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“Like Shattered Jewels”: Shōwa Japan’s Creation of a Nationalist Wartime Mythology

In a 2011 interview, ex-kamikaze pilot Hisao Horiyama recounted, “When we graduated from army training school, the Shōwa emperor visited our unit on a white horse. I knew that I had no choice but to die for him” [1]. Emperor Hirohito’s visit encapsulates the multilateral campaign of mobilization which characterized Japan’s pre-war and wartime experience. The vision of the emperor on a white horse evokes the mythic aura of an ancient shogun or daimyō marshaling his troops. Enshrined as a divine father and the soul of the nation, the emperor personified Japan’s impetus for waging war, as well as its ideological reasoning.

Throughout World War II, Japan’s government relentlessly reinvented tradition into a mobilizing and unifying force in the service of the emperor. Physical self-sacrifice was enshrined as a uniquely Japanese value, the ultimate measure of one’s loyalty to the emperor and the nation. Countless woodblock prints, films and propaganda posters drew upon a reimagined samurai tradition in order to justify the continued expansion of empire as national destiny and a necessary act of survival.

Throughout the early Shōwa period, the legacy of the Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905) set a precedent for spreading wartime propaganda and justifying aggressive imperial expansion. During the Russo-Japanese War, rhetoric proclaiming that “All Japanese [were] samurai,” sought to unify the nation in support of the costly conflict [2]. Japan’s victory yielded few material rewards, but greatly influenced the impetus for expanding a Japanese empire and consolidating power on the Asian continent. Nevertheless, the enormous casualties and meager gains resulted in a “rise in popular suspicion of the government” with dire political consequences [3]. A nationalistic outpouring of art, songs and political cartoons painted Japanese forces in a heroic light and attempted to frame the conflict as an imperial triumph. Ever-popular woodblock prints depicted triumphant naval battles with Japanese gunners in Western-style uniforms, demonstrating a “[mastery] of modern warfare [4].”


“Chief Gunner of Our Ship Fuji, Fights Fiercely in the Naval Battle at the Entrance to Port Arthur” Migita Toshihide, February 1904

The image of the Russo-Japanese War as a grueling but resounding victory persisted into the 1930s and 40s. Military songs such as “Father you were strong” appeared on postcards, praising nostalgic perceptions of masculinity, sacrifice and a return to tradition [5]. The legacy of the Russo-Japanese War and its depiction in the early twentieth century contributed heavily to the sacrificial rhetoric of the 1930s and served as a powerful nostalgic means of galvanizing the

nation into a pan-Asian conflict.

In the early 1930s, Japan experienced a series of economic, political and international shocks which contributed to a self-identified time of crisis, or hijoji. The Manchurian Incident of 1931, in which Japanese troops blew up a section of the South Manchurian Railway and blamed the attack on Chinese Nationalists, instigated the full-scale occupation of Manchuria and served as the catalyst for the wider China War [6]. The stock market crash of 1929 precipitated a global

Depression, compounded by Japan’s attempted return to the gold standard. A hasty devaluation of the yen served to enrich powerful zaibatsu banks, which invested heavily in lowered Japanese currency with American dollars [7]. The economic crisis disproportionately affected farmers, tenants and lower class workers, calcifying resentment towards capitalist corporations and elite political figures, now increasingly perceived as greedy and self-serving.

The increasingly right-wing climate of hijoji culminated in the Ketsumeiden and May 15 assassinations of 1932. The extremist Ketsumeiden group or Blood-Pledge Corps carried out a string of high-profile terrorist assassinations, including that of the former finance minister and Prime Minister Inukai Tsuyoshi [8]. The subsequent trials showcased the power of mass media in galvanizing popular sentiment. The Ketsumeiden painted themselves as defenders of the nation, patriotic young men responding to intolerable economic and political oppression. In his testimony, Ketsumeidan leader Inoue Nisshō declared that the judge “knew nothing about matters of the soul,” [9] and insisted that he had acted out of patriotism and concern for the emperor, who was misled and betrayed by corrupt advisors. Inoue invoked a spiritual imperative with ideological ties to former shishi activism. Inoue and his followers testified that they were “administering Heaven’s punishment” [10] and extolled their quest for a national renovation which would install a military government and incite a “Shōwa Restoration.” Furthermore, the indoctrination of Inoue’s followers as Buddhist disciples became a means of waging a holy war in order to restore the divine centrality and authority of the emperor.


