A Critical Comparison Between Japanese and American
Propaganda during World War II.
Anthony V. Navarro
Hakko Ichiu. (“Eight corner of the World under one roof.”)
Japanese War Slogan
Hostilities exist. There is no blinking at the fact that that our people, our territory and our interests are in grave danger. President Roosevelt
World War II was one of the most monumental events in history and certainly one of the most significant events in the 20th century. The catalyst for drawing the United States fully into the war was the bombing of Pearl Harbor. The series of confrontational events that led up to Pearl Harbor and the events that followed up until the Japanese surrender in 1945, were waged on the political, economic, and military fronts, but one aspect of the war which is sometimes overlooked is the war waged on the social front. What makes the social aspect of war so significant is that it involves a dynamic within the human person. In time of war, there is killing, violence, and hate, all stirred up from within. Thoughts and emotions come into play. Ideologies and philosophies, ways of life, and cultures clash. War is no longer only between soldiers on a battlefield but between nations and their ideas. And in order to make a whole nation of people support the war with mind and spirit, there needs to be influence. That influence is propaganda.
Much of the social warfare between the United States and Japan involved instilling within their people both a strong nationalistic pride for their own country as well as an incendiary hatred for the other. This was done with the help of the media—newspapers, books, radio, and film—that were consequently used as propaganda against the enemy. Much of the material was racist and catered to such ideas as racial inferiority and ethnic supremacy. One’s own nation was always the civilized one while the enemy was depicted as barbaric, sub-human, and in some cases, demonic.
We imbibe a flood of information each day from numerous sources—radio, film, books, newspapers, magazines, and advertisements. We are consciously and subconsciously told what to think, what to do, how to feel, and how to behave. Although news sources attempt to be as objective as possible, there is always a grain of cultural salt that factors into how people interpret that objective information. Socioeconomic conditions, political situations, and social atmosphere not only contribute to how news and information are interpreted, but are also reflected in them. Media is an art, and art is a way of communicating ideas. Those ideas are what drive nations and people, to think and act. And during time of war, a nation often tries to stir up a common sense of purpose under which its people can unite.
The inspiring quotes above spurred on the war spirit. The first was a Japanese World War II slogan alluding to the Emperor Jimmu, the first emperor of Japan. In an 8th Century literary collection, his words are recalled that the “eight corners of the world be united under one roof” creating a brotherhood of races. The second was spoken by President Frank Roosevelt in his declaration of war to Congress shortly after the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor. Potent words such as these, which were plastered on posters and sung in war slogans, reinforced a sense of duty and instilled a kind of vengeful spirit in not only those fighting on the battlefields but also in the people supporting them on the home front. Catchy slogans and catch phrases quickly became part of popular culture.
If a picture is worth a thousand words, then the images generated from World War II would speak endless volumes. Words are powerful, but some of the images in wartime posters drew attention more vividly because they attracted an audience on a wider scale. Posters urging citizens to conserve resources, increase labor production to “help our troops,” or simply slogans summoning an increase national pride were posted in every subway station, train station, bus stop, on every billboard and street corner in every city. Ads to buy war bonds or join the armed forces were printed in nearly every magazine and newspaper. So even if one covered one’s ears to the messages broadcast over the airwaves, one couldn’t escape the constant bombardment of visual stimuli.
Radio and film, however, may have been the most effective means of reaching its audience simply by virtue of its medium. New technology, such as radio and motion pictures, were capable of sending information over a much greater scale. Moving pictures and audible words and music brought to life what was only still and static in a book or poster. In 1942, the Academy Award for best documentary went to Frank Capra’s Why We Fight, which was the first of a series of war documentaries he made under the commission of the U.S. military. Not to be outdone, the Japanese had their own cinematic propaganda. Chocolate and Soldiers and The Story of Tank Commander Nishizumi, two very popular Japanese wartime films, were effective as propaganda tools for Japanese audiences. Anthropologist Ruth Benedict once exclaimed, “Japanese films have a propaganda courage which Americans films have usually lacked” (Dower 35). Japanese movies were not afraid to show weakness and hardship that were associated with war. Japanese films showed a lot of sacrifice more so than American films in order to create a more humanistic and endearing empathy for the characters.
The Japanese propaganda campaign was not only directed toward the United States but also towards Asian countries whom they sought to conquer. During the time that the Japanese began studying about the culture and customs of their Western counterparts, America was going through a period of territorial expansion that saw its borders extend to the Pacific but much to the expense of Native Americans. The time period during which Japan became increasingly more interested in Western culture was during the time that America was going through that expansion phase. In many ways, Japan took on many of the ideas and methods of American expansionism, and, consciously or subconsciously, incorporated them into their own methods of conquest throughout Asia.
The media and propaganda were powerful and often silent weapons that targeted human emotions and psyches, and often caused people to feel and think things that they otherwise would not if not exposed to it. Politics and military actions can only do so much, but if they are driven by human emotions and impulses, they are driven further. And propaganda was that driving forces of human emotion during World War II.
