journal of Popular Culture, October 2016, Wiley, DOI: 10.1111/jpcu.12461.
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