10 Anti-Japanese Propaganda Films From WWII Filled With Racist Messages

10 Anti-Japanese Propaganda Films From WWII Filled With Racist Messages

By Shannon Quinn

Anti-Japanese propaganda poster. Wikimedia Commons

Before the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, most people in the United States did not know very much about Japan or their culture. This left people open for suggestion on what they should believe through government-funded propaganda. While posters were hung all over the place, the most effective way a government can spread propaganda is by making movie. These Anti-Japanese films contributed to a widespread suspicion of Japanese-American people, even if they were born in the United States. The “Jap” stereotype lead to irreparable damage in the lives of Japanese people both in the United States and their homeland.

The Mask of Nippon

Filmed in 1942, The National Film Board of Canada produced The Mask of Nippon to educate Canadian citizens, but the movie was also seen in the United States. The film blames Japan’s religious beliefs on the cause of conflict, calling it a “holy war” fought by radical zealots. The reality was that Japanese people did not actually believed in gods and goddesses since way back in feudal times. For the most part, people were Atheist, and that is still true to this day. If there were any people who truly did believe that their Emperor was a god, they were a minority. However, people were forced to accept the emperor’s orders as if they were “divine”, and it was mandatory to practice the traditional Shinto religion by visiting temples on holidays. Despite what The Mask of Nippon leads audiences to believe, Japanese citizens did not actually think that their emperor was a supernatural being. They knew that he was a flesh and blood human, but they were simply following a tradition that was passed down for generations, and respected his orders, because he was their leader. Even to this day, Japanese people tend not to rock the boat or try to step out of line from what it seen as acceptable in society.

In the film, there is a reenacting of a samurai warrior battle. It claims that samurai had to strip themselves of all human emotion, and focus on killing. It waters down Japanese people as brainwashed emotionless robots that wear a “mask” to hide all expression. They also claim that the modern era created an obsession with technological “tin gods”, but that the feudal gods still had a stronghold on the people. The narrator of the film, Lorne Greene, says, “The soldiers of the rising sun are little men. Two-faced, with a modern and progressive surface thinly hiding their savage and barbaric double character.” The end of the movie shows the rays of the “rising sun”, claiming that they pinpoint countries on a map, as if the Japanese wanted to take over the world, in the name of their Emperor-God.

When the war was over, and the United States occupied Japan in 1945, General MacArthur took away Shintoism as the national religion, and forced Japanese people to denounced the emperor as a god. This misconception was still so ingrained in western minds that the emperor made a statement in 1946 that the US removing the “divinity” status essentially did not change anything, since he never actually wanted people to believe he was a god in the first place, and that they had no intentions of taking over the world.

Superman: “Japoteurs”

This episode of the 1942 Superman cartoon called “Japoteurs” has far more to unpack than just a racist portrayal of a Japanese villain. It shows how the citizens of Metropolis are building a new airplane that is so massive, it is taller than a skyscraper. It essentially acts as a flying aircraft carrier to deploy bomber planes. This type of aircraft would be so heavy, there is no way it could fly in reality. While this may seem like a ridiculous undertaking that finds itself at home in a cartoon universe, the hilarious reality is that the US really did attempted to build a $4 million flying aircraft carrier, the USS Macon, in 1935. However, as one might imagine, it completely failed, and the airship now lays in the bottom of the Pacific Ocean.

In the cartoon, a Japanese-American man and two other saboteurs loyal to their home country hijack this new mega-plane, and try to fly it all the way to Tokyo so Japan could have the technology for themselves. Superman saves the day, and returns the aircraft carrier back to the Americans. Obviously, this cartoon was meant to make Japanese-American immigrants look like a potential threat hiding around every corner. Considering that young children would be watching this movie, it would make them suddenly suspicious or afraid every time they saw an Asian-American person.

The messages of this cartoon were not only aimed at teaching racism to young American kids. It also over-exaggerate the power of American military technology. It was common for cartoons like Superman to air in foreign countries. They might think that the new bomber planes were just as large and powerful. Like all other anti-Japanese propaganda, the aim was to make Americans afraid that immigrants would commit crimes or listen to military secrets that they could leak back to Japan.

Our Enemy: The Japanese

This video was made by the United States Navy in 1943. The narrator is a so-called “Japan expert”. He claims that the Japanese are the polar opposite of Americans, and he has never seen any culture so unlike the United States. He claims that the Japanese way of life is “illogical”, because they use modern technology, and yet they still hold on to their ancient culture identity with kimonos, traditional artwork, dances, etc. Perhaps one of the most insulting things said in this movie is, “They have never been an inventive or creative people, and have always depended on the knowledge of the western world.”

