JAPANESE MAGAZINES FROM THE GREAT EAST ASIAN WAR, 1931-1945
The current conflict between the West and extremist jihadists is the second “holy war” waged against Europe and America in the past century. Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941 represented the opening salvo of the first such war. A look at popular illustrated magazines from the enemy side can be useful in analyzing the shift of Japanese public opinion from progressive, pro-Western attitudes to a fanatical and ultimately self-destructive outlook.
Japan’s long tradition of graphic excellence translated well to the era of illustrated periodicals. As halftone photographic processes supplanted the traditional ukio-e woodblock prints for publicizing newsworthy events, photographers and illustrators combined their talents to produce pleasing and artistic books and magazines, even during the exigencies of total war in the 1940s.
When the U.S. Navy “opened” Japan in the 1850s, the resultant social and cultural upheaval transformed a medieval society into a progressive modern state within thirty years. Unfortunately, the overwhelming push to modernize following western models embraced some very bad ideas along with the beneficial ones, including colonialism. The person of the emperor was elevated to become the focus of a new breed of hyper-nationalism – to die for the living god became the highest goal one could aspire to. Like Britain, Japan is an island nation with few natural resources and an ever-expanding population. During the reign of Emperor Meiji (1868-1912), Britain ruled an empire embracing almost one-fifth of the globe. With this model before them, Japan’s leaders began casting covetous eyes on the disorganized Chinese empire with its limitless resources and despised human labor pool. The doctrine of “Hakko Ichiu,” or “Eight Corners of the World under one [Japanese] Roof,” began to influence subsequent domestic and foreign policy. The government hired Western specialists to jump-start a total revolution in technology, selecting only the best of the best. After Prussia defeated France in 1870, German military advisers soon replaced French ones.
After creating a standing army and a modern navy on European lines, Japan defeated China in 1894-5, taking Formosa (Taiwan,) and inflicted a crushing series of military and naval disasters on Russia in 1904-5. She annexed Korea in 1910, adding it to large concessions on the Chinese mainland. During World War I, Japan chased the Germans out of their Asian colonies and earned a place at the Versailles Peace Conference. Feeling cheated after the Allies limited naval tonnage in 1921, Japan began to pursue a tangential course of Asian expansion, secretly fortifying the island “mandates” granted by the Versailles treaty. The worldwide depression of 1929 hit Japan with special force as her essential import/export markets dried up. Crippling taxation and inept local government worsened the crisis. Parliamentary government disintegrated. Extremist army cliques used terror and assassination to bring down government opponents. In 1931, virtually autonomous radical army units fabricated “incidents” and seized Manchuria, with its coal and mineral resources. The puppet state of “Manchukuo” came into being. Following censure, Japan’s delegation walked out of the League of Nations. Another clash in 1937 at the Marco Polo Bridge, near Beijing, led to an all-out war with China. (The Japanese government refused to acknowledge the struggle as a war, always referring to it as the “Shi-na Ji-hen” or “China Incident.”) This conflict merged into the “Dai-To-A Senso” or “Great East Asian War” following the Pearl Harbor attack of December 7, 1941, and only ended with the total defeat of Japan in 1945.
As historian John W. Dower has stated, “Japan’s belated emergence as a dominant power in Asia…challenged not just the Western presence but the entire mystique of white supremacism on which centuries of European and American expansion had rested.” (John W. Dower, War Without Mercy: Race and Power in the Pacific War (New York: Pantheon Books, 1986) p. 6.)
While resenting the anti-Japanese racism evident in Western immigration policies, the Japanese government exploited an “Asia for the Asians” official propaganda, while pursuing an intensely racist program of subjugation in China and other occupied countries as the war progressed. The inexpensive illustrated magazines that flooded Japanese newsstands saturated their readers with images of victorious troops “liberating” oppressed fellow-Asians from European colonial masters. Beaming Imperial troops were depicted fraternizing with peasants, feeding sweets to cherubic children and pitching in with harvesting chores. Interspersed with the heady military news, ship launchings and images of happy families enjoying the scenery of the home islands were news items about the economic and social miracles wrought by Germany’s progressive new chancellor. Japan and the Third Reich signed a treaty of friendship in 1936, and the Japanese in effect became “honorary Aryans” in 1940 under the Tripartite Pact. Vichy France turned French Indo-China (Vietnam) over to her new ally. Propaganda magazines in the Axis countries increasingly touted each other’s activities.
