Japan's clean aesthetic hid the ugly mess of war

by John L. Tran

Special To The Japan Times

Why would anybody want to go to war? For some of us it’s incomprehensible. For others, there will be circumstances that make war justifiable — or even desirable.

History tells us that the former demographic is usually added to by members of the latter, who after months or years of pain, suffering and destruction find that alternative ways of settling disputes become more appealing. In this context, the photograph, considered purely as an object, seems so innocuous — a thin substrate of paper or plastic with one coated side that allows grains, dots or dye to hold a pattern. “War and Postwar: The Prism of the Times” at the Izu Photo Museum, however, reflects on the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II by showing us the exceptional utility photography has in creating narratives that push us toward some people and violently away from others.

The exhibition is arranged chronologically and, mainly using material officially sanctioned by the wartime and early postwar government, goes from seduction through affirmation, to frenzy and atrocity, and finally to a resolution of sorts.

The material on display is limited to propaganda by necessity . From the 1930s, photography in Japan was increasingly controlled by the state, with commercial and art photographers being recruited into supporting the war effort. Anybody not toeing the line found themselves cut off from film, chemical and paper supplies. Travel in war zones for journalists and other non-combatants was also restricted, leading to most Japanese wartime photography being conspicuously bloodless, and photography of reenactments and training maneuvers at the foot of Mount Fuji having to stand in for images of actual combat. It is also notable how strongly gender roles are reinforced in these images; women appear as carers and objects of visual pleasure, sometimes interchangeable with dolls as a design motif, while men and boys are essentially weaponized.

From an aesthetic point of view, it has to be said that this resulted in a windfall of cutting-edge design and first-rate imagery from graphic designers such as Natori Yonosuke and Yusaku Kamekura, and photographers Ken Domon and Ihei Kimura, who continued on to become prominent figures in the art world and creative industries of postwar Japan. It is partly because of this awkward history of promoting Japanese expansionism that beautifully produced propaganda magazines such as Nippon and Front, which used avant-garde collage to combine traditional and industrial Japan, are not generally well known in their country of origin.

Their obscurity is also due to the fact that the most innovatively designed magazines were produced for foreign consumption. They were aimed at swaying international, not domestic, opinion. Irrespective of intention or truthfulness, it’s a pathetic sight to see that publications for the home and Asian markets were of lesser quality, becoming steadily rougher and more desperate as the war progressed.

The latter part of the exhibition focuses on Hiroshima and includes the unusually positive 1949 publication “Living Hiroshima,” produced by the local tourist association to promote the city to foreign visitors, and a display on Edward Steichen’s problematic 1955 “Family of Man” exhibition, which pointedly used images of the ruins and suffering of Nagasaki in an appeal to unite people around the world against nuclear weapons.

The curator of the exhibition, Kohara Matsushi, is acutely aware that he is presenting propaganda that many people will be seeing for the first time, and that the work of the viewership is to understand that the images and their function must be decoded. In this respect, he is ambivalent rather than celebratory about a photo that shows Steichen, who worked on propaganda for the U.S. Navy during the war, shaking hands with the son of Yosuke Yamahata, the military photographer whose documentation of Nagasaki the day after the dropping of Fat Man was included in Steichen’s exhibition. “It shows the consolidation of the work of two professional propagandists,” Kohara notes dryly.

Depending on the disposition of the viewer, this exhibition may act more as mirror for self-reflection than the prism suggested in the title. Like the painting of Dorian Gray that gradually transforms from being complimentary and delightful to twisted and horrific, it’s an inevitably dark vision. For non-Japanese viewers, however, the incidental focus on Japan’s trials and suffering to the exclusion of other narratives will be depressingly familiar.

This is not to say that the exhibits are only Japanese in origin; there is material from abroad, but most of it, by a large margin, is from the U.S. An inadvertent consequence of this may be to reduce the war to a binary opposition of Japan and “other,” when the more central intention is to generate critical judgment of how photography is used as a tool of social manipulation.

“War and Postwar: The Prism of the Times” at the Izu Photo Museum runs until Jan. 31, 2016, daily 10 a.m.-6 p.m. (Sept.-Oct. until 5 p.m., Nov.-Dec. until 4:30 p.m.). ¥800. Closed Wed.

Coronavirus banner