War and propaganda: a Japanese narrative


CERTAIN VICTORY: Images of World War II in the Japanese Media, by David C. Earhart. Armonk: M.E. Sharpe Inc., 2008, 552 pp., with photographs, maps, illustrations, $74.95 (cloth)

One way to induce people to kill other people is to dehumanize “the enemy.” And one of the ways to do this is through propaganda. This is a device that propagates information that is often biased or misleading, and is used to promote a political cause or point of view. The consumption of war is made possible through its use.

As David Earhart says, in this arresting collection of Japanese propagandistic images: “Like Nazi Germany’s Propaganda Ministry and the United States Office of War Information, Japan’s Cabinet Information Bureau was in the business of drumming up morale and convincing people that the war was good and right and, above all else, winnable.”

“War, after all,” he continues, “had to be ‘sold’ to the people and they had to ‘buy’ it, and this commodification of violence is equally true today.” In order to find out more about this “information” machine, still so much with us, Earhart here examines various visual remains to chart — like shards (or fingerprints) — the still visible traces.

He here focuses on graphic and photographic images noting that “every government and mass media used visual ‘propaganda’ to mobilize support for the war.” To this end Earhart combed through over 30,000 pages of contemporary Japanese wartime publications, predominantly periodicals collected and examined over the course of two decades of research.

Among the conclusions, and differentiations of Japanese propaganda from that of other warring countries, is the use of photographic “proof” that the war was an expression of Japanese values, and a means of fulfilling national and racial destiny.

This goal, Earhart found, did not change during the war itself though different images evolved. The evolution, however, was itself of a peculiar nature — “it consistently trumpeted victory, even as it related military retreats and devastating air raids, and called for yet greater sacrifices to be made by the entire population.”

That is what the “certain victory” of the title means. It is a translation of “hisshou,” a term used during the Pacific War to reassure the public that Japan would emerge the winner in “the struggle against Western imperial powers.”

As for the demonized enemy, several competing images were initially favored. After the fall of Saipan, however, a monolithic image emerged — “the foe threatening the Yamato race, their sacred land, and their god-emperor, became an evil, loathsome, barbaric monster.” During the final year of the war “bastard demon” (kichiku) was the epithet most favored.

This demonized figure may be compared to the grinning, inhuman, buck-toothed “Jap” of wartime Allied propaganda. That the imagery became during the war years increasingly racial on both sides is seen in the evolution of these images.

It is the same as that racial prejudice chronicled in John Dower’s admirable “War without Mercy: Race and Power in the Pacific War” (1986), and reflected in Max Hastings’ “Retribution: The Battle for Japan, 1944-45” (2008).

And the hundreds of photographic images in this book make it all the more visible. Here we can see propaganda and its aims up close, and appreciate the damage that it intends.

Of this terrible spectacle, the author of this extraordinary book can rightly say: “For those who can bear to look unflinchingly at the massive loss of life in this and other wars, these images of destruction on a superhuman scale become a terrifying vision of all that is lost when people allow leaders to rule them through fear, intimidation, and the manipulation of arrogant lies about national greatness and the rectitude of war.”