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Simon Partner: The WW II Home Front In Japan

Contrary to the popular image in the West of the World War II-era Japanese as fanatically and uniformly behind the war effort, the Japanese government had to mobilize and motivate its citizens during wartime.


Simon Partner is an assistant professor of history. He delivered this talk, "Coercion and Consent: The Home Front in Japan" on Feb. 26, 2003, as part of the lecture series The Weight of War, a lecture series sponsored by the History Department. Prof. Claudia Koonz also gave a talk on the Nazi techniques of popular persuasion.

(The lecture opens with a film clip.)

This was an extract from the Frank Capra film, "Know Your Enemy '" Japan." The images in this introductory section are intended to present a picture of a people who, although overtly modern, industrial, and technological, are steeped in traditional beliefs and alien values that are incomprehensible to a Westerner.

'Like photographic plates from the same negative': the very humanity of the Japanese is called into question as an image is presented of an identical, fanatic horde. Well, this is a propaganda film. But my purpose in this talk is to show you that the Japanese government actually grappled with very similar issues to those faced by other belligerent countries -- particularly those, like Germany, that were fighting aggressive wars and not in defense of the homeland: how do you motivate and mobilize a vast population of independent-minded individuals, who were generally more interested in their own family's welfare than in the more abstract destiny of the nation?

Let's look at another brief extract from later in the documentary.

This extract reflects the prevailing view among the Allies that the Japanese were fanatically and uniformly loyal to their Emperor and their nation.

That's not how Japanese government saw it. Rather, leaders of Japanese war effort saw many obstacles to the effective mobilization of their civilian population.

It's important to understand that Japan was much less technologically sophisticated than Germany, as you'll see among other things from the fact that Claudia's illustrations are all in color, mine in black and white. Although the Japanese government was very interested in Nazi techniques of popular persuasion, Japan lacked the economic power and infrastructure to implement a sophisticated mass marketing campaign. For example, in 1940 more than 50 percent of the population lived in rural communities. Of these, only 6 percent owned radio sets, and most had only four to six years of schooling so were barely literate, and disposable income was so low that even a newspaper subscription was beyond the reach of many families. Indeed, rural families were living so near the margin of subsistence that they had very little extra to give.

Given its limited capabilities in mass communication, if the government wanted to get out a message, often the relevant officials had to go out and spread it themselves (slide here), as in this case, where the finance minister of Japan is giving a speech promoting saving to the children and parents of a local elementary school.

For Japanese civilians, the war began in July 1937, with the launch of an all-out campaign by the Japanese military in China. The government didn't need to persuade people to express their support for the military, through gestures such as (slide) dressing up boys in military costume for the traditional shrine visit; (slide) or cooling themselves with fans decorated with military motifs; or (slide) rallying to celebrate the fall of Nanking in December 1937. But for most Japanese people, the war in China was still a very remote event, and (slide) the realities of that brutal campaign were yet to be felt in the homeland.

In August 1937, the government launched a 'National Spiritual Mobilization Campaign' (slide), which continued under varied auspices throughout the war years. This campaign was primarily concerned with bringing the many independent patriotic organizations already in existence in Japan under a single umbrella, and providing guidance from the center. For example, large numbers of women were already flocking to the Patriotic Women's Association and the National Women's Defense Association.

The Spiritual Mobilization Campaign formalized the status of these organizations, and eventually membership was to become compulsory. Their activities included the preparation of care packages for soldiers at the front, (slide) the sewing of thousand stitch belts to be worn by soldiers at the front under their uniforms; (slide) campaigns aimed at encouraging frugality and austerity, such as the wearing of utilitarian trousers instead of the traditional kimono, and (slide) campaigns against extravagant clothes and western fashions: here, a woman is being castigated for her permanent wave.

The Spiritual Mobilization Campaign also organized mass rallies to celebrate military events, such as the 'Crush America and Britain' rally on the December 10th 1941, the 'National Rally on the Propagation of the War Rescript' on the 13th, the 'Strengthening Air Defense Spirit' rally on the 16th, and the 'Axis Pact Certain Victory Promotion' military rally on the 22nd. (slide) This illustration is the national rally to celebrate the fall of Singapore, held in February 1942.

Another focal point of the Spiritual Mobilization Campaign was the school system. The schools had always encouraged patriotism and reverence for the emperor. Every school in Japan contained a cabinet or shrine, in which resided a photograph of the Emperor and his consort. The children had to bow every time they passed it. Children were taught that the emperor was the father of the country, always thinking of the welfare of his people. In April 1941, elementary schools were renamed "National Schools," and they adopted a new mission of 'washing their hands of the former Western view of life, and correcting the view that education is an investment or a path to success and happiness.' Rather, the schools were to 'restore the former spirit of Japanese education, nurture the innate disposition of the Japanese people who are the support of the world and the leaders of the Asian league, return to the imperial way, and wholeheartedly promote the Japanese spirit.' The main practical effect was to eliminate the summer vacation, which was now renamed the 'summer training period," devoted to voluntary labor.

