Is Ghost of Tsushima historically accurate? We ask a samurai expert

Ghost of Tsushima‘s Jin Sakai is a badass. This one-man army is single handily capable of fighting off an entire Mongol Horde in Sucker Punch’s newest PlayStation exclusive. Not since Colonel John Matrix gunned down an entire battalion of cover-hating soldiers in 1985’s Commando has one man killed so many with such effortless ease.

But does Jin’s potpourri of martial art skills and devastating array of weapons and tools bear any resemblance to historical reality? Could a real Samurai use different elemental stances? Would Japanese warriors in the 13th Century really use firecrackers to fell their foes? And is it unsportsmanlike to finish off a wounded opponent?

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Ghost of Tsushima and the real world history behind Sony’s latest PS4 exclusive

Clearly, I’m not the person to answer these questions. My combat experience extends to putting Toby Scrivens in a headlock for breaking my Sunstreaker Transformer and some drunken inebriate punching me in the side of the head on my way back from a train station. Shockingly, both these events only happened last year. Instead, I turned to a man who is a walking and talking encyclopaedia of all things samurai; Paul ‘Batman’ O’Brien.

Paul has been a martial artist for over thirty years. “I specialise in Japanese swordsmanship, particularly authentic traditional systems dating from around the 1600’s and used by the samurai”. Paul told me, “I am one of the chief instructors in Ireland teaching traditional Japanese swordsmanship (Iaido) and Japanese stick fighting (Jodo), and am the country leader for a traditional school of Japanese sword fighting (Kenjustu).” And if that’s not enough of an impressive resume he’s also authored two books on traditional samurai philosophy, conducted lectures and talks on the samurai for University College Dublin and Dublin City University, worked as a historical consultant on TV and film on the subject of swordsmanship and the samurai, and runs the website www.Way-of-the-Samurai.com.

Clearly, this is a man who knows his stuff when it comes to Japan’s renowned fighting class and is therefore the ideal candidate to answer some of my uninformed questions regarding the historical authenticity of Ghost of Tsushima. I’ll then input his answers into my Historical Accuracy Meter and have the final verdict on how historically accurate Ghost of Tsushima is. Here we go.

Samurai vs. Ninjas

In his guerrilla strikes against the Mongol oppressors, Jin utilises traditional samurai skills in one on one combat as well as ninjutsu techniques to strike from the shadows, switching between the two styles as necessary. I wonder, is combining these two styles something that is practised, either today or in history? Is there anyone from the past who meshed these two arts together? Over to Paul, “This is a very common misconception. ‘Ninja’ and ‘samurai’ were not actually distinct entities. The idea we have of the ninja as a stealthy super-assassin, one-man army, and having a specific style – is a modern myth. It isn’t historically accurate at all.”

Whoa. Hold on a minute there, my mind has been blown – ninja and samurai are not distinct entities? I blame Pizza Cats and Teenage Turtles for this misconception. Paul continued, “There is no specific skill set, codified curriculum or hidden clan of martial arts masters or even a ‘ninjutsu style’. “Ninja” is a job type, not a class of person, social position, or even specialization. It’s what you call someone when you tell Joe, ‘Hey go hide in that bush and let me know if the cops show up!’ and someone asks what Joe is doing – ‘he’s keeping a lookout, or as the Japanese would say in feudal Japan, he’s using ‘ninjutsu”.

So any warrior in Feudal Japan could theoretically use techniques we associate with a ‘ninja’? Paul continued to blast my brain from its housing: “All ninjutsu literally means is “stealth technique”. It’s not a system or style, it’s a description of a movement. Nearly every single samurai clan and nearly every authentic traditional school of koryū bujutsu (old school military techniques/science) had stealth techniques in it. So, a samurai being stealthy is par for the course. Jin using stealth techniques doesn’t make him a “ninja”, he’s still a samurai using stealth techniques and methods which are in keeping with what a samurai would have studied.”

I’m going to chalk that one up as a win for Sucker Punch. There’s no reason at all that Jin, as a samurai, wouldn’t use stealth techniques – into the Historical Accuracy Meter this new information goes.

Jin’s arsenal

But how about the tools he utilises throughout the game? Jin is armed with a host of different items whilst in stealth mode: black powder bombs, smoke bombs, sticky bombs covered in pitch, and firecrackers. Were these items available during this period of history and would they have been used? Paul to the rescue again, “There is no way Jin would have been able to use black powder bombs, smoke bombs, sticky bombs, or firecrackers. They didn’t exist in Japan at this time. In fact, it is generally agreed upon by historians that the Mongols actually first introduced gunpowder into Japan in their second invasion at the Battle of Hakata Bay, 23-30 June 1281.” Paul continued, “While the samurai made great use of gunpowder and guns in general from about the mid 1500’s, it was well after Jin’s time.” Right then, so far its 1-1 on the Historical Accuracy Meter.

Katana and swordplay

Let’s have a look at fighting styles: Jin has four stances. Stone stance against swordsmen, water stance used against enemies with sword and shield, wind stance for those armed with spears, and moon stance to be unleashed against tougher, larger enemies. Are there different stances in bujutsu? Are they effective against different types of opponents? Fortunately I didn’t just spout these questions into the ether, Paul was listening. Get ready for some expert samurai feedback, Sucker Punch!

