I was born in the early 90s which, in spite of them being considered as Japan’s “lost decade”, are the pinnacle of Japanese soft power influence in the Philippines. At that time, a day in the lives of most Filipino kids wouldn’t be complete without getting a glimpse of their favorite Japanese animes, one of the most prominent of which is Samurai X, the anime adaptation of the famous Rurouni Kenshin manga. I could still recall myself rushing my way from school to home, lest not to miss the final episode aired on a local channel. Those were the good ol’ days.
Personally, I have always been a huge fan of Rurouni Kenshin and it is not only due to the thrilling swordfights and the Kenshin-Kaoru love story. I am a non-conformist. This made me fall in love with the Himura Kenshin character because it breaks all popular conventions of Shounen which usually features a young protagonist zealous for an adventure. Instead, Himura Kenshin is an older lead who is dog-tired from fighting and killing. Its myriad of themes such as love, friendship and politics also enable Rurouni Kenshin to transcend age, gender and national boundaries effortlessly.
But most importantly and in my humble opinion, what makes Rurouni Kenshin a significant pop culture icon not only in Asia but in the whole is its interesting allegory of Japan’s post-war pacifism and security identity.
Before shunning the use of sword for killing and dedicating his life to help those in need, Himura Kenshin lived the life of a revolutionary and an extremely accurate assassin during the Meiji Restoration; just as Japan was once a hotbed of war before renouncing its right to declare war and positioning itself to become a bastion of peace and harmony in Asia. But his pacifism wouldn’t keep Kenshin from using his godly swordsmanship again, only the next time, he would yield his sword without killing anyone to protect those in need, particularly his friends.
Japan and the Philippines have always been friends and share a long history that spans centuries. Japanese traders would visit the island of Luzon during the Muromachi period way before the Spaniards would come to colonize the country. For a brief time, the Philippines would become a part of the Empire of Japan until the defeat of the former at the end of the Second World War. The Japanese occupation of the Philippines would create bad blood between the two countries for generations but as the adage goes, “friends will always be friends.”
Indeed, contemporary relations between the Philippines and Japan are at an all-time high. Japan has become one of the Philippines’ top economic partners and also a major military and security ally. Faced with a common threat, recent “rhetorics” from the two nations would imply assistance and cooperation with each other when push comes to shove, just as the legendary Kenshin Himura has vowed to help and assist his friends and the weak in times of adversity.
All of these make the story of Himura Kenshin still relevant decades later from its original run. It tells us that the strong is responsible for the weak and that justice can be attained in many ways. In this day and age when peace remains a fragile thing and the existence of wars is still a pressing concern in many parts of the world, the beautiful narrative of the Battōsai-turned-protector of the weak serves us a beautiful lesson, that the moment you find the courage to give up your life for someone would be the moment you understand love.