“…a date which will live in infamy”
Admiral William Halsey, who became commander of the South Pacific Forces early on during the World War II made famous the slogan “Kill Japs, kill Japs, kill more Japs.” So vengeful was his rage following Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor that his motto under which he would rally his men was “Remember Pearl Harbor—keep ‘em dying.” (Dower 36).
Strong rhetoric such as Admiral Halsey’s was not uncommon during the war years. The rhetoric was so harsh, in fact, the words bordered on genocidal. Before Pearl Harbor, the United States was already locking horns with German and Italian forces in Europe. The American views of Hitler’s regime in Germany and Mussolini’s fascist rule in Italy were due in large part to the careful imagery depicted by popular media. The Office of Strategic Services, or OSS, played a large part in controlling information. The OSS, which was formed in 1942 as a secret intelligence agency, was headed by William Donovan under the auspices of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Its objectives were to analyze secretive information and data and to conduct psychological warfare. Propaganda material and information was a major component to the psychological tactics used by the OSS. The task, however, did not involve so much creating new ideas for psychological warfare than it did accentuating and disseminating already existing ones.
The spiteful sentiment felt throughout the war among many Americans seemed to stem from much more than simply vengeance for the December 7th attack. It reflected an already existing racism prompted by Pearl Harbor. The “yellow” color race code was the branding of choice when referring to the Japanese. They were the “yellow peril,” and “yellow monkeys.” Even Time magazine in a report on Pearl Harbor used the phrase, “the yellow bastards!” The New York Times contributed with their own anti-Japanese rhetoric explaining how the Japanese “have kept their savage tradition ‘unbroken through ages eternal,’ from the fabulous age of their savage gods to the present day.
A commonly held view was that the Japanese were subhuman or evolutionarily inferior. It was an all too common idea among not only the Americans but among the other Allies as well. British Under-Secretary of the Foreign Office Sir Alexander Cadogan referred to the Japanese as “little yellow dwarf slaves” referring to the average height difference between Anglos and Japanese (Aldrich 64). Chiefs of Staff felt “no reason to believe that Japanese standards are even comparable with those of the Italians.” In one of the most famous, and perhaps most fantastic and blatant misconceptions of the Japanese, historian Arthur Marder thought the Japanese to be inherently inferior, especially in the art of war, for several reasons, one being “because of their eye slits… the Japanese fighter pilots could not shoot straight, and Japanese naval officers could not see in the dark” (65). Captain Vivian from Tokyo said that Japanese were incapable of springing surprise in battle because they have “peculiarly slow brains” (64). One needs only to obviously site the bombing of Pearl Harbor to disclaim that notion. Despite this, the West was still convinced during the early part of the war that Japan was of Japan’s inherently inferior. John Dower offers his explanation:
"Because the Pearl Harbor attack came so unexpectedly—so literally out of the
blue, as the saying goes—most Westerners also regarded Japan’s imitation of war as high folly… The attack thus managed to reinforce existing impressions of the Japanese as unpredictable and fundamentally irrational—even though, upon calmer appraisal, it might as easily have been interpreted as evidence of the relentless logic of Japanese war planning (44)."
It is hard to believe that amidst all this anti-Japanese rhetoric, President Roosevelt was totally immune to the circulating sentiment. He, in fact, was not. Sir Ronald Campbell, a British delegate in the United States, wrote to Sir Alexander Cadogan about his observations of President Roosevelt.
"He had set one Professor Krdlicka of the Smithsonian Institute, to work on a private study of the effect of racial crossing… The President has asked the Professor why the Japanese were as bad as they were. The Professor had said the skulls of these people were some 2,000 years less developed than ours (this sounds very little, doesn’t it?). The President asked whether this might account for the nefariousness of the Japanese and had been told it might, as the might well be the basic stock of the Japanese (Sbrega 485)."
The literature and the rhetoric of the time affected how people viewed the war and viewed the enemy, but the visual art created during the war drew attention more easily and drew a larger audience simply by its nature. A printed article or quote in a newspaper does not catch the eye quite as easily as a picture. The use of graphic arts in promoting political and social messages was a significant part of America’s propaganda war effort. Many of the images created during the war-years stand as symbols of their time. Images such as Uncle Sam pointing, summoning the viewer to “join the army,” or the blue collar woman flexing her muscle encouraging woman to join in the industrial war effort, are cultural icons. However, not all poster art was as soft-edged as these were. For example, Figure 1 shows a gruesome image of a Japanese soldier, perhaps even Hideki Tojo himself who was Japan’s War Minister and Premier.
The sharp angled features of the figure suggest villainy. The naked woman thrown sinisterly over his shoulder, almost pornographic in posture, appears the victim of the rape and pillage seen in the background. The race of the woman grabs the attention of the audience even more. She is white, most likely American. The message strikes fear into the viewer and asks the question, “Would you let this to happen?”
