World War II Media Propaganda in Cartoons and Film
Being Different in America
War Without Mercy: Race and Power in the Pacific War, by John W. Dower.
John W. Dower wrote War Without Mercy: Race and Power in the Pacific War as a study of the role of racism, 40 years after World War II. In the book, he examines the importance of American and Japanese nationalism and racism during WWII in the Pacific theater.
Dower believes that the overall Japanese war threat to America equaled that of the the Germans under Hitler, but also that American propaganda was bolstered by the image of the "yellow menace" in literature, movies, and thus, the American popular mind. These images likely spurred increased racism against Japan and her peoples.
During the 1940s, even Warner Brothers' Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck cartoons depicted the "evilness" of the Japanese, termed despicable by the duck. The Japanese endured a negative cult status in America. This status was not offset by positive models such as Mr. Moto in the films and this was not helped by the fact that Mr. Moto was played by a Hungarian, Peter Lorre, and not a Japanese.
The Charlie Chan movies provided additional positive models of Asians in American film, but they also portrayed the hero with Caucasian actors. American war propaganda and the media won out with a negative profile of the Japanese.
"Blitz Wolf", Based on The 3 Little Pigs
Films & Television Portrayals of the Japanese
Mr. Dower states, "... the Japanese were increasingly represented in cartoons as gigantic, savage gorillas." (beginning on p.184). The Japanese look more different from European-Americans than these Americans did from the Germans.
Therefore, the Japanese had a greater probability of being identified at large as what anthropology calls the Other - the alien from outside the group...or outside the world in this case, since Science Fiction blossomed into pulp and conventions around 1935.
Driven by fear produced by Fu Manchu, Ming the Merciless, and other scary Asians in books, comics (Terry and the Pirates, for example), and film, American government may have found it easier to build detainment camps for Japanese-Americans rather than for German-Americans. In fact, no German-American detainment camps were either proposed or built in the USA during WWII.
However, after the war, many American school systems refused any longer to allow the German language as a class in their schoolrooms until the early 1960s, when television allowed Hogan's Heroes (war in Europe) and McHale's Navy (war in the Pacific) to air. WWII veterans were incensed over Hogan, but little to-do was made over McHale.
"... the Japanese were increasingly represented in cartoons as gigantic, savage gorillas."— John W. Dower
Banned Looney Toons Propaganda Cartoon
Gremlins or Japanese According to the Media?Click thumbnail to view full-size
WWII Gremlins and Extraterrestrials
Talk also spread of the "soul-less" kamikaze pilot or Japanese suicide bomber. This image was played up in films and Bugs Bunny cartoons.
It likely eased the way for America to bomb Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In fact, the US servicemen involved in the dropping of Little Boy bomb on Hiroshima were not only free from guilt, but eventually laughed about it on camera in numerous documentaries. The pilot of the Enola Gay, Paul Tibbets, living his last years of his life in Columbus, Ohio, laughed out loud about it.
An Asian would likely look more like the "gremlins" and outer space aliens that American pilots often saw on combat missions, than did either the Germans or the Italians. It is likely that these facial differences contributed to rationalizing the building of the Japanese detainment camps in which persons such as Pat Morita and Star Trek ® legend George Takei spent their youths. The Asians were seen as Fu Manchu, Ming the Merciless, and the evil alien from outer space that would crash his plane into an American building for his home world.
Dower adds, "...atrocities and war crimes played a major role in the propagation of racial and cultural stereotypes. The stereotypes preceded the atrocities, however, and had led an independent existence apart from any specific event."
Prejudice was not one-sided, though. The Japanese were also prejudiced against Americans. Mr. Dower shows that they saw themselves as "the leading race of the world, or shido minzoku. This may be true, but, most human groups' original names mean First People, or The One and Only People, or The People that Have Always Been Here. This Japanese assertion is redundant around the world. Perhaps everyone is nationalist?
Nightmare (gremlin) at 20,000 Feet [William Shatner/Twilight Zone]
Who Is Inhuman?
Feeling entitled, perhaps, the Japanese government bombed Pearl Harbor at the very same time that Japanese officials were visiting DC, the nation's very capital, on business. This deception greased the wheels for acting against Japanese-Americans rather than against German-Americans, although this is related to the fact that the Japanese looked much more different from Caucasians.
In wartime the enemy becomes non-human, anyway, in the minds of their opponents. Non-humanness permits us to act in a harmful way against that enemy and their families and properties -- "They're not human. They're animals. They're demons." -- At this writing 60 years post WWII, many are saying that the President of North Korea is insane and inhuman; while much of the world may think the same of Americans because of the Iraqi War.
The Nazis of Germany never made it onto US soil, but Japan bombed Hawaii. Adding this to the fact that the Japanese looked alien, dispatched a plague of "soul-less demon kamikazes" to kill us, appeared in fearful minds to be non-human enemies, and were prejudiced against the US, it is hard to say that America acted more harshly against Japan than Germany only because of American racism -- Paranoia had more of an impact.
Japanese Propaganda Cartoon
Xenophobia on the American Horizon
The Nazis paid on film, however, not only via Moe Howard's early parody of Hitler, through Jack Benny's film impersonation of a Nazi as a inside spy, and through Hogan's Heroes, but also from Mel Brooks' The Producers with it's "Springtime for Hitler in Germany" and other parodies. Jerry Lewis's period concentration camp film The Day the Clown Cried (1972) is harsher and cannot even be released.
Live action combat themes were also offered on TV in the 1960s in drama series like Combat. Although there is a movement to debunk the Holocaust, Hitler and his damaged self and the damage done to the world on his behalf will not be forgotten. Thus, Germans were attacked with the pen, while the Japanese were corralled in detainment camps.
The Nazis were prejudiced against all races and groups that did not meet the standards of their self-proclaimed superior race. At the same time, the Japanese were prejudiced against Caucasians. Americans were prejudiced against Asians as well as Blacks. In fact, groups of Americans descended from the English were also prejudiced against Italians, Poles, Spaniards, Mexicans, Gypsies, the Irish, the Scots, and many other others. There was far-flung bigotry in the world.
Bigotry and nationalism are often foundation components of war. However, the fact that Japan invaded American territory at the same time she was meeting with the US government officials at the other side of the nation must have been a major reason for US treatment of the Japanese during WWII.
Nevertheless, America pumped money into Japan after the war, just as she did for Germany - and the US proceeded to the Cold War, the Space Race, and the even wider theater of paranoia in the possibility of first contact with "evil" space aliens.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2008 Patty Inglish MS