U.S. Treasury Department, 1945
Prepared for the 7th War Loan, 1945.
Ken Smith sez: This World War II film operates on a number of very strange conceptual levels. A caucasian actor -- made to look Japanese -- sits behind a desk and tells us that Americans have many misconceptions about the Japanese people (for example, that a Japanese actor would willingly play this role). "We don't have big teeth and thick glasses," he hisses through his taped-back cheeks. He then proceeds to show us what Japan and the Japanese are REALLY like.
"You think you can defeat us by wiping out a few, inexpensive lives," he snickers. "We are not like you!" As we are shown what the narrator claims is captured Japanese war footage, we are told that that the Japanese people are brutally "realistic," and willing to sacrifice everything for their ultimate goal -- "to win the war."
The narrator mocks Americans as being too soft -- a nation of dreamers. "We think you're stupid!" he snorts. "You can destroy Japan's cities with your bombs, but you cannot destroy its heart!"
Were the producers of this film trying to create an American version of Japanese propaganda? Or were they told to create something that would justify (at least in the public's mind) America's anticipated bloody invasion of Japan? Whatever its makers' intentions, My Japan stands as a unique -- and decidedly racist -- film.
My Japan, one of the most unusual documentary films ever made, dares to question America's invincibility. But I wonder whether in fact it's the unheralded first film of the atomic age. Is it too far out to imagine that its real purpose was to desensitize Americans to the horrors of the A-bomb? By citing American weaknesses and vulnerabilities and seeming to praise Japanese patriotism, strength and resolve, it challenges Americans to support a strategy of total war. Its stealthy assertion: that the Japanese military machine will not be broken without an unprecedented effort. It supports this assertion by presenting highly charged and emotional images with an bogus "insider" narration that is at once deceptive and inflammatory.
My Japan is constructed largely from newsreel film, combat photography and captured Japanese images. To most of us today, it all looks pretty much like old black-and-white stock footage. What we don't remember is the power that many of its images used to carry in the public mind. During World War II, images of the Japanese siege of Nanking, China were often used to inflame anti-Japanese passions. Shots of the attack on Pearl Harbor fulfilled the same function; at the war's outset they were embargoed by American authorities, who feared the consequences of showing images of an America caught unawares and defeated. When it later became possible to recontextualize Pearl Harbor as a focus of anger and popular vengeance, the shots were seen over and over again. Unlike many other World War II propaganda films, My Japan shows actual atrocities -- executions, beheaded heads and bodies, the stumps of severed limbs. The mobilization of all of these inflammatory images, and more, supports the idea that this film advocates total war against Japan.
"So...you are the enemy...". How many films begin so provocatively? War creates, and then is sustained by, two levels of enemies. One, the actual military opponent on the battlefield, constructs itself. The other level of enemy, the dehumanized "Other," is a creation of our own minds, often aided by propaganda. Constructing an enemy is a sophisticated effort that employs crude tactics: ignorance, oversimplification, and simplistic appeals to patriotism. And patriotism itself often draws strength from the existence of a constructed enemy. Wartime media show the pervasiveness of this process; the evidence is on this disc in the Archives section under "Constructing an Enemy." Advertisements similar to those shown in that supplement were deemed too sensitive to include in Life magazine's recent reprints of some 1945 issues. A review of Gulf War news coverage will show, however, that this process is still in fashion.
It's understandable, whether or not justifiable, that warring nations divide the world into allies and enemies. But the "enemy" as pictured in My Japan is more than simply an opposing army. "You cannot destroy Japan," says the narrator in his ersatz accent, "because you cannot destroy the Japanese people." And the Japanese people are, in the film's twisted way, pictured as an inhuman race, without compassion, and described as tireless, fanatical workers who lack the desire and capacity for leisure and enjoyment. "They work longer hours than you do, twice as long, quite often. Why not? They're not working for the clock. They're working to win the war." But these characterizations of an enemy are not based on any kind of reality. Rather, they are created in relation to some supposed American weaknesses: "How we suffer when you do not have a full tank of gasoline. How devastated we are at the sight of you jammed into pleasure trains. How we tremble when you have to wait to get into the movies, restaurants and nightclubs....You are a nation of bargain-hunters." Our anger at finding ourselves too materialistic and selfish is invoked so that it can be turned against the enemy of the moment.
