One Piece is a Japanese manga and anime created by Eiichiro Oda. The manga, or Japanese comic, was released in 1997 and is still an ongoing series as of 2017. The One Piece manga began serialization in Weekly Shonen Jump. Since then, it has become not only one of the most popular manga series in Japan, but one of the best-selling manga series of all time. It sold 100 million volumes by 2005, over 200 million by 2011, and has over 345 million volumes in circulation worldwide as of 2013. It is also a popular anime that has been distributed worldwide.

 

Oda works in the shonen genre of manga, which Roman Rosenbaum, author of Manga and the Representation of Japanese History, translates to “young person’s comic” or more simply “boys’ comic” (15). Shonen manga is one of the most popular forms of manga and is typically characterized by high-action, humorous plots that feature a male protagonist and attractive female characters with exaggerated features that are commonly the voice of reason in the male world. The main character is honorable and serves the greater good, his family, and his friends. However, the male protagonist’s abilities and maturity are usually challenged as he struggles to achieve self-perfection, discipline, and sacrifice. While the traits are not always required, they are most common and characterize the series One Piece.

Several Arcs of One Piece follow the main character Monkey D. Luffy’s adoptive brother Portgas D. Ace. Ace is the son of the former pirate king, Gol D. Roger. Before Ace was born, Gol D. Roger was executed for his crimes against the government, and his mother, Portgas D. Rogue, died from complications due to Ace’s birth. Eventually, Ace’s heritage catches up to him and he is captured by a former crew member, Blackbeard, and the World Government. Ace is set to be executed because he is the son of former Pirate King, Gol D. Roger. The government deems his sole existence a sin to the World Government because he is the son of the “world’s greatest evil” (Oda 45). Ace’s adoptive brother, Luffy, comes to Ace’s rescue. Luffy has always known the truth about Ace’s father, and despite his own troubles with the World Government rushes to Ace’s rescue alongside of the Whitebeard Pirates. In the midst of the battle, Admiral Akainu insults Whitebeard and halts Ace’s and Luffy’s retreat. Ace leaps in the way to shield his brother and is mortally wounded.

Ace struggles his entire life with his bloodline, and despite the violence he faces, his conflicts allow him to develop many positive characteristics historically portrayed by heroes in the shonen genre. Despite the preconceived notions of him by others, Ace constructs a history of his own and represents the shonen hero through traditional Japanese values such as sacrifice and heroic masculinity. Portgas D. Ace represents masculinity and economic class as determined by fate in Japanese culture.

The History of Manga and Eiichiro Oda

Japan categorizes graphic novels into two main genres: shonen and shojo. The shonen genre is directed towards a male audience between the ages of ten and seventeen and emphasizes the camaraderie between teams, fighting squads, or, in One Piece’s case, crewmates. In “The Otherness of Heroes: The Shonen as Outsider and Altruist in Oda Eiichiro’s One Piece,” Hiroko Sasada explains that the word shonen “embraces not only the young male readers but also the genre itself.” While modern trends in manga are very gender-age-specific, pioneers of the genre were less focused on demographic and more concerned with portraying Japanese aesthetic and cultural values. According to Deb Aoki, author of Early Origins of Japanese comics, “the earliest examples of pre-manga artwork that influenced the development of modern Japanese comics are commonly attributed to Toba Sojo” (1). Sojo was an eleventh-century painter and Buddhist priest. Sojo’s scroll paintings often depicted animals, which represented priests, behaving mischievously. Even though there is no dialogue in Sojo’s art there is an obvious progression of events that can be read from right to left just as modern manga portrays today.

While artists like Sojo set the stage for future manga artist, it was not until after World War II that manga began to take shape. During World War II, many artists were limited to portraying Allied propaganda, but when American armed forces occupied Japan after the war, restrictions on publications were lifted and Western influence made its way into Japanese culture. Much of modern manga, like One Piece, portrays a great deal of the transnationalism that occurred during post war Japan, blending both Western ideas and traditional Japanese values, like those of Bushido. Paul Sutcliffe discusses how the Edo period of Japan, spanning from 1603 to 1868, is present in modern manga in his essay “Postmodern Representations of the Pre-Modern Edo Period.” Sutcliffe states that “images of Edo and samurai play on the strong nostalgic recollection of the Bushido ethos . . . Bushido: the key to the national mind and the driving force in Japan’s development” (25). Bushido, meaning, “the way of the warrior” stems from the moral code of samurai, the most important of which was honor unto death. The social structure in One Piece reflects that of the Edo period as well as Ace’s final act portraying characteristics of Bushido.

