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.” Continue reading