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The Religious Affiliation of Superhero
Hiro Nakamura
a main character on the comic book-inspired TV series Heroes

Hiro Nakamura is one of the main characters on the hit NBC TV series Heroes, which debuted in 2006. Played by actor Masi Oka, Hiro Nakamura is an immensely popular character. Hiro is regarded by many viewers as the most heroic and/or most important character on the ensemble show.

Like many Japanese people, Hiro Nakamura is a Buddhist. But Hiro is a rarity among Japanese people in that he is obsessed with Samurai culture and Bushido philosophy to such a degree that Bushido itself can be said to be Hiro's religion.

It is important to point out that Hiro's religious affiliation has not been identified based on his race, ethnicity or nationality. We have identified hundreds of comic book characters (mostly superheroes) on our website. This is done based on the content of the stories in which the characters appear, and not based on their name, race, ethnicity, nationality, etc. We have listings for many Asian characters, some of whom are Buddhist, some who aren't. As with characters of other ethnic backgrounds, the religious affiliation of Asian characters is never identified based purely on the fact that they are Asian. About half of the Buddhist characters are not Asian.

In analyzing Hiro's religious affiliation, I had lengthy discussions with my wife, who was born and raised in a Buddhist family in Japan. She has also watched every episode of Heroes.

As is the case with most TV series, Heroes has provided few hints about the specific religious affiliation of most of its characters. In fact, it was not until episode 21 (Heroes Season 1: Episode 21: "The Hard Part", airdate: 7 May 2007) that Hiro really tipped his hat with regards to what his religion is by overtly naming Bushido aloud and claiming it as the basis for his ethical decision-making.

This may be the first time that Hiro overtly named "Bushido" as his motivating belief system, but evidence that this is the case has been building throughout the series. In many previous episodes, Hiro and his friend Ando were on a quest to obtain the priceless Samurai sword that belonged to the fabled Japanese samurai Takezo Kensei. Hiro seeks the sword of Takezo Kensei because he has lost his powers. He believes that if he obtains the sword, he will regain his powers. When Hiro is actually able to steal the sword, he immediately regains the use of his powers.

This is one of the most salient pieces of evidence that Bushido is, for Hiro, his principle religion. Why? Because the sword of Takezo Kensei is just a sword. It has no magical powers. It has no properties that are in any way tied to Hiro's powers. But Hiro's belief in Bushido and the Samurai mystique is so powerful that simply holding a Samurai sword is enough to let his faith manifest his powers once again.

Mohinder Suresh is the Indian-born geneticist who has studied the biology of super-powered people for many years, following in his father's pioneering footsteps. Mohinder uses science to identify the genetic factors that have led to people gaining super powers. If he were to discuss Hiro's loss of his power and his subsequent regaining his power, Mohinder would point out that Hiro's powers are inherent in his genes. These powers are activated by his mind. A sword forged hundreds of years ago should have no bearing on Hiro's ability to mentally access his inborn powers. Yet for Hiro, having the sword made all the difference. It "restored" his completely diminished powers only because of his intense, sincere religious faith in the Budshido/Samurai way.

For the uninitiated, "Bushido" is simply the word for the moral, ethical and philosophical code of traditional Japanese Samurai culture. In Japanse, Bushido literally means "the Way of the Warrior." The observance of the Bushido code was not limited only to actual Samurai (a distinct warrior class). Bushido was centered on the Samurai, but it was widely respected and followed by non-Samurai as well. Bushido was immensely influential during the heyday of the Samurai and remains a powerful influence in Japan even today.

In "The Hard Part" (Heroes episode 21), Hiro Nakamura and his friend Ando trail the series' villain Sylar to his mother's home. The intrepid duo peer through the window into the basement-level apartment and watch Sylar interact with his mother, a woman he clearly loves despite the fact that she is somewhat batty.

Knowing that Sylar has already murdered many super-powered individuals like Hiro himself, and aware that Isaac's precognitive paintings show Sylar blowing up half of New York City in the near future, Ando urges Hiro to use his powers and his Samurai sword to kill Sylar immediately. Hiro protests, explaining that he can not kill Sylar while he is asking his mother for forgiveness. To do so is "not the Bushido way", he explains. Hiro further draws on his Bushido beliefs when he tells Ando that "everyone deserves forgiveness."

Hiro finally springs into action when he sees Sylar stab his own mother in the heart. This was partially an accident on Sylar's part. His mother was attacking him with a pair of scissors, which Sylar grabbed from her and ended up stabbing her with after a brief struggle. When Hiro sees this, he uses his powers to stop time and teleport into the apartment to stand next to Sylar. Hiro raises his Samurai sword, poised to use it to decapitate Sylar, just as Hiro as seen done in so many Japanes Samurai movies. But he can't bring himself to do it. Because of his hesitation, Hiro loses concentration and stops using his power to stop time. Sylar is then able to stop the sword by grabbing it. Seeing what is going on, Sylar even yells at Hiro to go ahead and kill him, giving him ample opportunity to strike a killing blow. But Hiro is no killer. Instead, he teleports away.