In the twentieth century, manga reflected many changes in Japanese society including the influence of Western culture on a once isolated nation. The Mangaka, or Japanese manga author, began to mix the style of Western comics with Japanese ideas and thus modern manga was born. The standards for modern manga and shonen manga had already been in place for fifteen years before Eiichiro Oda was born on January 1, 1975, in Kumamoto City, Japan. Oda was four when he decided he wanted to be a manga artist, a decision he says he made in order to avoid getting a “real job” (Oda 2). At seventeen, Oda submitted his first work, Wanted!, and won several awards, one of which got him a job at Weekly Shonen Jump magazine. When he was nineteen and working as an assistant to Nobhiro Watsuki on his series Rurouni Kenshin, he began writing two pirate-themed stories called “Romance Dawn.” These stories were published in Akamaru Jump and Weekly Shonen Jump and featured Monkey D. Luffy who then became the protagonist of his later work, One Piece.

 

One Piece was one of the first modern manga to reach an audience outside of Japan, and since its release has changed the way manga is serialized. Oda’s techniques are no different than his predecessors: he mixes both Japanese ideas with Western influences in order to produce his ongoing Pirate Saga, One Piece. What makes Oda’s work different from other Shonen Adventure manga is his consideration for the past, present, and future of both Japanese and Western culture, where others have only focused on one generation at a time. For example, Ace’s, character design is inspired by American songwriter and musician Stevie Ray Vaughn. Inherently Western in style, it also represents     Japanese     culture,     as     his     masculinity    is

defined by traditional Bushido practices like sacrifice.

Figure 1: Ace and Stevie Ray Vaughn

 

The Will of D: Fate’s Role on Society, Class, and Masculinity

In Japanese culture, fate is understood through the concept of shoganai, which translates to “it can’t be helped” (Spacey, John). The philosophy of shoganai is the belief that things that Figure 1: Ace and Vaughn are out of one’s control should be accepted without a fight. Much of Ace’s life revolves around the nature of his birth and his biological father, both of which were beyond his control. While part of Ace’s character adheres to the practice of shoganai, there is a part of him that desires change and is unable to accept his destiny. Ace’s masculine identity challenges the concept of fate from as early as childhood. In Japanese culture, an individual’s masculine identify is defined by economic success and achievement and though Ace is born with nothing he aims to make a name for himself and defy his condemned birth.

In One Piece, a number of characters have the middle initial D. This mysterious middle initial has been called the “Will

Figure 2: The Death of Portgas D. Ace

of D” or “D’s will” by many characters throughout the series. What has been revealed thus far is that characters with the middle initial “D” are not necessarily related by blood but by fate. However, the initial “D” can travel down bloodlines, from father to son, as is the case with Ace. A  primary trait of the “D” line is their incredible constitution, and surrendering to death when they know there is no way of escape. Those who do die are portrayed as laughing or smiling, as if they do not fear death and instead accept it. Ace is no exception, as seen in figure 2, when he dies protecting his brother, Luffy.

The “Will of D” is still somewhat of a mystery; the closest answer to its meaning comes from the omniscient narrator who states, “Inherited will, the swelling of the changing times, and the dreams of people. These are things that cannot be stopped. As long as people seek the answer to freedom, these will never cease to be!” (12: 1). Fans speculate that those with “D” are survivors or relatives of an ancient kingdom who have the potential to reveal a portion of history that has been erased by the World Government. It is also believed that the Government’s true reason for wanting Roger, Ace’s father and King of the Pirates, was because he knew the truth behind the Will of D and could reveal secrets the World Government was trying to keep buried.

Ace inherits the Will of D bloodline not only from his father but also from his mother. His mother carried him in her womb for twenty months in order to keep him safe from the World Government, who is trying to hunt down Roger’s offspring. Their goal is to prevent his criminal blood from coming into the world. The World Government and the rest of society are unaware of Ace’s existence for much of his life, but Ace is still subject to society’s cruelty. As a child, Ace is forced to listen to various villagers speak of what would happen if a child of Gol D. Roger existed. While he is dying, he reflects back on their words:

“What if Gol D. Roger had a kid?” “Off with his head I say!” “What say we shove a needle in that kid. . . . For every person who hates Roger?” “Let’s burn him at the stake! Right before he dies the whole world will laugh!” “Aye! Everyone is sure to say, “It serves you right” Ha ha ha ha!” “I want his last words to be, “I’m sorry for being born the trash I am!” (Oda 16)

The villagers are unaware that the child sitting amongst them is the very child they are discussing. In a rage, Ace beats the men within an inch of their lives. After nearly killing the villagers for insulting his heritage, he asks his foster father, Garp, “Old man, would it have been better if I was never born?” Garp responds, “Well, only time can answer that question” (106). Even as a child Ace understands that he is considered a plague on society, and yet Garp believes that Ace can defy fate and change his destiny. In this way, Garp is challenging Ace to resist the concept of shoganai that defines Ace’s economic class and masculinity.

In the beginning, Ace acts according to shoganai philosophy by accepting his role in society as it has been defined for him. His birth and class have determined his privileges or lack thereof which ultimately lead to his death. According to Kwai-Cheun Lo, author of Excess and Masculinity in Asian Cultural Productions, the “desire for masculinity [in Asian culture] today is directly related to economic growth” (1). In the world of One Piece, Ace’s economic status is based on both birth and nature as are most of its characters. In One Piece there are four classes of people: the royal family, aristocrats, common people and poor people. Sasada argues that the class system present in One Piece is based on shi-no-ko-sho (samurai, farmer, artisan, tradesman), the four divisions of Japanese society during the Edo period” (94).  Similar to shi-no-ko-sho, an individual’s class in the world of One Piece is determined by where they are born. Aristocrats, for example, are rich by birth and live in High Town. Poor people, who are often criminals because of their poverty, live in Grey Terminal, where Ace is raised. The people within the story hate not only pirates like Gol D. Roger, but also children born to pirates, like Ace, because they are criminals by association. As a result, Ace is not only considered a criminal by birth but by his social standing. Since society has already determined Ace’s class for him he does not struggle in his decision of becoming a pirate, a choice that ultimately calls attention to The World Government and his true identity.

 

Ace’s decision to become a pirate, despite his disdain for his father, is directly related to the class system that determined his fate. Growing up, Ace treasures only two people: his foster brother, Luffy, and his best friend, Sabo. Sabo is the son of aristocratic family, and yet despite their class differences Sabo and Ace are incredibly close. Sabo wishes to change the social system by becoming a pirate so that he and Ace can be friends without consequence. After his friend Sabo is killed by a Marine Admiral for raising a pirate flag, Ace begins to desire a similar social change. In a rage Ace tries to go after Sabo’s killer, but is restrained by his foster mother, Dadan, who tells Ace, “Sabo was killed not by an individual but by this country, that is, the whole world. In order to avoid repetition of such tragedy the ongoing social system must be changed” (43). During the time of Sabo’s death, others are beginning to rise up in demand of social change, and those who do so are other outsiders: pirates. Having this knowledge and knowing that he has nothing to lose, Ace sets sail at seventeen, ready to oppose fate and The World Government.

 

The opposing force that the pirates must face in order to change the social system is The World Government. Members of the World Government are considered to be the good guys and yet they punish Ace for the crimes of his father in order to set an example. In the collection Quotes for Change put together by Purushothaman from the Centre for Human Perfection, Oda states that “justice is based on values. And those change every generation.” The World Government’s justice stems from the fear of the new generation who side with pirates like Ace.  In Japanese culture, especially in the Edo Period, outsiders were often considered to be the voice of the common people when the government and other authorities did not protect the life of the individual. In One Piece, the pirates are considered the voice of the common people, and the government fears relationships forming between the common folk and the pirates they see as their heroes. It is this fear that makes Ace’s execution so important to the World Government. They not only set out to execute Ace, but to execute him publicly in order to send a message to the people.