“The stone stance Jin uses seems very similar to the In no kamae (shadow stance/posture) of Katori Shinto ryū, or Hasso no kamae. This is found in many different schools and has a number of variations. For my money though, his sword is held a bit too low, and too far back to be an effective version of this posture but it looks great in the game and would suit a movie which is where I think the game developers got their inspiration.” And the wind stance? “It seems somewhat similar to a Gyaku in no kamae (reverse shadow stance) or a Gyaku Chudan (reverse middle position) of Muso Jikiden Eishin ryū, but with both of these two hands would be on the sword.  In a single-handed upper position such as Jodan no kamae of the Hyōhō Niten Ichi ryū or the Sasagakure no kamae of Katori Shinto ryū the sword tip would face to the rear, not the front.”

“I haven’t played the game yet (and can’t wait)” Paul continued, “So I can’t speak to the wind or moon stance Jin uses.” I’m not sure I can update my Historical Accuracy Meter then, was there anything else that Paul noticed which could swing my meter one way of the other? Paul did not disappoint in his answer, “In one clip in the initial trailer Jin wipes the sword clean by squeezing it between his biceps and forearm in the bend of his elbow – this would NEVER happen outside of fictional movies. If you try to do that for real with a razor-sharp blade you’ll slice right into your arm.” That’s a very compelling reason not to do that, you’re never going to impress anyone by accidentally cutting your own arm off.

“At the time of the invasion of Tsushima,” Paul continued “the samurai didn’t wear a katana, and certainly not in the belt with the edge upturned as Jin does. That didn’t really come into fashion until about the 1400s. Nearly 150 years after the events of the game.” I’m sorry Sucker Punch, the Historical Accuracy Meter has turned against you. It’s growling and everything.

The samurai code of honour

Maybe considering the ethics of combat will cheer it up a bit. During combat in the game enemies may fall but not die. In these cases Jin can end their suffering quickly. From the story this is seen as the honourable thing to do, showing respect to a fellow warrior.

Paul, would this have really happened? “Within various schools of bujutsu (Japanese warrior arts) that I have trained in, we are taught to deliver a final killing blow to an injured opponent and this is seen as a form of compassion. The idea being that if you cut or maimed someone and didn’t finish the job, gangrene would set in and lead to a long slow lingering death, or prevent their earning a livelihood as a samurai.” Right, I’ll give a point to Sucker Punch then – “However, this is mostly a revisionist picture. At the time of the Mongol Invasions, samurai received payment and reward on the basis of having participated, fought, and killed enemies.”

“In the chaos of the Mongol Invasion, where the Mongols outright laughed at this idea of organized one-on-one bouts and just charged in and started attacking as many people as possible, the Japanese forces had to rely on the older Chinese method of collecting proof – taking a head. Unfortunately, this was a system rather abused, as oftentimes samurai would just go in and simply collect one or two heads from the first bodies they came across. Realistically it wasn’t likely that Jin was following a noble traditional code of conduct and acting compassionately, but 1) ensuring that they couldn’t come back and get him later, and 2) increasing his profit margins. But given that the nearly 80 samurai deployed on Tsushima were wiped out entirely by the near 1,000 Mongols and most of the island were slaughtered, I have no idea who he could be planning on giving heads to in exchange of payment. As such, I’ll go with option 1 being Jin’s motivation.” So Jin wouldn’t finish off an injured opponent for ethical reasons, more for a double tap.

Let’s check the Historical Accuracy Meter for the final verdict, it says “Does not compute. Please restart”. Right, well, glad that’s cleared everything up then. Let’s give the final word to Paul. So, Paul, how would you fend off a Mongol invasion? “Truthfully I’d wait for a big storm and a favourable wind.” Me too Paul, me too.

A massive thank you to Paul ‘Batman’ O’Brien for the giving of his time, knowledge and experience. Find out more about Paul and his work at Way of the Samurai and on his Facebook page.

If you’d like to read the original Interview Transcript with Paul you can do so here. It’s filled to the brim with even more fascinating insight on the history behind Ghost of Tsushima.


Playing with History is our ongoing series spotlighting video games and the real-world people and events that inspire them. From the harrowing historic backdrop fuelling Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice, to the existence of zombies in Days Gone, and a deep dive into Jurassic World Evolution’s T-Rex, join us as continue to expand our timeline.


Ghost of Tsushima Guides from TheSixthAxis

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3 Comments

  1. Thanks for this, was an interesting read. But I’m sure Sucker Punch must know all that, as they definitely researched it too, given it’s an AAA title and they spent years to make this game.
    But, sadly, they’ve not even included any info page or anything to give some historical background (I don’t have the game, but otherwise you wouldn’t have written this, I presume). There they could e.g. give the info they included the bombs for gameplay reasons, even though they didn’t exist there at the time, which is perfectly fine.
    I think it’s a shame game developers don’t use their games also to pass on some of the knowledge they surely built up when making a game. I, personally, love the discovery tour of the Assassins Creed titles, and I got Origins only for that. More game developers should implement that, especially when they choose a historically interesting setting. And, it also adds the bonus you can share this world with your kids.

    • For Sucker Punch it was definitely balancing act of trying to create cool game systems and set pieces while trying to appear authentic. Removing bomb weapons from the game would arguably make it less fun, even if they are historically accurate.

      As you say, it would have been nice to get a little history page in there or some kind of commentary explaining these design choices.

    • Absolutely agree. The discovery tour for both Origins and Odyssey were fantastic and helped highlight the tremendous amount of historical research that goes into building a game world.

      It would be fantastic to see more special features within a video game, something akin to those you’d find on a Blu-Ray, to provide some insight into the creative process. There are some cracking examples out there though, the Raising Kratos documentary was excellent as were Ninja Theory’s Development Diary Videos.

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