A common technique used by propagandists was to liken the Japanese to animals like snakes and rats. But the most common animal used to portray the Japanese was the monkey. In several posters and editorial cartoons, the Japanese were drawn up as monkeys hanging from trees or lumbering around like big gorillas. The image of a subhuman primate was key to undercutting the humanity of the enemy. The enemy was less than human, thus much easier to kill. Figures 2 and 3 are editorial cartoons that show the use of the simian image in two different ways. The first is the Japanese as a peculiar object of curiosity. The second is the Japanese as a savage, untamable beast that should be eradicated by any means. Figure 2 shows scientists and scholars baffled by their monkey-like Japanese specimen. One of the scholars holds a document reading “International problem: What goes on in the Japanese mind,” as if the Japanese were a specimen whose behavior was tested and observed like a lab rat. Despite Japan’s military prowess and technological skills proven in the Pacific, the notion that the Japanese were intellectually inferior was still a stubbornly held popular view. Editorials such as these reinforced those views even more. The scientists stand condescendingly over their shorter subject, arms akimbo looking not so much puzzled as they look annoyed. Note also the raggedy clothes and the stereotypical wooden platform shoes worn by the Japanese man.
Figure 2 Figure 3
Figure 3, in a sort of indirect way, offers a solution to the question posed in Figure 2. Here, a gun labeled “civilization” is pointed at the head of Japan again portrayed as a monkey about to be blown away. On the chest of the monkey is written “murderers of American fliers.” This was in reference to the execution of American airmen who crash landed in Japan during the first American bombing raid over Tokyo in 1943. Notice the face of the monkey. It neither grovels nor fears the gun that is brandished in its face. It has no conscience of its heinous actions and would more than likely kill again if not put to death immediately; there is no hope for repentance in this beast.
Posters also sounded a call to war for the American people. The message was that America had been maliciously attacked and would not sit idly by and do nothing. Not only must America defend herself from her enemies, but the enemy must also be destroyed completely. Constant references to the December 7th bombing of Pearl Harbor reminded the American people why she was at war and why they should take up arms to help the fight. Figures 4 and 5 show dark images yet send fiery messages to “Avenge December 7” as printed in Figure 4 in bold, red lettering. A battleship is blown out of the water in the foreground, and the midshipman, partially hidden in the grimness of the shadows, raises his fist in vengeful defiance. Figure 5 uses the symbol of America itself, the American flag. It has been defaced and defiled. It flies low, tattered and torn amidst the rubble of bombed out ships. The thick black smoke rising from the disaster invade the peaceful blue sky. Once again, the words, “Remember Dec. 7th!” are accentuated with a fiery red. The harrowing superscript solemnly recalls the dead, and that America must take action against the perpetrating Japanese so that these dead “shall not have died in vain” as the poster says.
Figures 4 Figure 5
When discussing the role of popular media in America’s propaganda war campaign, it would be negligent not to mention the role of Hollywood. During the time of the war, Hollywood created numerous war-related films such as Objective, Burma!, The Bridge on the River Kwai, The Story of G.I. Joe, and In Which We Serve.
There were also a number of documentary films created at this time, perhaps the most famous of which was Frank Capra’s Why We Fight series. Capra, who is noted for such films as It’s a Wonderful Life, and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, was commissioned by Army Chief of Staff George C. Marshall to create a film series that would be viewed by army men and be used as a learning tool of sorts by the army in order than America would come to “know its enemy.” The primary objectives that Capra had in mind were to rally the American public behind the task to both ‘win the war and win the peace’ (Dower 16).
The first of Capra’s series, Prelude to War won acclaim as it took the 1942 Academy Award for Best Documentary. Because the Why We Fight series was promoted as a documentary series, the films were often seen as objective and true to their nature when in fact they were very propagandous. In a scene in Prelude to War, a Japanese army is shown marching down Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C. with the Capitol building in the background. The script admonishes, “You will see what they did to the men and women of Nanking, Hong Kong, and Manila. Imagine the field day they’d enjoy if they marched through the streets of Washington.”
What Capra did here was to allow the Japanese to speak for themselves (he also did this with German and Italian film as well). Capra used captured documentary footage from the enemy (most likely for their own propaganda use) in his films but did so in a manner that favored the U.S. cause. Capra took captured footage and newsreels, as well as old samurai movies and the like, and skillfully edited. He deceptively juxtaposed them with images of war crimes, victimized civilians, and of burned down buildings and rubble in China, and the Philippines. In The Battle of China, the righteousness of America’s presence in China was reinforced with images of a placid and civilized China with scenes of the country side and its people again juxtaposed with scenes of Japan’s army marching in stringent lines ominously infringing upon their Asian neighbors about to disrupt that serenity and calm. The peaceful scenes of China set contrast to scenes of Japanese atrocities and destruction portrayed a villainous Japan that was out to destroy the peace. By viewing captured Japanese footage from Japanese film, it would seem much more objective, and much less propagandous, that the Japanese were the true enemy worthy of any and all relentless attacks administered by the United States.
