What’s So Special About the Number Zero?

Wing Zero Custom – One of Many Zeroes

Wing Zero Custom – One of Many Zeroes

While one may be the “loneliest number that you’ll ever do,”1 for anyone who has watched a substantial amount of anime, ready even a few manga in passing, or played more than a couple Japanese-made games, you’ll be more than a little familiar with the fixation on making anything with “zero” somewhere in its name overpowered and nearly unstoppable. But where exactly does this come from, and why is zero – literally meaning ‘nothing’ – viewed as better than any of the natural numbers? That’s what we’re going to look into today.

Thirty-Two Zeroes

Thirty-Two Zeroes

First off, it’s probably good to point out that there are a lot of characters named Zero in Japanese media. To name a few Zeros:

  • The prototype to Wing gundam from Mobile Suit Gundam Wing;2
  • The high-ranking Maverick Hunter from Mega Man X;3
  • The main protagonist from Drakengard 3;4
  • The final boss of Kirby’s Dream Land 3;5
  • The so-called Man of Miracles in Code Geass;6
  • The strongest Ultra in the Ultraman universe;7
  • … and many, many more

It’s also worth noting that I have intentionally excluded other possibly relevant examples of characters named after the Japanese word for zero – rei (零)8 – since that further muddies the water when there’s no kanji provided, such as with characters such as Rei Ayanami, Rei Hino, and others. While the name probably alludes to the same ‘zero’ in some cases, the names could have a variety of connotations depending on the kanji, which is outside the scope of this article. One such case is with the game series, Fatal Frame, which is named 零 (rei; lit. zero) in Japanese.9 However, this name is probably in reference to midnight – 00:00 on a 24-hour clock – befitting of its nighttime horror theme and not the numeral zero.

Zero from Mega Man X

Zero from Mega Man X

So with that out of the way, we can now take a more serious look at our question: why is zero so revered and generally made so powerful?

At first glance, it would be easy to say it’s because zero is used for prototype characters/weapons, such as with Wing Gundam Zero and Mega Man X‘s Zero. After all, it’s a fairly often-used plot device for the prototype to be better than the mass-production unit.10 On the surface this seems like a pretty good theory, but if you actually take a look at all the characters this “over-powered Zero” theme runs across, it’s apparently that the vast majority of them are not actually prototypes. So there must be some sort of deeper reason.

The origin of the image of Zero being an unstoppable fighter can be traced back to just prior to World War II. The connection actually comes from the Imperial Japanese Navy’s (IJN) carrier-based fighter, the  Mitsubishi A6M – nicknamed “Zero.”11 But before we get into the plane’s legacy, it’s probably a good idea to first discuss where it got its name.

Its name comes from its type designation, Type 0 Carrier Fighter, as given to it by the IJN. The significance of the zero here is actually interesting, since it’s often misinterpreted as being “the number before 1” but is more accurately “the number after 99” (i.e., 100). You see, the number comes from the last two digits of the Imperial Year in which it entered service, which was Imperial Year 2600 (1940) in the case of the Zero. The Aichi D3A, for example, was brought into service the year before the Zero in Imperial Year 2599 (1939) and was known as the Navy Type 99 Carrier Bomber.12

Even more noteworthy, though, is probably the lasting legacy of the Zero fighter in Japanese culture. The fighters were designed to sacrifice all forms of protection, durability, complexity, and creature-comforts in order to made a more efficient and agile plane. By doing away with armor, the planes were lighter and thus better able to out-maneuver their opponents. This focus on the beautiful simplicity of fighting – putting more emphasis on the fighting spirit of the pilot rather than technological advances – appealed both then and today to Japanese in invoking the the idealized samurai fighting spirit.

Zero in "The Familiar of Zero" Anime

Zero in “The Familiar of Zero” Anime

The legend of the Zero remains strong in Japan, even today, with it still being referred to in news articles, history books, and movies as the “strongest in the world” (世界最強; sekai saikou) and “invincible” (無敵; muteki). Not limited to Japan, even Popular Mechanics deemed the Zero to be the second-most lethal aircraft in history.13 In all likelihood, this is the image that Japanese media is hoping to evoke when naming a character Zero.

And there you have it! Who would have guessed that the reason that so many strong and mysterious fighters across Japanese media all derive their name from an old World War II fighter craft. I guess it shouldn’t be too surprising when you consider just how much of Japanese culture ties back into ancient military traditions, but I still found it quite surprising all the same. Who knows what other connections there are to find!


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