Figure 3: Ace’s Devil Fruit Abilities

 

Ace becomes a pirate in an attempt to change the social structure of the world that aims to punish him simply because of his heritage. He does this not only by fighting The World Government but also by seeking to change himself. Ace’s efforts lead him to eating a Devil Fruit, from which he gains the ability to create fire from nothing, thereby setting himself apart from everyone else even more. As Sasada claims, “such a transformation into otherness may suggest the character occupies an ambiguous displacement from an original self to an Other or to a hybridic form,” which would explain Ace’s nature as not only a child but an adult, and his struggle with accepting his birth. Ace is already an outsider as a child, and by eating the Devil Fruit it only furthers his “otherness.” Through the Devil Fruit, Ace gains power that he could not get through other means, but even this form of power is not enough to change his place within the social system.  According to Sasada, eating the Devil Fruit “functions as an agent of change, and the subsequent behavior of the transformed individual point to a central function of the motif to dismantle social hierarchy. . . . [W]hile the differences between classes are determined by birth and nature, people are given an equal opportunity to acquire superhuman powers by obtaining Devil Fruit.” Despite obtaining his powers, Ace is unable to “dismantle” the social system and the World Government in order to obtain his freedom and change fate (195). Ace, already an outsider, distances himself further from society by gaining Devil Fruit powers in the hopes that his abilities will make him strong enough to defeat The World Government and bring about societal change.

The society and era that Ace belongs to is largely defined not only by class but also by masculinity, which in Japan is determined by social and economic standing, according to author Kwai-Cheung Lo. Lo states that often in Asian culture, “manhood and the violence behind manhood stems from economic growth” (1). However, social reputation is not the only thing that defines masculinity in Eastern culture. In Japan, as well as in One Piece, masculinity and class are passed down from father to son. Oda states that when he was creating characters like Ace and Luffy, he thought about manliness and believes that while “everyone is a little shy of the masculine world everyone likes it in the end” (6). It is no surprise that Oda chose to create two characters whose masculine identity is defined by their birth, as contemporary Japan’s focus on masculinity is very much based on the relationship between father and son. In James Roberson and Suzuki Nobue’s work Men and Masculinities in Contemporary Japan: Dislocating the Salaryman Doxa, they argue that “to recognize the diversity of masculinities is not enough. We must also recognize the relations between the different kinds of masculinity, relations of alliance, dominance and subordination” (3). The idea of masculine relations in regards to dominance and subordination is important when looking at the cultural relationship between father and son in Japan. A father’s own childhood socialization is key in how they act as parents and how they will be a source for masculine identity. Men do not necessarily admire their fathers’ masculine role, but as a son they are expected to step into this role as adults as well as honor their fathers.

 

Father Figures: Masculinity through Sacrifice

While Ace does not honor his birth father, he does recognize his masculine identity through the character of Whitebeard, who takes him captive. Whitebeard is well aware of Ace’s identity, as he was competing with his father for the role of King of the Pirates when he was younger. When Ace comes aboard, he questions why everyone aboard calls Captain Whitebeard “Pops” as in “father,” to which one of the crewmates responds, “Because he considers us his sons. We’re just a bunch of strays here. So it makes us feel good … whether he really means it or not” (16). For those like Ace, Whitebeard becomes a symbol of masculinity and a father figure who inspires Ace’s growth. When Whitebeard asks Ace in his final battle if he was happy with him as his father, Ace falls to his knees, pressing his head to the ground and cries out, “Of course!,” a sign of not only respect but masculinity as defined by Japanese culture’s emphasis on humility over pride (202). Ace’s masculinity is greatly defined not only by his modesty towards Whitebeard but by the traits he has taken away from him as his adoptive son.

Figure 4: Ace's Sacrifice

 

Ace’s masculinity or “manly virtue” recalls the traditional Japanese hero, who was depicted as siding with the weak to crush the strong while risking their life for justice. Sasada explains that the traditional Japanese hero and “manly virtue” during the Edo Period was the principle virtue of outsiders in society (198). The men who practiced “manly virtue” were called otoko-date, or champions of justice, and were synonymous with kyokaku, who are social outsiders like gamblers. The original role of the otoko-date was to protect the common people when the government did not. During this era, many of the outsiders were practitioners of Bushido, which defined a majority of early masculine beliefs in Japan. Bushido was an incredibly strict code for samurai during the 16th and 20th centuries. The moral code set up by samurai was based on chivalry and, most importantly, honor unto death. The belief in maintaining honor over the importance of one’s life is still highly regarded in Japanese culture, and Ace embodies one of the more important concepts of Bushido: Gi, or integrity. In Bushido,

Gi revolves around “do[ing] the right by yourself. A samurai must be smart in making choices and always choose what is good for the clan. He will make the right choice even if left alone” (198). Ace’s Gi is noticeable when he sacrifices himself to save his younger brother, as seen in figure 5. Ace had the opportunity to escape alongside his brother, Luffy, but because the masculinity and honor of his chosen father, Whitebeard, is called into question, he endangers them both. Ace realizes his error and rectifies it by sacrificing himself. 