My Japan adopts the pretense that the "Japanese" narrator is confiding in us, telling us secrets, exposing the true nature of his society. "Captured Japanese film" is invoked, furthering the "insider" feeling. It pretends to be a critique of popular consciousness, to deconstruct a myth. "How sad to disillusion you...and how easy, easy because you do not know the Japanese, you only think you do, and you're wrong."
"We are Japan -- a mountain, a spiderweb, a flame that feeds on hate of you." My Japan charges the Japanese with atrocious conduct, but is itself charged with viciousness and brutality, both in the images it presents and in the way it's edited. Its producers (whose identities are unknown) were skilled polemicists, geniuses who, in their own way, were as evilly minded as the killers represented in the footage.
Ultimately, My Japan sets the stage for total war. It implies that nothing less will be sufficient to defeat an enemy like Japan. And this is the argument that was invoked to support the decision to drop the atomic bomb; an argument that resurfaced in summer 1995 around an exhibit at the Smithsonian Institution recalling the bomber Enola Gay. We cannot know whether My Japan's producers were privy to the secrets of the Manhattan Project, but we can assert that propagandists bear as much responsibility as generals.
[The War Finance Division of the U.S. Treasury Department presents:]
[The Japanese viewpoint . . . Japanese doctrine . . . with captured Japanese film. This is the way the enemy looks at the war . . . thinks it . . . fights it . . . to him, this is - ]
[My Japan. bonsai gong gongs Orientalism main titles graphic design typography mythology racism makeup racial stereotypes Caucasians Asian Americans accents flowers]
"So, you are the enemy. Ha ha.
Oh, I am not supposed to laugh. You've heard that the Japanese do not show their feelings. Nor do I have big teeth and thick glasses. How sad to disillusion you and how easy. Easy because you do not know the Japanese. You only think you do and you're wrong. Let me show you how wrong you are.
This is Japan. My Japan. It is lovely. [aerials aerial scenes farms terraces fields agriculture scenics peasants rice paddies oxen animals hats umbrellas water windmills raking boats paddling rowing]
Here breezes soft and fragrant whisper the story of the moon goddess to feathery little pine trees. Here dainty bridges hover over tiny streams like hummingbirds over flowers. [temples shrines gardens]
Here sacred fish ripple pools of water, cold and clear as winter sunshine. [carp goldfish women traditional costumes traditional dress geishas smiling gender roles kimonos feeding fish]
Here, too, stands Fujiyama - a holy mountain reaching down to the boiling center of the Earth and soaring up to touch the stars commanding us to fulfill our certain destiny to rule." [Mount Fujiyama volcanoes women hairdos waves sea oceans snow wind ridges bubbles geothermal energy heat waves beaches ocean Manifest Destiny]
Banzai. Banzai. Banzai." [American flags desecration Stars and Stripes flags inflammatory images Japanese flags cheering Japanese soldiers Imperial Japanese Army]
"Yes, my Japan is lovely is it not? This, too, is my Japan. The frame around the picture - the hard backbone of the graceful bamboo tree. [boats water lilies cherry blossoms cities streets lanes signs stores lanterns bridges cities buildings]
Flimsy buildings made of paper and wood. One vast torch waiting to burn at the drop of an incendiary bomb? Look again. Neither fire nor earthquake can level our cities. You're finding that out, are you not? [railroads trains glass windows modernism modern architecture]
Nor do your bombings particularly impress us. London was bombed. Did England die? Tokyo, Osaka, Yokohama - drop your bombs. You cannot destroy Japan by turning cities into blackened rubble, by wiping out a few inexpensive lives. You're finding that out, too, are you not? [aerials bombardment rubble damage explosions war fires bombers airplanes wreckage]
You cannot destroy Japan because you cannot destroy its heart - the Japanese people. [Constructivism avant-garde photography bridges railroads trolleys trolley cars streetcars cities wipes masses crowds soldiers women children peasants farmers]
You say you can and the methods you propose amuse us. You say you can destroy us by starving us out. You forget that we are not like you. We have no soft bellies crying for beefsteaks and butter and candy. We live well on simple food, easy to get. Starve us? It is easier to starve a fish in the ocean. [rice paddies Great Buddha Buddhism Kamakura Shrines ships harbors shipping agriculture fields food production plowing oxen]
