Racist caricatures of Japanese were common during World War II, with even Bugs Bunny getting into the act in a cartoon, and a young Theodore Geisel — Dr. Suess to decades of American kids — contributing his share of racist stereotypes. These images, though despicable, are somewhat understandable because of the long history of racism against people of color in the U.S., and in particular the decades of “Yellow Peril” hysteria that had been building before the war. There was context for racial stereotypes, no matter how wrong and unjust.
The attack on Pearl Harbor lit a tinderbox of racial hatred that was ready to burst into flame, and one of the results was the imprisonment of 120,000 people of Japanese descent in American concentration camps.
Another was the proliferation and propagation of racist stereotypes.
One incredible example is a training booklet published by the U.S. Army titled “How to Spot a Jap,” which was drawn by one of the most acclaimed comic artists of the time, Milton Caniff. Caniff drew a popular comic strip called “Terry and the Pirates,” about an American adventurer fighting pirates in “the Orient.” The settings for his strip were a natuiral fit for the Army to hire Caniff to illustrate the differences between the enemy Japanese and our allies, the Chinese.
The booklet makes outrageous claims comparing a Chinese man against a Japanese man, such as the Chinese “is about the size of an average American: (the Japanese) is shorter and looks as if his legs are directly joined to his chest!” “The Chinese strides… the Jap shuffles (but may be clever enough to fake the stride).” “(Chinese) eyes are set like any European’s or American’s– but have a marked squint… (The Japanese) has eyes slanted toward his nose.”
These expressions of racism, as ridiculous as they seem today, were produced (I hope) in the name of patriotism, which doesn’t excuse their ugliness but does explain their existence.
Unfortunately, because many of these images are available today on the Internet, they’re being resurrected, without their original context, and by a surprising group: bloggers in China. The Global Times, a state-owned English-language daily based in Beijing, reported yesterday on a disturbing phenomenon with an equally disturbing tone of gleeful agreement: Chinese websites passing around the Milton Caniff booklet and stirring up “a nationalistic and racist buzz among some Chinese online users about the differences between the two historic enemies.”
It’s very troubling to me that the Chinese blogosphere would be abuzz in agreement with Caniff’s drivel — the Global Times article ominously cites a couple of the comments attached to the cartoon:
A Chinese Internet user “lyshi188” left a message at pop.pcpop.com that said “it was very funny for American soldiers to think about this idea” while another user “hbshbs1” said it wasn’t good to vilify other people.
However, some comments from Chinese Internet users said it is true that “Japanese have short legs.”
With the 60th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China coming up Otc.1, the government has already begun cracking down on dissidents, and is planning a massive show of military force in an old-fashion, Cold War-era military parade with missiles and tanks and troops marching in Beijing. The flames of nationalism are being fanned from the top down, and if there’s a sanctioned sense of hatred against the Japanese — or anyone (Tibetans? Uighurs?), it may not take much to catch a spark.
It’s also disappointing to see the national media in China give implicit approval to these racist impulses. There seems to have been no attempt to contact anyone who might have a contrary opinion about the spread of the Caniff illustrations, no counter to the “wry amusement” and agreement with the points in the booklet.
I’m not saying the stuff should be banned — it’s important to archives these historical artifacts. But we need to note them for exactly what they are: Racist artifacts of a time when such over-the-top stereotypes were commonplace ways to keep Japanese — and all Asians, in fact, including Chinese — in their place.
Update: In fact, I was wondering if anyone would calle me out on using the Caniff illustrations myself, and Enfu, a JA artist, has, in a Tweet. It’s true I’m also spreading these images, but I think my use is different from someone who’s agreeing with the stereotypes. I’m displaying them as something to avoid. I’ve often included examples of racist stereotypes when I wirte about them. In any case, I wouldn’t be in favor of censoring them or making such images unavailable. We need to know what’s come before us, so we might try work to avoid it in the future. (But thanks to Enfu for calling me out!)
It might do Chinese bloggers some good to research the history of the Yellow Peril era in American pop culture, and how Chinese were systematically excluded from all but the most menial and laborious of work in the wake of the Gold Rush that brought the first Chinese immigrants to the West Coast; how Chinese were prevented from marrying white women (except Irish when Irish immigrants first arrived in America); how Chinese couldn’t own any property; how they were forced to do the most dangerous work of laying the transcontinental railroad but were left out of the celebrations marking the railroad’s completion; how they were finally excluded from immigration altogether.
