The Paper Theater of War: Fanning the Flames

Hoosha (Carriage with the Phoenix on Top) Imperial Visit
Creator: Toshu Shogetsu

Most discussions about “propaganda” concentrate on cinema and posters. Think of the phrase “Nazi propaganda” and you’re likely to envision scenes from Triumph of the Will or Hitler doing a goosestep in a 16mm newsreel. Similarly Soviet propaganda tends to create visions of blocky, blood-red lettered posters from Dmitri Moor or El Lissitsky. American propaganda, if any American actually accepts their country does create such things, tends to center around broadcast, especially radio, with the occasional nod to films like the Why We Fight series.

Japanese propaganda, however, invokes almost nothing to most laymen. It is not that Japan didn’t make propaganda films — they certainly did. Or that Japan did not use broadcast radio, or posters, which they also did. Rather it is that Japanese propaganda took forms unfamiliar to the Western scholar or American populace.

Japanese propaganda was certainly visual. But it was also literate. The Japanese rate of literacy at the beginning of the Meiji Period was equivalent to that of Spain or Germany, and became the focus of Meiji policy’s attempt to unify Japan into a nation-state under the emperor. Mejii period reformers could rely upon an interaction of text and pictures as they began to create propaganda to nationalize the new Japan. As Brian Platt put it, “Just as schools could prepare people for their new economic roles in an industrialized society, they could prepare people for their new political roles as participants in the nation-state.” Later that same propaganda would be turned from nationalizing Japan into militarizing Japan as a new imperial power.

This is where the Hoover Institution’s book, Fanning the Flames: Propaganda in Modern Japan begins.

The book collects nine scholarly essays that flesh out the nature of Japanese propaganda from the First Sino-Japanese War in 1894 to the end of World War Two in 1945. The concentration is not on film and photography, however, but rather on the other graphic media in the Hoover Institution’s own Library and Archives collection, particularly nishiki-e and the newly-acquired cache of kamishibai.

Obviously this is an ambitious book and an even more ambitious exhibition project — holding exhibitions of anything during COVID-19 pandemic time is challenging at best, even more so for what seems like such a specialized topic. Fortunately, it’s exceptionally well-done.

Stereoscopic card from T.W. Ingersoll. Public domain.

The book may not exactly aim for an average high school-level reader, but it is mercifully free of the argot and exceedingly dull rhetoric that normally infests scholarly writing. It is also well-edited. Though the nine essays cover different subjects, from different international perspectives by different writers, the whole book makes sense. One can read the essays separately in any order. One could also read them straight through. The chronological history of ideas comes forth elegantly this way and so does the thematic treatment.

While it may help to have some background in basic Japanese history before reading the book, I think editor Kaoru Ueda introduces the material properly, with enough context that even a novice can follow. This is no mean feat. That context requires not just details of historical events but also explanations of the art forms that Japanese propaganda took at the time.

The nishiki-e prints are probably at least partly familiar to most people, since American popular culture has been riffing on Japanese woodblock prints (ukiyo-e) for decades now. But connecting the highly colorful woodblock prints to the function of journalism requires a subtle mind, so it’s nice to have Olivia Morello and Michael Auslin’s essay to do just that. In our world of tweet-tweet-riot Twitter Riot synchronous social media world, the idea that news had to be transmitted by artists working with wood probably seems bizarre. But understanding this also helps to understand what is lost when photography completely takes over. It also helps to understand why it was so vital to have nishiki-e printed of the never-before-seen Emperor of Japan as part of the Meiji Government’s project to nationalize Japan.

Alice Tseng’s essay “A Visual Revolution” deals well with this subject. With the Emperor being directly descended and appointed by Heaven itself by tradition in Japanese lore, he was considered secret and unapproachable and distant. Images of the Emperor simply did not exist in the minds of pre-Meiji Japanese. By allowing people visual access to the Emperor as an actual earthbound figure, the Meiji government could focus attention on the national level rather than the regional level. This helped to spread the idea of empire even before the Sino-Japanese War. With the nishiki-e always depicting Emperor Meiji in European-style military garb, it became much easier to propagandize for an adoption of Western ways, with new clothing and technology — and of course with Western-style pretensions of imperialism.

The essays on the kamishibai are extremely interesting to me as well. I’ve written about theater and performance for over thirty years now, so I’m certainly well aware of Japanese forms of theater, including the “paper theater” of the kamishibai, which is effectively a kind of storytelling with pictures as props and an actor as narrator. It’s nice to see them treated as something important and capable of carrying a message.

