Interview: how historically accurate is Ghost of Tsushima?

The following is a full transcription from our recent Ghost of Tsushima interview with Paul ‘Batman’ O’Brien, discussing the authenticity of the game. For more on Ghost of Tsushima, make sure you read our review.

TSA: First off, could you give our readers a quick introduction to yourself and your work?

Paul: I’m Paul ‘Batman’ O’Brien, I’ve been a martial artist for over 30 years, and specialise in Japanese swordsmanship, particularly authentic traditional systems dating from around the 1600’s and used by the samurai. 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). I’ve also spent over 15 years writing about the martial arts and the samurai for leading martial arts publication, have authored two books on traditional samurai philosophy and presented a number of lectures and talks on the samurai for University College Dublin and Dublin City University. Finally, I’ve also been a historical consultant on TV and film on the subject of swordsmanship and the samurai. You can find several of my published articles on samurai history and technique and my books over at www.Way-of-the-Samurai.com and at my Facebook page – https://www.facebook.com/The.Samurai.Way

TSA: Jin, the protagonist of Ghost of Tsushima, combines both Samurai and Ninjutsu techniques to defeat his enemies. Switching between the two styles depending on the situation. Are combining these two styles something that is practiced, either today or in history? Is there anyone in the past who meshed these two arts together?

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.

“Ninja” were real, if by that you mean individuals, often local thugs, who were paid to set fire to a building, or a person employed to gather information by listening and spreading disinformation through gossip. 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”.

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.

For example, in Musō Jikiden Eishin-ryū (a school teaching the use of the Japanese “samurai” sword) I study, we have the technique “Shinobu”. It means “stealth” or “stealthily” (in the same way ninja are often called “shinobi”). It does not mean we are “ninja” or “shinobi” as titles or descriptions of the people that use that technique. We have another technique in Musō Jikiden Eishin-ryū called “Torabashiri”. It means “tiger running”. It does not mean that we are half-man, half tiger warriors, or that we run on all fours. That would be silly. Much like thinking that someone being sneaky makes them a professional sneaky super-soldier.

TSA: On to fighting style: Jin has four stances. Stone Stance used against swordsmen, water stance used against enemies with sword and shield, wind staff against those armed with spears, and moon stance used against tougher, larger enemies. Are there different stances in Bujutsu? Are they effective against different types of opponents?

In traditional Japanese martial arts (bujutsu) we have “kamae” often translated as stances, position or postures. There are five common ones present in nearly every school of kenjutsu (swordsmanship), often called:

  • Chudan (a middle position)

  • Jodan (an upper position)

  • Gedan (a lower position)

  • Migi (a right side position)

  • Hidari (a left side position)

And then there are school-based variations on each of these such as Seigan (which is like the middle position but the sword is raised to point at the opponent’s eyes), or Karumi or Waki where the sword is placed behind the body to conceal its length and invite a particular attack from the opponent.

These stances are less taken because of a particular weapon and more to do with an environmental positional advantage or a psychological or tactical advantage independent of the weapon you are facing. Each position comes with advantages and disadvantages.

The “stone stance” Jin uses seem’s 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.

The “wind stance” 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. But again, this single-handed display is often used in movies such as Highlander and Kill Bill. One particular bug bearer I have with this in the games like Ghost of Tsushima and movies is when it is lowered in front of the warriors face as a blocking mechanic – all this does is block your vision of the enemies in front of you! And no, you can’t use the shine of the sword as a mirror to look at the enemies behind you. :-)

I haven’t played the game yet (and can’t wait) so I can’t speak to the wind or moon stance Jin uses.

Jin does a lot of really nice things in the trailers, like using kesa giri (a diagonal rising cut), suriagai (a rising deflection), and some nice deep stances. I love the inclusion of the “chiburi” , the motion where he flicks the blood off the blade before noto (putting the sword back in the sheath). But there’s a HUGE movie and manga influence in all of these and aren’t historically accurate. For example, 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. Also, you have no protection in this movement and this exposes a “suki” or opening for an attack that a well-trained samurai is taught not to do. In reality, the blade would be cleaned with paper, or straw before being returned to the saya..but here’s the worst part…using a sword at all in this game is staggeringly unrealistic for a couple of reasons.

Firstly, at the time of the invasion of Tsushima, 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. In fact, the sword wasn’t used much at all in Tsushima, and when used did not work well. They were thin and broke easily on the Mongol armor. Tachi blades were shortened and thickened and it wasn’t until 1281 that these technical improvements in the tachi let it come into its own against the Mongols. After that, the sword was further refined, shorter still, and slightly thicker creating a blade called the uchigatana and later the katana.

The first Mongol invasion, when this game is set, occurred in 1270. At the time the samurai were wearing a tachi, this is a longer, more deeply curved blade then the katana. It was slung from the belt, edge facing downwards. And it wasn’t his primary weapon at all.

Secondly, back at this point in Japanese history the samurai primarily used kyuba no michi (the way of bow and horse). They were first and foremost mounted archers wearing thick heavy armor and riding small horses (much smaller than the fine stead Jin rides in the game). The tachi, slung from the armor and edge down was designed like this to make drawing from horseback easier. When Jin is wearing armor, he seems to have both arms covered. Again, at this time, the right arm was generally left unarmoured so as not to interfere with drawing the bow.

