A Cultural History of Wartime Japan


A review of Carnival War: A Cultural History of Wartime Japan, 1937-1945, by Benjamin Tsubokura Uchiyama.

Benjamin Uchiyama’s dissertation revisits the culture of wartime Japan (1937-1945) in an ambitious and clever manner. It uses Mikhail Bakhtin’s notion of the medieval “carnival” as a window into the tensions of state-society relations during Japan’s era of total war. For Bakhtin, the “carnival” was a fleeting, anarchic moment that inverted the norms and mores of the community. The volatile moment of carnival festivities inverted class hierarchies, undercut the ideological and political authority of church and state, and witnessed the emergence of new cultural practices. Uchiyama argues that a similar process was at work during World War II. The war, too, was a brief yet volatile moment that brought the state and mass culture in an uneasy embrace. In mobilizing for total war, the Japanese state unleashed new cultural forces that both supported and subverted its ideological and political authority. It witnessed the creation of “cultural constructs [that oscillated] between irreverent media celebrations of the grotesque and nonsensical on the one hand and a state-regimented, highly-disciplined mode of daily life on the other” (p. 1). This process, Uchiyama maintains, is best understood as “carnival war.”

To Uchiyama, Japan’s experience of carnival war crystallized around five media constructs, which he refers to as carnival kings: the thrill-seeking Reporter, the Wartime Dandy, the Soldier, the Movie Star, and the Youth Aviator. Each of these figures typifies the rather uneasy marriage of sacrifice and pleasure in wartime Japan. Although the carnival kings were products of wartime mobilization, they ended up influencing the ways in which the state pursued its mobilization plans.

Carnival serves as a unique lens through which to view the culture of wartime Japan. To date, notions of the carnival have been used primarily in reference to bakumatsu Japan. For instance, in Patriots and Redeemers in Japan: Motives in the Meiji Restoration (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992), George Wilson points to the carnivalesque atmosphere of ee ja nai ka and millenarian movements in the 1860s as a contributing to the social transformations of the modern era. To my knowledge, Uchiyama is the first person to use the carnival to understand the transformations brought about by modern warfare.

In the process, he makes two important historiographical interventions. First, in highlighting the consumerist desire evident through the later years of the war, he joins Louise Young, Kenneth Ruoff, and others who have disputed the surprisingly resilient “dark valley” thesis of wartime Japan. Far from being a period where Japan’s vibrant culture was crushed by state controls over all aspects of life, the war “brought forth new modes of cultural creativity in mass culture” (p. 4). Secondly, and more importantly, he takes issue with Minami Hiroshi’s contention that the war shattered Japan’s modern culture. Instead, Uchiyama shows that the war gave birth to new cultural modes that linked national duty with pleasure, escapism, and consumer desire.

Chapter 1, “The Birth of Carnival War,” tells the story of the carnival war’s emergence during the messy military campaign of August-December 1937. Uchiyama recounts this story through the person of the first carnival king, the Reporter. A thrill seeker and news hunter, the Reporter/war correspondent shaped the chaotic media coverage to highlight the “thrills,” the “speed,” and the heroic excitement of the advance into Shanghai and Nanjing. The Reporter sensationalized and even sexualized his stories, blurring fiction and reality to satisfy Japan’s ravenous public appetite for war “news.” Newspapers welcomed this sensationalist war coverage, as wild tales of the war attracted new readers and boosted circulation. Fictionalized or outrageous news stories (from “kill-count stories” and “first-to arrive” games), in turn, generated in the eyes of one Army press officer a “raucous carnival” (p. 61) in which wartime killings became the object of both consumerist desire and national celebration. The Reporter’s celebration of war, Uchiyama argues, was politically subversive in two main ways. First, the Reporter circumvented the state’s ability to control how the war would be sold to the Japanese public. Second, and more importantly, his reporting undermined the stern spiritual demands of state mobilization campaigns, creating instead a culture of thrill for popular consumption. It was in this way that the Reporter helped give birth to Japan’s “carnival war.”

Chapter 2 introduces the “Wartime Dandy” (date otoko or dandii). The Wartime Dandy was the product of Japan’s munitions boom. Young munitions workers, benefiting from wartime mobilization, became one of the more prosperous groups in Japan’s consumer society. They openly flaunted this newfound wealth, much to the dismay of the older bourgeois and genteel class. Dressing up as “fake students” or “fake gentlemen,” the Wartime Dandy bought English suits on credit, tied their own ties (!!!), sported Regent Style haircuts, and went on conspicuous spending sprees in department stores, cafes, bars, and brothels. They “existed by consuming and consuming beyond what workers were supposed to consume in war or peacetime” (p. 114). Their very profligacy and hedonism flouted state mobilization campaigns calling for savings and sacrifice to support the war effort. The Wartime Dandy thus lived in luxury at the very moment when officials, pundits, and intellectuals were lambasting luxury as “the enemy.” While the majority of the data presented is from 1937-1941, Uchiyama hints that he was a fixture in Japanese society through the later years of the war as well. Strikingly, the Wartime Dandy complicates existing notions of consumption as a feminine activity. In Uchiyama’s words, he “reflected the rise of a masculine form of mass consumption at a time when consumption itself fell under attack as unpatriotic and wasteful” (p. 122).

