Japan's light puts all in their place...Continuing my series on War Without Mercy, Professor Dower’s analysis of race propaganda and its role in World War 2, we get to the last main section, on Japanese racist propaganda. This is a very different section to that on US propaganda, because the Japanese approached the problem of how to portray their enemies very differently to the Americans, and had a very different historical perspective on the bad guy. The section also includes a dissection of a fascinating piece of wartime Japanese research, a massive document setting out a vision for Asia and ultimately the world if Japan won the war. This document was written by an obscure section of the Ministry of Health and Welfare, was almost 4000 pages long, and was only discovered in 1981. It essentially sets out the racial policy of the future East Asian Co-prosperity Sphere, so gives a meticulous insight into not only how the wartime authorities viewed race, but how they intended to enact their race policy in the future.

Dower portrays the Japanese as having their own race trap, deriving from their admiration of America and Britain during the Meiji era, and the fact that many of their achievements in the 50 years since the restoration were based on western industry, technology and ideas. So they couldn’t dismiss the source of these ideas as necessarily inherently inferior, and instead had to find an ideology which would enable them to strip the best out of the western way of life, while making it somehow appear undesirable. They did this through the application of ancient folklore and imagery that had a strong social acceptance in Japan: establishment of the Emperor as direct descendant of god; exaltation of the concept of purity, and its links to race, emperor and war (and death); and depiction of the enemy as demons and outsiders.

The Emperor

I don’t want to talk about this in too much detail, because it’s not the focus of the book and the Emperor remains a much-revered part of Japanese life; a lot of western interpretations of the Emperor’s role in world war 2 are wont to cast the institution as eternally bad, when it’s more a case of the position being forced into service to a militarized state. I have mentioned before that Basil Chamberlain identified the exaltation of Emperor to religion, and the uses this religion was going to be put to, in a famous essay in 1905, and Power’s book reiterates this point. To quote Chamberlain:

Mikado-worship and Japan-worship—for that is the new Japanese religion—is, of course, no spontaneously generated phenomenon. Every manufacture presupposes a material out of which it is made, every present a past on which it rests. But the twentieth-century Japanese religion of loyalty and patriotism is quite new, for in it pre-existing ideas have been sifted, altered, freshly compounded, turned to new uses, and have found a new centre of gravity. Not only is it new, it is not yet completed; it is still in process of being consciously or semi-consciously put together by the official class, in order to serve the interests of that class, and, incidentally, the interests of the nation at large.

The purpose, of course, and “the interests of the nation at large” was war, military dictatorship, and the subjugation of the individual to the state. Indeed, in some ways Japanese racist propaganda served not so much to make the Japanese hate the enemy, as to bind them together against the enemy. As Chamberlain put it, in his foresightful essay:

On the one hand, it must make good to the outer world the new claim that Japan differs in no essential way from the nations of the West, unless, indeed, it be by way of superiority. On the other hand, it has to manage restive steeds at home, where ancestral ideas and habits clash with new dangers arising from an alien material civilisation hastily absorbed.

Professor Power observes too that Japanese wartime propaganda didn’t aim to make the Americans look lesser so much as it aimed to make the Japanese look better. And it did this through the Emperor and the notion of the Japanese as unique, of divine descent, and pure. These concepts were all embodied in the emperor, and the propaganda had it that they could be preserved through filial service to the emperor; indeed, the entire vision for the future was of the Emperor as father of the nation, and by extension as the guiding hand over all the races of the world, set into their proper place according to a theory of racial superiority that had Japanese as the only “pure” blooded people on earth, pre-destined to lead all the others.


Purity is an important and enduring concept in Shintoism, and was reconceived in political and nationalist terms by Japan’s propagandists. Foreign social ideas – especially those of individualism, freedom, and the self – were portrayed as impurities in the Japanese body politic, and Japan’s citizens encouraged to purge themselves of such filth. War, of course, would be the purifying fire into which this slag would be melted down. One powerful image in Power’s book shows a woman brushing the dandruff out of her hair, and the dandruff as it falls turns into American and British political ideals – selfishness, liberalism, etc.

Japanese racial theory also had Japan as the only “pure” race, untouched by significant immigration or miscegenation and thus retaining a unique set of characteristics. Maybe such an ideal doesn’t have to be prima facie racist, but the pretty clear understanding in racial theory in Japan was that this purity of heritage (which was almost certainly fictitious anyway) made them superior, and the picture in this post shows pretty clearly how they viewed the “impure” south East Asian races – as dark-skinned labourers beneath the light of Japan’s sun. And the report from the Ministry of Health and Welfare makes this goal clear, in the section entitled An Investigation of Global Policy with the Yamato Race as Nucleus. The Japanese, pure through divine right and selective isolation, were best placed to “lead” the other races of Asia into the future, and the other races would have their future direction and role decided according to a racist doctrine based on foolish 1940s conceptions of what each race was good at. Largely, they were to be consigned to the role of labourers and suppliers of resources to the advanced Japanese economy.

