How the USA’s Racist World War Two Propaganda Campaign Depicted the Japanese as Subhuman

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It is a troubling fact of World War Two history that the USA regularly employed crude racial stereotypes in the service of ridiculing and demonising their Japanese opponents.

The unannounced strike on Pearl Harbour on December 7 1941 sent a deep shock-wave through America and its people. The country went to war in earnest, roused to avenge those lost in the sneak attack.

Soon after President Franklin D Roosevelt had proclaimed ‘a date which will live in infamy’, anti-Japanese paraphernalia and propaganda surfaced across the United States. A notion of Japanese treachery had been planted in the minds of Americans that was open for further careful exploitation and nurturing.

Subsequent anti-Japanese propaganda was used to dehumanise, antagonise, and create fear of the Japanese people and Japanese nation. The discovery of a large Nazi spy ring within the USA heightened paranoid fantasies of a treacherous Japanese population that was working with the enemy to undermine the US war effort.

The invention of off-set printing enabled the mass production of colour posters and pamphlets. The Japanese were depicted as wickedness personified, a total and dangerous opposite to the American way of life.

Below are several typical examples of anti Japanese propaganda.

1. Dr Seuss

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This is one of several propaganda posters produced by Theodor Seuss Geisel (Dr Seuss). Although Seuss often lampooned Nazi Germany in his work, it is his anti-Japanese pieces which stand out for their racist tone.

Seuss dutifully churned out propaganda throughout the war, but came afterwards to reevaluate his complicity in a hysteria-inducing machine that had ultimately seen thousands of Japanese-Americans interned without charge.

In an interesting twist he wrote one his most famous books, ‘Horton Hears A Who’, in part by way of apology to the Japanese. It was dedicated to a Japanese friend and the story itself  is a loose metaphor of American operations in Japan.

2. Guidelines – How To Spot A Jap!

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No this is not a parody. This is a genuine manual for differentiating the enemy Japanese from the friendly Chinese.

Among other give aways are that the Japanese are ‘more on the lemon-yellow side’  in skin colour, has ‘buck teeth’ and ‘shuffles rather than strides’ (one must ‘make your man walk!’).

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They also allegedly posses a gap between the first and second toes, a result of wearing the ‘geta’ sandals, and hiss when pronouncing the letter ‘s.’

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This approach was not confined to base propaganda. Respected media sources such as Life Magazine aided the frenzy. Life magazine,on December 22 1941, published an article titled ‘How To Tell Japs From The Chinese.’ It is excerpted below:

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3. Nobody Is Safe

Propaganda had other directly practical purposes. It was often designed to help sell war bonds, and in this capacity in particular played on exaggerated, crude racial stereotypes.

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A common feature of anti-Japanese propaganda was that it railed against complacency and wastefulness, sensing that Americans might underestimate their foe and needed to be made aware that slacking could cost them the war.

Its purpose was to change perceptions of the Japanese, not merely reinforce them. One needed to understand that they were a ubiquitous enemy that could exploit any weakness.

This type of propaganda was usually commissioned by a company with government backing. It emphasised that every single citizen had to be vigilant and productive.

The Tokio Kid” character shown below was created by artist Jack Campbell and sponsored by Douglas Aircraft Company as part of the company’’s campaign to reduce waste.

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Note the grotesque caricature and the broken speech in the caption. Both are telling. Over the course of the war the depiction of the Japanese evolved over time to a more murderous and threatening image.

At first they were characterised as child-like and simple, but as the war continued they developed fangs and goblin-like features.

Also, the broken English in the caption mocks the Japanese intellect.

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Propaganda often drew on loose and grossly affected parodies of the Japanese Prime Minister Hideki Tojo.

4. Nothing More Than Animals

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The notion that Japanese were sub-human complemented the impression that they would seize on any weakness and had to be exterminated. They weren’t open to negotiation or persuasion in a way that an American could understand.

It is true that the Japanese were a uniquely tenacious foe, and as the war went on and this was realised it bled into propaganda.

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As hostilities progressed, Japanese soldiers and civilians became more evil and rat-like – inhuman, animal and utterly alien enemies, hell-bent on world domination.

This resonates with the German characterisation of Jews as ‘rats’ and the Hutu word for Tutsis ‘inyenzi’, meaning cockroaches.

