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.