Education About Asia: Online Archives

PROPAGANDA OR DOCUMENTARY? The Showa Emperor and “Know Your Enemy: Japan”

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For the past five years, I’ve been screening Frank Capra’s controversial Know Your Enemy: Japan (1945) in survey courses and upper division seminars. Stunning edits, provocative footage and a brilliant soundtrack make this last of the U.S. Army’s Why We Fight series a truly arresting documentary. To warn Americans that defeating Japan would require the nation’s utmost effort, Capra spliced together hundreds of menacing, exoticizing shots of festivals, parades, assembly lines, sporting events, funerals, military parades, battlefields and police raids, skillfully culled from Japanese cinematic and documentary footage. Superimposed over these images are a number of theories about Japan’s national character and the origins of the Pacific War. Because Capra’s film traffics in dated racist imagery and derogatory stereotypes, I initially showed it to serve as an example of American wartime propaganda, as a window into the U.S. psyche circa 1945.1 These days, however, I have become less enthusiastic about dismissing Know Your Enemy as a mere artifact of an older, less tolerant era. Not only have recent scholarship and a resurgent public interest in the Pacific War converged to give elements of Capra’s documentary an oddly contemporary feel; more importantly, much of the information imparted in Know Your Enemy can be used to set up a more serious study of prewar Japanese history. Therefore, instead of just exposing the film’s logical contradictions and untenable generalizations (which is necessary, but not sufficient), I’ve begun to use Know Your Enemy to engage two resilient controversies in Japanese historiography: Hirohito’s war responsibility and the nature of the “road to Pearl Harbor.”

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