Both were used prior to and during genocide.jhr-16-3-pavlik3-l

Another common theme was that the Japanese were a rapacious threat to American women.

They were often pictured with knives – not guns – dripping with blood, terrorising a young woman.

The idea that they were qualitatively different to Americans, savages of a retrograde, alien civilisation, was explicit.

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5. Cartoons – Seeing The Funny Side

Much of the propaganda also had ‘humorous intent’. Disney Cartoons in particular propagated racial stereotypes, casting the US as a wry and cultured hero fighting against a verminous enemy. Observe  ‘Bugs Bunny Nips The Nips':

Also observe ‘Commando Donald Duck.’

Although these aren’t quite as directly derogatory as the posters, they nevertheless reinforced the same basic prejudices. To pick a particularly demonstrative quote: “One for you monkey-face, here ya are slant-eyes.”

Why does this matter?

On 19 February 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, making it illegal for Japanese-Americans to live in West-Coast US states, plus Arizona, unless interned in ‘relocation camps. ‘ No one was ever charged, and this is just one incident  in a long rap-sheet of morally dubious activity under the pretence of war – think Guantanamo.

In summary, the Allies were by no means opposed to playing on base, bigoted urges within their populations. One might ask whether racism de-humanised the Japanese, and whether any notion of racial inferiority factored into the decisions to annihilate Hiroshima and Nagasaki?

Both sides were capable of atrocities, but the fundamental question is: what would Japan have done with supreme power?  The careful and expensive reconstruction of Germany and Japan, versus a dystopian alternative that bears little thinking about.

If there is one proposition that could unite Western, democratic societies, it would be that World War Two was a just war. However, to ignore these less than distinguished records would be obtuse.

One can certainly saw that the US government made great efforts to exploit and excite a latent prejudice against the Japanese, to bring it into the open and use it to stimulate the war effort.

Alex Browne studied History at Kings College London and is an Assistant Editor at Made From History. He specializes in post-war history in the USA and Central America.

  • Collin Specht

    Sir, you’re such a liberal retard…WE WERE AT WAR!!! Yes, hate was encouraged on japanese….BC THEY KILLED CIVILIANS AND MILITARY PERSONEL AT PEARL HARBOR!!! Just like today we have resentment of the middle eastern people (referring to them as “goat fuckers” and “towel heads”) for killing those pn 9/11. You, yourself, would hate the person who killed a family member or friend if such event had happened. And if you dare say you would not hate that persom, you are too much of a fool to even be writing articles…or writing anything at that matter. I hope you drop this racist BS and get your head out of your ass….

    • JamesCarson

      That’s got to be the dumbest comment in history.

      • Collin Specht

        And this has to be the dumbest article in history. He’s more worried about upsetting the Japanese with racist propaganda then writing about how that same propaganda, however racist, helped us win the war (ie. encouraging the donations of rubber and scrap by showing an ugly Japanese man stealing tin cans and such for the JDF’s own uses). If it weren’t for the propaganda, we wouldn’t have gotten nearly the amount of need materials to make the war effort work. So as far as i’m concerned, he’s just another butt hurt bitch who cares more about others feelings then actual results and success. Try and even debate that. You’d be a fool if you did… -.-

        • JamesCarson

          Your comments are dumb and dumber. Not sure you’ve really read the article – seems like you’re just ranting your own points. The writer is merely highlighting the nature of the propaganda.

          Is it racist? Yes.
          Does it depict the Japanese as subhuman? Yes
          Does the article argue that such use of propaganda was necessary / unnecessary? No it actually doesn’t.

          So why you’re ranting like this and calling the writer a fool and a bitch is beyond me. You need to relax. Perhaps you’d like to write a counter article, highlighting (as you seem to be suggesting) why racial stereotyping is justifiable in the context of war? I’m sure you’d get some quite interesting responses from ‘liberal retards’.