All these initiatives were effective to an extent. Certainly the Japanese people were willing to express love for the emperor and loyalty to nation, and to make at least token sacrifices '" so long as the nation kept winning victories.

But I can't help feeling that until the shortages and the death toll from the war began to really bite '" that is, from 1942 onward '" spiritual mobilization was something of a game, (slide) as in the case of these students playing baseball in their air raid gear, or (slide) these elementary school children playing at being casualties in a air raid drill. The people even expressed hatred of the enemy, which the Japanese government was never very successful at instilling, through playful gestures, (slide) such as this street in Tokyo where people had a chance to trample on the American flag; or (slide) this school playground where children were encouraged to take a shot at images of Roosevelt and Churchill.

The Spiritual Mobilization Campaign was all well and good, but it's notoriously hard to bring about real changes in people's daily lives, of the kind required by an all-out war effort: drastic reductions in consumption; the integration of hitherto marginal social groups into the war production system; and the offering of all able bodied men to the military machine.

Those changes were brought about in Japan, but not for the most part by methods of propaganda or persuasion. Rather, they were brought about by coercion, dire necessity, and '" in the case of labor force mobilization '" by substantial financial incentives.

Far more significant for daily life than spiritual mobilization were the effects of the Economic Mobilization Law of 1938. This law created a command economy in which civilian and military bureaucrats set production quotas by industry, controlled profits and dividends, and oversaw the day to day activities of major industries. The system severely limited consumer goods production '" for example, virtually no textiles were produced for domestic consumption after 1941.

The government introduced a system of stringent rationing, that in addition to food included clothes, nails, needles, bandages, shoes, sakecooking oil, tire tubes, and many other items. I mentioned dire necessity, and this is illustrated by the fact that even the Draconian rationing system was overtaken in the final years of the war by the collapse of domestic production and the tightening Allied hold on Japan's shipping lanes. Increasingly, rations arrived late or not at all '" and the majority of Japanese civilians were forced into a life of petty crime as they struggled to find enough food for bare subsistence '" (slide) as illustrated in this image, of a line quickly forming outside a bombed out rice storage warehouse.

One of the most notable successes of the Japanese government in mobilizing its people was the system of neighborhood associations, which became the front line in the effort to control and influence daily life.

Neighborhood associations were an ancient institution in Asian life. For more than two thousand years, the Chinese government grouped its subjects into units of five households or more, and made the units collectively responsible for tax collection and the prevention of crime. This system was in effect in Japan in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. By the twentieth century, the neighborhood group had become an integral, but informal, part of the fabric of Japanese society. The Japanese government lacked the manpower and technologies to control the daily lives of its subjects through direct supervision, and, in spite of the rhetoric of loyalty, the government was not confident that households on their own would faithfully comply with government directives. The government saw in the neighborhood associations a way to penetrate to the farthest reaches of Japanese society.

Membership was made compulsory, and the activities of the associations were formalized, to include the distribution of rations, air defense, the coordination of savings drives, volunteer labor, and ensuring that men eligible for the draft reported for duty. The system relied on the fact that even if people were willing to cheat the government and even the emperor, they could not face cheating on the people they had to live next door to. It was a very effective system of control, and it thrives to this day in North Korea, as I'm told.

Like other wartime governments, the government of Japan needed to mobilize hitherto marginal elements of the population, notably women and children, into the workforce. Children were mobilized through the school system, which sent large numbers of students to work, though at a notoriously low level of productivity. Women, and men who were too old or weak for military service, were mobilized primarily through the offer of good wages.

For many Japanese families, the war economy offered economic opportunities such as they had never enjoyed before. Indeed, the government found itself in the anomalous position of having to forbid its rural citizens from taking up the factory jobs that were beckoning to them, because to do so would further reduce food production. Nevertheless, and in spite of the government effort to stem the flow, more than one million under-employed rural citizens moved permanently to urban factory jobs as a result of the war economy.

To summarize, then, the mobilization of the Japanese people in an all-out war effort was not achieved through spiritual fanaticism, nor through sophisticated techniques of persuasion. Rather, it was achieved through a mixture of old-fashioned economic incentives, old-fashioned coercion, and old-fashioned techniques of social control.

I'd like now to introduce to you a lady who has become quite important in my life, since she and her family are the subject of my latest book, on the transformation of Japan's rural society. This lady is called Toshie Sakaue. She lives in a rural community in Northern Japan. She is a well-preserved seventy-eight years old, which means that at the time of Pearl Harbor she was seventeen.

Toshie's experiences of the war are probably not so different from those of millions of other young rural women. During her school years, she was trained to revere the emperor, and she did revere him, but much more important to her in her six years of schooling were her friends and her basic education in reading and writing.