At that time, there was a prevailing stereotype that Japan could not design their own military technology without somehow copying weapons that were developed in the western world first.

In 2013, world-acclaimed Japanese filmmaker Hayao Miyazaki premiered his movie The Wind Rises, which tells the true story of Jiro Horikoshi, the man who designed the Mitsubishi A6M Zero, which was Japan’s military aircraft during World War II. These were the planes that were used to bomb Pearl Harbor, and would later be used in battles against the Allies.

The Wind Rises is based on Horikoshi’s autobiography, Eagles of Mitsubishi: The Story of the Zero Fighter. Jiro’s brilliant creativity as a designer and engineer were handicapped by budget cuts in wartime Japan. Even the Germans, who were allies with the Japanese, did not want to share their information on their aircraft’s technology, despite the fact that they were supposed to be working together. Just like the Americans, they accused Japan of stealing all of the good western ideas, even though they live on an island that it isolated from outside influences.

Horikoshi was a brilliant designer in his own right, without copying the designs of western planes. He spent his entire life cultivating his passion to making beautiful airplanes, only to grow up into an adult whose creations were used as weapons of war. Today, Japan has proven that they are not copying the west, and they have quickly become a leader in developing new technology.

A Few Quick Facts: Japan

This racist anti-Japanese cartoon has a character who brags about the fact that Japan captured more territory that spread across a larger distance than Adolf Hitler was able to achieve. He gets excited, saying that he is ready to take over the entire world, when a cartoon bomb drops on him. Brushing it off as if it was nothing, the man gets up again, and still declares once more that he wants the whole world.

The cartoon cuts to a new character, called Sato-san, who is supposed to represent the average Japanese civilian. They explain that Sato will do anything he is told to do, including committing suicide. He does not think for himself, and only has “government approved thoughts”. Anyone who even thinks of disobeying the emperor is taken away by the Kempeitai secret police. The end of the cartoon reminds the audience that the United States helped Japan after the great earthquake of 1923, claiming that America did nothing that could have possibly angered Japan .   

However, this movie fail to address is the fact that President Franklin D. Roosevelt placed a trade embargo on Japan, which cut off their oil supply. At the time, Japan had actually planned on focusing their military efforts on The Soviet Union and their territories in China, rather than The United States. They did not have enough manpower and resources to even think about taking over the world, as this movie claims.

Before the attack on Pearl Harbor, the emperor distributed a document to the Japanese people called “Shinmin no Michi”, or “The Way of the Subject” reminded everyone that he was their divine leader, and that no one was allowed to question his decisions. This movie also fails to point out that the Emperor was not running a monarchy. At the time, General Hideki Tôjô was the Prime Minister of Japan, and they had a parliament and branches of government.

New Zealand is Ready

After the attack on Pearl Harbor, it was a wakeup call to many countries in the Allied Forces that Japan could possibly try to attack them as well, and that they were not going to stop with conquering territory in Asian countries. Since New Zealand is closer to Japan than the United States, they began preparing for the possibility to defend themselves from Japanese attack as well. The film New Zealand is Ready shows all of the weapons that are fully stocked in the country, and declares that they are ready and willing to fight at a moment’s notice.

Perhaps the makers of this film, The National Film Unit, wanted to do two things with this movie. First, it helped calm the fears of New Zealand’s citizens about the possibility of Japanese attack. Second, it got the message out there that their country is not one the Japanese would want to mess with. It explains that while they may not have been as prepared for the possibility of war as the United States, that doesn’t make them an easy target. They can take care of themselves, despite the fact that their country is an island.

In reality, attempting to conquer New Zealand and Australia were low on Japan’s list of priorities. Post-war records showed that Japan’s resources were spread very thin between China and their other occupied territories. After beginning their conflict with the United States, they simply did not have enough manpower to do much else, unless they continued to win all of their battles. New Zealanders participated in fighting with the Allied Forces during the war, and were deployed all over the Pacific, but they never had to battle on their own soil. The Solomon Islands was the closest location to New Zealand where a battle took place during World War II.

Japanese Behavior

Made by the Office of Strategic Services, the movie Japanese Behavior doesn’t try to lie or demonize Japanese people in the same way that propaganda films show to the public. It is straightforward, because it is meant to educate American spies who needed to know the truth about Japan’s culture, rather than propaganda. However, the way Japanese culture is explained by the narrator in this film is still filled with racist jokes that seem to belittle their way of life and make American life seem so much better by comparison, as if giving a wink and a nudge to the spies who would be watching the movie.

When Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, the United States government was completely unprepared to handle learning about this new enemy. There were only 8 people in the American State Department who could be considered “experts” on Japanese culture. Since so little was known about Japan in the general popular, this small group of people were looked to for answers in trying to understand what was going on in the small island nation. Only 5 of those “experts” had actually traveled to Japan before, and it was for short a diplomatic trip. None of these so-called experts could speak or read Japanese, and they ever spent any extended amount of time living in the country. They had the same level of education that a tourist might get from a tour guide on vacation.

Only one person- a man named Professor George Hubbard Blakeslee- had actual experience working with Japan’s Department of Foreign Relations. So the responsibility of helping the American government understand Japanese culture fell into the hands of just one man. This small group of arguably inexperienced people shared their limited amount of knowledge, which was riddled with misconceptions, incorrect information, and their personal bias.

Tokyo Woes

The “Tokyo Woes” cartoon was a war bond commercial that parodied the radio broadcasts that played in Japan during World War II. It depicts “Tokyo Rose”, the hostess of the show, as being anti-American. The Japanese characters all have huge teeth, and it mocks them with racial stereotypes. A character named Mr. Hook, a member of the US Navy, sends bombs to Tokyo Rose after she says, “What good will war bonds do?” In the end, the war is over. He gets rewarded for his efforts as a soldier by getting a brand new car, a new suit, and an absurdly hot girlfriend who is willing to go to Lover’s Lane with him immediately.

In reality, the story of Tokyo Rose is more complex than this cartoon lets on. Iva Toguri d’Aquino was a radio host in Japan who called herself “Orphan Ann”, but she was nicknamed “Tokyo Rose” by her listeners. Iva was born in the United States to Japanese immigrants. She studied Zoology at UCLA, and was very much an American girl. In a video interview, she explains in her own words  that she was visiting a sick aunt in Japan when World War II broke out, so she decided to stay, since she knew that Japanese citizens weren’t exactly welcome in California. She was looking for a job in Tokyo, so she ended up working on the radio broadcast, speaking in English. In the beginning of the interview, we see the setup of their broadcast, with a typical joke she would say to American GI’s on the radio; “We know you still hate us, but…”

Iva’s show included comedy, skits, commentary, news, and music. The opinions about her broadcasts vary, depending on who you ask. Some veterans remember the Orphan Ann broadcasts as being funny and cheerful, and it helped to boost their mood. Others remember nasty comments, like “Are you boys wondering who your wives and girlfriends are with tonight?”

However, since the broadcasts were live, the words Iva said only exist in the memories of people who heard them. Also, Iva, or “Orphan Ann”, was often confused with or lumped together with other female radio hosts in Japan who could speak English. The name “Tokyo Rose” was given to the collective group of women they heard on the radio.

When the war was over, Iva was blamed for the words of the entire collective of the English-speaking “Tokyo Rose” women. Cartoons like “Tokyo Woes” only fueled the American’s need to punish someone for the cruel words they heard on the radio while they were overseas. Iva was considered to be a traitor to her country, and she was sent to prison. A committee fought for her to be set free, and after six years of serving time in jail, they convinced a judge that Iva essentially took on the punishment of multiple women’s words, and not just her own.

My Japan

This movie was created by the US Finance Department. It claims that the movie was made entirely with “captured Japanese film”, and yet the first clip is our narrator- a white man in yellow-face, pretending to be Japanese. He laughs, and immediately says, “Oh, I am not supposed to laugh. You heard that the Japanese are not supposed to show their feelings.”

Throughout the film, the narrator taunts Americans, saying that tactics like trying to starve out Japan is like “trying to starve fish in the ocean”. Overall, the statement is that Japanese people are already accustomed to living simple, primitive lives, compared to Americans, so any attempts to win the war that they have made thus far were basically useless. The narrator calls Americans “soft” and “stupid”.

This film was a very long war bond commercial, trying to incite anger in Americans so that they would give more of their money towards the war effort. The darkest part of this movie is that it was trying to justify the use of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The underlying claim of this movie was that without the use of nuclear force, America would not have been able to use any other war tactics to defeat Japan. It is no coincidence that the government made this film in 1945, which was the same year the atomic bombs were dropped.