You say you can destroy us by making sacrifices. How we suffer when you do not have a full tank of gasoline. How devastated we are at the sight of you jammed into pleasure trains. How we tremble when you have to wait to get into movies, restaurants, nightclubs. Sacrifices? What a delightful and foolish sense of humor you have. [irony Americana consumerism materialism money spoiled department stores clothing models mannikins shopping spending waste wasting profligacy Reno, Nevada main streets Jockeys Ball banners automobiles wealth richness affluence parking lots abundance Pennsylvania Station, New York City railroads travelers leisure recreation theaters bars taverns drinks alcohol bartenders gambling wheel of fortune wheels of fortune games of chance shaking cocktails martinis]
Or do you really take yourself seriously? We don't. We think you're stupid - an admirable quality for an enemy to have. [Miami Beach, Florida beaches vacations lounging]
You say you can destroy us by outworking us. Ha ha. You must forgive me. This is one of the most amusing ideas of all. [logging factories industry smokestacks chemical industry tanks pipes smoke molten steel industry pigs girders rolling mills ladles sparks pouring]
You have not met our workers, have you? Meet them now and see why I laugh. [Made in Japan automobile industry cars manufacturing exports assembly lines women workers war mobilization war effort]
They work longer hours than you do - twice as long quite often. Why not? They're not working by the clock. They're working to win the war. [welding sparks goggles tanks]
They do not make as much money as you do. Well, they are not working to make money, they are working to win war. They work every day of every week. Is this so strange? They are not working to get days off, they are working to win the war. [soldiers artillery manufacturing industry workers agriculture farmers bombs armaments arms industry]
And they stand for hours in long lines to buy these. Japanese war bonds. Turn them in later? Again, you show your stupidity by assuming that we are like you. We hold our bonds to win the war. [patriotism]
You say you can destroy us by outfighting us. You cannot. You cannot outfight us because the path ahead of you lies straight up the steep and rocky mountain of Japan and it is slippery with blood - your blood. [statues sculpture public art war memorials smoke relief maps Japan geography waves seas seacoasts coastlines]
You are a nation of bargain hunters. You will not be willing to pay the full price of victory: in pain, in work, in money, in lives. [war deaths casualties injuries]
Guadalcanal, Tarawa, Saipan, Iwo Jima - you boast of them as major victories; to you they are. To us they are minor defeats - the loss of island outposts. [shelling bullets audio explosions invasions charges beachheads Pacific War combat fighting]
You Americans are fond of saying 'look at the score.' Very well, look at it. You sent your finest troops against these outposts. They died by the thousands. Here they are massacred, slaughtered. [fires flamethrowers combat danger tanks shooting killing rifles death flames]
But you took the islands, you say. Yes, we expected you to. That is why we garrisoned them with second-rate troops. The best of your lives for the worst of ours. We, too, know a thing or two about bargains. [surrendering surrenders prisoners of war prisoners-of-war POWs]
You have not yet faced the best of our armies. You have faced only ten percent of our worst. Our first-line fighters, millions of them, wait for you on battlegrounds of our own choosing - wait across vast waters which thin out your supply lines and weaken your fighting strength before you even reach us. [military parades soldiers reviewing troops troops on review commanders generals officers marching rifles bayonets uniforms]
They wait in my Japan, in China, in Burma. In all the other half of the world - our half. And they laugh at you because you are so wrong about them. [animation globes rising sun sentries]
They have reached full strength, you say. There are no more replacements. Listen well. More men, many more, enter our armies every day, month in and month out, than we lose in casualties. [basic training cadets youth teenagers soldiers students military training]
They are ignorant little savages you say. Ignorant? Ninety percent of our armies can read and write. Can you say the same for your own? [ship models teachers classes students studying pointers blackboards chalkboards literacy]
Little? Whole divisions of our first-line fighters, our real army, are big men - the kind you describe as six-footers. Savages? No, merely realists, who face facts. [soldiers marching parades flags]