Ketsumeiden Trials, 1932. Gordon, Andrew, A Modern History of Japan

Public reaction was impassioned and deeply emotional, the legality of the trials undermined by their emphasis on motive. Newspapers inordinately focused on the human drama and sensationalized the poor showing of the court, reinforcing perceptions of judicial incompetence [11]. The Ketsumedian’s motives, if not their actions, evoked enormous public sympathy and were “adopted as a compelling explanation of [the people’s] own deprivation [12]. The trials justified long-fomenting anger towards powerful government officials who benefitted from the privations of the everyman. Liberal politicians and zaibatsu corporations were increasingly viewed as the source of the nation’s suffering, while the Ketsumeidan themselves were perceived as samurai-esque “men of action,” sacrificing themselves in defense of the emperor and the kokutai, or national polity [13]. By evoking a mythic past and promoting absolute loyalty to the emperor, the Ketsumeidan trials publicized the repackaging of tradition as a conduit for grand social action and imperial devotion.


Boys’Propaganda Kimono. Dower, John. “Japan’s Beautiful Modern War,”

As the Second World War erupted across the Pacific, the blending of art and propaganda saturated Japanese society with militaristic imagery, ensuring that glory and national heroism became part of public consciousness. Kimonos and woodblock prints inundated the public with beautifully depicted symbols of war, magnificent military technology and popular generals [14]. Boys’ kimonos were evocatively decorated with battle ships and Mitsubishi Bombers, while large-scale atrocities such as the Rape of Nanking were heavily airbrushed and patriotically

depicted as military triumphs [15]. In the place of bombastic military scenes, wartime films portrayed comradeship,

humanism and willing self-sacrifice as essential Japanese values. Their restrained tone and emphasis on modesty rendered military service and national heroism inextricable from spiritual purity [16]. Textbooks and intellectual pamphlets sought to educate the nation according to principles of national unity and emperor-worship, while the image of the emperor hung in every school room. The restructuring of feudalistic tenants of honor and bushidō, the way of the warrior, effectively channeled samurai values into a militaristic imperative.


After the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941, mounting casualties and the costs of war at home necessitated the dissemination of an extensive propaganda campaign which glorified sacrifice and reaffirmed Japanese superiority. Homage was paid to the war dead as eirei, or “departed heroes” [17]. The cherry blossom was invoked as a symbol of the virile warrior struck down in the bloom of youth, while the Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo, dedicated to war dead, became a byword for suicide missions [18]. When taking leave of each other, soldiers were meant to remark, “See you at Yasukuni,” in the expectation of inevitable death [19]. The act of physical sacrifice in war was framed as the nationalized heir to ancient ritualized suicide, a demonstration not only of loyalty, but of enthusiastic self-immolation. The historical realities of turbulent samurai loyalties and frequent betrayals were thus reframed into a nationalistic and militaristic context which suppressed familial attachments and demanded unquestioning imperial devotion. Instead of dying for one’s family or lord, a soldier would die for the glory of the nation. Bound for the Kurile Islands in 1941, Nonomura Taizō wrote, “When I ponder my daughter’s future, a gloomy feeling comes over me...my body has already been set aside for the sake of the emperor [20]." Masculinity, virility and the enshrinement of the drafted soldiers as noble warriors became synonymous with sacrificing oneself for the emperor. Another soldier remarked, “A warrior who says effeminate things might be laughed at [21].” The encouraged suppression of familial ties and devotion to the emperor and the state further enabled and justified the mass slaughter, rape and other atrocities carried out during the Pacific War. The perception of the Japanese people as derived from mythical Yamato origins and ennobled by a collective warrior spirit transformed a war of imperial aggression into a holy crusade.

