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Die For Japan: Wartime Propaganda Kamishibai
Directed by Jeffrey Dym. 2012. 17 minutes.
In English

Study areas: World War II, Japanese Propaganda and Art, Media Studies

Die For Japan

Kamishibai (literally, “paper plays”) are a form of entertainment unique to Japan, and therefore little known outside of that country.  In cities and towns throughout interwar and postwar Japan, it was not uncommon to see a group of children clustered around a storyteller (usually male, but occasionally female) with a wooden box, about the size of a small television, lashed to a bicycle.  The narrator would shuffle through a series of images visible through the box’s backlit “screen,” and read from text on the backs of these “slides.”  To keep it all lively, the narrator used a number of different voices, inflections, and sound effects—much like the puppet theater’s gidayū and the benshi (silent film narrators) of earlier times—and kept his or her audience pumped up on cheap candies sold on the side.  Although there likely were narrators who wrote, drew, and performed their own original kamishibai, most seem to have used professionally published materials.  In kamishibai, then, we see the convergence of a number of indigenous theatrical, pictorial, and storytelling traditions with modern mass media technologies and marketing methods, providing a cheap alternative to the more sophisticated cinema.

As an introduction to this medium, Jeffrey Dym’s Die for Japan is very instructive.  It provides many historical images and some contemporary film footage depicting both elder performers and young revivalists at work.  Because it is both a visual and aural performance genre, kamishibai must be seen and heard to be understood, and Die for Japan has immense educational value for enabling us to do that.

It did not take long for some to re-imagine kamishibai as something other than a way to sell candy to street moppets.  Imai Yone, who studied Christian theology in the United States from 1928 to 1932, saw in kamishibai an ideal medium for presenting biblical stories in Sunday schools; indeed, the film depicts her efforts to develop paper plays’ pedagogical potential as a crucial step toward the use of kamishibai for didactic instruction (kyōka) and propaganda.  Viewers see here, briefly, images from some of Imai’s publications, including Old Testament stories of Moses and Daniel, which some teachers may find useful in lessons on Christianity in Asia.

Most of the film, of course, is devoted to kamishibai propaganda during World War II.  We are treated to hundreds of stunningly clear images, while the voiceover narration explains the recurrent subjects and themes: illustrated narratives of specific battles in China and the Pacific; the varieties of service opportunities available on the home front, for women and men of all ages (including detailed instructions on civil defense, firefighting, and the construction of air raid shelters); the selfless heroism of soldiers and sailors on the front lines; the nobility of the war objectives to liberate Asians from Western colonial yokes; the abiding benevolence and wisdom of the emperor and the “imperial way”; and idealized tales of regular people enduring the war’s impact on their lives with stoicism, patience, and unwavering faith.  Dym notes that kamishibai, like other media examined by John Dower and other scholars, maintained its thematic and topical focus on Japanese people, rather than on the enemy.  In this regard, it was quite different from contemporaneous American propaganda, which gave free rein to the racist imaginations of its creators.  The film shows several examples of these latter images, which make even the battle scenes in kamishibai appear restrained and serene by comparison.

Dym has access to so many kamishibai images that seventeen minutes hardly seems long enough to scrutinize them closely.  Aside from the content, the stylistic variety and artistry (or lack thereof) merit closer consideration, but the teacher who wants to engage in such a discussion in class will need to have the cursor hovering over the pause button and a quick mouse reflex to accomplish this.  Some kamishibai are clearly linked to indigenous ink painting traditions, while others are cartoonish or hyper-realistic; and, frankly, some look like they were dashed off by hacks.  My point, though, is that students can productively discuss the suitability of certain images or styles for conveying particular messages, and explore the multiple styles Japanese artists deployed (in fairly stark contrast to the rather universal manga/anime conventions at which all Japanese youngsters seem proficient).

Besides the fairly rapid barrage of images, I found the speed and cadence of the voiceover narration sometimes difficult to follow.  The whole production, in other words, could be productively slowed down, to allow the images to sink into our visual and aural memories better.  On the other hand, it is likely that younger audiences will find Die for Japan to be just their speed.

The film’s interpretive emphasis is clear in the title.  Unlike most other societies at war, Japanese propaganda encouraged everyone—not just soldiers and sailors—to prepare for self-sacrifice, paying what Americans call “the ultimate price” for the nation.  As the voiceover puts it, if one killed the enemy while dying, so much the better, but death itself was to be not only welcomed but pursued.  As the prospects for victory dimmed, gyokusai (“smashed jewels,” often translated as “glorious self-annihilation”) became not just a front-line battle tactic, but a home front aspiration in official propaganda.  This Japanese rhetoric—which we know now did not speak for everyone—was indeed exceptional, but I think it can be overemphasized to exhume stereotypes about “other people” who don’t value human life the way we do (as it arguably was in US propaganda such as Frank Capra’s Know Your Enemy: Japan).  I worry that the concluding narration of Die for Japan comes close to doing this:

How often do nations put out children’s stories about children being informed of their father’s death in battle; or of a mother learning that her watch repairman son was drafted into battle, died a glorious death, while the watch that he was working on before his time ran out was working perfectly; or the wife who was left behind to run the family flower shop by herself, being informed of her husband being blown to pieces in battle?

As we are, presumably, still locked in a fight with suicidal Islamicist jihadis who invoke similar rhetoric of noble self-sacrifice, I think Die for Japan presents an opportunity to discuss how and why certain people at certain times in history come to the conclusion that glorious self-annihilation is a good idea, and whether or not those people really speak on behalf of their respective constituencies.

Taylor Atkins is Associate Professor of History at Northern Illinois University.

Die for Japan is available for free online at YouTube.






Last Updated: August 22, 2012

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