*** war and social upheaval: World War II Japan home front public opinion








World War II: Japanese Home Front--Civilian Population

World War II Japanese carp windsocks
Figure 1.--Here Japanese school boys show the carp wind socks/banners made for soldiers at the front. The carp streamers orginted a banners florished by samirai wrriors. They then became a synbol for Boys' Day (now Children's Day.) In Japan the carp symbolizes courage and strength because of its ability to swim up a waterfall. Click on the image to see the Japanese caption.

It is very difficult to know what the Japanese public thought about the War. This of course would hve been based largely because on the military controlled media. Any criticism of the War effort could mean serious truble with the Kempeitai (憲兵隊). This was an Army police unit, but as the militry expanded its influence and eventually seized control of the country, became a kind of secret police like the Gestapo in NAZI Germany and the NKVD in the Soviet Union. As far as we can tell there was no real opposition to the War in Japan. We know that no one was was allowed to express oposition. But there seems to have been very limited opposition to supress. Some Japanese readers have expresed to us that there was some opposition to the War among educated Japanese who were aware of the industrial strength of the West, but did not dare express their opinions. This appears to have been a relatively small group. Our assessment is that by far the strongest factor in Japanese society was devotion to the Emperor and a fervent nationlism. And the fact that the media was totally controlled by the Army stocked the nationalist fervor. Japanese citizens had little real sources of information other than a steady stream of propaganda. The one exception was returning Japanese servicemen. Few soldiers returned from the Pacific and Southeast Asia. But some did from China. Just what they told their families we do not know. We have not seen that addressed in the Japanese literature. Even the military did not have reasonable sources of information. The Imperial Navy, for example, hid the dimensions of the Midway disaster from the Army. Of course there were no public opinion poll and if there had been no one could have been expected to express a negative oinion. But a good indicator of the public support for the War was the fierce perdormance of Japanese soldiers on the battlefield. In the Pacific, even when defeat was certain, only a handful of Japanese soldiers chose to surrender. And when Japanese civulians were encountered (Saipan and Okinawa) even many civilians chose surrender. It much be stressed that while the Japanese public supported the war effort, that by no means suggests the public supported the horrendous reign of terror with war crimes and atrocitie perpetrated by the Japanese military throughout the War. The vast mjority of Japanese people were totally unaware of what was being done in their name.

Japanese Public Opinion

It is very difficult to know what the Japanese public thought about the War. Of course social justice media outlets like PBS goes on and on about the 'pervasive distrust and racial intolerance' in America, but is silent about Japanese public opinion. 【Wakida 】 And Japanese would have been significantly affected by the military controlled media and severe consequences for any one expressing critical opinions. There were of course, unlike inAamerica, no public opinion polls and if there had been no one could have been expected to express a negative opinion to a person taking a poll, that would have been dangerous. We see a range of public displays of support for the War. Of course they were staged, but there does appear to be considerable enthusiasm. There were two major wars. First was the war in China (1937) which went on for 4 years when the Japanese militarists decided the best way to conclude it was by launching the Pacific War with America and Britain (1941). We do not know if that seemed reasonable to the Japanese public. And neither went as expected. Public opinion surely must have been affected by the failure to conclude either war. Most of the images we have collected are from the Pacific War. We note enthusiastic send offs at railroad stations. The enthusiasm in Japan unkike anything we see in any of the other major combatant nations. We also see large scale ceremonial events with masses of flag-waving school children. Of course this was all staged, but it is unlike anything we see in any other countries. Remember Hitler insisted throughout his 12 years of rule that he was trying to prevent war. We are not sure that the Japanese military leaders ever claimed a commitment to peace. A good indicator of the public support for the War was the fierce performance of Japanese soldiers on the battlefield. In the Pacific, even when defeat was certain, only a handful of Japanese soldiers chose to surrender. And when Japanese civilians were encountered (Saipan and Okinawa) even many civilians chose suicide, although on Okinawa, the Japanese military often forced civilians to chose suicuce. Most clearly believed what they were told, although not everyone followed orders to commit suicide. That does mean that they opposed the war. It does mean that they wanted to live or had some doubts about what they were told. Another important indicator is the willingness of the Japanese to accept American occupation. The importance of the Emperor's influence may have been a factor, but we suspect that the level of destruction from the bombing must have massively impacted public opinion. And the blame was not all directed at the Americans. The reception of the returned soldiers was very different than their send off.