It is a fact that the strong rule the weak, so we rule the weak. It is a fact that the strong remain strong only if they exercise their strength. So we exercise our strength. [bombing Japanese war atrocities Shanghai, China Chinese people victims displaced persons bombing refugees exercises rhythmic mass exercises physical conditioning flags children shootings executions prisoners capital punishment killing]
It is a fact that the lower the birth rate among the weak, the less potential danger for us in the future. So we control the birthrate. It is a fact that prisoners taken become a liability, after they are drained dry of useful information. So we either transform the liability into an asset - labor for our rice fields and factories - or we write off the liability completely. [children dead babies dead bodies Japanese war atrocities prisoners of war POWs slave labor dead bodies corpses cadavers inflammatory images severed heads decapitation]
For further details you might speak to those of you who were so long our guests in the Philippines - those who still live. [prisoners of war POWs death march of Bataan amputation amputees stumps severed limbs]
It is a fact that human lives are cheap. Unlike you, we have no cowardly illusions about their value, so we spend lives freely - yours and ours. Freely did I say? I am too modest - lavishly is more accurate. [cynicism wounded casualties stretchers surgery surgeons operating rooms hospitals wounds artillery cannons corpses dead bodies killing death]
I refer you to what my Japan told you early in the war. We are prepared to spend ten million lives to defeat you. How many are you willing to spend?
Think well before you answer, and remember what you paid to dig a few thousand of us out of caves on Iwo Jima - only a few thousand. And there are seventy million of us left waiting for you - seventy million who have planned for decades to destroy you, who await eagerly and passionately the sacred honor of dying to halt you, who will stop at nothing, nothing to crush you. Seventy million people, if you will, to be dug out of caves. [animation rally rallies waving fanaticism flags nationalism combat islands maps Japan geopolitics casualties warnings total war wipes patriotism]
Japanese caves? You give no one but yourselves credit for the ability to hold aces up the sleeves, do you? There are caves in China - a China so near to us; a China we control. [waves coastlines oceans water seas seacoasts]
Should you edge uncomfortably close to our home island, it would be simple to move across the narrow sea of Japan, would it not? A move of only a hundred-odd miles. [maps geography Manchuria China]
Already we have much of our industry there. And then, imagine, if you have the nerve, what it would be to dig seventy million of us out of buildings, gullies, caves, mountains in a country as large as your own. [marching troops]
Imagine even trying to pursue us into such a vast spider web. You have seen a fly trapped and attacked by the spider. Come close and you will die in the same way - bled white. [tanks]
No, we have not even begun to hurt you, nor you us. Our war has not even started. We know this because we know the heart of Japan. You do not.
We are not Germany - a walnut easily eaten once the shell is cracked. We are Japan. A mountain, a spider web, a flame that feeds on hate of you. Let the game begin. We gamble only once for all time and the stakes are all or nothing. [animation spider web Satan soldiers salutes saluting tentacles globes tendrils Pearl Harbor inflammatory images burning ships destruction bombardiers bombing bombs bombers]
Perhaps I disturb you with my harsh picture of what lies ahead. So feast instead on this, the beauty of my Japan. [Mount Fujiyama mountains scenics]
It is more to your taste for a world of make-believe rather than one of realities. No, I must not disturb you. I must not awaken you. Your dreaming is pleasant and useful to us. For you dream of victory rather than work for it. You talk total war rather than fight one. You smugly expect peace at bargain rates instead of on our terms. [scenics beauty shots lakes rivers water trees nature bridges temples shrines women geishas]
By all means come to my Japan if you dare. And welcome, it is beautiful here, as beautiful as the sight of your blood on our bayonets. [water reflections smiling soldiers menace jeopardy danger Japanese characters]
[Remember - what you have just seen and heard is what the Japanese believe . . . .]
[Buy war bonds. The mighty seventh 7th war loan.]
[Produced for the War Finance Division, U.S. Treasury Department. The End.]