Towards the end of the war, the fusion of national and personal identity was perhaps most ideologically potent in kamikaze squadrons. Pilot squadrons consisting primarily of young men in their early twenties carried out hundreds of suicide missions. The young pilots were lauded as heroes and given elaborate send-offs in the style of a fabricated samurai tradition [22]. According to ex-pilot Hisao Hiroyama, “Dying was the ultimate fulfillment of our duty, and we were commanded not to return [23].” As the defeat of Japan became imminent after the Battle of Okinawa from April to June 1945, glorified suicide was also fervently encouraged on the home front. In preparation for a suicidal last stand, Japanese women were armed with flimsy bamboo spears and canvas helmets against American B52 bombers [24]. Japanese citizens were called upon to die “like shattered jewels” in an ultimate act of imperial devotion [25].

At the end of the war, the concept of dying for the survival of the state was transmuted into a call for national self-destruction, a reflection of wartime desperation, years of anti-Western propaganda, and a powerful imperial ideology which extolled sacrifice as the highest attainable honor. Ultimately, Japan’s defeat ushered in a period of American Occupation, mass censorship and the Americanization of democratic structures which had existed during the previous Taisho Era. The project of rebuilding Japan from the top down in the image of Western democratic society accompanied the eradication of the militaristic rhetoric which defined Japanese media during the second World War. Japan’s wartime ideology utilized evocative rhetoric and imagery which blended tradition and modern nationalist values in the promotion of emperor-worship and fervent militarism. The Russo-Japanese War set a precedent for the promulgation of propaganda as a means of mobilizing the nation. In the early 1930s, international and economic crises led to a social shift to the right, while the Ketsumeidan terrorist trials contributed to the rise of fictionalized samurai rhetoric which extolled sacrifice and emperor-worship. During the Second World War, evocative propaganda depicted Japan as the preeminent Asian power and reformulated tradition in the context of a militaristic state. Wartime glorification of sacrifice and imperial devotion fused personal and national identities, contributing to a nationalist ideology which fervently encouraged suicide in the name of the emperor. Finally, Japan’s wholesale defeat opened the door to the resurgence of Taisho democratic ideals and the painstaking rebuilding of the country under the umbrella of American occupation.


Notes

[1] McCurry, Justin. “The Last Kamikaze: Two Japanese Pilots Tell How They Cheated Death.” The Guardian. 11

August, 2015.

[2] Rubifien, Louisa. History 483: Japan Since 1800 Lecture. February 28 2022. University of

Maryland: College Park. Class Lecture.

[3] Rubifien, Louisa. History 483: Japan Since 1800 Lecture. February 28 2022. University of

Maryland: College Park. Class Lecture.

[4] Dower, John. “Throwing Off Asia III: Woodblock Prints of the Russo-Japanese War.” MIT

Visualizing Cultures. 2008.

[5] Rubifien, Louisa. History 483: Japan Since 1800 Lecture. February 28 2022. University of

Maryland: College Park. Class Lecture.

[6] Rubifien, Louisa. History 483: Japan Since 1800 Lecture. February 28 2022. University of

Maryland: College Park. Class Lecture.

[7] Gordon, Andrew, A Modern History of Japan, 4th ed. (Oxford Univ. Press.), 188.

[8] Rubifien, Louisa. History 483: Japan Since 1800 Lecture.

[9] Large, Stephen S. “Substantiating the Nation: Terrorist Trials as Nationalist Theatre in Early

Shōwa Japan,” Nation and Nationalism in Japan. ed. Sandra Wilson. Routledge.