After war broke out in Europe in 1939, Japan’s antipathy to the colonial powers turned from ideology to action as Hitler’s panzers blitzed their way across the continent. A common theme was the so-called “ABCD Encirclement” of Japan by Americans, British, Chinese and the Dutch. The coordinated attacks of December 1941 through Summer, 1942 made perfect sense as an effective neutralization of three elements of this supposed threat. (Gaining the Dutch oil fields wasn’t so bad either.) Hong Kong, the Philippines, Malaya, Indonesia, New Guinea, Burma, Thailand and other countries quickly fell to the new Samurai. The same “lebensraum” (living space – for Germans only) idea that Hitler used to justify his invasion of Russia had been a staple of Japanese policy towards China since 1931. Thousands of colonists followed in the wake of the rogue Kwantung Army as it steamrollered across eastern China throughout the 1930s.
To promote blind patriotism at home and the “Greater East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere” abroad, Japan’s chief propaganda magazines were the Asahigraph (Rising Sun Pictorial), the Shashin Shuho (Pictorial Weekly), the Rekishi Shashin (Historic Photos) and the Gaho Yakushin shi Nihon (Illustrated Magazine – Advance in Nippon) and Front. Others came and went. There was even a “Navy Serviceman’s Relief Stuffed Miscellany/Frontline Library!” Spinoffs and similar magazines soon appeared in occupied areas in the local languages. The Tokko, or “thought police” of the dreaded Kempeitai (Japan’s version of the Gestapo) maintained a uniform set of hard-line standards for all publications, government-sponsored as well as privately published. Organs of dissent did not last long. One publisher who criticized the Army had his printing plant buzzed by fighter planes! A curious pro-Western magazine entitled Front first appeared in 1936, published by Gosha Boeki in Tokyo. Commandeered by the Imperial General Staff, a reconstituted propaganda magazine entitled Front was eventually published in fifteen languages by the “International Press Photography Association.” Because of total censorship, most Japanese were thunderstruck by the surrender in August 1945, having no idea that they had been losing for the past two years!
Asahigraph, Japan’s equivalent to America’s Life Magazine and Germany’s Die Woche, began in January 1923 as a daily picture supplement to Tokyo’s first newspaper, the Asahi Shimbun (Morning Paper,) founded in 1879. After the 1923 earthquake interrupted publication, it was transformed into a weekly in November 1923. Three years later it merged with a graphic weekly published in Osaka. The contents were general and included puzzles, cartoons and photojournalistic studies. As the militarists tightened their grip on all aspects of society, the paper’s liberal editorials soon landed it in trouble. After the Tokko wrecked its offices, the Asahi Shimbun fell into line and began reporting all military actions as victories.
To the present generation, surfeited with a glut of violent imagery from the evening news to movie theaters and video games, the reluctance of both Axis and Allied publishers to depict the gruesome and messy consequences of war must be incomprehensible. A photograph of dead U.S. Marines at Buna Beach was taken in February 1943, and only reluctantly published in Life in September, after months of editorial debate. Although blurry shots of Chinese corpses appeared in Japanese magazines, civilians never saw images of their own mounting casualties. Only processions of white-gloved honor guards, carrying neat boxes of ashes to Shinto temples ever made it into the propaganda magazines. Obviously, atrocities such as the Rape of Nanking, the horrific medical experiments of “Unit 731” and the ill treatment of Allied prisoners were taboo. Unlike many Germans, who could smell the death camps in their back yards, Japanese atrocities took place in faraway China or Burma and civilians remained ignorant of them. As America’s blockade tightened, austerity measures became evident. Asahigraph went from full-color covers, to duotone, to black and white. Advertising declined and later issues have fewer pages. Unlike most publications, Asahigraph survived the 1945 defeat and remained in print until 2000 as a glossy pop culture magazine.
