Joker Game: Duty, Death and the Imperial Rescript to Soldiers and Sailors

Joker Game: Duty, Death and the Imperial Rescript to Soldiers and Sailors

The beginning of episode 2 of Joker Game opens with a voiceover as scenes of children playing at war segue into images of adult soldiers. The opening narration is lifted from the Imperial Rescript to Soldiers and Sailors (軍人勅諭), a document issued by the Meiji Emperor in 1882. The Rescript was a set of rules which formed the basis of the military code of ethics and conduct. It is often cited as instrumental in the development of the mentality and ideals that guided the creation and operation of the Japanese military. The Rescript was studied daily by soldiers while a shortened version consisting of “The Five Principles of the Soldier” had to be memorized. Troops were expected to be able to repeat the “Five Principles” verbatim, word for word, upon command. As depicted in the episode, the entire Rescript was also read aloud by soldiers on certain occasions, making the Rescript a constant and ubiquitous element of military life.

The phrase “Duty is heavier than a mountain, death is lighter than a feather,” highlights one of the most profound messages of the Rescript. The Rescript stressed loyalty and obedience as the prime characteristics of a soldier and that death was preferable to moral failings and dishonor. Military conditioning furthered the notion that death was a viable alternative when confronted with a dilemma that threatened the honor and standing of an soldier, something that comes into play during the search of suspected spy John Gordon’s home.

As noted by Historian Edward Drea, the values of Japanese society in 1937 were built on the acceptance of a hierarchy, aversions to public humiliation, a belief in the uniqueness of the Japanese people, and a series of allegiances that connected citizens to the Emperor. To create a soldier willing to live and die for his beliefs, military training only had to impose itself upon the social order, to overlay structure and discipline on top of existing values. Drea cites the intense nature of Imperial Army training in what he deems the “hothouse” environment of pre-war Japan as an important element in the making of a Japanese soldier. Love of family and love of country was increasingly conflated with strength of arms and loyalty to the Emperor, effectively making the Empire and military an extension of familial ties. The hierarchy of the military was a series of “little loyalties” which built all the way up to the Emperor. This was a major function of the Rescript, connecting the individual soldier to a greater extended “family” in the form of the nation and ultimately to the Emperor himself.

The pervasive national sense of duty coupled with the brutal methods of training and discipline found in the Imperial Army was aimed towards instilling unquestioning obedience.This operated in combination with what Drea refers to as a “deep fatalism” inherent in Japanese society, perhaps best exemplified by the common phrase shikata ja nai (仕方が無い) or “it can’t be helped.” Shikata ga nai is arguably a reflection of a social tendency to accept whatever comes but also not to rock the boat and rail against arbitrary or nonsensical orders and rules. Even in Emperor Hirohito’s speech announcing Japan’s surrender he asked the Japanese people to, “endure the unendurable and suffer what is not sufferable.” Although it has been noted that there were several different and powerful reasons behind the Japanese tendency to choose death rather than surrender during the war, the impact of this conditioning should not be understated. (For more on the other factors, read my previous article Bakuon!! The Siberian Internment and the Social Stigma of Surrender in WWII Japan)

The first few minutes of Joker Game effectively shows the impact of a nationalist ideology based on duty and the inherent glory of war and the military on children. The usage of the Imperial Rescript to Soldiers and Sailors is integral to the episodes thematic development and to Sakuma’s transition from solider to spy. When Lt. Colonel Yuuki states choosing death is often the worst thing a spy could do, it stands in contrast to the precepts espoused by the military which offers death as a solution to an unavoidable situation–not as a problem. It is important to Sakuma’s development, as overcoming his ingrained instincts are not only overcoming personal beliefs but the weight of the intertwined expectations of both society and the military command. The act of touching the Imperial Portrait by Miyoshi during the search of Gordon’s house shows the ability of the spies to act outside of the normal rules of society, to adapt and respond to any situation. Yet this ability comes at a cost. The spies of Joker Game are not just free thinkers unbound by the strict rules of society –they are men permanently apart from their people. Lt. Col. Yuuki states the ultimate fate of the spies is a life of eternal solitude. More than any other factor it is their position as outsiders that dooms them, unable to share in the binding values of the society they serve.

References and recommended readings

  • In the Service of the Emperor: Essays on the Imperial Japanese Army by Edward Drea
  • Selections from the Imperial Rescript for Soldiers and Sailors http://www.facstaff.bucknell.edu/jamesorr/ImpResSoldSailors1882web.htm

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