by Nickii Wantakan Arcado
While World War II was fought between economic, social, and political lines, often times we forget one of the main mediums in which encourage and influence both soldiers and individuals themselves to participate in wartime efforts; propaganda. On the social front, propaganda was used either as a mechanism to heighten a sense of nationalism or as a weapon to demonize and dehumanize enemies. While we are familiar with U.S. propaganda, the most famous being—but not limited to—the feminist icon Rosie the Riveter or spunky Uncle Spam, much U.S. propaganda centered on a domestic front and never really dispersed internationally. One nation, however, due to their need to promote their idea of the “Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere”. Japan did this on three main fronts—via posters, literature, and film.
Posters and Pamphlets
Japanese propaganda differed quite a bit from its Western counterpart. On one front, Japanese artwork was somewhat simplistic, focusing black and white images with an occasional color spot to highlight key areas. As what will be mentioned below, Japanese propaganda also differed in terms of its audience, as the country was aware that it had the difficult job of creating propaganda both to amass approval from within its borders as well as its neighboring Asian community. For example, the photo above sought to promote the harmony between Manchukuo, Japan, and China, displaying the flags of each region (for China, the Five Races Under One Union flag). The words "With the help of Japan, China, and Manchukuo, the world can be in peace" can be spotted on the bottom.
In addition, Japanese artwork and posters tackled various subject matters, including urging citizens to conserve resources, encouraging the increase of production, and short slogans that elevated the spectators' spirit and boost their sense of national pride. These posters were located in every corner of public life, including at subways, bus stations, phone poles, and school gates. In one example, the pamphlet below calls for citizens to meet production goals so that the Japanese army can product weapons to counter Western forces. These pamphlets were often handed out during rallies, lectures, or panel discussions. Banners were also hung around popular businesses to gain traction, including the one below which criticizes Western consumerism reading, “Luxury is our enemy”.
Other posters focused more on physical wartime action and military recruitment. Examples of wartime posters included one of a Japanese soldier trampling over both a British and American flag, an act that was deemed highly disrespectful. The poster, printed by the Army Ministry, reads “Fire and Never Quit”. Another poster shows a soldier pointing towards the audience and encouraging them to enroll in Japan’s Young Men’s Military Brigade, a recruitment slogan somewhat quite similar to that of Uncle Sam.
A highly stylized and popular pamphlet style was the Kokutai (国体). Directly meaning ‘national body’ the concept of these pamphlets were to promote the idea that Japanese nationalism and polity is issued through a divine leader and that the country has a spiritual origin. As such, people were instructed to put the nation before themselves, dedicate themselves to the Japanese family polity structure of government, and praise the apex that is emperor. The artwork would display animals with a backdrop of the Japanese flag or other distinctive Japanese symbols, and sometimes had writings promoting the traditional Japanese way of life. Kamikaze model planes were also named after this distinctive Japanese artform.
Examples of kokutais can be seen below.
Posters also contained caricatures that carried racist undertones set to dehumanize their Western enemies. Westerners were often depicted as hairy, demonic monsters (鬼, pronounced "oni") who were irrational and power hungry, caring for no one but themselves. President Roosevelt was often the target of ridicule. In one photo, he is depicted with pale, grey skin almost lifelike, akin to the monster in Frankenstein. The photo was used to show how heartless yet American forces were during the war. Another photo shows President Roosevelt removing his ‘human mask, with skulls around his neck, and horns protruding from his head. This depiction seeks to emphasize that the President’s true form is that of a monster who sees no problem in taking innocent lives, either his own or the people he’s fighting against.
The depiction of Americans as ‘Oni’ was common practice, as seen in the photos below. This, of course, was a response to America’s depiction of the Japanese as rodents or monkeys due to the difference in the shape of their eyes compared to Caucasians.
The Japanese Empire also saw great importance in translating their artwork. Leaflets, specifically, were airdropped into countries like the Philippines, Indonesia or China containing the language used by the region. One pamphlet encourages Filipinos to join the Japanese forces, rather than ‘waiting to die’ for endless war. Another pamphlet written in Thai was written to appeal to Thailand’s unique poetry format and rhyming structure.
In addition to posters and pamphlets, war bonds were also common, being printed daily newspapers or magazines.
Wartime Documents and Booklets
Wartime documents were regularly dispersed to both the Japanese public and military forces for free. Two of the most important wartime documents printed were Read This and the War is Done and The Way of the Subject (臣民の道).
The first document was basically a ‘War for Dummies’ cheat sheet, in which short paragraphs were written about the current state of war and everything that soldiers needed to know prior to going on the field. Written by Colonel Tsuji Masanobu and the Japanese intelligence unit, the booklet contains subjects including existing Western colonies in Southeast Asia, the current status of India, the history of Japan, and Japan’s role in protecting Manchuria. In addition, the booklet criticized Westerners and Western politics, noting that they were greedy, arrogant, and lived lavish lives by enslaving others, specifically other Asians. With its small size, the booklet could easily be ready while soldiers were traveling through transport ships or other vessels.
