Sengoku Boom: Spellbound Young Women
There is a current samurai boom amongst young Japanese women. Mesmerized by TV dramas and uncertain about their seemingly feminine male contemporaries, they are embracing a war-time era (sengoku) in the country's history, when men were men and the samurai code prevailed. At a November 2008 Sengoku manga festival, over 8,000 participants came from across the country. Many wore colorful handmade costumes, most showed off an array of samurai trinkets. What is the reason behind it?
There is no standing room at Watanabe Shoten, a tiny shot bar at Jinbocho, Tokyo, so on a warm night, five of the smoking customers stand with the drinks in the alleyway outside. On “Sengoku Bar Night” hosted by a popular historian, the bar which seats only 14, is packed from visitors from as far as Yamagata Prefecture. Of the 25 there, 18 are women. Talk is boisterous. The national television station NHK is running Ten-Chi-Jin (Heaven, Earth, Man), its current “taiga drama” (an extravagant, year-long historical drama) on Sengoku hero Naoe Kanetsugu (1560- 1619), so he is the main topic of discussion. A sake (Japanese rice wine) called Kanetsugu is poured at a rapid pace. One regular shows off her new handmade Naoe Kanetsugu teddy bear. Another woman who works as a graphics designer shares the cell phone screensaver she created depicting Kanetsugu’s family crest and castle. Naoe Kanetsugu was a real-life samurai (warrior) who lived in 17th century Japan. It’s interesting to wonder about how he would feel being a stuffed animal and a cell phone icon in the 21st century.
The Sengoku Boom
(Sengoku means the Warring States period in Japan between 1493 and 1573.)
There is a current samurai boom amongst young Japanese women. At a November 2008 Sengoku manga festival, over 8,000 participants came from across the country. Many wore colorful handmade costumes, most showed off an array of samurai trinkets. According to festival organizers, over 60% were women in the 20-30s.
On the weekends, the second floor of Rekishiya is a gathering ground of female Sengoku fans. Rekishi-ya is a shop in the Jinbocho publishing district. The first floor is a bookstore specializing in Japanese historical publications. Its clientele is older and male. The upper floor retails historical “memorabilia” and is frequented by female customers. Artwork from the Edo period (1603- 1867), t-shirts of Meiji Bakumatsu (around 1860s) ninja also occupy the floor space, but the popularity of Sengoku samurai cannot be disputed.
“When we first opened in 2006, 80% of our clientele were men over 40. Now 40% are women in their 20-30s. Older men are still patrons, but our customer profile has expanded,” explains Miyuki Miyamoto, the manager of Rekishi-ya. “There is no question that the sales of trinkets on the second floor have grown rapidly in the last two years.” At the back, there is a little tea shop where on weekends, friends can play Othello games based on the famous Battle at Kawanakajima or card games using a deck made of figures of the Battle of Sekigahara.
Experts on this trend pinpoint 2007 as the year that women became attracted to samurai warriors. Popular video games like Sengoku Basara and Sengoku Musou depicted historical warlords as handsome, young men. That year was also when NHK aired a Sengoku era drama “Furin Kazan,” based on the life of Takeda Shingen (1521-1573) and his main strategist. The series attracted much attention from younger people because it featured a popular rock musician Gackt as Takeda’s main rival.
The Appeal of the Sengoku Period
The Sengoku period began from the middle of the 15th century to the beginning of the 17th century when Tokugawa Ieyasu finally unified Japan. (The years of the Azuchi-Momoyama period [1568-1603] are usually encompassed in general reference.) Often referred to as “the Warring States period,” it was a chaotic time of social change and constant conflict. Yet it was also an era when individual achievements were recognized. There was a practice of social meritocracy where capable subordinates forcefully overthrew weakened aristocracy.
Japanese history buffs generally have a fascination with the period beginning from Sengoku to Meiji Bakumatsu, because this was the golden age of samurai and ninja. Whereas historical evidence from the Meiji period leads to a fairly accurate understanding of what happened during that time, there is far less historical reports from the 16th century which leads to more romanticization of the time.