This clearly was not objective documentary story telling, but it was exactly the kind of message Marshall and the rest of the Army wanted to send to the American people. Some of the films were required viewing for many American soldiers being shipped overseas. They wanted to send the message that Japan, and the other Axis powers, were a loathsome group of villains who would wreak havoc upon civilization not stop unless America and the rest of the Allies stopped them. One technique that Capra used was the utilization of captured enemy war footage. In a somewhat ambiguous shift, the focus of dislike focused not on all Japanese, but rather on the Japanese military. Capra’s Know Your Enemy—Japan showed pictures of the Japanese peasantry and those civilians in war-torn areas of Japan. This was also Japan, the Japan that the powers that be ignored and did not seek to help.
Purity, Pride, and Empire.
Throughout the war and the years leading up to it, Japan maintained that its campaign through Asia was virtuous and that their Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere would, in the long run, do good for all of Asia under their guidance. Seeing what Western countries were doing to Asia—the French presence in Southeast Asia, the British in Hong Kong and Singapore, and the United States in the Philippines—Japan sought to “liberate East Asia from white invasion and oppression” (Dower 25). In 1942, the Japanese government published a booklet entitled The Greater East Asia War and Ourselves (Dai Toa Senso to Warera) describing how the relationship between Asian countries would be like that of a “branch family” (283).
Japan promoted the idea that under their leadership, East Asian would come to know greater economic prosperity free from Western influence and independent of Western economic bureaucracy. Japan’s “Outline of Economic Policies for the Southern Areas” describes Japan’s plans “to assist the economic expansion of the Japanese people in the southern areas on the bases of overall national planning, and to advance economic changes within the Co-Prosperity Sphere” (287). However, underneath all the rhetoric of a “Greater East Asia” lay hidden agendas as well.
Japan often justified their forceful tactics by citing a lack of cooperation from other Asian nations. Japanese Foreign Minister Koki Hirota wrote:
"It is hardly necessary to say that the basic policy of the Japanese government aims at the stabilization of East Asia through conciliation and cooperation between Japan, Manchoukuo, and China for their common prosperity and well being. Since, however, China, ignoring our true motive, has mobilized her vast armies against us, we can only counter her step by force of arms (Lasker and Roman 44)."
Anti-Chinese rhetoric was quite common partly because China was Japan’s largest foe in Asia. Yet they still maintained their stance of “good intentions.” Japan was the good parent while the child countries of Asia, as stubborn as they were in the Japanese’ eyes, didn’t know what was good for them. Japan was always fighting on their side yet felt that she had been constantly snubbed despite her assistance. In a 1937 statement regarding the Sino-Japanese conflict at the beginning of the century, the Japanese Chamber of Commerce of New York had this to say:
"Back in 1904-05, Japan… fought Czarist Russia… upon Chinese soil. She fought, first, to save China and, secondly, to save herself. The two were the same thing, because Russian absorption of China meant Japan’s own eventual doom. While Japan was fighting to save China, what was China doing? Secretly she entered into an alliance with Russia against Japan (20)."
Japan failed to recognize any wrongdoings it may have committed to other countries. It maintained adamantly that Japan’s motives were, without question, for good and only good, and that any action taken against other Asian countries, such as China were brought about on account of self-defense.
Two very important war-time documents were Kore dake Yomeba Ware wa Kateru (Read this and the War is Won), and Shinmin no Michi (The Way of the Subject). The first was a pamphlet written by Col. Tsuji Masanobu and his intelligence unit. It was a small book handed out to all the soldiers before being sent off to the war in South and Southeast Asia. In it, Western countries were bashed for their greedy holdings in India, most of Southeast Asia, and the Philippines. The white Westerners were rich, arrogant colonists who subjugated the native people while they reaped the riches and lived lavishly above the poor. Japanese soldiers read how “money squeezed from the blood of Asians maintains these small white minorities in their luxurious mode of life” (Dower 24). It was Japan’s duty to free them from the grip of colonialism. Not only was the West enslaving other nations and stealing their wealth, but they were doing it right in Japan’s backyard to their own fellow Asians. Shinmin no Michi was an ideological manifesto issued by the Ministry of Education and directed more toward Japan’s domestic audience to teach them what they should aspire to be “as a people, nation and race” (24). The Allied powers were depicted as the evil greedy ones as once again evident in their colonization of Asian countries. Their immoral character was further reinforced by their brutal attacks on Pacific Islands and later on Japan itself. America own track record was put to question, and the Japanese learned more of their atrocities when dealing with slavery to blacks and the mistreatment of minorities and immigrants in their own country, including Asian Americans. They read about racially motivated violence and the herding of tens of thousands of Japanese immigrants into internment camps. The objective was clear. It was Japan’s “divine purpose” to defeat the enemy.
Japan has traditionally been noted for its artistic advancements especially prints and paintings. Often known for its simplicity, Japanese art shifted its motif and focused its efforts on the war. Similar to America’s were Japan’s own call to arms and aid.
Figure 6 Figure 7
The poster in Figure 6 shows a charging Japanese soldier trampling over the British and American flags with a bayonet. The poster, issued by the Army Ministry, reads “Fire and Never Quit!” The soldier in Figure 7 points at the viewer, not too unlike Uncle Sam in his poster, and encourages people to join the Japan’s Young Men’s Military Brigade.
Of course Japanese propaganda art did not neglect to target the enemy. In a manner similar to what American did by depicting the Japanese as subhuman apes, the Japanese countered with their own depiction of Americans (and the British as well) as hairy, demonic mongrels. Figures 8 and 9 demonstrate such imagery. In the first, a demonic figure with skulls around its neck wears the visage of President Roosevelt. Similarly in Figure 9, President Roosevelt is shown with the hands and feet of a monster with a single horn protruding from his head. He sits atop the "Grieving Statue of Liberty," the title of the picture. She grieves because in the President's one hand, he waives the banner of democracy while in the other he tenaciously grips the stick of dictatorship. Hanging from the crown of the statue is a striking worker, and a lackadaisical Navy sailor having a good time with the ladies. The sullen face of the statue reflects the despicable state that the United States is in. It shows that America is not as strong as she presents herself to be and that its own folly will result in its ultimate demise. They were not such a formidable enemy that Japan could not defeat. The United States was weak and vulnerable
Figure 8 Figure 9
Japan, on the other hand, was anything but weak. They would bring light to the world, ridding it of the Allied forces, represented by the United States, Britain, China, and the Netherlands in Figure 10. Here, Japan’s rising sun blows them away. A single wooden shoe represents the Dutch. The Chinese character possesses an animal’s tail, which was a common depiction of the Chinese. Britain is depicted as a portly figure, and the Americans as a criminal donning a prisoner’s striped uniform. Notice also the crowns falling off the head of the British and Americans indicative of their wealth and opulence.
One aspect of propaganda in which Japan greatly differed from its American counterparts was its audience. The Americans for the most part did not have an foreign audience. The figure in Appendix 3 is a pro-American Chinese poster and was one of a handful of exceptions. The Japanese, on the other hand, had the daunting task of not only conquering these other Asian countries, but also persuading them to join their cause. The Japanese, if they were to establish a stronghold within their Greater East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere, they would have to win over the favor of those countries. Japan had to positively promote their ideas to the Chinese, Koreans, South and Southeast Asians that a unified Asia, under Japanese leadership, free from the capitalist and economic influence of the West, was inherently and naturally good. Without the support of other Asian nations, Japan’s cause would flounder. Figure 11 shows Japan extending its helping hand to its Southeast Asian brother in Indonesia, who had been a colonized by the Dutch. In the background can be seen a Dutch woman fleeing into darkness, away from the light of Japan. The sun is labeled “Co-Prosperity Sphere.” Figure 12 shows Churchill, Roosevelt, and Chiang Kai-Shek, each standing with one hand in his coat pocket in a Napoleon-like pose trampling over who appear to be slaves. They are dark skinned suggesting that they are South Asian or of African decent. Throughout the war, Japan often used historical accounts of America’s racist past to cite the many racial injustices of the United States. The Allies are thus greedy and care about nothing except for their own capital gain. The three leaders all have staunch yet rather comical looks on their face, not as threatening or as strong as they claim to be. They are still characters, vulnerable and very much able to be defeated by the Japanese. The ABCD letters in the background stand for the American, British, Chinese, and Dutch.
Figure 11 Figure 12
Although the influence of Hollywood and cinema on popular opinion during the war was apparent in the United States, they were not the only ones to use the art of motion pictures to their advantage. Other Allied countries produced movies as propaganda against the enemy as well did Axis countries. As for Japan, some critics would say that many of the Japanese films met or even surpassed American propaganda films both in technical quality and creative ingenuity. However, in the wake of Japan’s defeat after the war, many of their war era films have been long since ignored.
Frank Capra, director of the acclaimed U.S. propaganda film series Why We Fight even acknowledged the excellence of Japanese war films. “We can’t beat this kind of thing,” Capra once said. “We make a film like that maybe once in a decade. We haven’t got the actors” (Dower 34). Capra was referring to the film Chocolate and Soldiers made in 1938 about a father fighting in China who sends his son letters from the battle field along with chocolate candy wrappers. A common theme in many Japanese wartime films was that of the valiant soldier—a father, son, brother, or husband—going off to war and dying honorably for his country.
For whatever reason, the Japanese cinema tended to shy away from showing images of the enemy. The anti-Western sentiment was apparent in both literature and in graphic art, but nearly altogether absent in cinema. The enemy is vague. They are referred to as karera or “they,” tekihei or “enemy soldier,” Chinese or Korean communists are hizoku or “bandits” (39). If there was a direct reference to the enemy, it was done so in regards to the enemy’s past actions. For example, Japan would cite America’s slave past and point to their history of treating their people unfairly. In contrast, Hollywood depicted Japanese as an outright despicable and atrocious enemy in the present time and would not hold back from using any racial slurs wherever possible.
The Japanese did not rely so much on pointing the condemning finger at the enemy to say “look at them, look how evil they are.” Instead, the overriding theme throughout most, if not all, Japanese film during this time period was purity. Purity was the supreme character trait of the hero (35). The idea of national, ethnic, and spiritual purity was the cohesive glue that connected all of Japanese film and which made it very appealing to a Japanese audience seeking to make sense of all the fighting going on around them. This was all the more important during the middle part of the war during which Japan was clearly on the losing side. The hopeful messages elicited in film boosted the morale of the people when morale was low. Even though they were losing the battle, their purity, their pride, and their strength as a Japanese people would hold them together in the end.
Another characteristic of Japanese war films that separated them from their American counterparts was their ability to appeal to their audience without over-sensationalizing or over-dramatizing their actors. Their characters were admirable in their purity of character and valor of action but also very simple. There is no fanaticism, no turbulent rides between the agony of defeat and the joy of victory (35). In Yoshimura Kenzaburo’s acclaimed 1940 film The Story of Tank Commander Nishizumi, commissioned by Japan’s Ministry of War, the main character sacrifices his own life for his men in battle during the war with China. For his sacrifice, he is posthumously honored with the title of gunshin or “military god.”
The films is noted for its dynamic battle scenes, but where Hollywood might have contrived a more moving death scene with dramatic music, Commander Nishizumi’s death is hardly dramatic (37). In fact, you do not even see his actual death. In a calm, comforting scene, Nishizumi’s commanding officer at his death bed whispers, “He is sleeping well… he was a good man… he looks just as if he were alive.”
This kind of display of self-sacrifice, this total giving up of oneself for the greater good, was an integral part of that one ubiquitous virtue of purity. The Japanese sacrifice was part of what made them pure in the spiritual sense. Anthropologist Ruth Benedict commented about Japanese film saying that “the spirit of sacrifice or the subjection of self to pattern was the dominant theme in these films” (34).
Documentaries—not in the strictest sense in terms of objectivity but rather like Capra’s propaganda-style documentaries—were also used in Japanese propaganda. Even before the war when Japan was not at war with the United States, they brought out the suffering aspects of war in order to elicit empathy from audiences. In 1939, Kamei Fumio’s Fighting Soldiers and Tasaka Tomotaka’s Mud and Soldiers displayed the relentless tedium and emotional drain of the Japanese forces in China. Fumio’s film showed so much suffering. Unlike U.S. films, which portrayed an invincible U.S. military and carried vengeful, often racist tones, Japan took the position of underdog. Footage from the war with China or with Russia didn’t show so much war itself than it did how the war affected the Japanese. The directors most likely sought to create empathy and a sense of need even when Japan had the upper hand. The effect it had was the material as well as moral support from the country. They were the victims of war who were simply struggling for their own honorable survival amidst the chaos, which they themselves were helping to create.
Manifest Destiny and Co-Prosperity: Euphemisms for Imperialism
The United States was not fighting Japan simply because of their surprise bombing of Pearl Harbor. There are even those who might say that the attack really should not have come as much of a surprise at all, that the United States methodically provoked the Japanese to attack in order to give the United States a reason to jump into the war. Up until that point, the United States had only moderately contributed on the European front, and was looking for a way to join in the fight. The reasons for the United States entering the war vary, and it would be difficult to argue that they entered the war for any one sole reason. One explanation is for economic reasons. The war created jobs and boosted domestic industry. In Asian, Japan was building a stronghold of Asian nations that included China, Korea, and also the Philippines, which the United States had vested interest in and to whom they were still a major influence. The United States still had valuable assets that they needed to protect in Asia, as did European nations, such as Great Britain and France who still held colonies in Singapore, Hong Kong, and French Indochina.
During World War II, it can be argued that the United States was fighting against imperialist expansionism in the Far East by Japan. However, deciphering whether or not this was one of America’s primary goals may not be as interesting as pointing out the striking similarities between Japan’s imperialist campaign of the 20th century to that of the United States’ own expansionist movement of the middle and late 19th century. The Japanese and Americans shared one major goal in common: the expansion of its borders by the forceful acquisition or annexation of other peoples’ land for their own increase in natural resources and capital gain.
The United States looked Westward as they sought to expand the United States’ ever growing borders. The Lewis and Clark expedition was commissioned to map out the frontier west of the Mississippi. Although early settlers had already begun exploring lands west of the Appalachians in the 18th century, the Louisiana Purchase in 1803 opened the floodgates to yet more people seeking valuable and arable farmland. Under the leadership of Sam Houston, Texas declared its independence from Mexico in 1836 and was later annexed by the United States in 1845. Once gold was discovered in California in 1848, the emigration toward the West boomed with pioneers and businessmen alike seeking their own personal fortune.