While Read This and the War is Done was a confidential military document, The Way of the Subject was issued and printed by the Ministry of Education. The ideological manifesto listed out the essential traits every Japanese individual should possess or aspire to be, including filial piety and loyalty to the state. Traits such as individualism, liberalism, utilitarianism, and materialism were condemned, claiming that they were a threat to true virtue. Printed in 1941, the manifesto was distributed to every school in Japan. Interestingly, this document was also one of the only pieces of foreign literature handed out during wartime that directly called out the hypocrisy of American democracy in comparison with their mistreatment of African Americans and other minorities.
Japan needed to convince the public that its invasion of nearby Asian countries were justifiable. A prominent booklet that served this purpose was titled The Greater East Asian War and Ourselves, which noted that through Japanese guidance, all of Asian will transform into a “branch family” which would be economically codependent on each other and obtain greater economic prosperity free from Western control. The booklet also contained Anti-Chinese rhetoric, claiming that although it was Japan’s duty to help its fellow Asian neighbors, that some nations were not reciprocal to their actions (using the example of China and Sino-Japanese conflict) and thus, force and take-over was needed to have them cooperate.
Films and Dramas
Two of the most popular Japanese war time films were the Story of Tank Commander Nishizumi (西住戦車長伝 ) and Chocolate and Soldiers (チョコレートと兵隊). The former is set during the Sino-Japanese war and starts off with young Nishizumi who works his way up to military school. He soon gets stationed in Nanking, and although he is wounded multiple times throughout the war, refuses to back down and leave the front lines. He is eventually killed by Chinese forces, but as he dies and is surrounded by his loyal scouts, whispers the words "All I have done is for my Emperor." This scene would later serve as an example of how to become a true ‘military god’ or gunshin, one who sacrifices himself for the greater good of his troops. This 1940 film attempts to install in its audience a message of hope; to endure loss and death without plunging oneself through the depths of despair. Director Kōzaburō Yoshimura was known for touring the battlefields of China during the early months of 1938 in order to accurately frame the soldiers’ movement and established bases. Consequently, the film completely highlights Japanese victories during the invasion and erases historical incidents like the Rape of Nanking, and only chooses to focus on the heroism of its main hero.
After the defeat of Japan, Yoshimura also directed another film A Ball at the Anjo House (安城家の舞踏会) which centers around Satsuko Anjo and her family, who are forced to give up their home and learn to live in post-war Japan. The film also deals with the meaning and, at the time, the moral obligation of Seppuku, a common Japanese ritual suicide in which one takes a knife or sword and disembowels themselves as a display of either loyalty and/or to restore honor to their family. The film won the Kinema Junpo Award in 1947.
While the Story of Tank Commander Nishizumi exemplified dignity and honor for fighting the war for the sake of Japanese royalty, Chocolate and Soldiers had a more humanist tone, with its main purpose of encouraging the audience to feel empathy for a father who is called to join a suicide. During the days leading up to his final act, he sends his family letters and chocolate wrappers that he receives from his comrades (hence the name) so that his son can redeem them for a free box of chocolate. The film ends with the son receiving a scholarship from the chocolate company and swearing vengeance on his father’s enemies.
Unlike American films and the American film industry during the 1940s, Japanese war films focused on portraying the hardships and weaknesses that come with waging war. Themes of sacrifice and seppuku (ritual suicide) were prevalent, often times exemplified in portrayals of kamikaze strategies. One of the most prominent and distinctive themes in Japanese films and Japanese culture, in general, is purity.
It is undeniable that propaganda helped boost public morale and granted hope to those who observed them, either through booklets, posters, or via film. While Japan did not win the war, its wartime propaganda encouraging purity, hard work, and national piety has managed to embed itself in Japanese culture to this day.
McClain, James L. Japan, a Modern History. WW Norton & Company, 2002.
Navarro, Anthony V. “A Critical Comparison Between Japanese and American Propaganda during World War II.” MSU.EDU, Michigan State University, msu.edu/~navarro6/srop.html.
Baskett, Michael. The Attractive Empire: Transnational Film Culture in Imperial Japan. University of Hawaii Press, 2008.
Baskett, Michael. "Goodwill Hunting: Rediscovering and Remembering Manchukuo in Japanese ‘Goodwill Films.’." Crossed Histories: Manchuria in the Age of Empire (2005): 120-49.
Beasley, William Gerald, and William G. Beasley. The rise of modern Japan: political, economic and social change since 1850. Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2000.
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