Tomb Raider and the History of Japan

[Note: This is a translation of an article I originally wrote in Romanian, but which I realized I wanted in English as well. And translators translate, even if they hate translating themselves.]

I’ve been playing Tomb Raider these days. I won’t pretend I’m enough of a gamer to write a proper review, but I personally liked it. The plot isn’t amazing, but the atmosphere is. And it’s really neat to play from beginning to end.

However, I noticed a few mysterious things about the history of Japan pretty early on. I won’t necessarily say they’re bad (it’s a game that has a strong fantasy side, in the end), but they drew my attention. (I was a Japanese major)

1. Yamatai.

The first time I heard the name, it sounded vaguely familiar – because I’d heard of Yamato (an old region of Japan, associated at one point with the imperial family). So I browsed the net to see what Yamatai was all about. It would seem that there are indeed old documents which say that it was the land where Himiko ruled, but the its location is merely “Where in Japan?”, not the romantic notion of “Let us seek out the lost kingdom”. Long story short, if it was in a certain area, then Himiko was the local ruler and that was that, but if the kingdom was in another (specific) region, then she might be connected with the imperial court later on.

2. Himiko

She is actually mentioned in Chinese chronicles, but not so much in Japanese ones. Or if she is, she’s mentioned under another name. The thing is, with the Japanese you can always encounter things like postmortem names for emperors or with the desire to avoid calling women by their proper names (in the Tale of Genji, 11th c., written by Murasaki Shikibu, the majority of women are named after where they live, or details that remind you of them; even “Murasaki Shikibu” is a pseudonym).

Technically speaking, the Kojiki and the Nihon Shoki, two important Japanese chronicles, were written at the beginning of the 8th century and they avoided naming women during the Heian period, which started at the end of the 8th century. But whatever. I don’t know enough history to be able to tell if that naming interdiction existed earlier on.

3. Sam as a descendent of Himiko

This is where that interesting thing with the unknown location of Yamatai is of consequence. If Yamatai is in the area in which the Yamato imperial court lived later on, that means that the emperors of Japan are Himiko’s descendants. And here’s the fun part: it means that today’s imperial family is descended from Himiko, because the Japanese never changed their ruling dynasty. Moreover, the noble families descend out of the imperial family themselves – when it was clear that a child wouldn’t end up on the throne, he got a family name and became a noble. They didn’t ennoble commoners.

Then, after so long, and so many descendents in so many clans… it’s possible that Sam is very distantly related to a huge number of Japanese people, via Himiko. (so it’s not that unlikely that she’d be compatible with the funky blood-dependent rituals mentioned in the game)

Oh, and about that: in mythology, the Japanese imperial family descends from the sun goddess, Amaterasu.

4. Himiko’s samurai

This was the detail that had me going “Wait, what?!” in the beginning. That legends would say Himiko is guarded by samurai. The Ancient Himiko, guarded by Middle Age samurai. It’s like saying, “Legend has it that the Caesar was a leader from Ancient Rome and his personal guard was formed of loyal knights.” Not really. Warrior samurai appeared centuries after Himiko.

This should’ve been the legend that made Lara wonder what was going on.

5. Himiko as a Buddhist

The island is full of Buddhist statues and Himiko’s represented in the same way. But Himiko was most likely a Shintoist (Shinto is the Japanese indigenous religion, full of gods, demons and spirits). That’s probably where she gets her shamanistic reputation.

6. The art is all over the timeline

Between statues and paintings, my feeling is that they were more keen on representing medieval Japan. Which is explainable in context, but it really should’ve made Lara think.

7. Seppuku

The idea of suicide (with the implications and meanings we associate with Japanese suicide) started around the 12th c. and became a ritual later. So the corpse Lara finds of one of Himiko’s generals who committed seppuku was really suspect.

8. The mummies.

They’re very mummified. Which isn’t really something that would happen, considering the climate. Approximately all the dead you come across seem to have enjoyed the benefits of an Egyptian climate, in which they wouldn’t decompose too much. But considering the weather on the island, they would’ve turned to dust a lot faster. And the samurai who’d committed seppuku would’ve probably been eaten by various animals and bugs.

But, well. Magic!!!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *