Update: 05/25/2017. To coincide with the 40th anniversary of Star Wars today, parts of this preface were rewritten and/or reprinted in The Gaijin Ghost’s “Star Wars Tour of Japan” article, which has now been published on the site TDRExplorer, under a different headline of the editor’s choosing.
It’s no secret that when George Lucas first began devising the Star Wars mythology, he drew heavily from Japanese influences.
Behind-the-scenes lore has long attributed the origin of the word “Jedi” to jidaigeki, a Japanese term used to denote “period dramas,” including those in the chanbara, or samurai movie, sub-genre. So in a sense, the Jedi would be right at home among the floats of brave warriors carried through the streets of Aomori during the city’s annual Nebuta Festival.
But that is really just the tip of the iceberg, in terms of Star Wars and Japan. Dig a little deeper—beyond the hype and nostalgia of the recent movie revival—and the story of what happened “a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away” reveals itself as a pastiche rooted, not only in the space adventure serials of Flash Gordon, and the fairy tale archetypes of Joseph Campbell, but also in the Japanese period dramas of Akira Kurosawa.
What better way, then, to commemorate the 40th anniversary of Star Wars this year, than by taking a look back at some of the fantastic promotional events that have taken place across Japan since early 2015?
This is when the buildup to The Force Awakens kicked into high gear. The sale of Lucasfilm to Disney in 2012 had already stoked anticipation among fans, with many hoping that the long-awaited seventh episode in the Star Wars saga would be the one to redeem the franchise from the prequels. Suffice it to say, in Japan, especially, that would be a year unlike any other for Star Wars fans.
Japan is a country that prides itself on having a rich culture, steeped in centuries of tradition. And yet it is also supremely modern, a place where the old and the new exist, not as separate entities, but as frequently juxtaposed twins (not unlike twin suns, going down over the desert planet of Tatooine, as Luke looks off longingly into the distance.)
Cue “Binary Sunset” by John Williams. Hear that swell of music?
The point is, when the Land of the Rising Sun—which is also, conversely, the Land of the Setting Sun¹—started celebrating the reawakening of the Force, it immediately began pulling out all the stops. And it did so in a way that would blend unique elements of Japanese culture, with the omnipresent sigils of pop culture that characters like Darth Vader and R2-D2 have become.
¹ - No, seriously. In the wintertime, the sun literally goes down at, like, 4pm in Japan.
In other words, throw some kabuki eyes on Luke! Address him by the honorific of “Skywalker-san!” Japanize the Jedi, if for no other reason than because it looks cool, and perhaps, in some small way, makes ol’ blondie up there more relatable to Japanese moviegoers.
While Disney Japan’s marketing push for The Force Awakens, Rogue One, and now, The Last Jedi, has naturally recapitulated some of the same generic promo images that could be seen anywhere else around the world, it has also opted to go with that “Japanized” Jedi spirit and put some novel, region-specific twists on the familiar iconography of Star Wars. As with Luke, this has often been done to eye-catching effect.
The scene above depicts Bandai's Ashigaru (or “Foot Soldier”) Stormtrooper, unsheathing his samurai sword, against a backdrop of the hinomaru, or Japanese flag. Toys like this are but one facet of the ongoing Star Wars blitz that has been sweeping through the Japanese archipelago since 2015.
From the city of Sapporo, on the northern island of Hokkaido, down into Aomori Prefecture, and all the way across the main island of Honshu, to Tottori Prefecture, there have been a number of events staged that seemed to be as much about promoting local tourism as promoting Star Wars.
In most cases, there has only been a short window of time to catch these events. But even if you missed seeing them in person, just being aware of them and their setting might put some new locales on your radar. In this way, a world traveller who also happens to be a Star Wars geek might discover Japan, in a sense, while re-discovering his or her love of Star Wars.
Some of the pics in this post have already begun that process, giving you glimpses of one of Aomori’s Star Wars parade floats. To see different angles of that float, and view three other Japanese Star Wars floats, head on over to The Nebuta Room.
Incidentally, this is what a traditional Aomori Nebuta, shorn of Star Wars characters, looks like.
The Aomori Nebuta Festival runs every year from August 2-7. There is also a museum in the city called the Nebuta Warasse where some of the traditional Japanese floats remain on display year-round.
This is but one destination with recent Star Wars ties, however. Here in Japan, the desert planet of Tatooine and the ice planet of Hoth both have real-world analogues, in terms of environment. Simply visit the Tottori Sand Dunes, or the Sapporo Snow Festival, and you can maybe get a feel for what it would be like to live on one of those planets.
Of course, it helps to have a huge Star Wars sculpture there, to reinforce the movie connection. In 2015, and then again in 2017, Sapporo made headlines for building a gigantic Star Wars snow sculpture to help attract visitors to its snow festival. In the case of Tottori, it was a sand sculpture created by the producer of its sand museum that made headlines.
The Tottori Sand Dunes and Sand Museum are on the travel to-do list for this blog. But there are plenty of other locations affiliated with Japanese Star Wars promotions, like Sapporo, that this blog has already had the chance to visit.
In galleries on The Gaijin Ghost home page, and in posts under the “Star Wars in Japan” heading, over in the blog sidebar, you can vicariously visit some of those locations, and see their history of Star Wars sights, documented in pictures.
For a preview of the places, check out the highlight reel below, which includes snapshots of famous sights in five locations.
Moving clockwise, from top left: the main hall of Kiyomizu-dera Temple in Kyoto; Tokyo Skytree, lit up purple at night; ladies in amigasa hats at the Awa Dance Festival in Koenji; Mori Tower rising up over Maman the spider in Roppongi Hills; and Odori Park during the aforementioned Sapporo Snow Festival.
Hit up the blog sidebar for more!