3 things Ghost of Tsushima gets wrong about Japanese history

Does Ghost of Tsushima abide by the real history of Tsushima?

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Ghost of Tsushima takes us to the Japanese island of Tsushima during the 13th century right as the Mongols are invading the island as part of their latest conquest. After a devastating first assault, samurai Jin Sakai is one of the last remaining warriors left to defend his home and repel the Mongolian forces, but just how historically accurate is Sony's latest cinematic action-adventure game?

Ghost of Tsushima's inciting event — where a small force of local samurai defending against thousands of invading Mongols — is more or less accurate. The Mongolian army did invade Tsushima in 1274 as the game depicts, and they were met by a small group of samurai that were quickly overwhelmed. Ghost of Tsushima starts at that basic same premise but very quickly takes a few liberties by adding some fiction to the mix — especially in the way it introduces a number of fictional characters.

Developer Sucker Punch was devoted to historical accuracy to an extent; The studio invited two modern-day samurai into their office. Sucker Punch co-founder Chris Zimmerman said in a 2018 interview with GameSpot that Ghost of Tsushima takes historical liberties to make a fun game.

"We're going to deviate from historical truth, we just want to do it intentionally," Zimmerman said, adding that cultural consultants helped the team accurately represent Japanese culture from that time period, accurately representing wildlife and statues, along with linguistic nuances. "The challenge for us, making a game in an original story but taking place in a real historical time, is making sure we're telling a story that people can relate to."

Here are three of the biggest differences between the historical facts and the story presented in Ghost of Tsushima.

Jin, a fake as heck samurai.

Sony / Sucker Punch

3. Ghost of Tsushima characters never existed in history

Jin Sakai and his uncle, Lord Shimura, weren't present at the initial battle for Tsushima, nor was anyone with similar naming. Both characters are entirely fictional. The Sakai samurai clan has existed in real-life for generations, but it wasn't established until the 14th century — and the Sakai clan has never been led by a man named "Jin." There's also no such thing as the "Shimura Clan" in Japan, though Shimura is a fairly common surname.

Jin and Lord Shimura's adversary, Genghis Khan's grandson Khotun Khan, isn't real either — though Genghis Khan did have many grandsons. In actuality, it was Kublai Khan who led the Mongol Empire during the First Mongol Invasion of Japan.

The real-world Tsushima samurai were led by the island's actual leaders, the Sō daimyo family. Their leader at the time, Sukekuni Sō, did lead a force of around 80 samurai, and he died during the initial Mongolian invasion.

These key differences are help establish Ghost of Tsushima as a deviation from historical fact very early on. It also opens removes any expiration date for the characters, whereas whenever Assassin's Creed incorporated historical characters, it had to grapple with the real-world death dates for them. With fictional characters, unless they die within the game, Ghost of Tsushima characters can always be incorporated into a sequel.

A depiction of the famous "Divine Wind."

Art by Issho Yada. Photograph by Koji Nakamura via National Geographic

2. No single person stopped the Mongolian invasion of Japan

In Ghost of Tsushima, Jin stands up to the Mongolians and will presumably discover a way to repel them by the end of the game. No human analog to Jin exists in real life. The real Mongolian Army was thwarted in Kyushu, Japan by a hurricane in 1274 well after they conquered Tsushima. A different hurricane allegedly thwarted their second invasion attempt in 1281.

Jin is the personification of that hurricane, which was later dubbed "kamikaze" meaning "Divine Wind." At the time, this miracle was chalked up to the thunder god, Raijin giving the Japanese people a helping hand. The kamikaze has since been written by most off as myth, but some modern scientists believe it actually occurred.

Director Nate Fox commented on the change from a hurricane to human last year: "Our hero isn’t a hurricane. He’s a man, and we actually acknowledge that change with his sword that’s engraved with stormwind designs.”

1. 13th-century Samurai don't use swords or armor

While samurai are almost always depicted as wielding swords in popular culture with "The Way of the Sword" being a widely known ideal associated with samurai, they didn't prefer swords in the 13th-century. Many samurai were taught to fight with bow and arrow while on horseback before any kind of blade. That swanky shogun armor you imagine when somebody says "samurai" wasn't used at that point either. Mongolians also commonly preferred a bow and arrow for combat, so Ghost of Tsushima takes a lot of liberties in terms of the weapons.

A depiction of the real Mongolian invasion. Mongols on left, samurai on right.

Mitsui Sukenaga / Wikimedia

Sucker Punch co-founder Chris Zimmerman noted in the 2018 GameSpot interview that the game leans into fun samurai tropes to entertain at the expense of historical accuracy.

"If you have an idea about what samurai look like or how they act or how they think we're going to give that to you," Zimmerman said. "Most people's idea is really based on an idea of samurai which is really more of a 16th-, 17th-, 18th-century idea of samurai; 13th century, historically, is pretty different."

These stylistic liberties extend into gameplay as well: "There are things that Jin does when you're fighting that no samurai would ever do," Zimmerman said. "He does spin strikes, which are fun, they're very showy, they are completely … you would never do that [in real life]." Many of Jin's more sneaky moves as "The Ghost" riff on traditional concepts associated with ninjas, which didn't emerge in Japan until the 15th century, so many of the samurai and ninja imagery is adopted from much later in history.

In summary, the basic plot hooks and overall story are reminiscent of history, and many of the cultural references reflect the time period. However, Ghost of Tsushima takes many liberties to present us with a fun video game experience.

Only you can decide if Ghost of Tsushima strikes the balance between accuracy and fun properly.

Ghost of Tsushima will be released for PS4 on July 17, 2020.

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