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Cultural Analysis of Soul Society: Part One, Rukongai

A busy commercial street in Rukongai

The Bleach universe is made up of four distinct realms. The protagonist and his human friends live in a world that is largely like our own. Its laws and social settings are arranged more or less like modern Japanese society (though with more parental loss and non-functioning families as is typical of anime). There is a hell about which little is known in the television series and is reserved for those who commit atrocities after death. The world of the hollows is a Latin themed desert known as Hueco Mundo; it is a brutal Hobbesian “red in tooth and claw” only the strong survive sort of place. The fourth realm, Soul Society is itself a divided world with a sharp distinction between the walled city of Seireitei and the remainder known as Rukongai. This article will consider the culture of Rukongai as observed in the television program.

Kurosaki Ichigo becomes a substitute shinigami, and is given access to the realm that these shinigami oversee. Apart from special circumstances and permissions there are two ways to enter this realm. The first is to die and make your way to the afterlife. People who do this seem to pick up living their lives chronologically from where they left off, but at a much slower pace, aging only little for each year that goes by. The second mode of entry is to be born into this realm. Again time flows differently for the inhabitants of this realm, such that a person who appears to be in their teens may be many decades old and those who are over a hundred years old may only appear in their thirties. Time moves the slowest for those most powerful. The residents of this realm are a part of the cycle of rebirth and some might find there way back to the human realm in a future life.

Rukongai is divided into quadrants to the North, East, South, and West of the walled city. Each quadrant is further subdivided into 80 districts that designate the closeness to Seireitei. People who arrive after dying to the human world are seemingly randomly deposited, a practice that is both inequitable and cruel. As people are not necessarily reunited with loved ones or family members, some mount a search process made difficult by the shear amount of ground to cover, while others form family groupings with the people who happen to be around. The deposition of people at random is inequitable as the farther a district lies from Seireitei the less prosperous or safe it becomes. Which is not to say that district 1 is a modern city, as technology in Rukongai has stagnated at about the Edo period (even as that of Seireitei has progressed in some ways beyong that of the human world). The last 30 districts in each quadrant are places of profound scarcity, and the burden of the poverty (as in most cultures) falls heaviest on children without families. The shortage of food or water is not such a burden to most of the residents, as they need to consume very little, but it is felt acutely by those children who are developing spiritual powers.

For these children, hope lies in being accepted into the academy that trains shinigami as it provides food and housing and the promise of gainful employment. Sending a son or daughter to the school is a mark of honor for the families involved and the actual departure might be accompanied with much fanfare. Those young people who finish the training to become a shinigami will go to work within Soul Society seldom returning to their families and former homes, and so acceptance to the academy can be seen as bittersweet or, in some, rare cases, a rejection of the people and places of Rukongai.

Chad learns about Rukongai from a child who died in 1947

The Shinigami of Seireitei are said to provide the law and order in Rukongai, but seem mostly to take a laissez faire approach for the day to day running of the districts, instead intervening when large or unusual troubles arise. These troubles may include quashing a gang that threatens to upset the balance of power in an area, defeating incursions of hollows or other invading agents, or investigating the possibility of wrong doing by a shinigami on the people of Rukongai. In the absence of a central governing power, some have established a system of village elders who provide guidance to their vicinity. Inside Rukongai, people busy themselves in a variety of trades, though few engage in agriculture (probably because the overall food burden of the society is rather small). There is a currency, a concept of private property, and thus of theft, but it is unclear who metes out punishment for offenses.

Spiritual Powers become a distinguishing factor even greater than money or trade. Strong men and women might cash in on these powers to move up the rungs of society, use their powers for personal gains, or become the foundations of criminal organizations. The capacity for developing spiritual power is unrelated to the circumstances of one’s arrival to soul society or to the socio-economic level at which one finds oneself. Thus, unlike in the real world, a person of wealthier status in Rukongai’s 1st district does not have a greater chance to advance in Soul Society than does a poor street child from a higher number district. That being said there are still profound class distinctions and the burden of being raised in a poorer district might follow a person who eventually becomes a high ranking shinigami long into their careers.

In introducing Kurosaki Ichigo (and by extension the audience) to Soul Society, Kuchiki Rukia describes it as a place that is more pleasant than the mortal realm. While true that extended leisure without hunger does sound pleasant, the possibility of a long afterlife marked by scarcity and want means that Rukongai is not a uniform paradise.

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