Posted on Jan 6, 2012 | 1 comment
“Why is the last samurai a white guy?” my son Sho asked me. His younger brother Gen added, “Yeah, it’s weird.” We had just seen the film in which a captured American soldier lives among samurai, learns their ways, and joins them in battle. Tom Cruise’s character was a little uncomfortable when he first tried on Japanese clothes, but after a while he felt fine. At the beginning, I thought he looked a little weird too, but by the end of the film, he looked cool in the red samurai armor. But something seemed wrong to my kids.
“You see, it’s a Hollywood film, so they have to have a white guy for the hero,” I explained to them. It sells better that way. “It’s just like ‘Dances with Wolves’ in which Kevin Costner becomes an Indian.”
But my kids questioned if Tom Cruise or any white guy could really learn the samurai ways. In the film the samurai teach him the values of Bushido that were the ways of the samurai and show him how to use a sword. He was a warrior already and learns quickly. Skeptics would say that he doesn’t spend sufficient time practicing to really learn Bushido, but after all, it’s a film and the audience can’t wait years for Tom to perfect the ways of the samurai.
“Okay,” the kids asked, “what if he had years to train, could Tom Cruise really become a samurai?” Their question reminded me of one the Sumo Association in Japan asked when the giant Hawaiian-native Konishiki was threatening to become the first foreign yokozuna, or grand champion. Some members said that a yokozuna must have great character and should possess certain qualities, such as hin. They suggested that only Japanese could have hin and doubted whether any foreigner could. But are qualities such as hin only a quality of Japanese? And must a person be born with hin, or is it possible to acquire it through education and training?
Some elements of culture may be passed on through our genes, but others, like language, can be learned. It may seem odd for a person who doesn’t “look Japanese” to speak Japanese, but it is easy to do if one learns it naturally or studies hard. It may strike us as odd to see a white guy in a hakama or a black girl in a kimono, but why not? If worn respectfully, we should be flattered rather than annoyed. Many aspects of Japanese culture are popular among the increasing number of people in Japan with foreign origins and also among people around the world. We should get used to people acting in ways once thought to be exclusively for the Japanese.
And we need to redefine who are “the Japanese.” Sho and Gen seemed to think a little more deeply when I reminded them, “Some people might say the same thing about me or you guys, that we’re not “real Japanese.”
As for the samurai, Tom Cruise’s character is deeply influenced by samurai values and ways and begins to integrate them into his life. But weren’t the real last samurai in the film Ken Watanabe’s character Katsumoto and his followers? His Academy Award nomination for best supporting actor was a way of saying that while we appreciate Cruise’s character’s brief dedication to samurai ways, it is Katsumoto who has devoted his life to developing into a true samurai. In real life it takes more than a few months to learn a new way of living.