The Japanese, not too unlike their American counterparts, sought to expand their borders as well. Prior to 1868, before the Emperor Meiji was crowned, Japan was locked in feudal disarray, war torn and isolated from the rest of the world. But when the Emperor Meiji took the throne, he dissolved the old feudal system and sought to modernize and industrialize the islands. In order to do this, Japan had to be willing to learn from and borrow ideas from industrialized nations such as Great Britain, Germany, and the United States. In 1873, the Naimusho, or Home Ministry was created to implement economic and industrial policies.
America’s movement into the West was fueled by the concept of “Manifest Destiny,” a term coined by Texas journalist John O’Sullivan referring to the idea that it was America’s divine mission, or “destiny,” to spread the American culture and ideals from shore to shore. The Native American tribes, of course, were but a mere obstacle in the way of that destiny. Numerous accounts of violence towards them have been documented. The Natives were savages in the Americans’ eyes, and if they did not accept their ways, they were simply removed or exterminated. However, it was sometimes made to look as if the Natives were given a fair chance to assimilate, that after much stubborn resistance, American had no choice but to take action against them. Andrew Jackson, in his statement to congress in 1829 issuing the Removal Act of the Native Americans, saw their removal as for their own good.
“The condition and ulterior destiny of the Indian Tribes within the limits of some of our States, have become objects of much interest and importance. It has long been the policy of Government to introduce among them the arts of civilization, in the hope of gradually reclaiming them from a wandering life.”
-Andrew Jackson, 1829
The Removal Act resulted in thousands of Native Americans being violently mistreated and driven from their land into what was called the Indian Territory, now Oklahoma.
The racial attacks not only targeted the Native Americans, however. Mexicans, Cubans, and Filipinos were often at the brunt end American opinion. Sam Houston, first president of the Republic of Texas, speaking of the Mexicans, could “see no reason why (America) should not go in… and take their lands” (McCaffrey 68). Perhaps even more widely read were the words published by the Illinois State Register in 1846 when they called Mexicans “reptiles in the path of progressive democracy… and they must either crawl or be crushed” (69). President McKinley, after the Spanish-American War saw granting Cuba’s independence would result in “anarchy and misrule.” Filipinos were “unfit for self-government” and that “there was nothing left for them to do but to take them all and to educate the Filipinos, and uplift and civilize and Christianize them” (McKinley in Horlacher 40). Little was McKinley aware that the Philippines was already the most Christianized country in Asia.
The Japanese in their own dealings with other Asian countries were no different. They too would use ambiguous language as the United States did. One moment, h=they would relentlessly bash their neighboring countries, the next, praise them for their redeeming qualities. A prime example of this is the Japanese’ view of Koreans. Perhaps some of the more colorful propagandous Japanese writing, albeit extremely racist and demeaning writing, was directed toward Korea. Travel logs described the filth they saw in Korean homes, exaggerated accounts of the use of human excrement in daily living, and the waywardness of the Korean people altogether. One traveler said the seven major products of Korea were “shit, tobacco, lice, kaesang [courtesans], tigers, pigs, and flies” (Duus 402).
Negative descriptions such as these created popular stereotypes about Korea among the Japanese. Despite this, however, there was an overwhelming sense of parental duty that the Japanese felt toward their Korean “brothers,” that despite their extreme backwardness, they were somehow redeemable. A journalist wrote that the Koreans were “by no means inferior to the Japanese in industry and endurance, who, if they have the proper leadership, will have a bright future” (408). Of course, the leadership of which he spoke was that of the Japanese. The Koreans were simply in a dark period culturally, and with the help of their ethnic “brothers,” the Japanese, they could break them loose of their stolid ineptitude. This was the general and popular view of the Koreans.
Japan’s concept of Hakko Ichiu, or “eight corners under one roof,” was their counter to America’s Manifest Destiny. Japan catered to the idea of a common Asian race and promoted ethnic unity under Japan’s “roof” of leadership. This idea stemmed from the 8th Century tale that when Japan was first founded 2,600 years ago, several races inhabited the islands. It was only natural, therefore, for the races come back together under the Japanese “roof” (223). But China, the most populous nation in the world, was a tremendous problem to the Japanese expansion effort. Japan claimed that the “unification” of Japan and China was not only for the good of Japan but for China’s welfare as well. Forceful action was necessary, however, in order to defend themselves from a resistant China. Foreign Minister Koki Hirota wrote once in an article entitled “The Sino-Japanese Conflict”:
"It is hardly necessary to say that the basic policy of the Japanese government aims at the stabilization of East Asian through conciliation and cooperation between Japan, Manchukuo, and China for their common prosperity and well being. Since, however, China, ignoring our true motive, has mobilized her vast armies against us, we can only counter her step by force of arms” (Koki in Lasker and Roman 44)."