After school, at the age of twelve she was sent out to work by her father, as a housemaid in a nearby village. Her minimal wages were sent directly to her father, although the more important benefit to the family from her employment was the reduction in mouths to feed. The events in far-away China seemed utterly remote to her.

The war first came home to her when her eldest brother was drafted into the army after the outbreak of hostilities in 1937. He did a tour of duty, and returned home in 1939. Toshie's family life was hardly an easy one even in normal times. Her elder sister was mentally ill, and, since there were no facilities available for her care, the family was responsible for supervising her, and making sure she didn't come to any harm, or cause harm to others. The family's small plot of mainly rented, and not very productive, land must be farmed without the aid of animal or machine power. All the members of the family went out to work whenever work was available, usually as manual laborers, in order the supplement the family's never-adequate cash income. In December 1941, Japan attacked the United States and entered the World War. Toshie felt the same fear that many others did at the immensity of the act, and at the unknown future. The mayor of a neighboring village wrote in the village newspaper: 'When I heard the announcement on the radio, I felt a chill throughout my body and the flow of my blood reversed its course. The recognition that a great affliction was facing our empire was carved in my heart.' (He castigated himself in a subsequent article for his unpatriotic doubts). Toshie felt quite unable to pass judgment on the nation's leaders: the events seemed too remote from her small sphere of knowledge and experience. But she was heartened by Japan's early victories, and she was sure that Japan could not lose. In 1942, Toshie's eldest brother was called back up, and her other brother was also drafted. With two men gone, the family's labor became all the more onerous. The burden on the family became still heavier with the introduction of the food requisitioning system. Every household in the village was required to meet a quota of food production, to be delivered to the authorities via the neighborhood association. Since Toshie's family's land was unproductive, their quota amounted to almost all their crop. Although some families were said to cheat and hide food for their own consumption, Toshie's father knew that if he failed to meet his quota, another family in the group would have to make up the difference. He complied, even though the family went short. In 1943, Toshie's father sent her back out to work. This time, she worked as a stevedore on the docks, unloading coal and other bulk cargoes from ships. The work was incredibly arduous. Toshie worked in a labor gang alongside American prisoners of war and slave laborers from China and Korea. But Toshie brought home a wage of five yen a day '" an unheard of amount for a woman's labor. Her father was thankful for the economic contribution, and he gave her no choice but to continue the work. Both of Toshie's brothers were killed in the war. This was not an unusual statistic in her village, where more than 30 percent of the men under 30 never came home. She traveled to Sendai, an overnight journey, to collect her brother's ashes. It was the first time she had ever been away from her village. In addition to her work on the Niigata docks, Toshie also had to participate in the activities of the National Women's Defense Association. Her duties included sending off the young men who left for the army, helping families who had lost their sons, attending lectures and rallies on the war effort, membership in the air raid squad, sewing of thousand stitch belts and care packages, and putting on entertainments for the villagers. The most striking thing about Toshie's experience of the war was how little choice she and the other members of her family had. None of them could stop her brothers going to war, and dying. They could not evade the responsibility of taking care of Toshie's sick sister. The crops had to be brought in, and their food delivery quotas had to be met. Toshie's father made her go out to work '" and he kept all of her wages. For Toshie, coercion, and not persuasion, was the driving force in her life. That said, this was not just a condition of wartime. Toshie, like many other daughters of poor farm families, had very little choice in the direction of her life from her birth until at least a decade after the end of the war. Toshie's experience of the war was not all miserable. She enjoyed the relative prominence in village affairs lent her by the absence of men. She enjoyed organizing village activities, particularly the entertainments such as this one, where the women had to take all the men's parts. And she was as happy as anyone else to celebrate Japan's victories in the early stages of the war. Toshie remembers the surrender of Japan as a moment of unbearable disillusionment. She had placed all her trust in the leaders, believing them when they told her Japan could not lose. With the defeat, she lost much of her faith in the nation's leadership. But she remained, after all, a product of her upbringing. One of her first acts in the aftermath of defeat was to undertake the long journey to Tokyo, for the first time in her life. Once arrived in Tokyo, she traveled to the imperial palace, where for three days she worked as a volunteer laborer in the palace grounds, helping clean up after the wartime years of neglect. Afterwards, her labor group was greeted by the Emperor, who told them that he knew how they must be struggling, but that they should not lose heart. Toshie remembers this as one of the most moving moments in her life. Toshie's experiences of the war were not so different from those of other rural women. But she experienced them, not as a fanatic, nor as a brainwashed automaton, but as an individual, a sensitive and caring person who loved her family and who couldn't bear to be shamed in front of her fellow villagers. Toshie's consent for the war effort was given willingly, her participation was genuine, even as coercion remained a basic and ineluctable fact of her life.