They would do well to remember that the Chinese Exclusion Act, passed by Congress in 1882, was the only U.S. law ever to prevent immigration and naturalization on the basis of race.
They would do well to note the recent passage in the state of California, of an official apology for the years of racism Chinese have faced in America.
Milton Caniff may have tried to illustrate the “difference” between Chinese and Japanese for our soldiers, but the differences aren’t as obvious as he made them seem. And racism can easily switch from one ethnic group to the other, especially when “we all look alike.”
If there’s a groundswell of anti-Japanese feeling in China, I certainly understand it, for the many atrocities committed by the Japanese before and during WWII. But in today’s global marketplace, there’s no room for such divisive racism, and certainly not when American racism can and has been just as easily been aimed at Chinese as the Japanese.
The Global Times should be making this point, not pointing out nudge-nudge-wink-wink the humor of Chinese bloggers passing Caniff’s disgusting tripe around.
Here’s Bugs Bunny helping the war effort and fanning the flames of hate:
WHAT?? this is insane.
Asians will always be racist towards other asians… and will NEVER learn to work together in peace… they are competitive and jealous.
White ppl are just plain arrogant, igorant and annoying…. i stopped caring about these hypocrites long ago.
Asians all look similar, the same just like comparing any Cauasian North American with any random European. And if someone disagrees, their an idiot.
Stop being such an idiot. You can’t use 21st Century PC logic on a 1940’s war time atmosphere. If you want to compare a contemporary event to that era, try September 11, 2001 and December 7, 1941.
While it’s true racism exists in the USA, it’s nothing compared to Japan. If you don’t believe that, go live there and try to fit in.
You’re right: There is a lot of rigid racism in Japan — the country definitely needs to face that fact and deal with it. Ironically, they’re doing that now simply because the Japanese population is so skewed toward the elderly now, that they’ve been importing foreigners to bolster their workforce, and there’s more tension rising to the surface.
As for looking back at the 1940s with a PC outlook, yep, it’s an exercise in revisionism, but it’s also important to place today’s racism (PC or not, racism and stereotypes are still flagrant in American society) in historical context. And also, to place the racist imagery of the 1940s into its historical context — Asians have been painted with an ugly racist brush for centuries; in fact all people of color have in the U.S. These are lessons that are still not taught in schools, or if they are, not very much (the internment of Japanese Americans during WWII still takes up only one paragraph in the history book that’s used by my school district).
I can still watch John Wayne in “The Fighting Seabees” and I’m OK with the historical context of U.S. military calling the Japanese “Japs.” As a journalist, I interviewed a Pearl Harbor survivor and didn’t correct him when he kept using the term “Japs” even though he knew I was Japanese American — I’m not that PC.
However, it’s really, really important to educate people that that image of Japanese as animals, as apes, evolved out of a racially-based ignorance from previous centuries, and that there were decades of legislation like alien land laws and non-citizenship clauses that are part of that history.
Having said that, I do acknowledge that Japan has been terrible on other people and other races. They aligned with the Axis during WWII because they shared a sense of racial superiority, and I hate that about the country of my heritage. No one’s perfect. We just need to acknowledge our weaknesses and strive to make for a more just and fair future for everyone….
I’m writing a blog post today about a book that chronicles the post-war repatriation of Japanese from Manchuria, and how Gen. MacArthur and the Occupation forces helped get those citizens back to Japan. The book doesn’t dwell much on the terrible things Japanese did throughout Asia in the years leading up to WWII, and I’m taking the author to task for that, even though I know his books is focused on one particular experience.
So, I’m trying to write about these issues from my personal perspective, but with a lot of historical research behind me. So I hope you’ll accept my thoughts.
BTW, My dad was in the US Army in Japan and served during the Korean War when he met my mom. My brothers and I were all born in Japan, and raised on or around military bases, and attended American schools on base. We lived for a time in Iwakuni, the largest USMC base in the country. So I’m pretty familiar with the US military perspective about the Far East and how they’re perceived in Japan. Again, I bring my lifetime of experience as a personal filter for me to write about.
Take care, and thanks for commenting, Jerry!