London, 2002, 58.

[10] Large, Stephen S. “Substantiating the Nation,” 61.

[11] Large, Stephen S. “Substantiating the Nation,” 58.

[12] Large, Stephen S. “Substantiating the Nation,” 64.

[13] Large, Stephen S. “Substantiating the Nation,” 54.

[14] Dower, John. “Japan’s Beautiful Modern War,” Ways of Forgetting, Ways of Remembering. The New Press. New

York, 2012, 74.

[15] Dower, John. “Japan’s Beautiful Modern War,” Ways of Forgetting, Ways of Remembering. The New Press. New

York, 2012, 74.

[16] Dower, John. “Japan’s Beautiful Modern War,” Ways of Forgetting, Ways of Remembering. The New Press. New

York, 2012, 84.

[17] Dower, John. “Japan’s Beautiful Modern War,” Ways of Forgetting, Ways of Remembering. The New Press. New

York, 2012, 74.

[18] Rubifien, Louisa. History 483: Japan Since 1800 Lecture. April 4 2022. University of

Maryland: College Park. Class Lecture.

[19] Dower, John. “Japan’s Beautiful Modern War,” Ways of Forgetting, Ways of Remembering. The New Press. New

York, 2012, 74.

[20] Yoshimi Yoshiaki. Grassroots Fascism: The War Experience of the Japanese People. trans.

Ethan Mark. Columbia University Press. New York, 1987. pp. 110-149.

[21] Yoshimi Yoshiaki. Grassroots Fascism: The War Experience of the Japanese People. trans.

Ethan Mark. Columbia University Press. New York, 1987. pp. 110-149.

[22] Rubifien, Louisa. History 483: Japan Since 1800 Lecture. April 11 2022. University of

Maryland: College Park. Class Lecture.

[23] McCurry, Justin. “The Last Kamikaze: Two Japanese Pilots Tell How They Cheated Death.” The Guardian, 2.

[24] Rubifien, Louisa. History 483: Japan Since 1800 Lecture. April 11 2022.

[25] Rubifien, Louisa. History 483: Japan Since 1800 Lecture. April 11 2022.


Bibliography


Dower, John. “Japan’s Beautiful Modern War,” Ways of Forgetting, Ways of Remembering. The New Press. New York, 2012.

Dower, John. “Throwing Off Asia III: Woodblock Prints of the Russo-Japanese War.” MIT Visualizing Cultures. 2008. Accessed 7 May 2022. http://visualizingcultures.mit.edu/throwing_off_asia_03/toa_essay03.html

Gordon, Andrew, A Modern History of Japan, 4th ed. (Oxford Univ. Press.)

Large, Stephen S. “Substantiating the Nation: Terrorist Trials as Nationalist Theatre in Early Shōwa Japan,” Nation and Nationalism in Japan. ed. Sandra Wilson. Routledge. London, 2002.

McCurry, Justin. “The Last Kamikaze: Two Japanese Pilots Tell How They Cheated Death.” The Guardian. 11 August, 2015. Accessed 27 April, 2022. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/aug/11/the-last-kamikaze-two-japanese-pilots-tell-how-they-cheated-death

Rubifien, Louisa. History 483: Japan Since 1800 Lecture. February 28 2022. University of Maryland: College Park. Class Lecture.

Rubifien, Louisa. History 483: Japan Since 1800 Lecture. March 28 2022. University of Maryland: College Park. Class Lecture.

Rubifien, Louisa. History 483: Japan Since 1800 Lecture. April 4 2022. University of Maryland: College Park. Class Lecture.

Rubifien, Louisa. History 483: Japan Since 1800 Lecture. April 11 2022. University of Maryland: College Park. Class Lecture.

Yoshimi Yoshiaki. Grassroots Fascism: The War Experience of the Japanese People. trans. Ethan Mark. Columbia University Press. New York, 1987. pp. 110-149.


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