Myself I read Japanese at about a fourth-grade level. But oddly, that makes me an excellent audience for the kamishibai. They were not made for illiterates but rather for children to help enlist them into the Japanese imperial effort, and since I read like a child but with adult skepticism they are even more remarkable to me.

from My Beloved Horse Joins the War
Kamishibai Collection, Hoover Institution Archives (2018C32.09)

Even better than reading the essays themselves, however, is viewing the digital collection online. I’ve been waiting for The Hoover Institution to make good on their promise in the book’s Introduction to host “an online exhibition of the same title planned for mid- to late-2021.” And so they have. On the lighter side, the Institution has posted virtual jigsaw puzzles of cards from the kamishibai stories Great Victory for Our Navy, Three Brave Bombers, Seven Stones, Enemy Surrendered, and People Who Follow Suit. On the more scholarly side are the “Watch and Learn” videos.

One curiosity in this collection is the presentation by Professor Barak Kushner on “Anchors of History,” which elaborates on his essay in the book. Or at least it starts to. Then after a discussion about French and Algerian literature and an analogy between European colonialism and Asian imperialism, Professor Kushner simply reads his essay from the book. He does, however, use some images and photographs in his presentation that are not in the book. Those images are not in the Hoover collection but rather from the Military Museum of the Chinese People’s Revolution. These pictures add a certain subtle illustrative depth which makes the presentation worth watching as more than just a reading.

More revealing still are the online kamishibai. The first one, Soldier Play (Heitaigokko), is animated and performed by American actors. This has an incredibly jarring effect. The graphical style of this kamishibai drawn by Matsui Sueo is iconic rather than realistic, so the children could be from anywhere. Indeed in the animation it sounds very much like American children playing. Combining American actors that sound like American children playing in English and a script in which the soldier children shout about defeating Roosevelt and Churchill, this production reminds me of Brecht’s Verfremdungseffekt writ small. It forces you to listen actively to the content instead of getting sucked into it passively.

Animated reproduction of “ヘイタイゴッコ Heitai gokko” (Soldier Play) from the Kamishibai collection at the Hoover Institution Library & Archives.

Two others are performed in the traditional street theater style with a Japanese-speaking narrator. I found this revealing as well. Often when faced with kamishibai on paper, it is difficult to sense how the plays were actually performed. In his essay “Printed Wartime Kamishibai,” Taketoshi Yamamoto discusses this confusion about kamishibai that affected the American military personnel charged with reforming postwar Japan. They had descriptions of it, but the descriptions were utterly nondescript. Actually seeing one performed immediately removes the confusion.

Rather than being a simple reading of a children’s book on detached pages — which is what I think the American censors believed — the kamishibai narrator often uses the pages to conceal or reveal part of the pages beneath. It immediately struck me that this was not close to the effect of static pages in a gallery, but rather similar to manga, in which the collision of images generates new meaning. That the narrator’s function in kamishibai storytelling comes from the old Japanese rakugo tradition of “sit down comedy” (rather than stand-up) is also much clearer.

The digital extension of the book online adds even more contextual information with its section of “Core Topics,” which elaborate on the history and the media discussed in the book. “The Rise of Empire” core topic, for instance, gives some depth to the pure timeline of Japanese imperialism by connecting it to Chinese and European imperialism. This comparative perspective is incredibly helpful, connecting to the book’s essay “Multinational Perspectives of Visualized Journalism on the Sino-Japanese War: A Comparative Study of Meiji Japan, Qing China, and Europe” by Toshihiko Kishi. As a comparative history of ideas scholar, I especially love this stuff. As a scholar I also love the access to the collection of nishiki-e and kamishibai online in the Collection Highlights.

The only truly depressing thing in the digital collection is the “Highlights from the Library.” This section lists several books and journals mentioned in the Fanning the Flames book, like Fūzoku gahō and The Russo Japanese War Fully Illustrated. But they aren’t accessible. Instead, you get a “highlight from the highlight,” a single image chosen seemingly at random by some mute inglorious librarian. Since all of these works are well before 1925 they ought to be in the public domain, and should be much more easily readable. I plan on sending advocates to invade with digital scanners and propagandize the Hoover Institution for open access, which seems to me a fitting proposition. After all, propaganda is supposed to reach as many people as possible. Scholarship of propaganda should, too.

Categories History

Omar Willey was born at St. Frances Cabrini Hospital in Seattle and grew up near Lucky Market on Beacon Avenue. He believes Seattle is the greatest city on Earth and came to this conclusion by travelling much of the Earth. He is a junior member of Lesser Seattle and, as an oboist, does not blow his own trumpet. Contact him at omar [at] seattlestar [dot] net

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