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Mr. Smith Goes to Tokyo: Japanese Cinema Under the American Occupation, 1945–1952

by Kyoko Hirano
Smithsonian, 365 pp., $34.95

A Map of the East

Photographs by Leo Rubinfien
Godine, 132 pp., $25.00 (paper)

Re-Made In Japan: Everyday Life and Consumer Taste in a Changing Society

edited by Joseph J. Tobin
Yale University Press, 264 pp., $27.50

How to Work for a Japanese Boss

by Jina Bacarr
Birch Lane Press, 252 pp., $18.95


A most unusual advertisement appeared in the International Herald Tribune the other day. It was an ad for the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo. The Imperial always was a good hotel. It was also one of the most handsome, until Frank Lloyd Wright’s original building was replaced by a glossy high-rise in the 1960s. The advertisement went like this:

Tokyo, September 1945. The US Occupation had begun, and soldiers were all over the famed Imperial Hotel. They even ran our kitchen like an army mess hall, serving up army fare like potatoes and frankfurters. But in the process, they also taught us the highest standards of orderliness and good management. We learned to keep our facilities ship-shape. And to pay scrupulous attention to our guests’ every need, big or small…. Today, the Imperial is still one of the grandest hotels in Asia. For this, we owe much to US officers who stayed with us nearly 50 years ago—and to all the VIPs and executives who have stayed with us since. All, without exception, have kept us on our toes. They made us what we are. And we love them for it.

Exquisite Oriental irony? A ritual form of self-abasement? Or simply an attempt to flatter Americans in their age of “decline”? Whatever the intention, there is a strong whiff of the past in this advertisement. It conjures up visions of crisp uniforms, patent leather shoes, deep bows, lipstick smiles, and filthy urchins shouting “chewingu gummu pureesu.”

Ah yes, those were the days, when GI Joe was Number One, the biggest, the richest, the strongest. America, shipshape, efficient, set the tune to which lesser nations danced. MacArthur was the Shogun, aviator shades, corncob pipe, and squashed cap were his regalia. And Japan lay at his feet, ready to learn and eager to please. But the Americans were not just the biggest and the best, they were also the most generous. Instead of exacting the punishment which was the victor’s due, Uncle Sam would remake Japan more or less in his own image. Out with samurai, feudalism, militarism, chauvinism, racialism—welcome Glenn Miller, baseball, chocolate, boogie-woogie, demokurashee!

Politically, Shogun MacArthur famously said, the Japanese were twelve-year-olds. But SCAP (Supreme Commander, Allied Powers) was there to set this straight. The Japanese would have to learn everything from scratch. The process would be supported by the so-called Three S’s: Screen, Sex, and Sports. The revival of baseball, was to be encouraged (hardly necessary, in fact), because it was healthy, American, and democratic. A certain amount of physical affection, within bounds, was healthy too, among your own kind, of course. The Japanese should at least learn to kiss their girls in public, just like us. And the movie screen was best of all, to show the way to the yellow brick road, strewn with healthy, democratic, American values.

It is easy, in retrospect, to be facetious about America’s finest hour, just as it is easy to forget that the Americans really were the most generous of conquerors, and in many cases the most well-meaning of teachers. The question is whether, in retrospect, SCAP and his loyal retainers got it right. Did they teach the right lessons, in the right way? Was MacArthur’s Occupation indeed the glowing success story of American tutelage that people of that generation still like to say it was, or are some of the problems with Japan today actually the result of that remarkable time?

Joseph Goebbels was not the only one to have discovered the efficacy of movies as a tool of propaganda. The Japanese, too, had been superb film propagandists during the war. Their best wartime films were, on the whole, better propaganda and better art than similar fare in America, Britain, or Germany, because they were more realistic and less strident. Not much effort was spent on demonizing the enemy (partly because of the lack of Caucasian extras). Instead, the emphasis was on brave soldiers toughing it out overseas, and on loyal, patriotic families on the homefront sacrificing personal gain for the greater national good. The very real sacrifices and deprivations people had to suffer in Japan were not hidden or ignored; quite the contrary, they were celebrated as examples of heroism, of what made the Japanese Volk great.

In her fascinating book on Occupation movie policies, Mr. Smith Goes to Tokyo, Kyoko Hirano mentions the regulations issued during the war by the Japanese Ministry of Internal Affairs. There was a rule against “films describing individual happiness,” as well as—naturally—“films dealing with sexual frivolity.” That some of the most active wartime propagandists were former Communists is not really so surprising. The spirit of collectivism and the suppression of individual desires (“greedy materialism”) were not entirely uncongenial to them.

