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History and Momotaro in One Piece's Wano Country Arc

by ZeroReq011,

Once upon a time, there was a young man. The young man set out on a grand adventure, expecting challenges along the way. On this same journey, the young man meets and makes friends. Those friends join him, and they share their food and the road. Eventually, the party of friends reach journey's end and together, after a fiercely epic struggle, overcome the last difficulties standing in their way. The bruised but merry party returns, their quest completed. Basking in how much they've accomplished on their adventure, they also reflect on how things have changed and how they've changed.

This version of the hero's journey is generic enough to apply to all sorts of stories, ranging from ancient mythological tales to adventure shōnen series; One Piece is no exception. The archetypal narrative of fights and friends rather neatly encompasses the latest arc as well as a Japanese folktale called Momotaro. One Piece is no stranger to incorporating popularly known elements of Japanese as well as European culture and others into its eclectic image of super pirates who sail the high seas but ironically can't swim. Wano Country is One Piece's undoubtedly most "Japanese" arc yet, with its samurai, shogun, and society aesthetic borrowing heavily from isolationist-era Edo Japan. This One Piece version of Edo Wonderland is explicitly ruled by isolationist regimes, and has been for a long time.

Wano Country is both a homage to and a retelling of Momotaro with a twist: a reflection of how much Japan has changed and how the Japanese have changed since their homeland's isolation from the world ended well over a century ago. While older versions of the Momotaro story may have been floating around before the Edo period, it was during the that period that the story was finally set to paper for mass audiences. But the seemingly simple story of Momotaro didn't end there, as the decades following the end of Edo re-imagined and re-interpreted the story again and again – through restoration, war, devastation, peace, reconstruction, and now the present, with Eiichiro Oda giving his own twist to this classically journey-weathered tale. This article contains a few minor spoilers for the One Piece manga.

Momotaro and Momonosuke's Great Adventure

Momotaro is a straightforward story with simple morals mainly told nowadays to entertain and educate young kids, boys especially. A boy is miraculously born in a peach to an aging childless couple wishing for a child. The couple name this boy "Momotaro" – (from momo 桃, meaning peach, and taro 太郎, meaning eldest son). The parents' wishes for Momotaro fit a general cultural view of how Japanese boys should grow up to be: strong and bold. Momotaro matures into just that: a young man full of strapping and vigor, ready to take on the world. The young man sets out into this world to subdue the tyrannical ogre-demons of Onigashima (ogre-demon island), with his parents supporting his decision and offering him the tools to pursue his quest. The contemporary version of Momotaro depicts the elderly couple giving him peach-themed armor, a sword, and some kibi dango before bidding him off. On the way to Onigashima, Momotaro meets three talking animals who agree to accompany and fight with him as his companions (his nakama 仲間, if you will) in exchange for a share of his food.

One Piece as a whole broadly follows the spirit behind young boy's stories like Momotaro; the Wano Country arc makes the comparisons to Momotaro less abstract and more direct. The broad plot of One Piece centers around Monkey D. Luffy on his long voyage to become King of the Pirates, and he gradually puts together a crew of companions (nakama) who help him do just that. The Wano Country arc centers around Momonosuke (a young boy named after a peach and dressed in peach-themed clothing) with long-sought hopes of liberating his land from tyrants (one of whom bears a striking resemblance to Japanese ogre-demons) based on an offshore island (also called Onigashima) with the help of human and talking animal companions.

The success of the titular young man's quest against the ogre-demons in Momotaro is treated as a foregone matter: the most modern PG version of the story have the latter implied to be beaten so badly as to promise never to tyrannize Japan ever again. While there's little evidence to suggest One Piece's Momonosuke will fail in the way Momotaro in his story didn't, Momonosuke is forced to face his challenges as a young boy. Momotaro is depicted more often as a young man past puberty by the time he decides to take on ogre-demons; Momonosuke is shown having to face Orochi and the ogre-like Kaido while prepubescent even as most everything and everyone else has aged like in Rip Van Winkle or Urashima Taro.

Thus in its retelling of Momotaro, even as it tries to convey a similar message, One Piece seeks to frame Momonosuke as less ideal than the inspiring hero Momotaro, and more someone to sympathetically relate with. Momonosuke demonstrates in the end that he lacks none of the boldness that is a prized trait among young Japanese boys. He is frustrated at important moments, however, by how much his tiny and immature body limits him, especially compared to someone as strong as his dad, a frustration many boys growing up likely share. His difficulties draw parallels to Luffy way back when he was a small and scrappy kid who cried in frustration at his weakness while being protected by his informal parental figure Shanks.