Shashin Shuho was launched in February 1937 and sank in July 1945. Smaller in format and printed on coarse paper by Naikaku Johokyoku (the Information Department of the Cabinet) it was a rosy celebration of Japan’s advances on social, industrial, economic and -- of course -- military fronts. If Asahigraph resembled Life, Shashin Shuho resembled Liberty or Collier’s. It promoted a fiercely patriotic outlook, (“Yamato Damashii,” or Japanese Spirit,) condemning degenerate Western influences like jazz, permanent-waves, baseball, etc., as the war progressed. One issue from 1943 featured a cover photo of a “Chinatown” brothel with signs in English (“50 sen only for the fair girls’ serVice”) and contained lists of proscribed places and consumer goods.
Rekishi Shashin was a privately published magazine devoted to art and photography, which first appeared in 1913 and went out of business in 1944. Its presswork maintained very high standards throughout its existence. The magazine featured foldout reproductions of classic artworks and fine-quality photographic printing. Wartime shortages caused an overall decline in paper quality and color printing.
Little is known about Advance in Nippon, published by Toyo Bunka Kyokai. It was printed on glossy stock, its presswork and photo reproduction were excellent and its map supplements compare favorably with those from National Geographic. Like the other magazines, it promoted a sanitized, optimistic view of the ever-widening war in China. The bilingual title suggests that it was intended partially for export, like Germany’s Signal magazine.
Anti-American and anti-British propaganda became more strident as Allied forces approached ever closer to the home islands. Roosevelt was shown uttering phrases like “Kill You Japs” and forcing African-Americans into the army to kill fellow nonwhites. Photos depicted loyal Japanese burning stacks of jazz records and harassing women with Western hairstyles or clothing (the so-called mo-ga, or "modern girl"). By this time all civilians were wearing standardized apparel – quasi military uniforms for men and boys, with the ubiquitous fatigue cap, and “monpe” or baggy-trousered coveralls for women and girls. Malnutrition became a problem, since most foodstuffs went to the armed forces. A “rising sun lunch,” consisting of a small oblong bento box with white rice and a single red plum in the center, was a special treat, and might be the only meal of the day. Workdays averaged about fourteen hours, plus compulsory overtime. Much war production took place in home workshops, a situation used to justify the carpet firebombing of Japanese cities.
The cartoons which appeared in these publications display a marked difference between Western and Japanese prejudices. American cartoonists usually portrayed Japanese troops as subhuman apes with large fangs. Caricatures on the cover of Time magazine by Arthur Szyk and Boris Artzybasheff emphasized the “yellow peril” of America’s new enemy. In contrast, Japanese artists depicted westerners as hairy demons with horns and maleficent powers, and their political leaders as balloon-headed figures filled with hot air. Both types of dehumanization drew deeply from traditional imagery of the “other.” Nineteenth century American caricatures of Irish and Chinese immigrants and Japanese prints of hairy, rowdy American sailors in Yokohama display identical stereotypes. The characteristic facial peculiarities of Roosevelt and Churchill provided abundant scope for both Axis and Allied caricaturists. Images of avuncular FDR as a horned devil dropping bombs on a Red Cross hospital ship are jolting to Westerners. I suspect that cartoons of Premier Tojo as a drooling simian were equally disturbing to our opponents.
Living in a beautiful but harsh environment and plagued by constant seismic activity and natural disasters, Japan’s citizens have learned endurance, resilience and teamwork. The same qualities that sustained Japan throughout its long and troubled history – obedience, respect, hard work, thrift and a warrior culture – would prove her downfall as a small clique of militarists cynically manipulated these traits for a doomed imperialist venture. Popular magazines became a powerful tool in persuading the general population to support the insane scheme with their sacrifices and blood.
For further reading:
David C. Earhart, Certain Victory: Images of World War II in the Japanese Media (Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe, Inc., 2008).
Haruko Taya Cook and Theodore F. Cook, Japan at War: An Oral History (New York: The New Press, 1992). The first-person interviews reveal that, despite the best efforts of the “thought police,” wartime Japanese society was far less monolithic than western propaganda tried to suggest.
Eugene Soviak, ed., A Diary of Darkness; The Wartime Diary of Kiyosawa Kiyoshi (Princeton University press, 1999).
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