Care Packages

Japanese civilians during World War II prepared packages for servicemen in the far-flung empire Japan conquered during the first 6-monhs of he Pacific War. This may have also been the case for the war in China, but we know it occurred during the Pacific War. Unfortunately, we have not been able go find much information about these packages. And given the huge logistical problems Japan faced we are not sure to what extent they were delivered. We also are not sure what they included. We do not know if they included food which was what many of the soldiers needed most. We believed they included headbands (hachimaki 鉢巻), a symbol of effort or courage. There might be a post card with an encouraging note thanking them for their service and devotion to the emperor. These objects might be signed by family and friends. We also note rag dolls being sent as kind if talisman. Another item might be a senninbari (千人針, 'thousand person stitches') -- a belt or ornamental strip of cloth stitched 1,000 times and given as a Shinto amulet. We also see sandals. Perhaps even some of carp wind socks/banners we see here (figure 1). One image shows a pile of these packages wrapped in white paper for delivery. And were an elongated uniform size. We note these packages being referred to as care packages, but this may because of the American CARE packages sent to people in Europe and Japan after the War. We do not know what the Japanese term was. These packages were prepared by families for their loved ones, but we also notice organized groups (both women and school children) preparing these packages to be sent to service men in general as a morale booster. We have no idea how the recipient were chosen. Thus would have all bee early in the War, because by late 1943 the Japanese logistical system began to break down as American submarines began to destroy the Japanese merchant fleet. Mail services also were affected.

Knowledge of War Developments

Japanese citizens had little real sources of information other than a steady stream of official propaganda published in the newspapers and radio reports. The cebntralm propgana line was that the war was caused by the Western poweers and their egotistic desire to rule the world. The publishers and radio stations were ordered to promote anti-American and anti-British sentiment. 【Cook and Cook, p. 66.】 All that was reported was Japanese victories, real and imagined. During the first 6 months of the war, there great victories to report beginning with Pearl Harbor. This changed with Midway (June 1942). But the media continued to report only victories, real and imagined. A rare exception to the lack of accurate real information was returning Japanese servicemen. Few soldiers returned from the Pacific and Southeast Asia. But some did from China. Just what they told their families we do not know. We have not seen that addressed in the Japanese literature. Even the military did not have reasonable sources of information. The Imperial Navy, for example, hid the dimensions of the Midway disaster from the Army (June 1942). But there were some obvious developments that Japanese popaganda could not be block out from anyone with even a minimally inquiring mind and a map. After Midway, the battles were coming closer and closer to Japan. How was it that if Japan was gaining victory after victory that the Americans contunued to advance? I can recall as a boy beung fascinated by maps. I am sure there were Japanese school boys who were also fascinated. And the Japanese people were not stupid. The war in China was not a quick campaign. There were many battle victories. At the time of Pearl Harbor, however, it had gone on for 4 years and China was still not defeated and with no end in site. Wars are expensive and the continuing war in China required enormous resources had economic consequences affecting people's daily lives. And after Guadalcanal (August 1942-January 1943), any Japanese person could tell that despite official propagada of great victories, the battles were getting closer and closer to Japan--hardly a sign that the war was going well. What did return to Japan was the little white boxes, susposedly with the remains of the fallen. They wre presented to greiving families in official ceremonies. And the economic situation was worsening, not only because of the needs of the war, but the American submarune campaign which was destroying the maru fleet and severing the delivery of raw materials and food. This was a serious blow to war production. But it was disatrrous for the Japanese people. Japan was not self sufficient in food production and food rations were being lowered. After the loss of the Marianas (July 1944), the Army began drafting students who had earlier been granted exemptions. All of this was before the Americans began the strategic bombing campaign began which brought home the war situation to every Japanese person, not just those with an inquiring minds.

Knowledge of War Crimes

It much be stressed that while the Japanese public supported the war effort, that by no means suggests the public supported the horrendous reign of terror with war crimes and atrocities perpetrated by the Japanese military throughout the War. The vast mjority of Japanese people, as far as we can tell were totally unaware of what was being done in their name. This seens different than the situagtion in Germany. German soldiers wrote home describbing actions killing Jews. There was also home leave and rotatations in which soldiers had opportunities to describe killing operations. We are not sure to what extent this occurred with Japan. There were soldiers who came home from China, but very few who ever returned from South Pacific positings during the Pacific War at least until the end of the war. It is unclear to what extent they described their experuiences. When preports of war crimes appeared in Western newspapers, they mostly dealt with the treatmen of Allied POWs. The Rape of Nanking was a rare exception, primarily because of all the Wsterners in the city who repoted what happened. The Japanese media carried reports denying the atricities and chracterized them as Western propganda. The Jaoanese people for the moist opart believed the Japanese Govdernment denials.