Even if their stories carry similar messages about family, unlike Momonosuke, Momotaro never lost his parents. Momotaro was brought up by parents until he was a young man. He enjoyed their explicit blessing when he set off on his dangerous quest and they even packed him the tools to carry it out, plus lunch. Momonosuke's parents left his life well before they could raise him into proper manhood. He leaves on his dangerous journey primarily winging it through stories from his retainers about his father and the limited amount he remembers of him. Despite this distinction, both Momotaro and Momonosuke share a strong appreciation and duty towards their parents.

Momotaro returns from his quest offering his parents the spoils of his battle with the ogre-demons. Momonosuke does his best to carry on the memory and ideals of his father Oden as he works at being a leader for his people.

A recurring motif in One Piece is the Straw Hat crew's (and especially the men's) love for eating and sharing food. Being able to eat a lot in Japan is associated with raising healthy virile boys, an attitude towards raising children in general that is further informed by Japan's not-so-distant memory of post-war food shortages. One of the more popular activities among kids recorded during post-war Japan's Sports Festivals were literal bread-eating contests. Feasts, though, are as much about catering to gluttons as they are about bringing people together, as the Straw Hats often demonstrate. The latest manga chapters show The Straw Hats throwing a party for a certain member – while in the middle of executing an attack plan. One Piece makes a nod to the famous food shared in Momotaro by featuring kibi dango and Luffy getting mad that it and other foods are hoarded and wasted at the expense of having a friend and an entire people starve due to an artificially-induced food shortage.

Those themes of bonding through food are most strongly represented in Wano Country through Oden – both a strong, kindly man who brought difficult people together and a warm, comforting dish often shared in winter.

A History of Isolationism in Japan

The historical policy of Japanese isolationism, also referred to as sakoku by historians, dates back to the beginning of the Edo period. The previous Sengoku Jidai, or the Warring States era, saw a number of foreign actors, specifically Western ones, interacting with and leaving their mark on Japan. The political instability of the archipelago prevented any one Japanese warlord from keeping foreign actors from Japan's shores altogether, and some warlords even welcomed them. These foreign actors brought outside news, knowledge, exotic goods, guns, and a new religion. The guns that they brought for trade offered those warlords a substantial edge on the battlefield, up until the technology could be reverse engineered and produced locally.

Some foreigners also came intending to spread Christianity, with some warlords tolerating and encouraging these actions for a number of reasons: a genuine interest in the Christian faith, a desire to curry favor with Christian traders, and a blow towards the local Buddhist forces who constantly meddled in politics. Most prominent among these Western-Christian curious warlords was Oda Nobunaga—who patronized Jesuit missionaries to the extent of sponsoring a church whilst widely employing firearms in his armies and harboring an abiding hatred for certain Buddhist sects that opposed him and whom he summarily crushed.

This Wild West-esque Sengoku Jidai period of unrestricted interaction between Westerners and Japanese came to an end with the rise of the Tokugawa shogunate in Edo, which deemed Christianity a force whose allegiances could not be controlled by the state in the new era and thus ultimately threatening to Tokugawa political hegemony. So in addition to persecuting Christians in Japan, the Tokugawa enacted and enforced a policy that would make sure Christianity would never again gain a foothold from the outside. This policy of isolationism prohibited all foreigners from entering Japan except those given special permissions, such as the Dutch, to conduct limited trade and only trade at designated ports. It prohibited any Japanese from leaving Japan, even accidentally, on pain of permanent exile and summary execution should they attempt to return as they could be potential Christian converts set on spreading the message. Unlike other foreigners, the Dutch had little interest in spreading Christianity and were more invested in making more coin.

The internal stability of the Tokugawa shogunate, combined with the lack of external threats, usher in centuries of relative peace and cultural flourishing in Edo Japan under what was somewhat ironically a military-run government of samurai. Similarly ironic was how the centuries of peace and lack of contact with the outside world left Japan's feudal military capabilities stagnantly obsolete compared to an industrialized West who sooner or later began flexing their guns into imperial pursuits in Asia. The Japanese across the sea saw the once-mighty Chinese Empire under the Qing Dynasty fall rapidly before the advanced firepower of the British. Once the Americans began knocking on Japan's doorstep with their black steam-powered gunboats, the Tokugawa shogunate understood that Japan would be no match in battle and capitulated to the demands of the West. Anger at the quick capitulation would lead to the Tokugawa shogunate's fall, and the rise of an Imperial Japan through the Meiji Restoration.

