In an old magazine photo, a baby enjoys “children’s heaven” — perched in a tank-shaped stroller and, the caption jokes, going to Manchuria. In a manga released by U.S. Forces Japan, two cute doe-eyed characters — the bunny-boy Mr. USA and the Japanese schoolgirl Ms. Alliance — discuss playfully why it’s his job to kill cockroaches in her kitchen.

Playing War: Children and the Paradoxes of Modern Militarism in Japan, by Sabine Fruhstuck.
276 pages

These images, surreal in their incongruity, are some of the exhibits in Sabine Fruhstuck’s new book “Playing War: Children and the Paradoxes of Modern Militarism in Japan,” which examines how children and concepts of childhood have been appropriated by the Japanese military to humanize and legitimize war. Through absorbing research and smoothly engaging prose, Fruhstuck records propaganda narratives from the 19th century up to the present, focusing on World War II and current efforts to promote the Self-Defense Forces.

“I was shocked to see that the 21st century began with a war, as if nothing had been learned from the past,” says Fruhstuck, a professor of modern Japanese cultural studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara, about her reasons for writing the book. “I grew up in Austria after World War II, which obliged you to pay attention to any rhetoric that smacked of militarism. As a university student in Vienna in the 1980s, I became aware of Austria’s role in the Nazi regime and World War II. I felt a personal responsibility not to let this happen again.”

Indeed, the book is a cautionary tale on how propaganda actually works. Fruhstuck begins at the time of Japanese nation-building in the late 19th century, showing how war games taught children to see battle as play. In organized games in playrooms and magazines, which often involved cartography, children would mimic the practices of reconnaissance and colonization.

“In Japan, the promotion of war games started with the Sino-Japanese war in 1894-95,” explains Fruhstuck in a recent interview. “Educators and journalists began to suggest that war games would properly initiate children to becoming soldiers. Before then, parents had been warned to keep children away from such games.”

A main theme of the book is what Fruhstuck calls “the moral authority of innocence,” which is based on the notion that children are morally pure — and thus politically innocent. Adults tend to trust the emotions of children, believing them to be true and authentic. In an insidious twist, this endows children with “emotional capital” that can be exploited by ideology.

In the runup to World War II, this capital was mined to the hilt. After Japan invaded northeastern China in 1931, military postcards, school textbooks, magazines and newspapers often showed Japanese children and soldiers together to normalize the encounters and suggest that the two were interchangeable. The child would grow up to be a soldier; the soldier yearned for his innocence.

During the war, prominent publishers like Kodansha released picture books portraying soldiers as children’s playmates, even substitute mothers. Japanese children were shown playing with children in the colonies, where the Imperial Army fought only “bad people and violent elements,” supposedly helping the locals to better lives. Through the moral authority of children, the imperialist war became noble and just, a sentimentalized aesthetic of rescue.

Fruhstuck traces all this with intriguing historical snapshots, which alone make the book worthwhile.

“I spent a lot of time — and some money — in Japan’s antiquarian bookstores and book fairs, mostly in Tokyo, but also Kyoto and Osaka,” she says. “I dug up some treasures, old drawings and photos from magazines and children’s books.”

The biggest jaw-drop comes as the book moves into the present. Tasked with boosting recruitment and appealing the military to the public, the PR apparatus of Japan’s Self-Defense Forces (SDF) has started to harness pop culture — and retooled the emotional capital of children.

In government white papers, websites and pamphlets, the new Japanese armed forces are straight out of manga and anime. Branded with a cute iconography, they are infantilized, even sexualized, to dull the controversy of military resurgence. Fluffy mascots call out to “make peace our work,” while big-bosomed girls pose with tanks and artillery. Once again, war seems to be fun and games — plus Lolitas in miniskirts.

With past propaganda hardly examined and the military now being infantilized, Fruhstuck worries that Japanese society, especially young recruits, may embrace the new SDF without understanding what they are getting into.

“Japanese schools and mainstream society have done a poor job of debating Japan’s 20th-century history and its lessons,” says Fruhstuck, who largely abstains from editorializing in the book. “As the SDF aims to appeal in a playful manner, I hope the book will make readers think about how children can be used as tools for the military.”

With almost a sense of satisfaction, she adds, “Despite (Prime Minister Shinzo) Abe’s confident rhetoric, they still have a problem with recruitment.

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