Myth and Manipulation – The Dehumanization of Imperial Japan

“(Nationalism is) a set of beliefs taught to each generation in which the Motherland or the Fatherland is an object of veneration and becomes a burning cause for which one becomes willing to kill the children of other Motherlands or Fatherlands”

Howard Zinn

“The warrior doesn’t care if he’s called a beast or a dog; the main thing is winning.”

Asakura Norikage

During the 1920s and 30s, Japan rose to become the leading nation in Asia. Emulating England, Germany, and other Western powers, Japan built up a powerful military, economy, and imperialistic desires. Though Japan claimed to be bringing great prosperity to those they colonized, they instead brought great death and destruction. Many factors drove Imperial Japan to commit the atrocities that it did. First we must look at the rise of the National Reconstruction Movement and the debate over Great versus Lesser Japan. Next we will analyze the Japanese expansion in China, looking at the influence of nationalism, the Japanese media, and Japanese feelings of racial superiority. After discussing the Manchurian incident, we will examine the treatment of Chinese citizens in Manchukuo and the rape of Nanjing. Lastly, some reasons for how the Japanese could dehumanize other nations, and ultimately themselves will be given. The soldiers at Guadalcanal, the Battle of Leyte Gulf, and kamikazes will be used for examples.

Japan defeated Russia in autumn of 1905. This marked the first time an East Asian nation defeated a Western Power. Japan now felt that it had earned a place on the world stage. This was not the case. The Western Powers continued to patronize Japan. After the First World War, Japan attended to the Versailles conference with the other Western Powers. Japan did not receive the racial equality it wished, but the Western Powers consented to their land claims in the Pacific and China. This, and the Washington Conference of 1921-22 which limited Japanese naval power, fed the growing anti-Western sentiments in Japan.

Movements began within Japan to combat what they saw as a weak and corrupt government. The movements were comprised at first of civilians and then junior military officers. These right-wing groups pushed an agenda for a Greater Japan. Greater Japan was essentially a push for a Japanese empire in the pacific, much like the colonial empires Western Powers had established throughout the world. A small group argued for Japan to return its foreign acquisitions to their countries and repair relations with their neighbors. This was referred to as Lesser Japan.

The Japanese government chose to follow the path of empire building. The hawkish right wing group the National Reconstruction Movement was integral in this. The NRM rallied the masses to them through fear and manipulation. Using the Japanese media, they persuaded people that empire building, with Manchuria at the heart, was integral to Japan’s national security. Adopting many ideals from Bushido appealed to the national pride of Japan’s citizens and rallied them to the cause. The National Reconstruction Movement also uncovered many scandals including the rich industrial companies, the Zaibatsu, and the government. After exposing the government as weak to the populace, the National Reconstruction Movement had no problems forcing the government to do as it wished.

Along with the nationalistic reasons for expanding the Japanese empire, racial reasons were also given. Japanese felt they were descended from the divine race called Yamato. The Japanese felt the “Yamato” race was the pinnacle of the five races: the Chinese, Mongolians, Manchurians, Koreans, and Japanese. The Japanese were made to feel it was their duty to uplift their brothers and sisters in Asia. In 1940, this idea was given the name “The Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere”. This feeling of racial superiority, which became indoctrinated into Japanese society, would lead to many problems further along.

With the decision set to build the Japanese Empire a plan was soon decided on to begin the military action necessary to carry out these visions. The government decided on the use of the Northern Approach. This strategy called for an aggressive use of the Japanese Army. The army would take Manchuria and use it as a launching pad to attack the rest of China. It was felt that this method would be less likely to anger the Western powers as the Southern Approach, which was Navy centered.

A Group of elite military officers decided in 1928 “The nation could stand being in a state of war for even 20 years or 30 years if we have footholds all over China and fully use them.” Three years later, September 18th 1931, the Japanese military was on the ground in Manchuria since the Chinese Revolutionary Army’s expedition into the Shandong peninsula. The elite Kwantung Army was on the peninsula and itching for a fight. Many of the officers in the Kwantung Army were part of the Junior Officers Movement, the military branch of the National Reconstruction Movement.

Members of the Junior Officers Movement plotted to explode a section of the South Manchuria Railway (owned by the Japanese). They chose a section of track not far from a Chinese garrison. This gave the Kwantung Army the pretext to attack the Chinese. Japanese journalists traveled to Manchuria to cover the ensuing war. Radio and newspaper reports, fueled by pressure from the NRM and the Kwantung Army and want for profit , touted the Chinese as terrorists and gave daily updates of Japanese victories.

