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  • Imperial Japan at Its Zenith: The Wartime Celebration of the Empire's 2,600th Anniversary
  • Sandra Wilson (bio)
Imperial Japan at Its Zenith: The Wartime Celebration of the Empire's 2,600th Anniversary. By Kenneth J. Ruoff. Cornell University Press, Ithaca, 2010. xv, 236 pages. $39.95.

In 1940 extensive celebrations were held in Japan to commemorate the 2,600th anniversary of the supposed enthronement in 660 BC of the mythical first emperor Jimmu, who was treated at the time as a real historical figure. Books and magazine articles about the founding of the nation were published, imperial sites were renovated to allow for thousands of visitors, exhibitions were mounted, radio programs broadcast, contests held, and imperial rites staged. Focusing on these rarely examined celebrations, Kenneth Ruoff offers a new interpretation of Japan and its empire at this critical moment, when Japan was at war with China but not yet with the United States and its allies, all the while directing our attention to the key themes of the period—modernity, nationalism, imperialism, fascism, mobilization, and, more surprisingly, consumption. Using the commemorative activities as a peg rather than a target of close analysis, he has produced a stimulating and important work. It is high time historians of Japan made a renewed attempt to grapple with the 1930s and early 1940s, and Ruoff's book makes a powerful contribution to such an endeavor.

Imperial Japan at Its Zenith begins with an examination of the “boom” in the writing of national history that accompanied the 2,600th anniversary. Books for children and adults, museum exhibitions, and reenactments were used in attempts to convince people that the “unbroken imperial line” was the most important point about the sweep of Japanese history. Naturally, there was particular emphasis on the founding moment. Distinguished scholars, other members of government committees, and local authorities went to great lengths, sometimes in competition with each other, to establish [End Page 141] which topographical features in which prefectures corresponded with key events in the life of Emperor Jimmu and so should be regarded as sacred sites.

Chapter 2, for me the pivotal chapter in the book, examines mass engagement in the anniversary celebrations. Large numbers of people participated in precisely timed rituals designed to reinforce the sense of nation, volunteered in labor service brigades working to beautify imperial shrines, entered contests organized by newspaper companies to select patriotic songs to mark the 2,600th anniversary, and gazed at department store exhibitions on Japan's dynastic history. Ruoff's emphasis here and throughout the book is on “self-administered citizenship training” (p. 12), that is, on the point that people were not forced or cajoled but eagerly participated in activities that endorsed imperial ideology. In doing so, they were essentially acting as consumers: of publications, goods, spectacle, and experiences. Consumerism, in fact, “substantially defined popular participation in the 2,600th anniversary celebrations” (p. 80). Although standard accounts of the war years from 1937 onward often note that the government tried to restrict consumption because “luxury is the enemy,” Ruoff argues that an emphasis on such slogans is misleading. Consumption was acceptable to the authorities “so long as it could be cast as dutiful”: that is, if it “had the welcome side effect of strengthening one's sense of nation and national mission” (p. 80). Ruoff's explication of the links between nationalism and many forms of consumerism is one of the strengths of the book. As he notes, though the consumerism acknowledged to characterize 1920s Japan is often thought to have given way to nationalism in the 1930s, “many consumer sectors were enveloped by nationalism rather than displaced by it” (p. 79).

One of Ruoff's major interests is wartime tourism; three of the book's six substantive chapters are devoted to this topic. He points out that the 1930s were characterized by “healthy economic growth” (p. 34), which led to an increase in disposable income. Certain types of tourism, like other forms of consumption, could be cast as patriotic and hence “dutiful.” Thus there was a boom in tourism, with 1940 the peak year for travel in Japan's empire (p. 84). At the same time, tourism to...


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