There’s nothing of exterminationism in this propaganda, but a lot of material that skirts close to advocating slavery and colonialism. It doesn’t really differ from the views of many colonialists in Europe at that time, I suppose – I’ve even heard defenses of slavery on the “it’s for their own good” line – but this is the nature of the grubby racial politics of the west in the interwar era. A newcomer to the global scene could make up a fanciful political theory based on a silly superstition and a fabricated history, and elaborate a systematic process of enslavement and exploitation for half a hemisphere, and in their defense they would be able to say “it’s no different to what everyone else is doing!” And in fact a lot of Japanese propaganda presented the “purifying” light of the Japanese sun either driving out the colonialist westerners, or revealing their true form as demons, necromancers and evil interlopers.

Demons and Strangers

This brings us to the third and most prevalent part of Japanese propaganda, the representation of Americans, British and Dutch as demons and outsiders. Power describes the role these creatures play in Japanese folklore as two-sided: they can be forces for evil, or they can be helpful. This makes them the perfect double-sided image for the western powers, whose technology the Japanese imported (and in many cases improved), but whose ideals they wanted to cast out, along with their physical presence in Asia. In propaganda aimed at their Asian colonies they could portray the west as colonialist and outdated powers being driven out; but to their own people they portrayed them as demons with two faces, presenting a human or pure image to Japan while hiding an evil face. They could also present them as outsiders, a powerful concept in Japanese that can be both liberating and terrifying. Thus they can (literally) demonize their enemy without reverting to any of the forms of scientific racism that infected western depictions other nations, while at the same time excusing their enemies’ former teaching role. In some ways this image hasn’t changed – the ideas outsiders bring to Japan are often seen as simultaneously threatening and empowering, and Japanese people’s fascination with foreigners is often mixed with fear and trepidation. After the war ended, Power observes that this propaganda proved remarkably malleable – the demons and outsiders just changed their face, and went from being the terrible demonic other to the helpful, inspiring, slightly strange other – just as American propaganda turned the Japanese from petulant children who couldn’t be reasoned with to a young democracy in need of tutelage and guidance.

This demonization of the other also shows that you don’t need to construct directly exterminationist, vile racist propaganda to convince a people to fight bitterly to the very end. A complex synergism of religious imagery, faux history and carefully-adapted folklore ideals will do the job just fine, if you tune it correctly. In fact, I think this has many elements in common with a lot of the propaganda we see in support of the global war on terror. The better stuff (I am referring here to that which our more reasonable supporters of the war give us, not the loony American right) doesn’t tell us that muslims are animals who need to be put down; the village doesn’t have to be destroyed to be saved. Rather, we are presented with a (mythical) ideal of western liberal democracy as pure and perfect, built up through long trial and testing, yet fragile and vulnerable to the influence and impact of the other. If we attack them and overcome them in the correct way we can guide them to a society like ours, and lead them forward to a better tomorrow – which is what we’re trying to do in Iraq and Afghanistan now, and failing at in both cases (probably). On the way, of course, just as the Japanese did, we reveal ourselves to not be the pure and ideal society we pretend – Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo Bay, and regular wedding party slaughters in Afghanistan prove that our society is not quite what we say it is – but our propagandists overlook these small inconsistencies and the faux history (divorced of the native genocide, colonialism and extermination that made our societies rich in the first place) in order to present the greater myth. And, just as at some times and some places in Japan’s 15 year war in the Pacific, these images really did seem to present a better future, so too the simple story of liberal democracy shining a light into the darkness can present the same hope for a better world. But the Japanese experience perhaps shows us that better worlds aren’t made through war, or if they are it probably isn’t worth the suffering, and certainly isn’t the only way.

The Japanese propaganda of the war liked to present them as purer than Americans, driven by greater ideals and united by stronger bonds, and also depicted the Japanese as liberators casting colonialism out of the Pacific. Power points out that they really did serve this role in some ways, showing the people of the Pacific that the colonial powers weren’t invincible and that sufficiently energized Asians could turn the colonialists’ own tools and technology against them. At the same time their scorn for the moral inferiority of Americans led the Japanese to completely misunderstand America’s willingness to fight – just as American propaganda overestimated Japanese obstinacy in the last year of the war. Both sides’ propaganda may have worked against Japan, leading to a situation of frenzied violence where both sides refused to believe what the other side really wanted. But there’s a lesson in this that is particularly compelling – the propagandist really does believe their own work. Propaganda goals are set on high, and propagandists listen to a lot of material being written in their own and other countries about the enemy – they don’t form their opinions in a vacuum. In the pre-war era, and during the war, this material was facile, shallow and wrong, but it was incorporated into the propaganda and really seems to have been believed by the planners and policy-makers of the era. American and British military planners really did believe that Japanese pilots were inferior due to Japanese child-rearing practices; Japanese war planners really did believe that the Americans would give up after 6 months because they were morally weak and lazy. For my next post on this book, I’ll look at how propaganda serves to reinforce rather than reflect prevailing views, and can be a negative form of information in a war. Certainly in world war 2, it appears to have served the role of reinforcing a vicious spiral that was circling in towards genocide, and although fortunately for the Japanese cooler heads prevailed, the experience of that war shows that propaganda of this kind isn’t just a tool of war, but can become a driving force and, at its worst, a self-fulfilling prophecy. What does this tell us about the decision-making that led to the fire-bombing of Japanese cities and ultimately the use of nuclear weapons? What would the Japanese have done with nuclear weapons if they had them, given their use of images of purification through fire and death? This is also something I want to explore in a future post about this book.