In the lead-up to my time in Japan this summer, I committed myself to reading a bunch of Japanese history. Not so much about the war. I don’t find war interesting, as I’ve made plenty clear around here. I’d rather read about the 1923 Great Kanto earthquake or how early 20th century Japanese society signaled westerness through changing architectural patterns. In fact, all this reading really helped me understand what I was seeing there. I’ve kept reading a bit since. I’ve finally started reading John Dower’s Embracing Defeat: Japan in the Wake of World War II. It was published to great acclaim all the way back in 1999, but I never got around to it. It’s a fascinating and quite readable look at how Japanese moved on from the war and the relations between the U.S. and Japan during the occupation. Highly recommended.
Well, one of things Dower discusses is Our Job in Japan, which is one of the films that the War Department made to train American soldiers as part of the occupation. It’s totally crazy. The YouTube site says Dr. Seuss was involved, and in fact he did write the script, but Dower doesn’t discuss this. What he does discuss is that it was so horrifyingly anti-Japanese that even MacArthur was like, this is way over the top. As you will see in what is an unfortunately grainy version of the film, the problem is portrayed as “the Japanese brain.” When you start with essentializing like that, you know it isn’t going to get any better. Everything about Japanese culture is backward and scary, everything about American culture is forward thinking. I mean, the film actually states that one of America’s better traits than Japan is the equality of the races, which…...you have got to be kidding me.
What the film does very well is to demonstrate how Americans saw themselves as a nation of destiny that was missionizing the Japanese into the civilized world, which has a long tradition in American culture, both religious and secular. The film was later shown as 1947’s Design for Death, in a highly edited form, with all the dead bodies taken out and replaced with less offensive images. Quite a document, even though the very end was cut off. It’s also very much worth noting that this is an example of how the Americans essentialized all Japanese in a way they absolutely did not with the Germans.
Because of the harsh imagery, you do have to go into the YouTube site to watch it. I recommend taking the 15 minutes to do this.
In case anyone wants it, here’s my reading list on Japan:
- Robert Stolz, Bad Water: Nature, Pollution, and Politics in Japan, 1870-1950
- Peter Duus, The Abacus and the Sword: The Japanese Penetration of Korea, 1895-1910
- Robert L. Kramm, Sanitized Sex: Regulating Prostitution, Venereal Disease, and Intimacy in Occupied Japan, 1945-1952
- Ian Miller, The Nature of the Beasts: Empire and Exhibition at the Tokyo Imperial Zoo
- Julia Adeney Thomas, Reconfiguring Modernity: Concepts of Nature in Japanese Political Ideology
- Eiichiro Azuma, In Search of Our Frontier: Japanese America and Settler Colonialism in the Construction of Japan’s Borderless Empire
- Simon Avenell, Making Japanese Citizens: Civil Society and the Myth of the Shimin in Postwar Japan
- Barak Kushner, Men to Devils, Devils to Men: Japanese War Crimes and Chinese Justice
- Andrew Gordon, The Wages of Affluence: Labor and Management in Postwar Japan
- Jordan Sand, House and Home in Modern Japan: Architecture, Domestic Space, and Bourgeois Culture, 1880-1930
- Jordan Sand, Tokyo Vernacular: Common Spaces, Local Histories, Found Objects
- J. Charles Schenecking, The Great Kantō Earthquake and the Chimera of National Reconstruction in Japan
- Stefan Tanaka, New Times in Modern Japan
- Andrew Gordon, Labor and Imperial Democracy in Prewar Japan