The Fifteen Year War, 1931-1945: Promoting the National Agenda Through Censorship and Propaganda

The Fifteen Year War, 1931-1945: Promoting the National Agenda Through Censorship and Propaganda

Background Information.

Early in the American Occupation of Japan (1945-1952), American media censors insisted that the Japanese refer to the war not as the Great East Asia War (Dai Tôa Sensô), as the Japanese had always referred to the conflict, but as the Pacific War (Taiheiyô Sensô). This act of linguistic imperialism shifted the focus of the war away from Southeast Asia and East Asia, where much of the fighting actually took place and where much of the Japanese brutality and killing actually occurred, to the Pacific Theater and the United States. It is important to remember, however, that for the Japanese the war did not begin with the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, but rather with the Manchurian Incident on September 18, 1931. The Manchurian Incident was an attempt by the Japanese Kwantung Army stationed in Manchuria to force the Tokyo government to become more actively involved in the region. Colonel Ishiwara Kanji, the Kwantung Army’s operations officer from 1929-1932, was the mastermind of the incident, which basically entailed blowing up some southern Manchurian railway tracks near Mukden, blaming it on the Chinese, and pouring Japanese troupes into the region to secure it. The plan went off pretty much as Ishiwara had envisioned it. Despite world condemnations, Tokyo covered for the Kwantung army and set about turning Manchuria into the puppet state of Manchukuo. From 1931 on, Japan was continually engaged in some sort of combat on the mainland of East Asia. On July 7, 1937, the conflict became even bloodier and more intense after some shots were fired near the Marco Polo Bridge just south of Beijing. The shots triggered full scale war in China. In short order, Japan was able to gain control of most of the major cities and many of the train lines between the cities, but even with over 600,000 troops it was unable to secure the countryside. As Japan sunk deeper into the quagmire of China, it found itself increasingly isolated in the world. America, Britain, China, and the Dutch put pressure on her, in what is know as the ABCD encirclement. Sales of certain commodities, like iron and oil were cut off. Facing the option of submitting to American demands of pulling out of China or having its oil supply cut off, Japan launched a surprise attack against the United States at Pearl Harbor. The idea was to knock America out and to secure much needed resources in South East Asia. In the end, Japan’s attempts to get out of the hole it was in by making it bigger only failed. Japan surrendered to the allied forces aboard the U.S.S. Missouri on September 2, 1945.

Shortly after the Manchurian Incident the Bunraku theater staged some modern plays with puppets in contemporary military uniforms, but they were not very successful and despite receiving some government subsidies the theater struggled to survive. During the war the government supported Noh because it viewed Noh as possessing a pure Japanese character unsullied by Western influence. New patriotic plays were staged that enjoyed a brief period of popularity. The authorities also encouraged kabuki and shinpa, new school, producers to stage war plays and historical plays (jidaimono) that would invigorate the population and would support the war effort. They both obliged. Kabuki staged well-known classics that played to full-houses well into 1944. Although the government was concerned about some forms of theater it also believed that theater could provide solace and comfort to the people amidst their wartime sacrifices. By the end of the war virtually all of Japan’s major theaters had been destroyed by American bombing.

Throughout the 1930s and into the 1940s, as tensions between America and Japan increased, domestic censorship and cultural control tightened. Anything the government perceived to be harmful to “public safety” or “public morality” was banned. Thus, the government tried to eradicate Western cultural influences from Japanese society. This proved rather difficult since so much Western culture had been assimilated into Japanese culture. The government prohibited the use of English words in baseball and banned all “enemy music” such as jazz, though people continued to listen to it. The government forbid kabuki and shinpa theater companies from staging domestic plays (sewamono) and love plays (tsuyamono), lest they spoil the martial atmosphere. Similarly, the government prohibited rakugo storytellers from telling over 50 classical stories, many about the pleasure quarters. Shingeki, modern theater, which was dominated by leftists in the 1920s, was severely suppressed and a number of members of various shingeki troupes were arrested. The government also took down the names and addresses of audience members who attended suspect plays. The government outlawed the showing of American and British films. German and French films were allowed, as long as the love scenes were cut out.

In many ways the Japanese motion picture industry became subservient to national policy as the government only allowed films which supported its agenda to be produced. The government even went so far as to stipulate in the 1939 Motion Picture Law that the government had the right to force exhibitors to show “culture films,” or films that benefit public education. In other words, films that promoted the war effort. The Japanese produced a number of propaganda films. As Joseph Anderson and Donald Richie note, while American filmmakers tended to caricature the Japanese enemy as “squat lustful yellow dwarfs,” Japanese films usually depicted the American and British enemy as human beings (Anderson and Richie, 134-135). In War Without Mercy, John Dower sees similar differences in the printed propaganda created by Americans and Japanese.

