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  • The Properly Feminine Nationalist Body in the Propaganda Kamishibai of Suzuki Noriko
  • Sharalyn Orbaugh (bio)

In a classic study, Paul Linebarger called propaganda “psychological warfare.”1 If propaganda is a form of warfare, then the only hope of resisting its attack is to understand how it works on both conscious and unconscious levels and in a variety of media. This essay is part of a larger project that addresses the nature and function of propaganda through an examination of a Japanese popular culture medium that played a significant role in Japan’s Fifteen Year War (1931–45): kamishibai (literally, “paper theater”). In this essay I discuss a specific subgroup of propaganda kamishibai plays: those aimed at women on the home front, intended to mobilize them for the war effort. Although women’s efforts in support of Japan’s war were crucial, and much time, money, and attention were directed to mobilizing those efforts, in fact the messages of wartime kamishibai plays directed at women are surprisingly varied.2 An examination of the range of such messages demonstrates the complexity of the propaganda environment that configured Japanese women’s experience of total war.

The essay begins with a discussion of propaganda generally: what it is, how it works, and why it is important in a consideration of the material conditions of wartime. Then we turn to the kamishibai plays of Suzuki Noriko (dates unknown)3 as a case study to show how Japanese propagandists conceptualized the wartime roles for properly nationalist women. [End Page 50]


Judith Butler argues that “once we acknowledge that the ‘frames’ through which [the material needs of war] are affirmed or denied make possible the practices of war, we have to conclude that the frames of war are part of what makes the materiality of war. . . . Just as the ‘matter’ of bodies cannot appear without a shaping and animating form, neither can the ‘matter’ of war appear without a conditioning and facilitating form or frame.”4 Mobilization propaganda produced by a government at war is one of the dominant frames through which the practices of war are affirmed or denied; it is through domestic propaganda that the citizens of a nation learn what material practices are expected of them and what new roles their bodies are expected to fulfill.

While most studies have focused on the kinds of propaganda aimed at spreading misinformation or panic among the enemy, it is crucial to remember that incomplete information or outright deceit are tools often used by propagandists to mobilize the domestic citizenry as well. In a situation of total war, when a government is trying to induce people to leave their homes to go off to fight and possibly die, to give up their livelihoods to work in hazardous conditions in coal mines or armaments factories, to send their children off to live with strangers, to risk starvation by living only on the rationed allotment of food, etc., it must persuade those people to put aside their own needs and preferences for some well-defined purpose, and that persuasion almost inevitably involves deceit.

Even when—or perhaps especially when—mobilization rhetoric is noble and inspiring, espousing a “good cause,” its intent is deception and manipulation—selling the war to the people, in David Earhart’s phrase, rather than “a free and open exchange of ideas.”5 Accordingly, although we often think of domestic mobilization as a legitimate activity, we must keep in mind Sissela Bok’s warning that deceit is in fact commensurate with violence: “[Deceit and violence] are the two forms of deliberate assault on human beings. Both can coerce people into acting against their will. Most harm that can befall victims though violence can come to them also through deceit. But deceit controls more subtly, for it works on belief as well as action.”6 When deception succeeds, “it can give power to the deceiver—power that all who suffer the consequences of lies would not wish to abdicate.”7

Japan in a state of “total war” did not allow its citizens or colonized peoples a choice about participating; nor did Britain or Germany or many other nations centrally involved in World War II. But Japan...


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