On Sept. 2, a controversial newspaper advertisement placed by Takarajima-sha, a mid-tier publisher, went viral on Japanese blogs and Web news sites.

The two-page ad — widely described as nazo no kōkoku (a mystifying advertisement) — appeared in six nationally circulated newspapers: Asahi, Mainichi, Nihon Keizai, Nikkan Gendai, Sankei and Yomiuri, which means it may have been viewed by close to one-quarter of Japan’s population.

The Takarajima-sha ad carried the tag line, Ii kuni tsukurō, nando demo, which translates roughly as, “Let’s build a good country, as many times as it takes.”

The ad carried a dramatic photo taken at the Atsugi airdrome on Aug. 30, 1945 of General of the Army Douglas MacArthur — known for his flair for the dramatic.

In the photo, MacArthur — corn cob pipe jutting jauntily from his mouth — is disembarking from his C-54 transport, “Bataan II.” Three days later, on Sept. 2 (note the date), he presided over Japan’s surrender on the deck of the battleship USS Missouri.

For the next half decade, MacArthur — whose 1978 biography by William Manchester was titled “American Caesar”- served as Japan’s defacto ruler, overseeing the demobilization, occupation and remaking of Japan’s body politic as Supreme Commander of the Allied Powers (SCAP).

Strangely, or perhaps not, the explanation of the ad concept on Takarajima-sha’s corporate web site makes no mention of MacArthur at all. It reads: “Through defeat in war and disasters, Japan has met with adversity any number of times. History records that the Japanese people mobilized with indomitable spirit and cooperativeness to rebuild their country.

“Could one not say that nowhere else in the world can be found such tenacious people with such strong vitality? Now more than ever, this is the spirit that is called for. Let’s build a good country, as many times as it takes.

“By hurling down this challenge, we want to arouse this spirit, and summon forth the power that Japanese have embraced from long ago.”

While the ad was booked many months earlier, it was intentionally timed to the 66th anniversary of Japan’s surrender. Coincidentally it also appeared the same day Yoshihiko Noda assumed the office of prime minister — an irony not missed by quite a number of bloggers and other netizens.

Among the blizzard of Twitter messages about the ad were complaints the ad bearing MacArthur’s image underscored Japan’s “clinging to the status of a vassal state, its predisposition to dependency and lack of reflection.” Other remarks included “deranged,” and “the starting point from which Japan became the country it is today.”

“This is the opening scene of Japan’s reoccupation,” another grumbled.

“Is this intended to show the irony that nothing gets accomplished unless things are divided up with an outsider?” one angry blogger asked rhetorically. “Or, is it to symbolize the nation’s travails of defeat and occupation? Or both?”

Another blogger, however, suggested the ad was actually a subtle hint that “Japanese should cast off their current trappings of America-centric democratization and once again return to their prewar fundamentals.”

The use of MacArthur is singularly ironic, given that his tenure as overlord of Japan was characterized by an extraordinary degree of detachment from the people over whom he ruled, described thusly by MIT historian John Dower in “Embracing Defeat: Japan in the Wake of World War II” (1999):

The general’s evenings were largely devoted to watching Hollywood movies, particularly Westerns. Sometimes he also viewed newsreel-type footage of Japan … enabling him to at least keep in celluloid touch with the country he governed.

… MacArthur spoke in intimate, paternalistic terms about … the tens of millions of Japanese under his aegis but never had the slightest meaningful contact with them [and] never observed first hand how they actually lived … “

Writing in Shukan Gendai several years ago, prolific author and Tokyo vice governor Naoki Inose despaired his compatriots’ disregard for the study of their own modern history, which he feared was turning Japan into “one big Disneyland.”

Of course, the objective of any advertisement is “reader retention” — getting people to notice and remember it. In that respect Takarajima-sha certainly met its objective, although this was achieved by irritating some readers and leaving others scratching their heads in bewilderment, wondering why the publisher laid out enormous sums for an ad, which while purportedly aiming to bolster national morale, carries the photo of a foreign conqueror at his moment of triumph.

The ad also offers an intriguing reflection on the mentality of the advertising industry, and the public, for whom the perceptions of iconic 20th century figures like Douglas MacArthur and Albert Einstein seem to have blurred to the extent they are relegated to the same pop culture status as Elvis Presley, Marilyn Monroe, James Dean and Mickey Mouse.

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