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  • Gas Mask Parade:Japan’s Anxious Modernism
  • Gennifer Weisenfeld (bio)

An army of schoolgirls marching through Tokyo, their faces an anonymous sea of gas masks. Perhaps one of the most iconic images of the anxious modernism of 1930s Japan, Gas Mask Parade, Tokyo (Gasu Masuku Kōshin, Tōkyō) by photographer Horino Masao (1907–1998) (Figure 1), reveals the vivid yet prosaic inculcation of fear in Japanese daily life through the increasingly pervasive visual culture of civil defense.1 Japan’s invasion of Manchuria in late 1931—the beginning of its Fifteen Year War—marks the onset of a period of intense social mobilization and militarization on the home front as the warfront expanded on the continent and throughout the Pacific. Surveillance, secrecy, darkness, defensive barriers, physical security, and prophylaxis all became standard visual tropes of communal anxiety and national preparedness.

As a basic instrument of home front civil defense, the gas mask increasingly appeared in the public visual sphere, its use spreading from individuals to families, and even to animals such as dogs and horses.2 And media historians and sociologists such as Iwamura Masashi and Tsuchida Hiroshige have explored the instrumentality and changing importance of gas masks in the context of air defense.3 But the complicated and multilayered aesthetic resonance of gas mask imagery still remains uncharted territory.

Perhaps the aesthetics of the gas mask might seem like a contradiction in terms. Yet the visualization of gas masks throughout the 1930s and beyond clearly redefined the physical or “material” body, rendering the average citizen/imperial subject into an anonymous, seemingly inhuman monster of erotic curiosity.4 [End Page 179] Gas masks anonymized the civil population by obscuring individual physiognomies, and pointed to the posthuman condition of wartime, when people would be unable to survive the potentially toxic atmosphere of the metropolis. It was only the metropolitan centers that were actually threatened by poison gas bombs, but by 1930, nearly a quarter of the Japanese population lived in large cities, so the threat was immense.5 This alienation of the modern subject from his/her environment on the militarized home front, which necessitated the application of commodity prostheses for survival, eerily paralleled the general processes of modernity that were gradually alienating the modern consumer-subject from the natural environment and replacing this relationship with commodity fetishes that similarly denaturalized the human body.

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Fig 1.

Horino Masao, Gas Mask Parade, Tokyo (Gasu Masuku Kōshin, Tōkyō), 1936.

Image courtesy of the Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography Collection.

In exposing the body’s vulnerability to the new technologies of war, the gas mask became a martial commodity par excellence, as seen in a 1938 advertisement for Fujikura Industrial Company gas masks in the national propaganda journal Shashin Shūhō (Photographic Weekly Report) (Figure 2), which pictures a well-dressed, male figure wearing a gas mask, his arm jauntily perched on his hip like a catalogue fashion model. Faintly visible below him is a scene of active civil defense showing a team of male first responders all wearing gas masks while shuttling away the injured on stretchers.6 [End Page 180]

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Fig 2.

Advertisement, Fujikura Industrial Company gas masks, inside back cover, Shashin Shūhō 29, 31 August 1938.

Closer examination of the visual culture of the 1930s, however, reveals that the gas mask did much more than merely express or inculcate fear. It excited the imagination, particularly in the context of a widespread Japanese popular culture movement known as “ero-guro-nansensu” (or erotic-grotesque-nonsense, often shortened to ero-guro). For Japanese in the early Shōwa period (1926–89), from about 1926 through the 1930s, ero-guro-nansensu referred to a broad trend in literature and art that focused on dark and sexually charged subjects that tended toward criminality, horror, sadomasochism, necrophilia, the Occult, the bizarre, and other so-called “deviant” (hentai) topics.7 Gas mask imagery was explicitly evoked within the ero-guro cultural context, connecting death and sensuality, the monstrous and the erotic. And images such as Horino’s parade of schoolgirls, which presented a dystopian futurescape of unified automatons—particularly...