Politics in One Piece #1: Drum Island

Luffy is a terrorist.

That’s right folks, everyone’s favorite rubber man is an anti-establishment freedom fighter that murdered cops and criminals alike. But I don’t think I ever got to that conclusion the first time I watched and read One Piece. Apparently I’m not the only one who didn’t get it initially. I recently watched leftist political commentator Hasanabi talk about One Piece on the Trash Taste podcast. None of the three hosts, who all talk – or have talked – about anime and manga as a job, realized just how inherently political One Piece is as a story. And although there are hints of it early on in the story, this part of the narrative really starts to pick up pace by the time we get to Drum Island. So after discussing some of Volume 16 yesterday, let’s take another closer look at the political values at play here. 

There are three main topics I want to discuss in this post. I’m going to talk about the meeting of kings, which is also known as the Reverie later on in the story. I’m going to talk about Dalton’s philosophy as a part of the leadership class and lastly – and this is the big one – I’m going to talk about socialized healthcare. That’s right, we’re only at Drum Island, but this arc is so political that I already have to discuss three different topics. And people don’t understand why this show is political…

Let’s start unpacking the few scenes we get during the Reverie. And I have to talk about Wapol as a character for a little bit here. I will be avoiding spoilers so if you’ve read up until Volume 16/17 you should be fine. What Wapol represents here is the selfish dictator. The kind of ruler that rules by showing how strong they are. Think people like Putin, Kim Jong Un and Trump in our modern day. He bullies people into behaving and takes away important resources from his people. When he bumps into Vivi and then hits her out of pure annoyance, she does the right thing. She could get angry at this terrible person and cause a diplomatic rift between their countries or she can suck it up and be polite. We get our first glimpse into the different political movements at work here within the One Piece universe and it’s made very clear which one is the good one. 

Which leads us into the second point that I quickly wanted to touch upon. We see Dalton apologizing to Vivi, to very little effect, before joining the rest of Wapol’s entourage. We also get a discussion between him, Chess and Kuromarimo. The latter two are firmly on the side of Wapol’s totalitarian rule but Dalton worries the people are being left behind. It’s hard to speak out against a tyrannical ruler especially for someone like Dalton who greatly respected Wapol’s father. But sometimes you have to admit that the country is headed in a direction that’s unhealthy and properly call it out. Dalton does this by the end of the flashback, saving Chopper from certain death in the process. Now, up until this point I would gladly concede that this isn’t all that political per se. It’s definitely an easy way to drive forward the plot that in a vacuum I’d probably not even call political. But we haven’t talked about the big elephant in the room yet: Healthcare.

So let’s talk about health care for a little bit. Depending on where you stand on the political spectrum you either think people should have free access to good health care, or poor people should literally just die. Or – maybe a bit more probable – you consider yourself somewhere in between those two options. Here in the Netherlands we have a bit of a convoluted system. I pay a monthly plan for my healthcare which is a little over a hundred euros a month. On top of that, the first 400 euros (give or take) are taken out of pocket if I do have any treatments in that year. Now, if your income is low, you get a good chunk of your monthly costs back. There’s also a lot of other factors like dental care and physical therapy requiring a special plan that costs more, but this is the gist of it.

To put this into perspective, I needed therapy for my autism for about a decade. I still need more therapy, but I’m not getting it, so it is what it is. I paid the 350-400 out of pocket each year (it’s been slowly going up over the years), as well as the monthly cost. But that’s the limit of what I had to pay. The bill itself for each of those years was maybe 4000 euros a year. What would have been about €40.000 euros, was brought down to about €4.000 euros after everything was said and done. Not great, but definitely more affordable. It’s certainly a lot better than other countries, where you go into the hospital for an emergency and are sent home with a bill that’s several tens of thousands of dollars. But I won’t name any names of course.

Why am I talking about all of this? Well, this is the difference between more left-leaning concepts of healthcare and more right-leaning concepts of healthcare. It’s not as simple as I’ve portrayed it, but you get the gist. Now, to translate this into a story would probably not be very entertaining. So how does Oda portray a bad government that doesn’t provide proper healthcare to its people? It’s actually so simple that it’s brilliant. You take all the most talented doctors in the Kingdom and you kidnap them. You make it so they can only work for you and your people. In a world with that setting, then the only real way you can make revolutionaries is by having quack doctors trying to save the people in need. That’s where Kureha (actually a decent doctor) and Hiruluk (pretty much a quack) come in. With no one else to turn to, they villagers in the Drum Kingdom have to deal with the cards they’re handed. It makes perfect sense to make them the good guys in this story for someone with Oda’s view on these sorts of politics.
We all enjoy watching “funny rubber man” as the lovely folks on Trash Taste put it, but One Piece has always been about surface level fun mixed with deeper rooted political values. Think trans acceptance, fascist governments, slavery, racism, propaganda and many other issues we see in the modern world as well. I think it’s far too naive to look at this series and not see it as anything but political commentary. And personally I believe that this is a big reason why One Piece stands out above so many other series in my head. 

So there you have it. I’m cutting this shorter than I initially wrote it, because I could write several more pages if I don’t stop myself. If people are interested in this kind of stuff, please leave a nice comment down below. This combines my love of manga and my fascination with politics, so it’s a perfect outlet for me to write. Either way, I’m going to bed, it’s almost midnight as I’m writing this so good night everyone, thanks for reading!

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