In this scene, Hiro very clearly identifies Bushido as his religion, i.e., source of values and ethics which is guiding his behavior. Throughout the series, it has been clear that Hiro is fascinated with Bushido/Samurai culture and teachings. Hiro's drive to forge himself into an epic hero is a manifestation of this.

Yet there is more to Hiro's religion than simply identifying him as an adherent of Bushido. The truth of the matter is, Hiro has a warped, unorthodox understanding of Bushido. Traditional Bushido doesn't actually teach that you can't kill a person while he is asking for forgiveness, nor does Bushido teach that "everyone deserves forgiveness." Bushido is the way of the warrior, and as such, it certainly does not teach the mercy and pacifism that so clearly holds sway in Hiro Nakamura's soul. Sylar even begged Hiro to kill him, but Hiro refused to do so. Bushido does allow for an honorable warrior to stand still and await a warrior's death by the sword of another. This is exactly what Sylar did, but Hiro wouldn't follow through. Instead, he fled, not out of fear for his own life, but out of fear of taking another's life, the life of somebody who was a murderer and who was clearly an enemy to him and people like him.

Thus we see that although Hiro Nakamura imagines himself a modern-day Samurai who follows Bushido, he doesn't fully understand Bushido and he doesn't fully follow its precepts. If Bushido were an actual organized church (which it isn't), one would have to say that Hiro isn't a very good member, or that he isn't a very good example of a true Samurai or adherent of Bushido.

Ando urged Hiro to kill Sylar. Where did Hiro's beliefs about forgiveness and his reluctance to do harm come from? To my wife, the answer was obvious: Hiro imagines himself a follower of Bushido, but his Buddhist upbringing and Buddhist beliefs conflict with actual Bushido doctrine. Hiro doesn't even realize that some of the things he is saying or doing in the name of Bushido are actually a result of his Buddhism.

This is not an unusual situation. The majority of Japanese people today identify their religious affiliation as "Buddhism." However, they also participate in Shinto rites, while their beliefs and values are also deeply informed by Confucianism. To be adherents of multiple different religions or philosophical systems is normal for Japanese people.

Unlike many Japanese people, Hiro Nakamura does not wear a Buddha statue necklace or call himself a Buddhist or do anything that overtly identifies himself as a Buddhist. He has consciously chosen to identify with Bushido. Yet his words and actions reveal a very Buddhist soul. At least for now.

The Hiro Nakamura from five years in the future has been shown on many episodes. "Future Hiro" dresses in pseudo-Samurai garb and wears his hair in a ponytail reminiscent of traditional Samurai. "Future Hiro" also has practiced swordsmanship and Samurai-based martial arts extensively, and has honed himself into an effective killing machine. "Future Hiro" has truly has dedicated himself to the "Way of the Warrior," and has waged an all-out war against the government-led forces which seek to suppress those who are "special" i.e., super-powered individuals like himself. In his appearance, actions, and words, "Future Hiro" truly is a Samurai. "Future Hiro" has overcome the Buddhist and Confucianist beliefs and inhibitions he was raised with to become a dedicated adherent of Bushido.

Virtually all Japanese people have at least some awareness of their Samurai history and are aware of the existence of Bushido. Most Japanese have at least some feel for its basic philosophical and ethical tenets. A few rare contemporary Japanese people have been fascinated by Bushido and attempt to both follow Bushido and emulate traditional Japanese samurai to such an extent that Bushido is their religion. Hiro Nakamura is such a person.

A number of well-known real-life Japanese people in modern times have also embraced Bushido to such an extent that it can be said to be their religion. Yukio Mishima, the famous Japanese author, was just such a person. Yukio Mishima was highly respected in Japan, but most Japanese people considered his adherence to Bushido to be peculiar and highly anachronistic. Yukio Mishima's devotion to Bushido was so all-encompassing that he eventually committed sepuku, a traditional Bushido/Samurai suicide rite.

More similar to Hiro Nakamura are contemporary Japanese comic book characters whose religion is classified as Bushido. These include the Teen Titan (DC Comics) character named Ryuko Orsono, who even adopted "Bushido" as his superheroic codename. Thus, "Bushido" was indeed an adherent of Bushido. The Silver Samurai is a longstanding Japanese Marvel mutant character whose fascination with Samurai and Bushido culture led him to fashion a Samurai costume and persona for himself, even though this was hardly the culture he was brought up in.

A number of readers of our "Religious Affiliation of Comic Book Characters" page have reacted sharply to the classification of Bushido and the Silver Samurai as adherents of Bushido. "Bushido is not a religion," they say. This is the same thing that my wife said when I explained that Hiro Nakamura's religious affiliation should be identified as "Bushido."

It is true that Bushido is not traditionally regarded as a religion, while Buddhism is called a religion. We are not saying that Bushido is a religion. We are simply saying that for Hiro Nakamura, Bushido is his religion. Hiro is thus similar to Yukio Mishima, Ryuko Orsono and Silver Samurai, all characters for whom Bushido is a religion. That is, Bushido is what these characters identify with as their principle source of ethicals, behavior and philosophy. All of these individuals go far beyond simply dressing like Samurai or acting like Samurai or utilizing the combat techniques of Samurai. These characters attempt to incorporate Bushido as their religion (whether or not they use this word).

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Webpage created 8 May 2007. Last modified 28 May 2007.
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