Of Samurais and Dragons: Origins of the Triforce – Part 2

In commenting on last week’s article, forumer KokiriSweetie said, “I always wanted to know how they came up with the triforce for the Zelda line of games.” And then she said this: “Now it leads us to the question: ‘Why did they use that in Zelda?!'” And that is a good question. Why did they use the Hojo crest in the Zelda games?

The Hojo Crest in Graphic Design

Last time, I showed that the symbol we now know as the “Triforce” was originally a sort of a Japanese coat of arms, used to mark the possessions and buildings of the Hojo family. And we learned that it has the shape it does because of a legend involving one of the members of the Hojo family and the family dragon god. We saw how the Hojo family rose to great power, and achieved great prominence in the Japanese culture’s sense of their past. Most importantly, we saw that as a result, the Hojo crest began to appear all over the place, from family crests based on the previous Hojo family crests to publisher seals and finally, in modern times, as elements of graphic design.

And now what? Now that the Hojo crest is such a common symbol in Japanese graphic design, have people forgotten its significance? This is important, because if their significance is not widely recognized, then Nintendo could have merely drawn on the symbol from seeing its presence throughout Japanese society, whether consciously or subconsciously. But if the significance is relatively well known, then the symbol may well have an impact on the Zelda game itself.

It is true that symbols are important in our society-and that’s because we’re all human. In the United States, where I live, if a company logo has an eagle (for instance, Federal Express or American Airlines), chances are that it is associated with America. In other words, symbols intrinsically have particular connotations. But the question in this case is, just how deep-seated is the association? For instance, there is a North American company that uses a “Triforce” symbol, but the intention is to associate the shape with the Greek letter delta (D)-it doesn’t have any connection to the samurai of Japan. Or to take another example, how many people really know that a common symbol for medicine (the caduceus) is derived from the Classical deity of Asclepius? Not too many.

As it turns out, samurai crests are not only common in Japanese graphic design, but more critically, people do appreciate their original cultural significance, as the Encyclopedia of Japan points out. In other words, Nintendo was well aware of what the symbol meant when they chose it for the Triforce. However, despite all this, the shape of the Triforce really doesn’t tell us anything about Zelda . . .

Simply put, the mere fact that people can appreciate the symbol’s cultural significance doesn’t mean that the history behind the crest must play any kind of detailed role in its new context. When you see the crest used as a logo for a Japanese company, we can’t assume that they’re implying any kind of detailed connection. So the simple answer is that no, there isn’t any real similarity between the Triforce and the Hojo crest, other than their appearance.

In fact, Davogones of one of our affiliates, has already pointed out something similar with respect to another symbol that appeared in the first game-the “swastika.”. The shape is called a sun wheel, and it’s actually a universal symbol. Meaning, it arose independently all across the globe, and what it meant depended on where it was found (for instance, in Old Norse religion, it was probably connected to the Alfar or Elves). And of course, the sun wheel did indeed arise in Japan as well. It’s known as the “manji.” In Zelda, it happens to symbolize the Manji Labyrinth. Does this mean anything? Not really. As Davogones rightly brings up, “If the manji symbolizes good fortune, what has this got to do with a labyrinth in LoZ? Labyrinths represent challenge, travails, and evil creatures (labyrinths 6 and 7 are symbolized by a Dragon and a Demon). If the manji is taken to symbolize a Buddhist temple, where does this fit in? The third labyrinth of LoZ is not a religious edifice. It is likely that Nintendo Co. Ltd. chose to simply use a familiar symbol in Japan, not intending it to symbolize anything in the game.”

That’s a good assessment indeed! Likewise with the Triforce, the concept of the Triforce doesn’t have roots in the concept of the Hojo crest, even though the shape would be appreciated culturally. The concept of the Triforce derives from . . . wait for it . . . gameplay! Wow, what a revelation! It’s a fantasy game, so they decided to use a mystical artifact, and so you have to collect all these pieces of it, and bring it together and then you can fulfill your quest. It’s all very typical. That is the origin of the concept of the Triforce. Last week’s article only told about the origin of the art of the Triforce, not anything beyond that. Try not to extrapolate beyond that.

(Of course, later on there are added layers having to do with goddesses and so forth, but we all know these are later developments in the formation of the Zelda story. In any event, these layers only serve to further differentiate the Hojo crest from the Triforce.)

From Tolkien

Actually, there’s a bigger reason why it doesn’t really mean anything for the game itself. And that’s the fact that the Zelda games don’t derive much from Japanese lore, especially not the first games. Apart from a few graphic design elements, Zelda is very much set in a Medieval European fantasy world. This is something that will be developed in the next “Origins” article, but it’s something to keep at the back of your mind for now. For one thing, the game is an RPG, and the RPG comes from Lord of the Rings, as I mentioned briefly in this article. The game doesn’t change that. The medieval-fantasy “culture,” if you will, permeates the game through and through. Link himself looks rather like a cross between Robin Hood and a Tolkienian woodland elf, what with his green outfit and cross-emblazoned shield. In short, we shouldn’t expect much Japanese influence at all for most of the Zelda games (I say “most” primarily because The Wind Waker is a break from tradition in some ways-and I’m not referring to the art style). They’re simply too grounded in Tolkienian, Dungeons & Dragons, medieval-type fantasy.

What Now?

Thus concludes the first set of articles on the origins of Zelda. I started off the series by mentioning Hyrule’s roots in Middle Earth. Then I made a warning against being too hasty to jump to conclusions about the origins of particular elements in the games. Later, I added an article to emphasize even further how dangerous it was to jump to such conclusions, by pointing out how different Japanese culture is from our Western culture. And now we’ve looked at our first case study, the symbol of the Triforce. Now we’re ready to get into what I consider the “real deal,” the meat of the series. The “Origins” series of articles will now take much closer look at the Zelda games themselves . . .

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