Learning Goals.

  1. To understand that Japan’s military aggression did not begin with Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, but started ten years earlier in China.
  2. To understand the dehumanizing ways that nations depict one another in their wartime propaganda.
  3. To understand that war is not just about bullets and bombs but that it is also about  shaping and controlling images of oneself and one’s enemy in order to facilitate the death and destruction.
  4. To be aware of the hatred that Japanese and Americans had towards each other during the war. (And how quickly, for the most part, this hatred disappeared in the postwar period. Or at the very, least, how this hatred did not lead to an insurgency against the American Occupation or violence against the Japanese during the Occupation).

Common Core Standards
College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards for Reading

  • Standard 1.  Read closely to determine what the text says explicitly and to make logical inferences from it; cite specific textual evidence when writing or speaking to support conclusions drawn from the text.
  • Standard 4.  Interpret words and phrases as they are used in a text, including determining technical, connotative, and figurative meanings, and analyze how specific word choices shape meaning or tone.
  • Standard 8.  Delineate and evaluate the argument and specific claims in a text, including the validity of the reasoning as well as the relevance and sufficiency of the evidence. 

College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards for Speaking and Listening

  • Standard 2.  Integrate and evaluate information presented in diverse media and formats, including visually, quantitatively, and orally.

Key Concept.  

Essential Question.  

Primary Source.  

Thought Questions.

  1. How do nations depict an enemy in wartime propaganda?
  2. Why do nations often dehumanize the enemy?  (Makes it easier to kill...)
  3. Does propaganda reflect the real sentiments of a nation?
  4. Was the propaganda of the Pacific war racially motivated?
  5. Why do nations try to control and censor the media during wartime?



Focus Activity Ideas.  

Main Lesson Activity Ideas.

  1. Discussion: Using the images found in Dower’s War Without Mercy, pp. 181-200, compare and contrast how American propaganda depicted the Japanese enemy with how Japanese propaganda depicted the Western enemy. Or, compare the former with Japanese propaganda of the Chinese during the Sino-Japanese war of 1894-1895, as discussed in the lesson The Sino-Japanese War (1894-1895): Japan is Victorious on the Battlefield and the Baseball Diamond. How did the Japanese depict the Chinese? How does that compare with how they depicted the Americans?
  2. One problem that Americans had when depicting the Japanese enemy was who was the face of the enemy? With Germany it was clearly Hitler. With Italy it was Mussolini, but with Japan there was no clear face. Using images found in Dr. Seuss Goes to War, discuss how Japan, the Japanese, and Japanese Americans are depicted. Tojo is sometimes the face of the enemy, sometimes it is the emperor, and sometimes it is a caricature of a Japanese man. What do the caricatures all have in common?
  3. Read Maruki Iri and Maruki Toshi, “We Wouldn’t Paint War Art,” in Cook & Cook, Japan at War. Discuss what life was like for an artist in the homelands. View copies of paintings mentioned in the short piece such as Fujita Tsuguji’s The Day of Honorable Death on Saipan. Discuss the painting in terms of the comments that Toshi makes. Is it an anti-war painting?
  4. One of the greatest tales in all of Japanese history is Chushingura or The Tale of the 47 Ronin. A true story, which took place between 1701-1703, about a group of 47 ronin (masterless samurai) who avenged what they thought was the wrongful death of their master. The men flawlessly executed their plan one snowy night in Tokyo and became instant celebrities. The government was thrown into turmoil about what to do, since revenge killings were against the law. In the end, the Tokugawa government sentenced the men to commit ritual suicide, an honorable death for a samurai. From the time of the incident to today, this story of loyalty and revenge has caught the imagination of the Japanese people. It is a very popular puppet theater and Kabuki theater story. Since the introduction of motion pictures, it has been made into a movie dozens of times. There are also numerous television versions. In short, this is a tale that is told over and over again in Japanese popular culture.

