Early in Ghost of Tsushima, the protagonist Jin meets an easily lost poet in the surrounding Hiyoshi Springs forest who teaches him the art of haiku, one of Japan’s oldest and greatest poetic traditions. Following the poet’s advice, Jin stands on a nearby rock and tries his hand at composing a haiku, scanning the idyllic landscape for inspiration as he contemplates his quest and the natural beauty around him in a moment of quiet reflection.
It is a picturesque scene that captures the solemnity and Zen-si nature of the haiku in the interpretation of Ghost of Tsushima of 13th century Japan. The only problem is that none of this would have actually happened.
While it is true that samurai were expected to approach other arts beyond the sword and often practiced poetry, haiku as they were introduced into the game did not begin to emerge as an independent poetic form until around the 1600s – roughly 400 years after the Ghost of Tsushima place. Moreover, none of the characters in the play would refer to their poems as “haiku”, as the word did not enter common use until the 19th century, when it was coined by the noted writer Masaoka Shiki – it was considered widely as the last of the “four great masters of haiku.”
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Haiku as we know the form traces its roots back to hokku. These were indeed written at the time of Jin’s adventure, though they were quite different from the haiku he composes throughout the match. Rather than being independent poems, hokku were the stanzas of color opening – collaborative poems played as puns at rallies. While hokku were often considered more important than the stanzas that would follow, they were not intended to be read independently of color, and they would not normally be written as independent poems until the 17th century.
This is not all that the Tsushima Spirit errs on form. Ask anyone who is a haiku and they will surely tell you that it is a short poem written in three alternate lines consisting of five, seven and five syllables, respectively. The haiku that Jin writes in the game all adhere to this model – only that rule is not completely correct. Traditional Japanese hokku actually generally followed a five-seven-five pattern, but their lines were made up of in– phonetic sounds – rather than syllables. This is an important distinction, as one syllable can contain more than one in; the word “Tokyo”, for example, contains two syllables but four in. As a result, haiku that followed a strict syllable count, especially in English, would often end up redundant with redundant words to meet the required number.
It’s mainly because – as Kotaku points out – the haiku you can write in Ghost of Tsushima is not very good. The title haiku composition mini-game is understandably rudimentary, limiting you to choosing different pre-written phrases until you have a three-line poem, so it would be impossible to repeat the nuance of a real haiku in Game. However, even with this in mind, Jin’s poems will almost always turn out to be completely meaningless, as clearly evidenced by my Jin’s first haiku:
Whispers through the trees
A delightful bed under the stars
It grows stronger and stronger
After all, however, the haiku in Ghost of Tsushima is effectively just a kind of collective to control your list of things to do between clashes with the Mongols, so it’s easy to overlook these inaccuracies in most scheme of the game, especially when so many other aspects are so smooth. Developer Sucker Punch has also never advertised Ghost of Tsushima as historically accurate. The studio has always said it was more concerned with capturing the sense of being a samurai than recreating the past, as Sucker Punch co-founder Chris Zimmerman told GameSpot:
“The way I think about it is: we’re going to deviate from the historical truth, we just want to do it on purpose. A lot of the support we get from our friends from Sony in Japan, and our Japanese friends in Sony USA, “All the cultural advisors we have gathered to help us do these things is to make sure we do not deviate accidentally. There are things we will do that are different and we want to choose them wisely.”
It’s a bit ironic, then, that Ghost of Tsushima would have been more authentic if it hadn’t included haiku at all, but it’s hardly the only historical inaccuracy in the game, and it doesn’t detract from its other merits. And on a more positive note, the quiet cancellation moments that inspire Jin to craft his help add to the adventure’s superiority and highlight the game’s dizzying environments, which is never a bad thing.