The Kempeitai

Any criticism of the War effort could man serious truble with the Kempeitai (憲兵隊). This began as an Army police unit, but as the military expanded its influence aad eventually seized control of the country, became a kind of secret police like the Gestapo in NAZI Germany and the NKVD in the Soviet Union. It was most active in the territoiries occupied by the expanding Japanese Empire. The Kenpeitai became infamous during World War II for its brutality. They arrested and killed with no pretense of judicial restraint anyone suspected of not only resistannce activities, but whole groups suspcted of being anti-Japanese. The Kenpeitai were deeply involved in many of the barbaric Japanese war crimes during the War. While the actions during the the Pacufic War are best knowm, the Kempeitai reign of terror began in eranest with the actions in China berginning with the invasion of Manchurtia (1931). While institutionally an army unit, the Kenpeitai commonly acted as the military police for the Imperial Japanese Navy. This was dome under the direction of the Admiralty Minister. The IJN had a much smaller unit-- the Tokkeitai.

Opposition to the War

We have been able to find relativdely little information about Japanese domesric information to the War. World War II historians have given little attention to this. this has kled to the belief that there was no effective opposition to the War. We know that no one was was allowed to openly express oposition. in the governmnt-controlled media. The question is was there much opposition to supress. Some Japanese readers have expresed to us that there was some opposition to the War among educated Japanese who were aware of the industrial strength of the West, but did not dare openly express their opinions. There was left-wing thiought in Japan that had some strength in the union movement. This was a movement targeted by the Kenpeitai. The Government banned left wing groups and the trade union movement was forcibly consolidated into a state controlled industrial association, the Patriotic Industrial Association (SANPO). The police through SANPO promoted the idea that the factory was an extension of Japan’s unique family system. There are reoorts of arrests and torturing of political and union activists. We do not know how many people weere involved. We do note that there do not seem to have been an extensive network oif concentration camps like .Dachau. There were, however, many forced labor camps, but these primarily involved foreigners such as POWs, Koreans, and Koreans and burakujumin (outcast Japanese). There are reports of cultural and artistic resistance as well as strikes, sabotage, and absentism. 【Gluckstein】 There seem to have been realitively high levels of absenteeuism even brfore the Allied Strategic Bombing Campaign began. There were there were 1,120 reported strikes (1939). The number declined to 417 (1943), but these have to be assessed with the dire conseques fir leaduing or being involved in strikes. One historian writes, "the number of workers participating in strikes and other acts of resistance increased." 【Gluckstein】 There are also reports of wiorker sanotage, but we do not know how to assess these reports. Our preliminary assessment is that by far the strongest factor in Japanese society was devotion to the Emperor and a fervent nationlism. And the fact that the media was totally controlled by the Army stocked the nationalist fervor. But this is a topic that needs far more investigation. We note that very quickly after the American occupatiion began that the reade union movemrnt rec=vived and had a very strong Communist element, suggesting that many kept their heads down during the War. The monolithic view of Japan's wartime population supporting the war effort is probabkly over strated. Emperor Hirohito onn several occassions stated that the atomic bomb was the reason he decided to surrender to the Amerucans. There is another train of thought that he may have been more concerned with domestic unrest and a Germany like joint occupation involving the Soviets. Many conservative Japanese were concerned about such resistance, including some military commanders. Navy Minister Yonai Mitusmasa who had opposed the war with America and Britain said after the War, "The reason why I have advocated the end of the war is not that I was afraid of the enemy’s attack, nor was it because of the atomic bombs or the Soviet entry into the war. It was more than anything else because I was afraid of domestic conditions". 【Gluckstein】

Sources

Cook, Haruko Taya Cook and Theodore F. Cook. Japan At War: An Oral History.

Gluckstein, Donny. Fighting on All Fronts: Popular Resistance in the Second World War (2005). There is a chapter on Japan.

Wakida, Patricia Miye. "How a Public Media Campaign Led to Japanese Incarceration during WWII," PBS: Ameican Experience (September 23, 2021).







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Created: 2:07 AM 3/15/2017
Last updated: 7:25 AM 6/3/2024