In feudal Japan, the Samurai represented the highest echelon of military nobility. Samurai were skilled and highly respected warriors who were supremely dedicated to a set of moral guidelines called the bushido code. Primarily influenced by Buddhism and the writings of Confucius, bushido stressed the importance of honor, courage, wisdom, and mastery of martial arts and can be loosely equated to the western concept of chivalry. The virtues of bushido were deeply instilled within the collective conscious of Samurai through the generations, and over the years parts of the code were written into formal law, expanding its influence to the whole of Japanese society through to the 20th century. During World War 2, the bushido code was fully embraced by the Japanese military, who indoctrinated their soldiers and Japanese society as a whole to prefer an honorable death over surrender or defeat. When the war ended the constitution was rewritten to eliminate any reference to bushido in an effort to reduce Japanese militarism, but the code still maintains significant influence in modern Japanese society and culture, including one of its most popular exports, manga and anime.
One of the most well known figures in Manga is Akira Toriyama, who was born in 1955, ten years after the end of World War 2. Starting out as a poster designer, he made the move to Manga in 1978 and found huge success with his comedy series Dr. Slump two years later. However, his biggest success came with the release of Dragonball in 1984. It is the story of a young boy named Goku who goes on a quest to find mystical Dragonballs that have the power to grant wishes. As the series progressed, the comedy was gradually replaced with a far more action-oriented plotline and eventually transformed into an entirely new series, Dragonball Z. The series introduced a vast array of characters to the Dragonball canon, including Goku’s son Gohan as well as his new rival, the Saiyan prince Vegeta. DBZ is the most popular series in the Dragonball franchise due to the detailed and engaging storyline, consistently exciting action sequences, well developed and complex characterizations, as well as its various themes and how they can be applied to everyday life.
Recurring themes of Dragonball Z include honor, sacrifice, and morality, all key components of the bushido code. The two main characters of the series, Goku and Vegeta, have vastly different interpretations of the code and what it means to be a noble and honorable warrior. These differences not only inspire a bitter rivalry between the characters that lasts throughout the series, but also represents the philosophical divide between militarism and pacifism in 20th century Japan.
One might think Vegeta as the ultimate representation of the values of the Bushido code based on his warrior pride and eagerness to improve his martial skills, but in actuality his views represent a skewed version of the code. In addition to being courageous and honorable, Bushido also emphasizes the importance of righteousness, benevolence, and wisdom. Vegeta’s skewed interpretation of Bushido combined with his over-reliance on racial dominance (saiyan elite) often lead to his defeat in the series.
Vegeta’s version of the bushido code is similar to the version the Japanese military used to indoctrinate citizens and soldiers into believing war was purifying and that sacrificing their lives for the Emperor was supremely honorable. During the Meiji period, Japan became increasingly nationalistic thanks to modernization and success in foreign wars such as the first Sino-Japanese war and the Russo-Japanese war. During the occupation of China and the second Sino-Japanese War which began in 1937, Japanese troops were pressured to achieve victory or die with honor. Soldiers who died on the battlefield were glorified on the Japanese home front, further cementing the importance of militarism in their society.
Although the Japanese soldiers’ adherence to the ideals of honor and courage emphasized in the bushido code gave them early success on the battlefield, at the same time they were also committing horrible atrocities on ordinary citizens. During the Rape of Nanking, the Japanese soldiers slaughtered hundreds of thousands of citizens in a cruelly sadistic manner, and sadly that is only the tip of the iceberg. Similar massacres were committed elsewhere in China as well as in other territories such as Singapore and the Phillipines. This brutal wave of violence throughout the region is similar to the reign of terror the Saiyans brought to the galaxy they inhabited. Like the Japanese in the 30’s and 40’s, the Saiyans thought of themselves as a warrior race. Their entire society is built around conquering planets both for profit and for the service of their emperor, Frieza. Saiyans are shown taking great delight in slaughtering civilians with the same sadistic intent displayed by Japanese forces in East Asia. The parallels between Saiyans and Imperial Japan don’t end there.
The Japanese treated prisoners of war as subhuman due to their strict belief in honorable death before capture or defeat. Mistreatment of POWs was widespread, and nearly 30% of those taken prisoner by the Japanese would not survive the war. Vegeta displays this same mindset when he cold-heartedly killed his longtime friend Nappa because he had been dishonorably defeated by Goku. The complete disregard for morality and disrespect for the value of human life displayed by Japanese soldiers and by Vegeta is in direct conflict with some of the most important components of Bushido, which in addition to honor and sacrifice also promoted benevolence and righteousness. Both the Japanese soldiers’ and Vegeta’s strict adherence to the same corrupted interpretation of Bushido caused the deaths of millions of innocent lives.
