As Japan conquered more territory from the 1930s, and as World War Two grew in scale following the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, propaganda efforts across Japanese-controlled East Asian territories became more important. Here, Maddison Nichol follows up on his article on Nazi World War Two propaganda (here), and explains the importance of race and anti-Western ideology in the promotion of Japan’s East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere.

 A Japanese 1930s propaganda poster promoting co-operatuion between Japan and - Japanese-controlled - Manchuria and China.

A Japanese 1930s propaganda poster promoting co-operatuion between Japan and - Japanese-controlled - Manchuria and China.

In 1941, the Japanese Empire attacked Pearl Harbor in a surprise air raid. The intention was to sink much of the American Pacific Fleet which was a threat to growing Japanese imperial ambitions in East Asia. Many people forget that Japan had been at war with China since 1937, and by 1941 Japanese society was used to military propaganda blasts about the lofty East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere and other grandiose ideas intended to mask the ugly nature of imperialism. But how did the Japanese Empire justify their aggression and conquests to their own people and those living in the conquered regions? By utilizing racially charged propaganda, picked up from the Germans under Hitler, and vilifying the Western imperial powers through past acts of aggression and gunboat diplomacy, the Japanese intended to create a semblance of authority and affection among their own people and the conquered inhabitants of Asia.

 

Race

WW2 was a war that revolved around the idea of race. At the apex of the Nazi racial hierarchy were the Aryans, those with blonde hair and blue eyes and the purest of all races. Aryans were the ‘super race’ in this ideology, and the presence of a ‘super race’ means there must be a ‘sub race’. Essentially, the idea goes that everyone who wasn’t Aryan, or in our case here, Japanese, was a ‘sub race’ and inferior to the ‘super race’. The Japanese were even referred to as ‘yellow Aryans’ by their Axis allies.[1]

How did the Japanese utilize their idea of racial superiority? Domestically, like in Nazi Germany, the Japanese proclaimed that they were racially superior to Koreans, Chinese, and other Asian peoples. The Japanese watched Hitler disrupt the status quo of Europe through racially charged propaganda in just shy of a decade, so the Japanese figured they could do the same thing in Asia under their own banner.[2] There was one issue with this new racial model developed by the Japanese. The Nazis had a scapegoat, such as those of Jewish and Slavic descent. The Japanese didn’t. Luckily, like any imagined order, they could just make one up like the Nazis did. Instead of Jews and Slavs, the Japanese chose Britons and Americans, the premier imperial powers in Asia.[3]

There was a long, and confusing, rationale about racial superiority in the Second World War, but the simple version is that the Germans thought they were the superior race destined to rule the world, and so did the Japanese. All this background aside, let’s get into the propaganda itself.

The term “New World Order” is not unfamiliar among savants and scholars of the Second World War. The Nazis used it constantly, and yet not many know that the Japanese intended to create their own New Order in Asia. This was called the East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere. The central tenant for the Co-Prosperity Sphere was that Asia should belong to Asians and not be subject to the British and American imperial ambitions.[4] Naturally, the Japanese Empire should control all of Asia instead of the Europeans. Throw off the yoke of Western imperialism for… well, another version of Western imperialism.

The real reason for the war in Asia was imperial ambitions. Japan needed coal, iron, and other resources that they just didn’t have in the Home Islands that other nearby areas had, such as Korea and Indonesia. However, masking these goals through race allowed the Japanese to persuade their own people that they intended to liberate Asia from the West. They tried to inform the conquered people that they meant no harm, but were there to free them from the Western powers.[5] A Japanese propaganda corps sent to the Philippines was told to deliver messages about why the Japanese were compelled to go to war. Leaflets describing why the Japanese had gone to war against the USA were given out to Filipinos during the invasion of the Philippines by special propaganda corps.[6] The goal was to try and convince the Filipinos that Japan was an ally, not an enemy. Asia must be liberated from the Europeans and Americans so that peace can reign in Asia. Japanese propagandists cited race issues in the United States as justification for a war of Asian liberation and handed it out to both Japanese people domestically and those of conquered areas to justify their imperial ambitions through the lens of racial struggle.[7] This idea of race goes well with the next big aspect of Japanese wartime propaganda, past deeds of atrocity committed by the Western powers.

 

Reminders of Western Atrocities

In 1839, Great Britain attacked Qing China for restricting the trade of Opium into China. Opium was a major export for the British and the Chinese market for the drug was lucrative and funded many well off British merchants back in Britain. The Opium Wars went from 1839-1842, and 1856-1860 and brought down the long-established era of Chinese dominance in East Asia. It also worried other parts of Asia, such as Japan, by showing the other Asian countries that Europe would always get what it wanted and was willing to fight against anyone who opposed them.