In Chapter 3, Uchiyama deals with the conflicted cultural construct of the Soldier. The Soldier appeared in the media as the epitome of martial and masculine values. The state and media celebrated his heroic valor, his courage, and his fortitude, values in high demand during Japan’s wartime crisis. Whether through the trope of “military gods” (gunshin) or through his hardships on the front, the media painted the Soldier as the ideal subject. After all, just as the uncomplaining soldier toiled for the Emperor and empire abroad, Japanese subjects should be ready to sacrifice and toil stoically for the Emperor at home. But the reality was quite different. Soldiers were disillusioned and traumatized by their experiences abroad and treatment at home. By 1939 many soldiers had become alienated by consumerist crazes to support the troops. The home front showed its commitment to the war effort through conspicuous consumption. Many Japanese consumer-subjects performed “patriotism” through the purchase of lavish “comfort packages” that paid scant attention to the real needs of those men fighting at the front. Moreover, the Soldier returned home only to find himself ignored and despised by the very people for whom he was fighting. The Returned Soldier thus underscored the hollowness of Japan’s national unity and the lack of a widely shared sense of mission in China.

Chapter 4 explores the Movie Star. Uchiyama sees the aspiring, playful, yet subtly defiant Movie Star as both successor to the Modern Girl and symbol of internal divisions that plagued wartime Japan. On the one hand, the Movie Star proved an active agent in Japan’s mobilization, serving as the on-screen spokeswoman who preached the necessity of sacrifice for the state. Many stars—from Hara Setsuko to Tanaka Kinuyo—graced the silver screen as maidens who gain a new respect for women’s obligations or as self-sacrificing mothers preparing their sons to fight for the nation. On the other hand, the Movie Star delicately contravened state ideology and aims. Whereas the state warned against Western-style individualism, the Movie Star was fiercely individualistic. Her Western clothes, magnetic personality, and Hollywood dazzle transgressed the hegemonic notion of womanhood centering on the austere and stoic Mother. Finally, she offered a source of escapism and desire to movie fans. Throngs of fans obsessed over their favorite stars to such an extent that they willingly disobeyed the Home Ministry’s 1938 ban on “autograph seeking.” Thus the Movie Star occupied a precarious position in wartime Japan, serving as both agent for war mobilization and the focus of escapist and consumerist desire.

Chapter 5 introduces the final carnival king: the Youth Aviator, a cultural construct found in movies and aviation magazines between 1940 and 1944. Uchiyama sees the Youth Aviator as the ultimate carnival king, since he epitomized the tensions between national duty and consumer desire. In fact, he represented a curious and powerful amalgam of the other four carnival kings. Like the thrill-seeking Reporter, the Youth Aviator (through his weapon of war, the plane) glorified and commercialized the speed, the thrill, and the glamor of modern battle. Like the Soldier, he aspired to fight and even die for the nation. And in donning his flight jacket and goggles, the Youth Aviator (in the cultural imagination at least) exuded a similar individualism and eye-catching style of the Wartime Dandy and Movie Star. More importantly, the Youth Aviator embodied the aspiration of young fans who purchased aviation magazines (through 1944, during Japan’s dire paper shortage!) and created and designed model airplanes of their own. As the war turned against Japan, the glamorous Youth Aviator would be replaced by the widely celebrated Kamikaze pilot who sacrificed himself and his plane in a tragically lost cause.

Once published, Carnival War promises to be an important work in the cultural history of modern Japan. At once incisive and argumentative, this study provides a unique framework from which to understand the mass culture in wartime Japan. It calls into question many common assumptions about gender, the media, consumption, and modernity. In the end, this dissertation and follow-up book project will enrich our understanding of wartime Japanese culture. Far from being populated by lonely bands of patriotic students, austere mothers, and tragic kamikaze pilots, wartime culture featured a far richer orchestra of cultural figures—from spendthrift dandies to individualist movie stars and airplane-crazed aviation junkies.

Jeremy A. Yellen
Department of Japanese Studies
Chinese University of Hong Kong

Primary Sources
Tōkyō Asahi shinbun 東京朝日新聞
Yomiuri shinbun読売新聞
Shūhō 週報
Kōkū shōnen 航空少年
Eiga no tomo 映画の友

Dissertation Information
University of Southern California. 2013. 337 pp. Primary Advisor: Gordon M. Berger.

Image: Suda Kunitarō, “Gakuto shutsujin sōkō no zu,” 1944. Wikimedia Commons: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:SudaKunitaro_Students_Off_to_War.png.

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