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Culture

5 Ways Japan Influenced ‘Star Wars’

Celebrate Star Wars Day with a deep dive into the films and Japanese influences, from Kurosawa’s films to samurai, even the Japanese language.

By 5 min read

Star Wars is a cultural juggernaut, a mass media power encompassing film, television, books, comics, toys and much more.

While Star Wars has several reference points, including old sci-fi movie serials like Flash Gordon, the novel Dune (spice, anyone?), and World War II dogfights (check out 1955 film The Dam Busters for proto-Death Star destruction action), Japan has had an outsized influence on the galaxy far, far away.

Here then are five ways Japan has influenced Star Wars. We’ve tried to keep spoilers to a minimum, but there may be some reveals.

1. The films of Akira Kurosawa

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This is the Obiwan Lucas was looking for.

It’s no secret that George Lucas was a big fan of Japanese film director Akira Kurosawa. So much has been said about the connection between Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress and Star Wars: Episode IV — A New Hope.

We’ve talked about it before, so we won’t go into too much detail here. But the parallels are striking: both feature a bickering pair of commoners embroiled in an adventure with a sassy young princess and a weathered general, played by Kurosawa regular Toshiro Mifune. Lucas even approached Mifune about playing Darth Vader when casting the first film!

Kendo became my base ingredient.

The connections go deeper, though. Lucas (along with Francis Ford Coppola) produced Kurosawa’s 1980 film, Kagemusha, about a warlord’s doppelgänger getting thrown into the thick of things. This story idea also made its way into The Clone Wars, specifically in the fourth episode of the fourth season, “The Shadow Warrior” (also the English translation of the Japanese word, kagemusha), with Jar Jar Binks playing the double.

Kurosawa’s arguably most famous film is The Seven Samurai. It was the inspiration for The Mandalorian episode, “Sanctuary” in the first season. Hiding from the Guild, Mando leads a group of mercenaries to repel raiders from attacking a local village, a clear parallel to the movie. Not coincidentally, this is also the premise for Zack Snyder’s upcoming Rebel Moon, which started life as a Star Wars project.

2. Lone Wolf and Cub

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This is the way.

Lone Wolf and Cub was a manga series that ran from 1970 to 1976. It was also made into numerous films (recut and released overseas as Shogun Assassin) and television series. It’s the story of Ogami Itto, the former executioner for the shogun, who is forced to go on the run with his young son, Daigoro, after being framed for a crime he did not commit.

The similarities to The Mandalorian are numerous, with Grogu following Mando in a floating cradle. Although Daigoro does not have supernatural powers, he is sometimes brought into the fray. The scene in The Book Of Boba Fett, where Luke offers Grogu the choice between the life of a Jedi and being with the Mandalorian, is almost shot for shot from the first Lone Wolf and Cub film.

3. Samurai and bushido

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Samurai in Armour, hand-colored albumen silver print by Kusakabe Kimbei, c. 1870s–90s; in the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles.

There are clear parallels between the Jedi and the samurai. They both follow a code aside from the outward appearance of kimono-like clothing, Darth Vader’s samurai-style helmet and swords (see below). The Jedi have the Jedi Code, which, Buddhist-like, frowns on attachments and stresses compassion. It also forbids killing unarmed opponents as well as coming to terms with and finding peace in your death, as we see when Obi-Wan Kenobi sacrifices himself in his duel with Darth Vader in Star Wars: Episode IV.

On the other hand, the samurai had bushido, which stressed courage, mercy, honor, sincerity and self-control, among other things. The samurai were always ready to die willingly. Not every samurai is a paragon of virtue, though. Sith can be seen as ronin, rogue or masterless samurai. For example, Lawrence Kasdan, co-writer of The Empire Strikes Back, has called Boba Fett a “bad samurai.”

His ronin-like status leaves him open to take jobs from the highest bidder, like Toshiro Mifune’s character in Yojimbo, another Kurosawa classic. Boba Fett even fights ninja-like foes in “Chapter 1: Stranger In A Strange Land,” the first episode of The Book Of Boba Fett.

4. Kendo

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He doesn’t even have the high ground!

The weapon of choice for the Jedi is the lightsaber, an elegant weapon for a more civilized age, as Obi-Wan tells Luke. The lightsaber resembles a samurai’s sword, but there’s more influence here than just appearance. The actual fighting style is largely derived from kendo.

Although fencing also played a part in lightsaber choreography in the original three films, by the prequels, to speed it up, the stunt coordinator Nick Gillard relied heavily on kendo form.

In the documentary Star Wars: Evolution of the Lightsaber Duel, he notes: “Kendo became my base ingredient.”

He points out that (in Attack of the Clones): “The fight between Annakin and Dooku is kendo.” If you watch the fight, you can see standard kendo moves being used.

Ray Park, who played Darth Maul in The Phantom Menace, is a wushu martial arts expert and is used to fighting one-handed. However, when his double lightsaber staff is split in two, he moves to a two-handed grip, which is the proper form for kendo.

5. The Japanese language

Even the Japanese language has had some influence on the Star Wars franchise. Let’s start with the word “Jedi.” It’s not Japanese in and of itself, but many have said it was inspired by the word jidaigeki, or period play in Japanese. Being a film buff and a filmmaker, it’s likely Lucas would have been exposed to the word during his schooling at the University of Southern California (USC).

Another word that is Japanese-esque is the name of Luke’s master, Obi-Wan Kenobi. Obi, of course, means sash or belt, while ken could mean sword. Wan means bay, but that may be stretching it. However, what is not a stretch is to say that Lucas was going for a Japanese feel in Star Wars, if not actual words. That’s not to say there isn’t real Japanese in Star Wars. For example, Yoda is a common surname in Japanese. Translator Hiroko Yoda has written about having trouble signing up for Facebook using her real name.

And, in the recent The Book Of Boba Fett, we hear the word daimyo used to describe a crime lord. Daimyo is, of course, the Japanese word for a warlord. While it is not a one-to-one match (oyabun would be more correct Japanese), it’s close enough to guess Japan again influenced the writers.

What Japanese influences in Star Wars have you caught? Enjoying season two of Lone Mandalorian and Baby Yoda? Let us know in the comments below!

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