The West's demands included wrenching Japan from its isolationism so as to dominate the country. Rather than attempting to reinstitute isolationist policies, Meiji leaders resolved to learn and incorporate as much as they could that was useful from the wider world. Through their determination to industrialize, modernize, and nationalize Japan like the West, these leaders resolved to never be tyrannized like this again.

Momotaro's Great and Terrible War

Post-Meiji Restoration leaders aimed to mobilize the Japanese people into working and fighting wholeheartedly for the country to prevent another imperialist Western episode, and one of the ways they sought to do it was through education. In the Edo period, the average Japanese person identified themselves based around their family, their hometown, and their respective ruling lords. Meiji leaders wanted Japanese people to instead identify themselves primarily around the idea of being subjects of a Japanese nation, currying mass loyalties to their idea of nationalism that they could then leverage for power. The first mass mandatory public education system was established during Meiji Japan, not only as a way to better train the Japanese to the task of industrializing and modernizing the Japanese economy, but also as means of indoctrinating the Japanese into giving it their all as dutiful subjects.

As part of this program, Momotaro became a nationalist educational tool.

On its own, Momotaro is a relatively inoffensive tale about how kids, and boys especially, should be strong and bold while showing respect and appreciation to their parents. Certain Meiji leaders saw a potential in this familiar folktale to reinforce the nationalist narrative they were establishing. All it required was some revisions: filial piety is reframed as something to be demonstrated towards not only the reader's parents, but also to the Empress and especially the Emperor as spiritual parents of the entire Japanese nation; children are taught to not only be strong and bold for their immediate family, but for the nation too as a surrogate family in whatever role they found themselves in, be it worker or soldier; the ogre-demons of Onigashima were no longer highly abstracted villains, but any barbaric enemy of the nation that would seek to dominate Japan from their foreign shores.

During the Russo-Japanese War, the ogre-demons of Momotaro were associated with the Russians. Likewise, during World War II, the Allies were the ogre-demons and America, the new Onigashima. Some of Japan's oldest extant animations star Momotaro and his animal companions boldly raiding the Allied powers and taking war spoils for the Japanese nation. A defeated Japan post-WWII had its education system subsequently reformed by the censors of the American Occupation – its mentions and exhortations of militant Japanese nationalism scrubbed from its educational codes and student textbooks. The nationalistic re-interpretations and re-imaginings of Momotaro did not survive this purge, and the tale resurfaced in public consciousness as the relatively inoffensive tale it once was.

Isolationism and One Piece

One of the driving reasons behind Japan's historical policy of isolationism was a wish to resist domination by foreigners through Christianity, and what followed the forced reversal of that isolationism was Japan's domination by foreigners. Isolationist Edo Japan is often depicted as a relatively idyllic and peaceful time, and post-isolationist Japan onwards as bringing immense change and eventually disaster. A dominated Japan swore to never be humiliated ever again, but in doing so, became a tyrant that in turn exerted control over others before becoming dominated once more.

Part of Japan's complicated history with foreigners is reflected in the story of One Piece's Wano. Orochi makes a deal with outsider Kaido: the land of Wano as Kaido's weapons foundry in exchange for Kaido's martial support of his position as shogun. Much of Wano's land undergo environmental devastation mirroring Japan's breakneck forays into industrialization. Many of Wano's people suffer from chronic famine due to food being withheld by the elite and weapons manufacturing being prioritized over farming. Kaido intends to turn the weapons of war made in Wano towards the domination of other countries for his pirate ambitions, much like Japan once turned its heavy industries toward pursuits of imperialism.

While foreigners like Kaido helped engineer Wano Country's ruin, it is also foreigners like Luffy who will contribute to its salvation. Momonosuke's expedition against the tyrants occupying Onigashima are comprised of minks and pirates as well as samurai and ninja. Informed by his own adventures sailing with pirates on the high seas, Oden himself dreamed of a Wano that's open and filled with novel experiences and opportunities.

Rather than a nostalgia-driven reversal to idyllic isolationism, Oden and now Momonosuke want a Wano Country fully engaged with the wider world: not as victims or conquerors like wartime Momotaro, but as normal members in a new romantic dawn.


Oni statue via Wikipedia

Social Scientist & History Buff. Dabbles in Creative Writing & Anime Criticism. Consider following him at @ZeroReq011

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