The Japanese public became caught up in war fever. The creation of an independent Manchuria, again fueled by the National Reconstruction Movements, was pushed on the citizens. Connections were drawn between the 1920s and 30s battles in Manchuria with the Russo-Japanese War battles there.

…as most Japanese believed, Japan had fought Russia in 1904 over Manchuria. Forgetting that it was, in fact, the struggle for control over Korea that had precipitated the war, and that Japan had gained its Korean colony as a result of the victory. Japanese in the 1930s somehow felt that Manchuria comprised the single benefit and the sole compensation for a tremendous sacrifice.

Japanese were made to feel they owed a “blood debt” to those who fought the Russians in 1904. These nationalistic pressures allowed the Kwantung Army to create the state of Manchukuo from Manchuria.

The Kwantung Army created the state of Manchukuo in 1932. Manchukuo would be colonized by the Japanese and become the crown jewel of its colonies. Puyi, who was a young child when removed from being last emperor of China, was instated as Manchukuo’s emperor. Puyi had no real power. The Japanese military controlled Manchukuo. The Japanese military wanted to be free of any government control. The military plotted several assassination attempts of government officials. Shortly after the establishment of Manchukuo, junior military officers were successful in assassinating Prime Minister Inukai Tsuyoshi. The country viewed the assassins as patriots.

Now two military factions fought to gain political power. The more radical, the Imperial Way Faction, opposed the existing institutions, seeking to form a more spiritually grounded and moral society, a return to the ways of the past. The Control Faction, though also right wing, preferred to transform Japan into a modern military state and build-up of the economy. The Control Faction sought to spread out junior officers of the Imperial Way Faction by sending them to Korea, Taiwan, and Manchuria. A colonel in the Imperial Way Faction assassinated the General in charge of this plan. During the colonel’s trial a group of more than 1,000 Imperial Way Men stormed the center of the capital on February 26th, 1936. The Emperor intervened and the men surrendered. The leaders of the coup were executed.

The Control Faction was able to tighten its grip on the government, effectively creating a military state. The media became a propaganda machine. Children were indoctrinated in how to better serve their country. Propaganda was used to gather support for the colonization of Manchukuo. The Japanese government planned to send one million Japanese farmers to Manchukuo over a twenty-year period. Tours were given of Manchukuo settlements. So-called “rural literature” was dispersed to the public and magazines were started solely on the subject of colonization of Manchuria.

The government put great pressure on citizens to emigrate. At the national level gave policy guidelines, funding, recruitment materials, and other things. Prefectures helped coordinate recruitment drives and disperse government funds. Local governments actively recruited settlers and held community meetings on colonization.

During the late 1930s, many Japanese did settle in Manchukuo. Chinese pupils were taught this song in Manchukuo schools.

Red boys and green girls walk on the streets,
They all say what a happy place Manchukuo is.
You are happy and I am happy,
Everyone lives peacefully and works joyfully free of any worries.

While this may have been true for the Japanese living in Manchukuo, it was not for the Chinese. Chinese children were educated in separate schools from the Japanese. Japanese schools in Manchukuo were well equipped and maintained. Chinese schools were in a state of disrepair. “In the winter the whole class often had to run around the block in the middle of a lesson or engage in collective foot stamping to ward off the cold.” Chinese were forced from their homes and sent to labor in Japanese mines. Laborers were literally worked to death. Greater horrors soon came.

July 7th, 1937. Japanese soldiers stationed near Marco Polo Bridge were fired upon during night maneuvers. The Japanese used this as a pretext for attacking China. Japanese soldiers captured Beijing by the end of July. Chinese forces held out at Shanghi for three months. Casualties were high between both sides. After being told by the media that the Chinese were cowardly and hadn’t won a war in many years, the Japanese military planners were outraged by this. The Japanese citizenry only received reports of Japanese victories. The Japanese perused the Chinese army to Nanjing. Nanjing fell in December of 1937.

Somewhere between 260,000 and 400,000 peopled were killed over the “six weeks of horror” The Japanese began by murdering the Chinese POWs they captured. The Japanese coldly reasons that they would not have to feed the captives if they were dead. There would also be no chance of them escaping and joining Chinese guerrilla forces.

No one was left to protect the Chinese citizens in Nanjing after the surrender. The Japanese went house to house killing men, women, and children until “the streets, alleys, and ditches of the fallen capital ran rivers of blood.” Japanese soldiers committed unspeakable horrors. Live burials, mutilations, and raping were only some of the atrocities perpetrated. Contests were made of who could kill the most Chinese. Though the Japanese army officially outlawed raping, it happened at alarming rates. The fact that it was outlawed only made the soldiers kill the women afterwards. “’After raping, we would also kill them,’ he recalled. ‘Those women would start to flee once we let them go. Then we would bang! shoot them in the back to finish them up.’”
Japanese soldiers received a great deal of training before battling in China. Men were conditioned to see any Chinese as the enemy. Games and exercises were contrived to break to taboo of killing noncombatants. Japanese soldiers were forced to participate in killing exercises.

