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  • The Imagined Map of the Nation:Postwar Japan from 1945 to 1970
  • Hayashi Michio (bio)

How to visualize the nation, or more precisely, how to imagine the shape of a given nation? Benedict Anderson’s classic, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (1983), analyzes the historical process through which the people of a given nation begin to share and eventually internalize a national identity. The standardization of language and its distribution to every corner of the nation through mass print media, especially the newspaper, play an important role in this process. But, for this “imagined” nation to function as a unitary image-entity, it must have a contour or geographical definition: not only of its external shape but also of its internal articulation. There has to emerge an imagined map of the nation to be shared by people so that they can identify the geo-cultural field to which they belong. In that map, the constantly changing network of visual media——including maps themselves, photographs, print media, films, and TV——naturally plays a decisive role. This essay is an attempt to trace how those media functioned to form, or reform, a collective image of the nation by looking at the situation of postwar Japan, whose nationhood——its prewar image with its extended imperial territory——was nullified at the end of World War Two. The contour of the nation had to be redrawn and its internal land reclaimed during and after the occupation by means of visual (or visually oriented) representations. By tracing the steps of how the image of the nation was continuously redefined by visual media in tandem with various contextual factors, this critical survey aims to shed new light on the mechanism of how images themselves contribute to the formation of an imagined community.

The Imperial Tour and the Photographable Nation

Much has been said about the presence of Emperor Hirohito in postwar Japan and the political support he received from the General Headquarters of the American occupational government. It is often emphasized that the decision to keep Hirohito as a symbol of the [End Page 285] continuity of Japanese culture played a key role in securing the success of the radical remodeling of the Japanese socio-political system during the American occupation. The illusion of cultural continuity sustained by the imperial presence effectively worked, as the GHQ predicted, providing an ideological cover and collective psychological consolation for the otherwise intolerable reality of the “unconditional” defeat and the forcible changes imposed upon occupied Japan by the American government. If the function of a myth is to “to provide a logical model capable of overcoming a contradiction,” as Lévi-Strauss famously argued in his Structural Anthropology (1958), Japanese postwar “symbolic” imperialism is the mythical system that functioned to paper over the contradictions of the radical change experienced by Japanese society as a whole and the sense of cultural continuity retained by its people; it allowed, in other words, for the Japanese to hold two contradicting views in the space of historical suspension.1

To be precise, it may be argued that the emperor, since the Meiji period (1868-1912), was already a mythical figure in the Levi-Straussian sense because he functioned as a symbolic mediator between supposedly eternal nature (motherland) and the modernizing nation. But in the postwar context, a wedge was driven into this mythical harmony and the terms of contradiction increased, resulting in the tripartite formation of nature, the occupying United States as a middle term, and the occupied “nation.” Despite his declaration of humanity, or perhaps precisely because of it, Hirohito, by becoming a multifaceted mirror of mutually contradictory desires, played an ambivalent but crucial role in maintaining the precarious balance of this triangle. In short, on the one hand, he appeared untouchable, therefore divine, even to the occupier, because he was allowed to continue to serve as the emperor, but, on the other hand, he appeared human and earthly, almost insultingly visible under the occupational force, as demonstrated by the well-publicized photograph of him and General MacArthur standing side by side. Embodying these contradictory images, the emperor personified the plight of the nation and thereby contributed a great...