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  • Japan's Carnival War: Mass Culture on the Home Front, 1937–1945 by Benjamin Uchiyama
  • Ethan Mark (bio)
Japan's Carnival War: Mass Culture on the Home Front, 1937–1945. By Benjamin Uchiyama. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2019. xii, 280 pages. $99.99, cloth; $31.99, paper; $80.00, E-book.

Over the last several decades, the study of prewar Japan has come a long way. A growing scholarly focus on the workings of culture, power, and empire has prompted a healthy skepticism toward the binaries, boundaries, and constants that informed earlier, exceptionalist understandings of Japan's state and society. As heavily loaded political and moral territory, however, wartime Japan has remained particularly challenging terrain for such reappraisals. The tenacious idea of the cultural experience of the period as somehow essentially different and separate from what came before or after—the war years, in common parlance, as a "dark valley," or what [End Page 236] Donald Keene, speaking of wartime literature, once called "the Barren Years"—has often resulted in a narrative and epistemological segregation that has reinforced such assumptions.

Penetrating into this conceptual and chronological breach, Benjamin Uchiyama's Japan's Carnival War: Mass Culture on the Home Front, 1937–1945 performs a valuable service by putting a spotlight on wartime mass culture that illuminates its distinctive qualities and nuances while also staying alert to transwar continuities. Above all, Uchiyama is concerned to highlight the war's ambiguous mix of violence, sacrifice, discipline, and obedience with pleasure, consumption, irreverence, and even wild abandon; and how these seemingly contradictory aspects did not exist in mutual isolation, but as part of a singular—and sometimes synergistic—wartime package.

In painting this unusual picture of the Japanese home front, Uchiyama draws upon two conceptual frames. The first is that of "total war system theory" pioneered by historian Yamanouchi Yasushi in the 1990s, which "avoids normative assumptions implicitly inherent in much scholarship of the Second World War by provocatively arguing that all the major belligerent parties of that conflict shared the experience of war mobilization" (p. 9) and "reminds us that total war was an affair of both state and society." Uchiyama maintains that total war system theory is

much more helpful for thinking comparatively about wartime Japan and the Japanese home front than the recent revival of the "fascist" label, which is overburdened with political baggage, a lack of engagement with total war as a transnational modern phenomenon, and an instinctively narrow comparison of wartime Japan with Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy with little attention to the "liberal" democratic home fronts of wartime America and Britain.

(p. 10)

Nevertheless, Uchiyama argues that cultural mobilization is an area where total war system theory comes up short, reproducing a conventional, "triumphal narrative of the state overpowering the people to do its bidding" (p. 10). In contrast, he argues, "when we look closely at war mobilization in Japan, one sees less a 'system' than a haphazard process" (p. 12). Seeking to write a cultural history of wartime Japan and total war that accounts for such complexity in practice "without erasing the very real repression and extraordinary violence of total war or degenerating into a simplistic tale of popular 'resistance'" (pp. 13–14), Uchiyama finds a solution in the ambiguous "third space" (p. 19) defined by structuralist literary theorist Mikhail Bakhtin's classic notion of the "carnivalesque." Bakhtin's carnival emphasizes individual and group consciousness as an irrepressible, unstable field of ideological plurality, play, and discordance, thriving from the bottom up to some extent regardless of—or even synergistically in direct relation [End Page 237] to—top-down attempts at social repression and demands for harmony or uniformity, while never actually posing a direct threat to the system. "Carnival shakes up but does not destroy the official order of things. Thus carnivalized cultural constructs and attitudes were always ambivalent and always contradictory," argues Uchiyama (p. 17). "The key is to think of wartime in terms of carnivalesque duality, between official and unofficial, and the sacred and profane" (p. 14). In doing so, he usefully calls for extending the late Miriam Silverberg's innovative, dualistic characterization of the Japanese masses of the prewar period as...