One day Second Lieutenant Ono said to us, “You have never killed anyone yet, so today we shall have some killing practice. You must not consider the Chinese as a human being, but only as something of rather less value than a dog or cat. Be brave! Now, those who wish to volunteer for killing practice, step forward.” No one moved. The lieutenant lost his temper.

“You cowards!” he shouted. “Not one of you is fit to call himself a Japanese soldier. So no one will volunteer? Well then, I’ll order you.”

“Everyone became a demon within three months,” one soldier stated. The systematic dehumanization of the Chinese couple with the desensitization to killing proved a brutal mix. Japanese soldiers and citizens had also been taught that their life had no value next to that of the emperor. “If my life was not important an enemy’s life became inevitably much less important.”

Japanese citizens heard little of the atrocities. Media outlets did there best to cover up the bloody campaign. Tours went through the streets that had been cleared of bodies. Newspapers claimed everything was progressing civilly in Nanjing. The Japanese public was told, “the Imperial Army entered the city, put their bayonets into their sheaths, and stretched forth merciful hands in order to examine and heal.” The myth was further perpetrated that “the Great East Asia War is a just war.”

The devaluation of life extended to the Japanese citizenry and armed forces. In school, children were told The Tale of the 47 Ronin. The story follows ancient samurai who murdered to avenge their lord’s honor. After committing the murders the samurai kill themselves. Japanese were also told that, following the ancient code of bushido; loyalty to the emperor should be absolute. This was false. Samurai’s loyalties were not absolute, but merely contracts that could be, and were, broken. Combined with the media bombardment of Japanese victories, real and fictional, it is not hard to see how the Japanese were ready to give their lives for the Emperor and Empire. As a saying of the time went “It is better to be a gem that is smashed to atoms than a tile that is whole”

Suicide warfare was a natural progression these indoctrinations. Soldiers were making the ultimate sacrifice for Japan. “True warriors welcomed the chance to sacrifice themselves for the Emperor, whatever the cost.” 3,912 kamikaze pilots gave their lives during the war, but it wasn’t only pilots who fought in this way. The tactic of “gyokusai” was used by the army on many occasions. “Gyokusai…refers to a patriotic act of fighting to the death right down to the last man.” The tactic was employed at Guadalcanal. The result was Japans first great military defeat and Guadalcanal earning the nick name “Starvation Island.” 22,000 Japanese were stationed at Iwo Jima. 20,703 died there and only 216 were captured.

Japanese citizens were also prepared to die for the emperor. At the end of the war, the Japanese homeland organized a defense of the land to the last man, woman, and child. “Pamphlets were produced to encourage people to use bamboo spears, hatchets and kitchen knives as weapons. The pamphlets chillingly urged the people, ‘Each person should kill one enemy combatant.’” The United States occupation of Saipan shows how effective the Japanese propaganda was.

Hundreds of Japanese civilians on Saipan Island leaped to their deaths over the cliffs onto the rocks below or blew themselves up with grenades. American sailors and marines watched, appalled, yelling, “Surrender! Don’t jump!” But the Japanese had been told they would be raped by the Americans or flattened by tanks

Japanese newspapers claimed the world was stunned by this action. Not because of the horror of the mass suicide, but its “patriotic essence.”

The military propaganda machine in Japan influenced a generation of Japanese. They were influenced into believing Manchuria was key to their survival. Soldiers were convinced Chinese were worse than animals. The government told Japanese citizens that they were creating a new empire for East Asians, that the war was a just one to liberate their “brothers”. Japanese were persuaded to kill and be killed for the emperor. Horrid atrocities were committed because of this propaganda campaign. Countless numbers lost their lives because of myth, manipulation, and blind ambition. Though many try to deny or forget what happened, it must always be remembered.

Change, Iris. The Rape of Nanking. NY, 1997.
Schirokauer, Conrad. A Brief History of Chinese and Japanese Civilizations. 2006.
Thomas, Evan. Sea of Thunder 1941-1945. NY, 2006.
Young, Louise. Imagined Empire: The Cultural Construction of Manchukuo
Zhao, Jie. Lecture
Life under the Japanese
The Daily Yomuiri. WAR RESPONSIBILITY–delving into the past (1)August 13. 2006.
The Daily Yomuiri. WAR RESPONSIBILITY–delving into the past (21)August 15, 2006.
Times Herald Record. The Battle of Iwo Jima. March, 2007.


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