    Gregory Barrett has a very interesting section on how the focus of the story changes depending on the political winds blowing through Japan at the time. Read the section, Barrett, pp. 24-34. In particular, he talks about how during the war years the focus shifted away from the reasons why the 47 ronin sought revenge and focused more on their sacrifice. Most people watch the film for the exciting fight scenes. They want to see Lord Asano attack Kira in the palace and they want to see the 47 Ronin attack Kira and kill him. In 1941 and 1942 Mizoguchi Kenji came out with his lavish two part version of the film. In this film, there are no battles. Instead of showing the samurai attacking Kira, the film focuses for over one hour, on them getting ready to kill themselves. The message: sacrifice yourself for your country. You could compare a clip from Mizoguchi’s film, which is available with English subtitles, with any other version of the film (there is a 1960s version with Mifune Toshiro that is readily available). Discuss the films in terms of Barrett’s arguments.

    This story was first popularized in the puppet theater. Donald Keene has translated the puppet play. Note that in this story, the names have been changed. To get around the Tokugawa censors, the playwright had to set the play in an earlier historical era and changed the names of all the characters.

    John Allyn has written his own version of the story that is also very accessible for students.

    Bibliography for this activity:

    Allyn, John. The Forty-Seven Ronin Story. Rutland, VT: Charles E. Tuttle Company, 1970.
    Barrett, Gregory. Archetypes in Japanese Film: The Sociopolitical and Religious Significance of the Principal Heroes and Heroines. Selinsgrove: Susquehanna University Press, 1989.
    Davis, Darrell William. Picturing Japaneseness: Monumental Style, National Identity, Japanese Film. New York: Columbia University Press, 1996. (This entire book is about the “Monumental Style” of Japanese cinema, with the quintessential example of the Monumental Style being Mizoguchi’s Chushingura. Chapter 6 is all about Chushingura.)
    Keene, Donald. Chushingura: The Treasury of Loyal Retainers: A Puppet Play. New York: Columbia University Press, 1971.
  5. Read and discuss parts of Chapter 3 “Performing Empire” from Robertson, Takarazuka to explore how theater was employed in the war effort for propaganda purposes, particularly in regards to Japan’s colonies. The first section, “Made in Japan” pp. 89-91 and “Colonialism as Theater, Theater as Colonialism” pp. 101-106, are especially relevant.
  6. To give students a feel for the home front and how the Japanese government controlled and directed the culture of the nation, read Senoh’s A Boy Called H, pp. 118-120. Have students discuss the depiction of home life represented in this excerpt.
  7. Compare and contrast scenes from war films in terms of how the enemy is depicted. Examples: Hawaii, Malaya Battles (1942), a Japanese war film, and John Ford’s 1942 The Battle of Midway (1942).
  8. Compare and contrast some of the Japanese and American propaganda films shown in The Propaganda Wars. This documentary includes one sequence that shows a picture from Life magazine issued during the war of an American woman looking lovingly at the skull of a Japanese soldier that her boyfriend (husband?) had sent her. The Japanese took this picture and used it in their own propaganda. For the Japanese, this picture showed how brutal and cruel the American enemy really was. In short, one image was used in propaganda by both sides. This topic should get students thinking and could easily be connected to issues in the news today.

Summative Activity Ideas.  


  1. John Dower, War Without Mercy: Race and Power in the Pacific War (New York: Pantheon Books, 1987), pp. 181-200. (Activity 1)
  2. Richard H. Minear, Dr. Seuss Goes to War (New York: New Press, 1999). (Activity 2)
  3. Haruko Taya Cook and Theodore F. Cook, Japan at War: An Oral History (New York: New Press, 1992). (Activity 3)
  4. The painting The Day of Honorable Death on Saipan by Fujita Tsuguji. A copy of the painting is on Theodore Cook’s syllabus (Activity 3)
  5. Chushingura (The Tale of the 47 Ronin) and related materials (additional details below). (Activity 4)
  6. Parts of Chapter 3 “Performing Empire” from Jennifer Robertson, Takarazuka: Sexual Politics and Popular Culture in Modern Japan (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998).  The first section, “Made in Japan” (pp. 89-91) and “Colonialism as Theater, Theater as Colonialism” (pp. 101-106), provide good insight into the use of theater for war purposes. (Activity 5)
  7. Kappa Senoh, A Boy Called H: A Childhood in Wartime Japan (Tokyo: Kodansha International, 2003). (Activity 6)
  8. War films made in Japan or the USA during the war. (Activity 7)
  9. The Propaganda Wars: Japan and the U.S. and the Battle for the Hearts and Minds. 1994.  A&E Home Video (Arts and Entertainment Channel). (Cat. No. AAE-20051).  This film contains some good footage of the various types of propaganda distributed in both Japan and America.  It has more USA material than Japanese footage, but one of the few sources that contains extensive Japanese footage. (Activities 8 & 9)