Tag: Joker Game

Joker Game: The International Settlement and Indian Soldiers in Shanghai

Joker Game: The International Settlement and Indian Soldiers in Shanghai

As a work of historical fiction, Joker Game draws upon the reality of pre-war East Asia to frame its tale of espionage in a world on brink of war. The investigation of a bombing at the beginning of episode 4 shows the complex state of affairs that existed in 1937 Shanghai, a mirror of the international entanglements that would draw the entire world into conflict.

The site of the bombing is located in the Shanghai International Settlement. The International Settlement was a segregated section in Shanghai where many foreign citizens resided and a version of this area can be seen in the Spielberg film Empire of the Sun. In the late 1930s China was nominally an independent country, yet not completely in total control of all of its own territory. Although not a colonized nation, nor under the full dominion of an imperial power, a series of unequal treaties and concessions to foreign governments gave foreigners extraordinary rights and privileges. After Shanghai had been ceded as an open treaty port in the aftermath of China’s defeat in the First Opium War, Britain, the United States and France established settlements in the city. Forcing the defeated Qing government of China to agree to special terms, these settlements were ruled outside of Chinese jurisdiction. The British and American settlements eventually merged and other nations including Japan eventually joined what became known as the International Settlement. The international element of the settlement is evidenced by the number of flags in the center of the banner of the Shanghai Municipal Council, the Settlement’s ruling body.

An old quip about the kind of people who go to China labels them as missionaries, misfits and mercenaries. Although nations had fought the Opium War, most of the residents in China were businessmen and clergymen, with vested interests that did not always coincide with those of their governments. To avoid undue interference, the International Settlement quickly moved to set up its own government early in its existence. By 1937 it was a self governing enclave apart from China with its own military and police force, the majority of which were provided by the British government. The arrangement was not problematic, as it gave each side something out of the deal. The nature of the Settlement’s governance and status as a ceded territory explains why the bombing was being investigated by a British Inspector with Indian policemen.

With East Asia in turmoil, this international state of affairs was not to last. Japan entered into a state of war with China in 1937  Japanese forces attacked and captured Shanghai in August of that year.  It is somewhat unclear as to the date in episode 4 but given the relatively upbeat mood of the city, it is likely before the the Japanese invasion. However, dialogue does mention Nationalist Chinese bombings, so it is probably after the war began in July 1937. As tensions mounted between Japan and other powers in the region, the British withdrew the bulk of their forces in 1940. The end of the International Settlement came after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Knowing that a state of war between Japan and the US as well as other nations was imminent, Japanese solders entered the International Settlement and took control. Foreigners were sent to the Lunghua Civilian Assembly Center to be interned for the duration of the war. (Author’s note: I spent some time at the former site of the Lunghua Center. It is now a high school campus. Very little evidence of the original internment center survives, as the old blockhouses have been demolished and the few articles about the era that once existed have been removed from the school’s museum.)

In 1937 Britain had not yet descended into the twilight of empire, although there were visible and irreparable strains at the seams of imperial control. London still presided over a colonial empire over which many had famously claimed the sun never set. India had been under the direct control of the crown since the Indian Rebellion of 1857. As part of the British Empire, Indians were inducted into service in the British Indian Army. Due to its proximity to East Asia, India provided a means to deploy large numbers of troops rapidly to areas far from the metropole of Britain. Indian soldiers were used in China during the Boxer Uprising and in various theaters in both World War I and World War II. As the majority of foreign troops in Shanghai were provided by the British military, Indians formed a large part of the International Settlement’s Municipal Police and the Shanghai Defense Force.

The style of turbans worn by the Indians soldiers in the scene identify them as Sikh. After the Indian Rebellion of 1857, the British turned to primarily recruit soldiers from what they deemed to be the “martial races.” This race-based ideology stated that people of “martial races” were well suited to be soldiers due to innate bravery and fighting ability. Sikhs were among the groups the British considered “martial races” and were thus recruited heavily.

After World War II, the British hold on India was untenable as internal and external pressures mounted. In India pro-independence sentiments could no longer be contained. At home, Britain lacked the will to continue to hold on to its empire and had begun to turn inwards towards the development of the Welfare State The days of the Raj–the name for the British rule of India–were numbered. Britain quickly began the process of relinquishing control and in 1947 the old British Raj became the new nations of India and Pakistan.


  • The British Indian Army 1860–1914 by Peter Duckers
  • Empire Made Me: An Englishman Adrift in Shanghai by Robert Bickers
  • “‘Punjabization’ in the British Indian Army 1857 – 1947 and the Advent of Military Rule in Pakistan” by Syed Hussain Shaheed Soherwordi
  • Turbans of the Indian Army – http://www.militarysunhelmets.com/2013/turbans-of-the-indian-army
  • “Origin and Development of the Political System in the Shanghai International Settlement” by J.H. Haan
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