          • Collin Specht

            Perhaps you don’t remember grade school and them teaching us to “read between the lines” in order to better understand an article’s point of view and the general understanding of the topic? Perhaps not. You may want to reread the article again…ya know, in case you missed the whole “stop being racist” ordeal. Which, in case you forget, the Japanese attackef three locations which were considered US soil: Guam, Alaska, and Hawaii. So if you think its ok to go back and call out a whole society as wrong for being racist againt the Japanese nationality, you may want to consider that maybe the US was hating on Japanese for the small little fact that THEY KILLED AMERICANS! So if you want to start your argument standpoint on saying i’m dumb, you may need to find another excuse to type away at some angry man on the internet callimg out stupid liberals for using the race card as a way of telling the rest of us we’re wrong.

          • JamesCarson

            There’s no helping you.

          • jmjoker

            FACT: The Japanese of World War II were subhuman- just google all the vicious and brutal things that they did to innocent men, women and children-30 million of them Most of it, its all true;
            I descended from the victims of their atrocities-I could tell you story after story about their crimes,
            and you would not believe me because they are so horrible, that its hard to imagine that people could do that to other people

            But they did and they did it on a huge monumental scale to tens of millions of innocent people- especially children and babies; they loved to ram grenades or bayonets up little girls vaginas; they enjoyed that

            The Japanese of World War II were not nice people, they were nothing like the Japanese of today

  • Jerry Bro

    The point is that the Americans were racist and had prejudice. The Japanese in America did not attack Pearl Harbour, the army did. American soldiers who were being real dick heads back then were fine, not because they killed Japanese, but because they used unauthorized government property. This shows that America values a bullet more than a humans life. So you, Collin Specht, are really dumb AND racist, just like the Americans were back then.

    • jmjoker

      The Americans of World War II saved the entire world from total annihilation-
      The Japanese soldiers were just a bunch of brutal subhuman sadistic monsters- If the Nazis and Japanese won, they would’ve enslaved and then exterminated all “non-Aryans” and non-Japanese

  • Jerry Bro

    sorry, meant to say “fined” not “fine”

  • oldgaffer

    Milton Caniff was a friend of mine and used his comic strip to reflect the feelings of most Americans during World War Two. He was a very fair man and I never knew him to utter a racist word or thought. It is grossly unfair to use today’s political correctness to judge our society of the 1940’s and Alex Browne has done a disservice with this article.

    • Melissa M

      Very well said.

      • oldgaffer

        Thank you Melissa.

  • jmjoker

    The Japanese soldiers of World War II WERE SUBHUMAN PIECES OF VERMIN DUNG;

    Japanese soldiers gang-raped 10 year old girls and then shoved bayonets and/or grenades up their vaginas and detonated them for fun… They slashed pregnant women open and ripped their fetuses out of their wombs-
    and they did that to over 30 million innocent people and butchered them all in equally sadistic and sick ways

    So are those who do that, are they really human?

  • Melissa M

    While much of the propaganda was indeed racist, the portrayal of the Japanese soldier as an octopus is not seeking to “alienize” them – instead, it’s referring to how the Japanese were reaching their “tentacles”, i.e. influence, throughout the Pacific and grabbing/conquering land. I would also say that the use of the rat image is not so much a dehumanization as a play on words. Remember the slang of the time period. “You dirty rat” was a popular saying. And the way Japan attacked Pearl Harbor after their ambassadors to America tried to pull the wool over our eyes was most definitely symbolic of the “dirty rat” comment.

    So I think you’re reaching a bit here with this narrative. Also, the Japanese culture was much, much different from the American culture and indeed, western civilization. The German enemy was more like us than the Japanese enemy. This was proven on the battlefield time and time again. And because we didn’t understand them, we demonized them, and they did the same thing to us with their propaganda.

    I encourage you to look at this time period not with a modern viewpoint, but try to understand the attitudes of the times.

  • Melissa M

    In addition, there is faulty logic in your statement: “One might ask whether racism de-humanised the Japanese, and whether any notion of racial inferiority factored into the decisions to annihilate Hiroshima and Nagasaki?”

    Racism had nothing to do with dropping the atomic bomb. Remember, America was facing an invasion of Japan, one that would have cost thousands of lives, both Allied and Japanese. Japan had lost the war, but they refused to surrender unconditionally. And after the first bomb was dropped, they STILL refused to surrender. Talk to WW2 veterans who fought in the Pacific. The vast majority will tell you that the bomb was necessary to stop the war.

    In addition, if we wanted to “annihilate” the Japanese people or treat them with inferiority, we never would have helped them rebuild their country, helped them write a constitution, and helped them on the path toward democracy.