Resources drew Americans West. There was ample land to farm, and homesteader grabbed as much land as they could stake out for themselves. The Gold Rush brought people flocking to California in search of wealth. What the East Coast lacked, the West had. Similarly, Japan’s islands themselves were not rich in natural resources. Oil and fuel were one of their major imports. Approximately 80 percent of the land are mountainous terrain and less than ideal for farming. China, the northern regions around Manchuria in particular, were rich in natural resources and would have been a primary target for Japan to find resources and good farm land.
The United States and Japan both sought territorial expansion, and both had forceful opposition. America acted swiftly and forcefully to get rid of Native Americans, Mexicans, and any Spaniards standing in their way. Japan tried to assimilate and negotiate with China as well, but as they saw that it would be an impossible feat to simply “get rid of” all the Chinese, they acquired their claims in parts taking Manchuria in 1931 and Manchukuo in 1939. Korea had been annexed earlier in 1910. Methods may have differed between Japan and the United States, but the impetus for imperialism was the same.
The art of persuasion is a valuable tool, which, if controlled and mastered, could turn the collective minds of an entire people for or against a single idea or concept. Its advertising in its purest form. It is not so much what idea is presented than how it is presented that matters the most. The number of war bonds sold depends on how well the advertisements were developed and how many people saw them. It depends on who saw them, whether they were wealthy, upper-class or lower to middle class citizens who might not afford to invest in bonds but looked to perhaps gamble and cash in on the booming economy of the time. How attractive were the armed forces made to look? What kind of rewards, benefits or honors could be gained? From the nationalistic stand point, how evil was the enemy made to look? What facts about the enemy should be told or withheld from the public, and how can that information be skewed to make the enemy look even worse? What rights had the enemy violated? Was Japan a realistic threat to our liberty? If they were, America was certainly not about to stand around and not take up arms. America’s dignity had been challenged, and Japan would pay.
Conversely, how were America and the Allies violating Japan and other Asian nations? Asia had been invaded by an uninvited Western guest wearing the guise of diplomacy and trade. They brought greed, wealth and sought not the benefit of the native people but for their own wealth. They brought their Western ways spreading their culture, language, and ideologies, with empty hopes for Indians, Filipinos, Indonesians, and Chinese. They brought materialism and selfishness. India, China, the Philippines, and, with the exception of Thailand, Southeast Asia were oppressed under the ruling thumb of Western colonization. Japan had the strongest Army and Navy in Asia. Certainly it would be up to them to defend the honor and dignity of these Asian nations who could not fend for themselves. America points their finger at Japan, the aggressor, while America itself has had a history of aggression against Blacks, and other minorities including Asians. Japan brought wealth to Asia and stirred dormant countries like Korea to raise themselves up. Asia had the potential to be a world power, and it could only do that with Japan’s leadership.
How well did each country play the race card? Japan took no exception to whom they directed their racial slurs, but they painted a demonic image of the Allies much more than they did their Asian opposition. They could not insult their own “brethren,” as they would put it, if they were to be won over to the Japanese side. The United States, on the other hand, fixated on the dehumanized depiction of the Japanese, presenting them as monkeys and gorillas. They tended to shy away from any animal or demonic portrayal of their European foes partly because the majority of American’s were of European decent. To dehumanize the Europeans would be to dehumanize themselves. They felt no ethnic ties to the Japanese whatsoever. Both countries realized the importance of eliciting an ethnic hatred for the enemy as well as creating a subhuman image of them. It is much easier to kill a big hairy white mongrel or vine-swinging, gun-wielding monkey than it is to kill another human being. The enemy was not human.
It can easily be said that the United States had more effective propaganda because they won the war. But the bottom line is that war is won on the battlefield. The United States won because she swiftly and relentlessly bombed Tokyo and because she had the resources and means to do so. With the major industrial areas of Japan bombed out of commission, the Japanese government could have shown war films on huge screens in every major town, posted propaganda posters on every street corner and newspaper, and handed out copies of Read This and the War is Won to every man, woman and child boosting morale and national pride, but Japan would have still lost the war. Propaganda hoped to boosted morale, sold ideas, and gave hope and confidence to its audience. It did not fight battles for them.
The affects of propaganda, however, last well after treaties are signed and the dusts of war settle. Japan, though defeated, still held inside the same hatred for the United States it had before the war if not more so. They played the role of defeated foe, smiling to appease their victors on the outside but contemptuous and demoralized on the inside. The United States still often referred to the Japanese as “Japs” or other racially derogatory names. The words and images left to us by propaganda remain in a nation's collective memory. They are vestiges of war-time. However good or bad, those memories linger in culture. The elements of war are not left on the battle field to wither away with those who perished. Hate, anger, and contempt are brought home so that “war” becomes no longer a job but a way of life.