Like Vegeta in Dragonball Z, the Japanese would eventually suffer their downfall due in part to their blind confidence in their own superiority militaristically and racially. While Vegeta’s overinflated pride caused him to underestimate and lose to opponents such as Goku, Android 18 and Cell, the Japanese also underestimated the fighting capacity of their own opponents such as Great Britain, Australia, and the United States for essentially the same reasons. Years of political propaganda from the military caused overconfidence in the Japanese ranks, regularly resulting in disasterous outcomes. For example, their version of bushido encourages rapid advances in the face of overwhelming odds at the expense of defense. While this idea is honorable in principal, it goes against conventional military strategy and often resulted in suicidal banzai charges and eventual defeat. In Dragonball Z Vegeta displays this same attitude emphasizing bold attacks over common sense and strategy. During the Cell saga he even invites Cell to grow stronger for the challenge of defeating him. This lapse in judgement and overestimation of his own abilities caused him to be defeated, just as it did for the Japanese.
In addition to military pride, racial pride played a significant role in causing the atrocities throughout Asia. Under Imperial Japanese rule, racial propaganda claiming the racial superiority of the Japanese people, specifically the Yamato, was omnipresent. Being a very homogenous nation, Japan is very uninviting to foreigners even to this day, but especially back in the 30’s and 40’s. Even before the Second Sino-Japanese war, the Japanese committed a violent pogrom against Koreans who they believed had poisoned water supplies. Over 3,000 innocent people were slaughtered in that event, and the racial hatred only got worse as the years passed. It is believed that the belief of the racial superiority of the Japanese over all other Asian races is one of the major factors that contributed to the widespread atrocities committed during the second world war. Like Imperial Japanese soldiers, Vegeta believes himself racially superior based on his Saiyan blood and nobility. This factors in to his disrespect for other species and races he encounters throughout the series, and his cold hearted murdering of innocent people without a second thought such as on Namek.
Vegeta’s short stature may be another parallel. Japan is a comparatively small nation with limited resources compared to China. It could be argued that their aggressive attitude towards domination in the region is a reaction to being the underdog, in a way. Like Japan, Vegeta is small in stature, but compensates with a tough guy persona and an over-emphasis on increasing his power level, which could be equated to the Japanese building up their arms. Regardless of its connection to Japan, I believe Vegeta’s short stature is a major reason for his aggressive and showboating personality. Both he and imperial Japan had little mans syndrome.
So we’ve explored the parallels between the philosophies of Vegeta and Imperial Japan, but who is Goku supposed to represent? I believe he represents the ideal state of pacifism, non aggressive but extremely capable of handling diversity should it come his way. At the end of World War 2, the Japanese adopted a new constitution that renounces war as a right of the nation, forbids the threat of force in international conflicts, and also forbids the maintinence of land, sea and air forces. The Japanese military today consists of the Japan Self-defense forces, which is typically used in peacekeeping efforts and disaster relief. Throughout the latter half of the 20th century to the present day there has been much debate over the capabilities and scope of the JSDF. With recent tensions high in East Asia, the debate is currently as active as ever, with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe suggesting radical changes.
Although free from state-sponsored militarism, Japan is a country with deep-seeded warrior traditions, and the spirit of bushido still exists under the surface. Goku represents how the virtues of Bushido can still be upheld while maintaining a peaceful attitude. Goku’s benevolent respect for life, selfless acts of bravery and sacrifice, and disciplined restraint despite tremendous power make him an ideal follower of Bushido and a role model for Japan as a whole.
The rivalry between Goku and Vegeta represents the struggle between nationalistic militarism of the first half of the 20th century with the pacifism of the second half. It is a struggle that plagues the national conscious of Japan to this day. Subconsciously, I believe this is one of the major reasons the series is so popular in Japan. Further than that, the struggle between pride and morality is something every individual struggles to balance. Vegeta is villain, but he is still relatable because pride is a natural component of the human condition. We are all proud of ourselves to some degree, but pride is selfish and blinds us to the truth of our condition. Dragonball Z condemns Vegeta’s pride by having him constantly lose to his morally superior foe Goku. In essence, Dragonball Z is a morality tale warning against blind pride and overambition, promoting instead righteousness, courage, and reverence to family and friends.
Dragonball Z is more than a fantastic action series. It is rich with well-developed characters, fleshed-out themes, and intriguing subtexts that are endless in their interpretations. The story and values promoted in the series appeals to both the conscious subconscious mind on a carnal and spiritual level. The series has resonated with millions of fans worldwide not only because of its amazing action sequences, but also because it is relatable to our condition as a species and our place in the modern world. I hope this analysis opened your eyes to some of the deeper meanings behind Dragonball Z and its characters.