    Please, please, stop looking at the events of the 1940s through your 2015 eyes. It does a disservice to everyone.

    • JamesCarson

      How do you know that it didn’t factor in? You can’t know for certain that subhuman propaganda didnt play a psychological role.

      The reasons to drop the bomb are amongst the most hotly debated topics in modern history. There are far more angles than to say it was to stop the war.

      The writer is making a suggestion of another view, not actually stating that as an opinion.

      • Melissa M

        James, I do not know the mindset of every single person involved in that decision, but I simply do not believe that the subhuman factor put about in the propaganda of the time played a role in the decision to drop the bomb. Truman didn’t want to resort to such a devastating weapon.

        I worry that this piece is pretty slanted toward one side and is not objective. That is the historian’s role: to be objective when looking at history. I encourage you and other contributors to be more objective in your articles.

      • Melissa M

        In addition, you can make a suggestion of another view – but does the writer have *any* historical evidence to back up his claim? This is what a historian does, doesn’t simply make a “suggestion” with nothing to prove his point.

  • Quattro44

    This would have been a good article if it did more than just talk about US racist cartoons. The Japanese also used racist caricatures of Americans Aussies, Chinese, etc. Did that factor in their large scale abuses of those respective people? The Japanese destroyed killed 250,000 Chinese in Nanking, routinely starved, beaten, and killed Allied POWs, and conducted horrific experiments on Chinese, Korean, and other Asian people in their infamous Unit 731. Yet, the author does not refer to this. Why? Why does the West continuously ignore the crimes of Japan? Crimes of aggression that killed 20,000,000 Chinese and hundreds of thousands of British, Australian, American, Korean, and Vietnamese? Why the obsession with American racist cartoons and not the racist policies of Japan?

    Yes, these cartoons are appalling. Yes, what FDR did to Japanese Americans is a grave injustice. But what Japan did was far worse. They instigated a war for empire. They killed, enslaved, and brutalized a vast and diverse group of people. But all Mr. Browne seems to be concerned about is racist American propaganda. We should never, ever forgot that it was the Japanese who started the war, who were the first to use WMD(dropped bombs filled with bubonic plague on the Chinese), and who thought themselves superior to their enemies. Oh and one mustn’t forget that the Japanese sought to acquire radioactive material to create a dirty bomb. (U-234 was the German submarine loaded with the material)

    By the way the Allies in both WWI and WWII employed similar propaganda for the Germans. Do recall the famous piece of propaganda below.Racist and hateful propaganda predates WWII.

    I also wonder why the author did not ponder the effects of racist propaganda on the strategic bombing campaign of Germany. Between 350 and 500,000 Germans died in the bombings of Germany. Yet, I see few articles decrying the Germans plight. Somehow the Japanese merit sympathy whereas the Germans do not.

    Someday we’ll learn how to justly treat this conflict. Unfortunately as this article so painfully typifies we have a long ways to do.

  • DukeofMarlborough

    The author of this piece is apparently unaware that the Japanese heads racist conceptions of not just Americans and British, but Asians as well. This lead to the Japanese using POWS and civilians from all across Asia as test subjects for a medical experimentation and weapons development unit called Unit 731.

    This author blithely ignores the racist and barbaric crimes of Japan whilst focusing solely on American propaganda. His attempt at connecting these racist caricatures to Nazi propaganda is particularly offensive. The Jews were at the center of the Nazis racist worldview. The racism directed towards the Japanese, while repulsive, is not what drove the US to drop the bombs(which were in fact developed with the intention to use on Nazi Germany) or impacted how the US fought the war.

    The Pacific War was an exceedingly brutal conflict that was fought on Japan’s terms.Terms that included suicide bombers, telling civilians that US troops would rape them thus causing a great many to kill themselves(see: Okinawa), mass rape and murder, death marches, use of biological weapons, etc, etc. Japan had established a pattern of barbaric behavior even before December 7th, 1941. The Rape of Nanking in December of 1937 being the standout example.

    People have largely forgotten the many crimes of the Japanese. Well, except for the Chinese, who lost some 20 million people in the Sino-Japanese War. Alex Browne would do well to remember the victims of Imperial Japanese aggression.