Anyone who has ever talked to a relative who lived through that era, or read personal accounts of World War II knows that while the German forces were referred to as Germans, the Japanese were called Japs. Anti-Japanese propaganda often portrayed the Asian enemy in quite explicitly racist terms, because of the Japaneses foreign racial status, in the eyes of most Caucasian-Americans of European ancestry. Unlike the Germans, the American government even allowed the internment of Japanese-Americans, solely because of their race, even though many Japanese-Americans fought loyally on the United States side during the conflict. While Germans are always Nazis in films, the Japanese are always villainous Japs (Beidler 1998, 12).
Noting the racism that was often exhibited in American propaganda, however, hardly excuses the racism that was also present in Japanese propaganda. One interesting subgenre of this phenomenon is in Japanese films like China Nights, which portrays the Japanese conquest of China as good by showing the eventual, willing submission of a beautiful Chinese woman to a Japanese officer. The member of the dominant race is shown as a man and the member of the subordinate race is shown as a woman. The Chinese woman, much like in a conventional movie romance, at first resists the dominant mans advances, but then discovers the pleasures of his control (Chambers & Culbert 1996, 37). The personal relationship of the Japanese man and the Chinese woman is used as a metaphor justifying Japans conquest of China. The personal becomes a metaphor for military politics. This is particularly interesting, given that the Far East, including Japan, was often portrayed as feminine in American propaganda, and as subtle and cunning rather than overt in its advances.
When characterizing the portrayal of the two sides, Robert Fynes book review of Well Always have the Movies, states that after the war: “Finally there were no more two-dimensional Japanese villains wearing those coke-bottle eyeglasses, waving samurai swords, running up hills shouting banzai, or some suede-gloved, monocle-wearing, heel-clicking Nazi extending his right arm forward exclaiming “Heil Hitler” (Fyne, 2006, 60). These characterizations exhibit the cinematic distinction between the two national groups in American films.
The Nazis were shown as bad individuals. The Japanese were depicted as nerdy coke-bottle glass wearing individuals, banding together as ravaging hordes.
Why is this distinction important to understand? Because it did not merely affect the way that the German and Japanese people were viewed during the war, but may have affected the way they were perceived after the war. Because Nazis rather than Germans were the hated enemy, this made it possible for good Germans to be tolerated in official American policy, and lifted some of the collective guilt off of the shoulders of the German people. Although this is debatable, what is not debatable is the profound influence which the American government (and other national governments) had over the film industry. This was a unique moment in American history: films would never be as important and central in American culture after the creation of new media like the Internet and television, and the American government would never again be able to control the output of moviemakers like it was during World War II.
Beidler, Philip D. The Good Wars Greatest Hits: World War II and American Remembering.
Atlanta: Georgia Press, 1998.
Chambers, John Whiteclay & David Culbert. World War II, Film, and History. New York:
Oxford University Press, 1996.
Christie, Thomas B. & Andrew M. Clark. “Framing Two Enemies in Mass Media: A Content
Analysis of U.S. Government Influence in American Film during World War II.” American Journalism, 25:1 (2008): 55-72
Fyne, Robert. Book Review of Well Always Have the Movies: American Cinema.