Although there were relatively few attacks on North America during World War Two, the war was not an easy time for the United States. Even before it had begun, a large Nazi spy ring was found operating in the mainland; later when war was declared, hundreds of ships off the East Coast offered rich pickings for German U-boats; and, of course, there was Pearl Harbour. Despite America’s involvement in the European theatre, the Pacific was where its efforts were concentrated, and Japan represented by far the biggest threat to US sovereignty.
The unannounced strike on Pearl Harbour sent a deep shockwave through America and its people. The country was at war in earnest, and the “sneak attack” would receive due payback – with interest. Soon after the day President Franklin D Roosevelt proclaimed “a date which will live in infamy”, anti-Japanese paraphernalia and propaganda surfaced in the United States. Now, plunged into conflict, the notion of Japanese treachery was firmly planted in the minds of Americans – but that didn’t stop it being nurtured it further.
The massive run of propaganda posters the United States government printed and disseminated were about far more than just raising morale back home; they served both practical and psychological purposes. According to Wikipedia: “Anti-Japanese propaganda was used to dehumanize, antagonize, and create fear of the Japanese people and Japanese nation. It was commonplace in the United States and China during World War II. It was designed to help sell war bonds and was coupled with anti-Axis Powers propaganda.”
When it came down to it, the propaganda campaign was racist to the bone. Never before had so much xenophobic material been created directly by the US government, the capabilities of which were boosted hugely by the invention of offset printing, which allowed the production of pamphlets and colour posters by the thousand. Here some of the artwork presents the Japanese as mythic vampire-like monsters – often loose parodies of wartime leader Hideki Tojo – with grotesquely exaggerated features such elongated fangs.
The racial stereotyping also put forward other variations on this demonising theme. While bolstering a drive to feed the war machine, the images portrayed Japanese people as wickedness personified – a sinister, often knife-wielding menace to the American way of life. Many played on the emotions by representing the evil soldiers of the enemy as a threat to the women of America’s homeland, while practically all of the posters displayed generic caricatures with racial characteristics exaggerated to the point of fantasy and absurdity.
In fact, many of the posters overstated the racial identity of their subjects to such a degree that they sometimes looked more like a black caricatures, and many were barely recognisable as Japanese stereotypes let alone real people. Meanwhile, to add so-called humour, the Japanese were mocked through language imagining the broken English they spoke. And all this to encourage American citizens to work harder, avoid absenteeism and recycle scrap to support the war effort and help defeat the otherwise faceless enemy.
Under the guiding hand of the War Production Board, posters could be found pasted up in factories and workplaces across the country. Interestingly, there was also a noticeable change in the way Japanese people were represented as the war progressed. At the beginning, artists portrayed the Japanese as short-sighted, bucktoothed and childlike, but as hostilities progressed, soldiers and civilians became more evil and rat-like – inhuman, animal and utterly alien enemies, hell-bent on world domination.
Of course, it wasn’t only still visual propaganda that was created for domestic and military consumption. Music and cinema were if anything more effective means of communicating the anti-Japanese sentiment, and depicting the gross nationalist caricatures employed during the war. Feeding on the lack of knowledge Americans had about the Japanese people and culture, Hollywood and the National Wartime Music Committee were able to portray the Japanese as an outlandish and uncivilized American foe.
As the churned-out propaganda and growing hostile feeling rendered America’s exotic enemy sub-human, a faux-official document called the ‘Jap hunting license’ appeared that sanctioned the hunting of Japanese – even though that included over 250,000 Americans at that time. Then there was Executive Order 9066, which ostensibly authorised the exclusion of persons in the interests of national security but ultimately led to the detention of 110,000 Japanese nationals and Americans in ‘War Relocation Camps’.
The government-sponsored anti-Japanese propaganda of WWII was unique both for the sudden way in which it materialised and the official approval it was given. Anti-Japanese propaganda may not have been unprecedented in America – and tensions between the two countries that had been simmering through the 1930s – but with the war came a landmark in history: through extreme xenophobia, US citizens on the frontline and home front were persuaded that the Japanese were an evil that needed to be eliminated whatever the cost.