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Wartime Japan celebrates

by Jeff Kingston

In 1940, amid war in China and growing tensions with the United States, Japan celebrated the 26th centennial of the founding of the Empire of Japan and the “unbroken” imperial line.

IMPERIAL JAPAN AT ITS ZENITH: The Wartime Celebration of the Empire’s 2,600th Anniversary, by Kenneth J. Ruoff. Cornell University Press, 2010, 272 pp., $39.95 (hardcover)

This was a carefully choreographed commemoration, one aimed at stoking nationalism, devotion to the emperor and support for imperial expansion. It was an assertion of modern identity couched in crafted traditions and myths, one that evoked a powerful public endorsement evident in various enthusiastic expressions ranging from volunteer work brigades to dutiful pilgrimages to sacred sites.

The celebrations were also aimed at shoring up national morale as the death toll from war against China had reached 100,000. Invoking the virtues of the Yamato race and continuous imperial rule promoted stoic perseverance in the face of adversity, rendering sacrifice a patriotic duty. Little did anyone imagine that only five years later the glorious Empire would collapse in ignominious defeat.

In “Zenith” we read that “purveyors of the past manipulated and in some cases even hallucinated history . . . in order to legitimize the present.”

Shameless historians participated in this rigorous invention of history, while they and publishers cashed in on loyal book buying subjects caught up in the frenzy of the times. National memories served to reinforce national identities, while the celebrations stimulated nationalism, mass participation and consumption of all things commemorative.

More than 1.2 million Japanese participated in volunteer brigades involved in beautifying imperial sites in Nara alone. It was “a form of hands-on citizenship training.”

And the media, department stores and transport companies catered to consumption that could be justified as gestures of devotion and patriotism.

Tourism was marketed as a dutiful ritual of citizenship. Thirteen times in 1940 all Japanese were expected to participate in precisely timed rituals of obeisance to the Emperor culminating in the imagined anniversary on Nov. 10. The power of this “rule by time” lay in the uniformity and simultaneity of these devotional gestures. The cult of the Emperor was also cultivated through financial contributions to beautifying imperial sites. Tochigi proved the stingiest of all regions, coming in with a mere ¥25 in contributions!

Ruoff takes issue with historians who tend to portray wartime Japan 1931-45 as a “dark valley” of unremitting misery, pointing out that GNP growth in the 1930s averaged 5 percent and that many Japanese enjoyed the accouterments of middle-class prosperity even as the war against China intensified.

Booming consumption and tourism suggest all was not bleak even if political repression and shortages were also becoming more apparent. He writes of a “co-existence of dark and light, of suffering and joy,” at least until the tide of war turned decisively against Japan in 1942.

Aside from embellishing, inventing and glorifying national history, the celebrations marked an attempt to codify history and rigorously identify heritage sites supporting this invented narrative. Competition was quite intense to become a lucrative heritage site, involving unseemly jockeying among rival candidates.

Japanese historians jumped on the bandwagon, lending their prestige to the mythmaking, actors in a broader web of complicity. While postwar purges ended the careers of many other professionals who had succumbed to the allures of money and fame available to wartime opportunists, historians fared rather better, retaining their positions if not their dignity.

Ruoff also draws our gaze to the colonies in Korea and Manchuria where tourism helped to nurture empire-supporting attitudes. The problem was that the desires of tourists conflicted with the dictates of assimilation as the attraction of travel was in confronting something at least somewhat different. Thus while Koreans were forced to adopt Japanese surnames we learn that tourists would mug for cameras dressed up in traditional Korean costumes.

It is not surprising that in both Korea and Manchuria, “Today all of the monuments and sites of interest to Japanese tourists during the colonial era have either been razed or redesigned to highlight abuses perpetrated by the Japanese.”

The 2.5 million overseas Japanese are depicted here in all their transnational ambiguities, torn between blood and culture, ruling elites within the Empire, often marginalized minorities elsewhere, distinctly uncomfortable with Japanese authorities’ expectations that they serve the nation. The author reminds us that this diaspora was more trusted than the subjects of colonial rule in Asia, even those who had done most to assimilate themselves.

Ruoff has done yeoman’s work in unearthing a vast array of sources and interesting anecdotes that enliven the narrative, serving up a fascinating social history that helps readers today understand what it must have been like to live in wartime Japan, an account that challenges narratives of unrelenting tribulation.

His captivating book explains how tens of millions of Japanese reveled in the orchestrated jingoism of the celebrations, cheered on by the media, intellectuals and all the businesses cashing in on patriotic consumption. In doing so, he reveals the extensive web of complicity and mobilization that belies assertions Japan was hijacked into war by a small coterie of military hotheads.

Jeff Kingston is director of Asian Studies, Temple University, Japan