This war, while over a century old by the time Japan bombed Pearl Harbor, was made into a wartime film by the Japanese to enable everyone to recall the atrocities of the British in the name of wealth. The film was “intended to demonstrate the evils of the British Empire and by extension, the need for someone to step in to halt European aggression, The Opium War also implicitly states the case for Japan as China’s saviour.”[8] By making the Japanese and the Chinese remember the British atrocities against the Chinese, it would hopefully rally the Japanese to support the war while also promoting Japan as the savior of China. By portraying the British in such a negative light, Japanese propagandists hoped the Chinese would support the Japanese effort in creating the Co-Prosperity Sphere and finally bring peace to a racially pure Asia free from Western imperialism.

We don’t know how well the film was received in China and other occupied territories, but on the home front it was a big hit.[9] Much like the Germans, film was intended to reach a broader audience and get people to grasp the key points of the ideological propaganda. But film was not the only way to get people to recall atrocities. In The Philippines, Japanese propaganda corps tried to get Filipinos to remember American atrocities against them, such as how the Filipino soldiers of the USAFFE were being used as shields for the Americans, or how the soldiers were discriminated against by the Americans.[10] They also reminded the Filipinos of how 297 of 300 Filipino laborers were murdered by American soldiers after the completion of the Fort.[11] By trying to appeal to the Filipinos through invoking recollections of American atrocities, the Japanese intended to create a truce between the two Asian peoples by declaring how Japan was their savior from Western atrocities.

We know in hindsight that the Japanese committed atrocities of their own in China, The Philippines, and other areas of occupied Asia. But this was their propaganda strategy to garner support domestically and in the occupied territories for the Japanese war effort. By utilizing the all-too-common race idea into propaganda and causing Asians to remember Western imperial violence, the Japanese tried to create their New World Order in Asia with their superior race leading the rest. Europe and America would be removed, and peace would return to Asia at last. There are many other facets to Japanese wartime propaganda, such as bushido and kokutai, but in broad strokes race and past atrocities were the central ideas to the creation of the Co-Prosperity Sphere. Japan’s “super race” would lead the rest of Asia into an era of peace and harmony free from the corruption of the West. Anyone who actually believed them would soon be taught that liberation was just another name for imperialism.

 

What do you think of Japanese World War Two propaganda? Let us know below.

 

[1] Saul K. Padover, “Japanese Race Propaganda”, in The Public Opinion Quarterly 7, No. 2 (Summer, 1943), 192.

[2] Ibid, 193.

[3] Ibid, 194.

[4] Ibid, 196.

[5] A. J. Grajdanzev, “Japan’s Co-Prosperity Sphere”, Pacific Affairs 16, No. 3 (September 1943), 311.

[6] Motoe Terami-Wada, “The Japanese Propaganda Corps in the Philippines”, in Philippine Studies 38, No. 3 (Third Quarter 1990), 285.

[7] “Japanese Race Propaganda”, 197-198.

[8] David Desser, “From the Opium War to the Pacific War: Japanese Propaganda Films of World War II”, in Film History 7, No. 1, Asian Cinema (Spring, 1995), 44.

[9] Ibid, 44.

[10] “The Japanese Propaganda Corps in the Philippines”, 292.

[11] Ibid, 294.

Sources

1: Saul K. Padover, “Japanese Race Propaganda”, in The Public Opinion Quarterly 7, No. 2 (Summer, 1943), 192.

2: Ibid, 193.

3: Ibid, 194.

4: Ibid, 196.

5: A. J. Grajdanzev, “Japan’s Co-Prosperity Sphere”, Pacific Affairs 16, No. 3 (September 1943), 311.

6: Motoe Terami-Wada, “The Japanese Propaganda Corps in the Philippines”, in Philippine Studies 38, No. 3 (Third Quarter 1990), 285.

7: Saul K. Padover, “Japanese Race Propaganda”, in The Public Opinion Quarterly 7, No. 2 (Summer, 1943), 197-198.

8: David Desser, “From the Opium War to the Pacific War: Japanese Propaganda Films of World War II”, in Film History 7, No. 1, Asian Cinema (Spring, 1995), 44.

9: Ibid, 44.

10: Motoe Terami-Wada, “The Japanese Propaganda Corps in the Philippines”, in Philippine Studies 38, No. 3 (Third Quarter 1990), 292.

11: Ibid, 294.