Mostly a samurai of this time would pick a target, lose a single arrow, and hopefully kill someone important for credit and glory. However, due to the environmental conditions in Tsushima, there was a fair amount of fighting on foot. For the most part, the samurai remained on horseback, while a small rag-tag band of lower-class warriors and followers were armed with naginata (curved-bladed polearms), not swords and did the melee fighting, and not at all in the manner the samurai were used to.

Meanwhile, the Mongol army was mostly archer based too. And the majority of fatal injuries suffered in the conflict were either death by stoning or hails of arrows.

TSA: Jin utilises a host of different items whilst in stealth mode, black powder bombs which are essentially a grenade, smoke bombs, sticky bombs covered in pitch, and firecrackers. All of these lean into the stealth ghost side. Story wise it is not considered the samurai way. Were these items available during this period of history and would they have been used?

Paul: There’s a LOT to unpack here. First up I have some sad news. That “samurai way” of honorable conduct is pretty much a 20th-century invention. “Bushido”, for all the claims and endorsements of pseudo-samurai wannabe’s, is a fairly modern development. The term, “bushido” doesn’t appear very often in any of the classical texts of Japanese literature, nor does it occur with any frequency in the military records. It doesn’t really show up until some 17th-century texts, and even then it’s still quite obscure.

Bushido, or at least our modern use of the word to describe the samurai virtue, begins with the publication of Bushido: the Soul of Japan by Nitobe Inazo in 1905. In fact, Nitobe believed he invented the word “bushido” so rare was its use before then.

This book, written originally in English, was written by a scholar of European history and culture. Nitobe was not a scholar of Japanese culture and he had very little understanding of Japanese history. As such his work focused on creating a close parallel between what he believed of the samurai and the subject of his actual area of study – European culture. As such the list of qualities he felt made up Bushido were in fact made up, taken primarily from the concepts of European chivalry and the warrior ethos of Ancient Greece as found in texts like Homer’s Iliad.

Nitobe did not invent the term bushido as he thought, but he did invent a huge amount of the virtuous concepts that he claimed the samurai subscribed to.

There is also 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.

The first recorded use of gunpowder based explosives were crude bombs developed in China in 1221, called zhen tian lei (literally ‘heaven shaking thunder’). The Mongols had stolen this technology by the time of the siege of Xiangyang in 1267 and first introduced them to Japan in 1281.

It is possible the Mongols may have deployed them at the battle of the Tsushima in 1270 but there is no record of them having done so. In the Japanese military accounts of Hakata their description of the bombs is one of total shock and terror. They had no idea what was happening, they had never experienced anything like it.

The Hachiman Gudokun (a military text of 1483) describes this first experience really well;

“But whenever the Mongol soldiers pulled back, iron [bombs] were fired and made a noise, causing disorder by the surprising sound. [Our soldiers’] minds were perplexed and they were frightened out of their wits, their eyes were blinded and their ears deafened so that they could hardly tell east from west”.

By 1560, Japan was gun mad. And the massive use of large scale firearms fundamentally changed Japanese warfare.

Devices such as smoke bombs, firecrackers, grenades were never used in a large scale manner, the Japanese preferring matchlock pistols (teppo), arabesques (tanegashima), and cannons. These smaller gunpowder based weapons are mostly fictional devices from fantasy works such as the Bansenshukai. Think of them like James Bond gadgets in feudal Japanese fantasy adventure stories.

So 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.

As for stealth tactics, as alluded to earlier, the samurai were constantly using stealth attacks and night raids throughout their history. In fact some of the only, in any way successful, military engagements the samurai had with the Mongols from 1281 onwards were very small, stealth-based night time ship attacks.  Beyond that, samurai tactics against the Mongols amounted to lots of barriers to slow and prevent Mongol ships landing and lots and lots of arrows.

TSA: During combat 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. Is this true the way of the Samurai?

Paul: As I mentioned earlier there is no “true way of the Samurai” per say. But 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 etc.

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. Traditionally before the Mongol Invasion, this was fairly easy to do as battles were fought through one-on-one single combat and there would be plenty of eyewitnesses. 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 just simply collect one or two heads from the first bodies they came across, and then quit the battle, and go get paid, so the practice was very much discouraged from about the 1300’as onwards.

One famous example of this is Kikuchi Jiro. This samurai in 1281 would roam the dead Mogol forces and decapitate their corpses so he could bring back a larger number of supposed trophies to add to his own tally and thus claim greater rewards. (See, no samurai code of honour!).

So, no, at this time, 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 to get paid. As such, I’ll go with option 1 being Jin’s motivation.

TSA: Finally, if you had to launch a series of guerrilla strikes against the Mongols horde, what would your favoured strategy be?

Paul: Truthfully I’d wait for a big storm and a favourable wind. ;-) (this is an in-joke – historically this is how the Japanese “beat” the Mongols both times. On the first invasion, the Mongols were heading back to Korea after utterly destroying the Japanese forces and were wiped out by a large typhoon. On the second invasion, the Mongols were kept on their ships by barriers erected in the bay by the Japanese and constant volleys of arrows from samurai archers, and some limited night attacks by small Japanese samurai ships. Then typhoon season came again and a big wind destroyed the Mongol ships. The Japanese named this “kami kaze” (divine wind).

In the game, my tactics will likely be to use as much distance-based attacks as possible (lots of arrows like the samurai did) and then limited night raids (like the samurai did). Though Jin in the game possesses an array of futuristic technology such as his explosives and swords, which are about 150-200 years ahead of this game’s setting, so…that’s a nice advantage that might be fun to play with, but then the question is why not give him a gun?


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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