- Play, Education, or Indoctrination? Kamishibai in 1930s Japan
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. . . . The perceptual realities produced through such frames do not precisely lead to war policy, and neither do such policies unilaterally create frames of perception. Perception and policy are but two modalities of the same process . . . .—Judith Butler, The Frames of War (2009)
How was war framed for Japanese children during the Fifteen Years War (1931–45)? A boy who was eight years old in 1931 could be drafted into the military in 1943 (when the age of eligibility was twenty), and one who was two in 1931 was old enough to be drafted by 1944 (when the age of eligibility was dropped as low as fifteen). A girl who was one in 1931 could be taken out of school in 1943 to work in a munitions factory when she was thirteen, and a girl who was three in 1931 could be conscripted for military service (defense of the home islands) in 1945 when she was seventeen. The decade of the 1930s, when the popular culture medium kamishibai came into being and achieved immense popularity, was precisely the time when Japanese children were being gradually prepared for what eventually became total war. From 1937, when Japan’s war in China became official (though still undeclared), the indoctrination of children was an explicit goal of all educational media, and intensifying censorship ensured that the messages directed at children were consistent with imperial ideology. But who were these children who constituted the imagined targets of wartime propaganda? What kinds of messages [End Page 65] were directed at them? How was the definition of childhood itself negotiated at least in part through the popular culture medium of kamishibai?
Before addressing those specific questions there is a larger problematic to be introduced: when we ask how war is framed specifically for children, how do we distinguish between propaganda and education?
What is propaganda? Many scholars from a variety of disciplines have attempted to define propaganda, but few have dealt with the question of propaganda for children and the difficulty of distinguishing it from education. But the various definitions do give us some tools with which we can try to make that distinction ourselves. Garth Jowett and Victoria O’Donnell, for example, coming at the question from a communications studies point of view, distinguish propaganda from its closest relative, persuasion, arguing that unlike propaganda, which is unilateral and only serves the interest of the propagandist, persuasion is interactive and serves both parties.1 This distinction works well enough when we are thinking about attempts to persuade, or, on the contrary, indoctrinate adults. But the problem is more complicated when we consider children and attempt to distinguish between propaganda and education.
Jowett and O’Donnell raise as an example mathematics problems in U.S. elementary schools, which in a large majority of cases deal with “buying, selling, renting, working for wages, and computing interest.” They point out that “these examples [do] more than simply reflect the capitalist system in which [U.S.] education occurs. The point is that arithmetic problems with a capitalist ideological base endorse the system, legitimate it, and suggest that it is the natural and normal way.”2
It is likely that even in the most well-meaning and benign contexts, one of the main goals of state-sponsored education is to inculcate the beliefs and value systems of the society, and this is a one-way transmission. Children in state-sponsored schools do not get to negotiate what those values or beliefs are or should be. If we take this argument seriously, how can we distinguish between the way we normally educate children, which includes heavy inculcation of normative societal values, and propaganda?
To clarify this problem we might posit a...