Taiko and Imperial Japan

Soldiers of the Imperial Japanese Army with captured Chinese battle flags taken during the fight for Nanking

Soldiers of the Imperial Japanese Army with captured Chinese battle flags taken during the fight for Nanjing

Taiko author Eiji Yoshikawa uses the story of Toyotomi Hideyoshi to emphasize the strength and importance of Japanese warriors in history, drawing on the Bushido tradition to inspire his contemporaries. Yoshikawa hoped this narrative would unite the people of late 1930s Imperial Japan in the spirit of conquest once more.

In the early twentieth century, after a series of victories over their Pacific rivals in the First Sino-Japanese War and the Russo-Japanese War, the militant imperialism that took hold of Japan in the previous century had propelled the country to a position as a global power.  The rural, feudal nation where Taiko is set in the sixteenth century looked nothing like this new Japan, as its “miraculous transformation into a modern power during the reign of Emperor Meiji,” had rapidly industrialized the country after his ascension to the throne in 1867 (Chang 181).  Japan was now not only a modern nation, but one boasting a formidable military with expansionist aims.  By the time Eiji Yoshikawa began writing Taiko in 1937, the Korean peninsula, Taiwan, virtually all of Manchuria and several cities along the Chinese coast – including Shanghai, the financial heart of China – were under the control of Tokyo. This was also the year that the Second World War began in the Pacific, with China and Japan again going to war. Though Japan long had eyes on further conquests on the Chinese mainland, this war began after “an unplanned local conflict,” in July outside Beijing – now called the Marco Polo Bridge Incident – quickly “escalated into an all-out war between the two great nations of East Asia,” that would not end for another eight years (Mitter 5). The tenets of the samurai Bushido creed and its emphasis on the warrior spirit would prove useful for the propaganda machine of the empire.

Victories came fast for the attacking Japanese, and by “October 1937 the Nationalist government of China had announced it could no longer defend the existing capital at Nanjing,” instead retreating westward to Chongqing (Mitter 1). Though the battle was won by the Japanese, the war was now clearly one of attrition, and despite their technological advantages over the Chinese, the forces of the Emperor could ill-afford such a bloodletting against their numerically superior foe. The Japanese fighting spirit, it was decided, would be the decisive factor if the war was to have a favorable outcome. In the face of the collapsing shogunate four centuries earlier, the young samurai who would become Taiko spurred on his comrades during their own time of crisis. To the ronin assembled around him Tokichiro said “the nation is changing; a new era is dawning. We will no longer be fighting for ourselves, but rather for our children and grandchildren. You have a chance…to become real warriors following the true Way of the Samurai. Do not let this moment pass you by,” (Yoshikawa 259). To readers in late 1930s Japan the parallel to their own time would have been obvious; it was now their turn to preserve the greatness of Japan for their children and grandchildren, and to seize the moment and fight with the zeal of a Samurai.

As the Japanese Empire went to war with the world, the words of Yoshikawa’s Taiko were ringing through its ears. It would be a fight to the death.


Chang, Jung. Empress Dowager Cixi: The Concubine Who Launched Modern China. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2013. Print.

Mitter, Rana. Forgotten Ally: China’s World War II, 1937-1945. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013. Print.

Yoshikawa, Eiji. Taiko: An Epic Novel of War and Glory in Feudal Japan. Trans. William Scott Wilson. New York: Kodansha USA. Print

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