- The Thought War: Japanese Imperial Propaganda, and: Letters from an Autumn of Emergencies: Selections from the Wartime Diaries of Ordinary Japanese, and: In the Faraway Mountains and Rivers: More Voices From a Lost Generation of Japanese Students
The Pacific War was the most traumatic event in the modern histories of Japan, China, the United States, and many other nations. No wonder that more than sixty years after it ended it still attracts attention and stirs debate. In the various writings about the war, the former black-and-white stereotypes have given way to more shaded presentations, in which heroes and villains are not always distinguishable. The three interesting books under review here open a window through which we can see how the war was presented and perceived in Japan. Reading them together helps us understand the atmosphere in which the Japanese lived in those turbulent years.
Barak Kushner's illuminating book examines Japan's wartime propaganda as it was formed and manipulated by the government and other agencies. He finds that despite the absence of a single, central organ of information and public guidance, as existed in Germany, the wartime propaganda of Japan was highly successful. Kushner rejects the image of the Japanese people blindly obeying their leaders. As he shows, pronouncements from above met a willingness from below to listen and comply. The people identified with the war aims and were ready to endure hardships. "To westerners the wartime Japanese behaved like docile sheep, blindly worshipping the emperor, soldiers shouting his name on the battlefield with their dying gasp. In contrast to this image held by the west, the Japanese . . . discriminated. They listened to some propaganda messages, ignored others" (p. 32). Government controls and restrictions existed, but they were effective because they encountered public support. "Censorship and terror alone did not characterize the war years. In actuality the people were not duped, nor were they passive. The masses understood the situation not only because the government explained it, but also because the population itself helped create the propaganda environment" (p. 24).
Wartime propaganda reached the people in many ways, from highbrow culture to lowbrow amusements. Advertisement, in the form of posters, pamphlets, glossy magazines, travel brochures, and slogans, played a significant role in bolstering public morale. Commercial advertisers discovered the business opportunities in working for the government and for the war effort. "Consumer appetites supported the nation's imperial quest by making commerce and war a significant part of popular culture" (p. 68). One chapter of the book, titled "A Funny Thing Happened to Me on the Way to the Front," describes the important role of entertainment in mobilizing the population for war. Comedians, rakugo storytellers, and drama troops performed all the time, not stopping even when the bombs were falling. [End Page 264]
Kushner discovers that, contrary to what is usually believed, Japan's wartime propaganda was rational, depicting Japan as a modern state. It was effective because it appealed to reason rather than to mystical nationalism or to the cult of the emperor. It presented Japan as a progressive, scientific, and hygienic country, "the harbinger of civilization that Asia should strive to emulate" (p. 11). As such, Japan shouldered the obligation to liberate and lead its less fortunate neighbors. This message had a great appeal to intellectuals, who supported the war as a campaign to liberate Asia. "Members of Japan's cosmopolitan elite did not distance themselves from wartime propaganda; they embraced it and involved themselves in its creation. Intellectuals were not misled; they actively helped convince others because they believed in Japan's war in Asia" (p. 38).
As Kushner points out...