Ladies and gentlemen, boys and the fourth kind, beloved and devoted readers of With a Terrible Fate, I’m a simple man. I, like many of you, enjoy disrobing at dusk, pouring myself a nice wine glass full of Welch’s, and spending the evening looking up strange ludicrous theories about the vast Zeldaverse. So as I sit here typing, letting my 2014 Concord grape breathe a little, I would like to offer you a guided tour through Crackpot Town by making the claim that Link, the beloved little green hero of ours, is meant to portray a Shinto deity. But don’t worry, I specifically mean the deity of dirt, outsiders, and questionable mustaches. Link, while not necessarily going three for three with those descriptions, can absolutely be called an outsider in each and every title in the long-running “Legend of Zelda” series. And far from only being a deliberate game design decision, I believe this connection between Link and the outsider god of Japan provides interesting commentary on what it takes to be an acceptable hero. So down that grape juice, my fine friends, and let’s take a look.
Based on the title alone, odds are good that if you’re reading this article you have come across the Japanese term gaijin at some point in your Internetting. Gaijin, while loosely translating as “foreigner,” is used for anyone who is not hereditarily Japanese. Yes, that means even if you were born in Japan, have Japanese citizenship, and speak fluent Japanese, if your parents are gaijin, so are you. Now you may be thinking that the term “foreigner” is less a slur and more an objective description without any real negative charge, and for the most part you would be right. Gaijin in Japan are not discriminated against in any real way, but you can talk to any international living in Japan and find out that they never feel like they truly belong. Gaijin, when broken down into its Japanese kanji, literally means “other person,” or “outside person,” and with that little piece of language shaping the culture for centuries, it’s no wonder foreigners can never quite break through that last barrier of acceptance and belonging. But where does this special brand of separation in Japan come from? Like with any good story, it begins with genocide and cultural hegemony.
Up until the mid 8th Century, the country we now know as Japan was split into several smaller nations, each of which was led by a dominant family. War was a constant threat, but it was largely contained to small skirmishes between one or two clans. That is, of course, until the Yamato clan began systematically destroying other clans, completely wiping out what many anthropologists believe to be several distinct races. The Yamato were so powerful, in fact, that after a few decades of razing the land, the island of Japan was actually referred to as Yamato for quite some time. As with most early civilizations, all historical records of the Yamato clan and their conquest were lost in a huge fire before anyone thought to make copies. So while we have no real record of these early wars between clans, we do have a text written by the Yamato, which details the history of Japan. It’s called Kojiki, and it’s the first written record of Shinto practice.
On the surface, Kojiki is what we in the religion business call a mythopoeic text, which means that it describes the myths of a particular culture or belief system. Essentially, Kojiki is an origin story for not only the country of Japan and its people, but also its beliefs, traditions, and religious practices. Puncture that thick mythopoeic skin, however, and you can see murky political pudding lurking beneath. The Yamato clan, which would later become the Imperial family, tailored each story in Kojiki to their power, exerting over Japan that they were in fact the rightful rulers. The best and most well known example of this is the account that Amaterasu, goddess of the sun – and, coincidentally, the most important, powerful deity in Shinto – gave birth to Emperor Jimmu of the Yamato clan. The Yamato are deified and rule over everything without opposition. History is written by the winners, roll on snare drum, everyone head home.
Oh, but shoot, there was that pesky genocide thing…How to explain that?
Remember that Outsider god from three paragraphs ago? Well, Kojiki states that before the Yamato clan, before Emperor Jimmu, and even before Amaterasu the sun goddess, there were Izanagi and Izanami. Izanagi and Izanami were brother and sister as well as husband and wife; together, they created the heavens and the Japanese islands. Creating the various realms of being would make any couple frisky, so the two engaged in some post-creation coitus. Unfortunately, Izanami, the wife, made the faux pas of making the first move, and this union resulted in a horribly deformed son referred to as Hiruko, or the leech child. Not wanting to raise this pitiable creature, Izanagi and Izanami set it in a boat, and floated it out to sea, never to be seen again. Except he was totally seen again, and went on to become one of the more important deities in Japanese religion – but I’m getting ahead of myself.
This story of the leech child is culturally important for two reasons: it explains the relationship between men and women in sexual relationships, namely that men are to take the helm or horrible leech children shall be spawned; and it explains where “the other,” or gaijin, enters into the hegemonic world of the Yamato.
“This hideous creature that looks nothing like us shall be sent away forever, never to be spoken of again, just as the other clans shall find no quarter in the land of Yamato.”
But of course, the surviving clans that still held some power in the rule of the Yamato were not happy with Kojiki, so they created a brother text, Nihongi, which added lore and history that the Yamato conveniently left out of their text. This includes a story about the leech child, henceforth called Ebisu, who was found by the Ainu (considered gaijin at this time in history) in northern Japan and nursed back to health. Kojiki vilified and demonized Ebisu, but Nihongi embraced him, lauded him, and placed him high atop the list of important and beloved Shinto deities. Instead of shunning Ebisu for his differences, the Japanese embraced his otherness and made him a folkloric hero.