Ace ultimately had the chance to run and survive during his final battle, but his respect of Whitebeard becomes the reason for his death. As he is preparing to escape, Admiral Akainu says to Ace, “The Whitebeard pirates are a pack of cowards. But considering who your leader is, that’s no surprise! Whitebeard is a loser from a bygone era! Your real father, Gol D. Roger, stood in his way, making him an eternal loser who could never become The King” (204). Ace is enraged by Akainu’s questioning of Whitebeard’s legacy and the comparison of Whitebeard to his true father only increases the insult. In order to defend his chosen father’s honor, Ace stops his retreat and faces Akainu. Ace declares, “Whitebeard is the greatest pirate in the world! He created this age! Don’t you slander the man who saved me! The name of this era is “Whitebeard!” By sacrificing his opportunity for escape in order to defend Whitebeard, Ace effectively portrays the Bushido practice of defending honor unto death and represents the importance of not only maintaining a father’s honor but in turn his masculinity (205). When Whitebeard’s own masculinity comes into question by Akainu, he begins to fight back. Ace attacks Akainu in anger. Ace uses violence to defend Whitebeard, similarly to how he would attack anyone who had something negative to say about his birth father as a child. Ace’s masculine identity is determined by the actions he takes to defend both his true father as well as his adoptive father.

Ace had several father figures throughout his life, but the greatest influence on his masculine identity comes from his adoptive father, Whitebeard. Whitebeard has always been aware of Ace’s heritage, but despite him being a personal and world enemy, Whitebeard takes him in. During his and Ace’s final battle, Whitebeard says, “It’s wrong to condemn a child for the sins of his father,” and he dies protecting Ace. Whitebeard was willing to protect not only an outsider like Ace, but a whole crew of outsiders, because he considers them his children. Additionally, his role as father was to provide them with a “masculine virtue” to aspire towards. While Whitebeard dies doing his fatherly duties, Ace dies protecting his brother and defending his father’s masculine identity and legacy.

Ace’s sacrifice is the catalyst to a new era. In the end, as he is dying, Ace reflects on his past and how his social class and, in turn, his masculine identity were predetermined for him. He says to his brother, “Nobody wanted me. It couldn’t be

helped. But there’s one thing I’ve left undone. I wasn’t able to see your dream through to the end. But you . . . I know you can do it. You’re my little brother.” Ace recognizes his own masculine role in his brother’s life. Luffy, like Ace, has no attachment to his birth father; it was Ace who protected him when he was a child. Ace continues, “What I really wanted wasn’t fame. All I wanted was to know whether or not I should’ve been born. Luffy, listen to my next words very carefully. Tell everybody what I say to you. I’ve always been such a hopeless person. I was demon spawn. The son of the devil. Pops! Fellow Pirates! And Luffy . . . Thank you . . . for loving me” (9). Ace’s death, televised in front of the world, propels the pirate world into an uprising in order to change the social hierarchy that destroyed

Figure 6: Ace’s Last Words

him. The strict social order and ideals of masculinity and their relation to economic growth in Ace’s lifetime are reminiscent of the Edo period. At the end of the Edo period, the US Navy, whose armada was referred to as “the black ships” arrived at Edo Bay and changed the social structure of Japan by diverting power from Tokugawa Shogunate. Ace’s death represents the fall of the Edo period and the beginning of new generation created with the idea of eventual peace and equality that is not determined by class or masculine honor, but the belief that humans have the right to determine who they are on their own and not their father. Ace’s existence is condemned before he is born, but he challenges fate, and lives his life struggling to alter the social structure that deemed him as evil. He became a pirate and stood up for those without a voice in the face of The World Government and his death not only shook the fictional world of One Piece to its core, but his impact on readers was so widely felt that a life-size replica of his grave was built at Universal Studios Japan so that fans could honor him. Though Ace was unable to defeat The World Government, his memory and the Will of D lives on to continue the fight for change.

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One Piece and the Sins of the Father:

Masculinity and Class in Japan

Samantha Payne lives and writes in the cold north of Flagstaff, Arizona. She earned her MFA in Creative Writing at Northern Arizona University while teaching composition. She is the author of the new-adult-romance novel Maleficium and her short stories have been featured in Alt Hist, Flash Fiction Magazine, The Dirty Pool and Donut Factory. When she isn’t writing, Samantha draws manga and practices coloring inside the lines.

 
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