Demonizing and dehumanizing Japanese people was the only way the U.S. Government could brainwash Americans into not feeling any guilt about the fact that they dropped a nuclear bomb on a small nation, killing innocent women and children and giving life-ruining deformities to so many more. Movies like My Japan were necessary to make Americans hate them so much, they did not have to dwell on the fact that they committed such an awful and inhumane attack. After studying the effects of nuclear fall out, cancer, and the spread of radiation in Japan, the world has made more of an effort to avoid nuclear warfare as a means of ending conflict.

Intelligence and the Japanese Civilian

This film was made by the US Navy in 1945, after years of battling with Japan.  It explains how the military dealt with the civilian population of Japan during invasion. The narrator makes the United States seem to be reasonable and humanitarian, as they gather up innocent people and take them to internment camps, providing food and doctors to tend to the injuries that they inflicted. The video calls these Japanese civilians a “burden” that needed to be dealt with, so they could get on with their war.

At one point in the film, there is footage of Japanese people committing suicide by jumping off a cliff. One after the other, people are jumping in a large group. We see bodies lying on the beach of all the people who chose to die rather than get captured by the Americans. This clearly show that Anti-American propaganda was just as effective in Japan, if they truly feared for their lives to the point where they would rather die. Instead of recognizing this, the narrators does not show any sympathy or emotion, and speaks as if he was talking about insects.

Unfortunately, Japan still has a high level of suicide to this day, and the Western idea that showing a dead Japanese person on film is somehow less upsetting than showing a dead white person says a lot about how much they value their lives. Even in 2017, when YouTuber Logan Paul showed the body of a dead Japanese person who had committed suicide on film, it took a very long time for YouTube to respond and demonetize his channel, when it would have arguably been a much swifter response if he had shown the death of a white person.

The conclusion to the Intelligence and the Japanese Civilian movie is that civilians are worth saving, only because you can get some of them to talk and give up valuable information or steal documentation from record-keeping in their towns. While this video did not demonize the personalities of Japanese people, and it emphasized keeping prisoners of war safe, it still belittles the value of their lives.

Our Job in Japan

Before he wrote children’s stories, Dr. Seuss spent a large portion of his career writing political commentary and drawing cartoons about World War II. One of his most popular series of political cartoons was called Private Snafu, which once featured Hitler as the actual devil. The film Our Job in Japan was released shortly after the end of World War II, and the entire script was written by Dr. Seuss. He explains that the Japanese people’s culture was stuck somewhere between ancient and modern ideas, which made them easier for the Axis Powers to manipulate. Rather than demonizing the Japanese people, Dr. Seuss says that they are humans, just like us. He even shows horrific images of Hiroshima, mentioning that it was one of the most shameful events in history.

He includes a rather tongue-in-cheek statement that everything was Japan’s fault, and frames it as if they needed to be shown the “American Way” of freedom of religion, speech, and ‘the golden rule’- treat others the way you would want to be treated. This was obviously a nudge at the Americans, who clearly would not want to have nuclear bomb dropped on two major cities in order to end a war.

Even with sympathy shown to the Japanese people in Our Job in Japan, there is still a very clear ethnocentric value to the message, saying that the American way is the “best” way. There is even a moment when Dr. Seuss says that Americans treat everyone fairly and equally, and yet they show a clip of segregated black and hispanic men standing in separate food lines in the cafeteria from their white fellow soldiers. Later on, Dr. Seuss and his wife would create a film called Japan: Design for Death, which helped him win an academy award for best feature-length documentary film.

Where do we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

Divinity of the Emperor. BBC. September 7, 2009.

MacArthur Orders End of Shinto as Japanese State Religion. History.com.

New Photos Reveal 1935 Airship at Bottom of Pacific Ocean. Live Science Staff. September 27, 2006

Eagles of Mitsubishi: The Story of the Zero Fighter. Jiro Horikoshi. June 1, 1992.

Japan’s Quest for Power and WII in Asia. Columbia University.

New Zealand as it Might Have Been. Stephen Levine. Victoria University Press. 2006.

‘Changing fortunes’. New Zealand Government. Ministry for Culture and Heritage. May 17, 2017

“What Future for Japan?”: U.S. Wartime Planning for the Postwar Era, 1942-1945. Rudolf V. A. Janssens. Radopi. 1995.

The Nations: By Any Other Name. Time. February 16, 1976.

How Tokyo Rose Was Convicted of Treason- And Then Pardoned. Jennifer Latson. Time. January 19, 2015.

Dr. Seuss Goes to War. Richard H. Minear, Dr. Seuss. The New Press. 1999.

Embracing Defeat: Japan in the Wake of World War II. John W. Dower. The New Press. 2000.