Well folks, it took a truncated history of early Japan and an all too brief explanation of Shinto-driven cultural hegemony, but I’ll be damned if we didn’t finally find our way back to “Zelda.” As I mentioned, you could make the claim that Link is just as much an outsider as Ebisu in any one of the “Legend of Zelda” titles, but for brevity’s sake I will be focusing my attention on “Ocarina of Time,” and the displacement of Link the Gaijin.
“Ocarina of Time” begins with narration from the Great Deku Tree, and it is through his words that we are introduced to Link.
“The children of the forest, the Kokiri, live here with me. Each Kokiri has his or her own guardian fairy. However, there is one boy who does not have a fairy…”
So at this point we know there are at least two groups in play: those with fairies, and those without. And seeing as Link is the “one boy” without a fairy, he is in a pretty exclusive club. Before we have any chance to get to know Link or his circumstances, he is described to us in terms of his difference, his otherness. Of course Link does eventually receive a fairy companion, Navi, but only because the Great Deku Tree charged Navi with guiding Link on his journey through Hyrule. After meeting with the Great Deku Tree and learning of the momentous task set before him, Link understands that he is not really a part of the Kokiri tribe. Before leaving the forest which he can no longer truly call his home, Link is stopped by Saria, who says, “Oh, you’re leaving…I always knew that one day, this day would come. I’ve always known we’re so different…” After a small chat, Link turns his back on Saria and the forest and runs toward uncertainty. He begins his journey as an outsider.
Heeding the words of the Great Deku Tree, Link heads to Hyrule Castle to meet Princess Zelda. Flashing back to the opening sequence of the game, Mido and another of the other Kokiri make it pretty clear to both Link and the player that he does not belong in the forest. Knowing now that Link is not a Kokiri but a Hylian, perhaps Link will be met with more acceptance in Hyrule Town Market. And while he is never met with vitriol by the townspeople, the first person you speak to upon entering the town proper is Malon, the farm girl. After seeing Link’s green clothing and fairy companion, she says to him, “Your clothes, they’re so different. Wait, are you from the forest, fairy boy?” Once again, a major character in the story refers to Link as “different,” a trend which continues as the story unfurls. Notice too that, despite being a Hylian smack-dab in the center of the most heavily populated Hylian area in all of Hyrule, the first thing someone says to him is that he must be from some other place. Link cannot be seen as a Kokiri in the forest, nor can he be seen as a Hylian in Hyrule. Link the Gaijin is caught between worlds.
The final point regarding Link’s displacement that I would like to discuss is perhaps the most important one, as it makes him fundamentally different from nearly every single living thing in Hyrule. After collecting the Spiritual Stones and unlocking the door to the Sacred Realm, Link is flung seven years into the future, where the evil Ganondorf has spread his dark influence to every corner of the land. Link must then take on the task of awakening the sages, sealing the Sacred Realm, defeating Ganondorf, and saving the people of Hyrule. While this is no small task, with the help of friends he met along the way, Link pulls through and saves the world. Or rather, he saves that world.
After defeating Ganondorf in the future, the future version of Princess Zelda says her goodbyes to Link. She explains that Link must return to the past and place the Master Sword back in its pedestal for good, effectively severing the connection between the past and the future. Regardless of whether this future timeline will cease to exist if Link stops Ganondorf in the past or if it persists per the multiverse theory, the fact remains that once Link Link can never return to the world he has saved. In this sense, Link is banished from the world he protected, put once again in the role of the outsider.
“Now go home, Link. Regain your lost time! Home…where you are supposed to be…the way you are supposed to be…”
Zelda plays the Song of Time, and as the notes hang in the air with her final words, Link is sent back to the past. As he removes his hands from the Master Sword one final time, he looks towards Navi. It is at this point that Link’s friend and constant companion flies off into the distance, severing the only connection he had to his life as a Kokiri — to his home, to the way he is supposed to be. The game ends with Link, avatar of otherness, wandering into a world in which he no longer has any place. Link the Gaijin, now and forever.
But all is not miserable, my friends, because if Link had not been such an outsider, he could not have become such an admirable hero. Consider Ebisu: he is so beloved by everyone because, despite being the manifestation of otherness, he belongs to every single group. At one point or another, everyone in society will feel marginalized. Whether for race, gender, belief, or any number of other reasons, there is not one person or group of people on this earth who have not at one time been made to feel like “the other.” But we muddle through, we persevere, and we hope for the courage to overcome the obstacles presented by our own otherness. Both Ebisu and Link were born between worlds, and their lives were shaped accordingly. Just as the outsider god Ebisu was molded by the Japanese into a friendly, accessible deity, Link the Gaijin became a hero, able to gain the trust and love of the Kokiri, the Hylians, the Gorons, and the Zora across time.
Although Link can never truly belong anywhere, he and he alone can ensure that everyone else has a home where they are supposed to be.