The right (perhaps even the duty) of the individual to be happy was, however, precisely what the Americans wanted Japanese films to propagate after the war. Hence the sensation of the first Japanese screen kiss, an episode which Hirano describes well. The kiss was proposed by an American censor to the Shochiku film company. An actress, named Ikuno Michiko, was trained by her (American) boyfriend to do it properly. When the scene was shot, she allegedly covered her lips with a piece of gauze to avoid direct contact with her costar Osaka Shiro. The film, Twenty-Year-Old Youth, was released on May 23, 1946.

The audiences loved it. Students cheered and shouted “banzai!” when the famous kiss arrived. An eyewitness, quoted by Hirano, described audiences as “gulping, sighing, and yelling.” The first screen kiss clearly had a liberating effect, just as the censor (the sweet irony of it!) had intended. And, as is the way in the film business, this first success was followed by a spate of kiss movies. Conservatives were upset, of course, about this affront to traditional morals. And some left-wing critics were just as severe. The Free Film Workers Group said that film makers were engaging in irresponsible sensationalism instead of making films with a “truly democratic spirit.”

The Japanese leftists and most of the American censors agreed about one basic thing, however: to foster a democratic spirit, “feudalism” had to be rooted out. This led to some of the oddest policies of the Occupation. Since much of the Japanese artistic tradition could be crudely classified as “feudal,” much of it had to go. Kabuki theater, for instance, often appears to celebrate feats of samurai valor and sacrifice; loyal retainers committing suicide or wreaking revenge for the sake of their lords, that kind of thing. Whether Kabuki plays really were celebrations of samurai values is open to question. Arguably the commercial classes, which formed the main Kabuki audience, took pleasure in watching the human tragedy brought on by such values. But this was too complicated for most censors, and so many classics of the Kabuki theater were banned.

The cinematic version of Kabuki was the swordfight movie, long a mainstay of Japanese entertainment. Like American westerns, which they sometimes emulated, these films featured violent heroes. But their ethos was by no means straightforward. The Japanese had discovered the antihero centuries before Hollywood did. The tragic black-hat, who was inevitably defeated by the same superior forces that kept the common people down, was a subversive figure, antifeudal, if anything. Still, swordfight movies, being very “feudal,” had to go. Reels and reels of precious film were burned and dumped into a river south of Tokyo.

Even Mount Fuji was “feudal.” The famous cone always was the most revered object of Japanese nature worship. And since the worship of Japanese nature easily slides into worship of Japan, Mount Fuji was seen as a symbol of imperialist chauvinism, so Mount Fuji had to go too, at least on film. It could not even be shown in a movie about farmers cultivating land on the slopes of the volcano.

I doubt whether the democratic spirit was promoted by these anti-feudal actions. But it probably was not damaged either. More serious was the underlying hypocrisy of the American enterprise. Hypocrisy is of course part of any propaganda in political correctness. But Occupation PC was hypocritical in a fundamental way. The official American guidelines for a PC cinema in postwar Japan included the following: “Approval of free discussion of political issues” and “Dramatizing figures in Japanese history who stood for freedom and representative government.”

These were both fine things. But free discussion, like sexual expression, had its limits. Crimes committed by American soldiers in Japan could not be shown, or even reported. The Japanese papers had to use curious circumlocutions, such as “The criminals were unusually tall and hairy men.” War damage inflicted by American bombing raids was not to be mentioned. Hirano gives the example of a famous film by Ozu, Late Spring, in which one of the characters compares the serene beauty of Kyoto to the ruined city of Tokyo. The original line “[Tokyo] is full of burned sites” had to be changed to “It’s so dusty all over.”

Criticism of American Occupation policies was strictly forbidden. A movie, entitled Between War and Peace, by two leftist directors, Kamei Fumio and Yamamoto Satsuo, showed workers carrying banners that said “Freedom of Speech” and “Let Us Who Work Eat.” The scene was banned by the censors for being “suggestive of criticizing SCAP censorship and encouraging labor strikes.” The censors of the free world, in short, had to censor references to their own censorship.

Not only was SCAP above critical scrutiny, but a negative picture of the United States was also deemed undesirable. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, the Frank Capra picture, released in Japan in 1941, could no longer be shown in 1946, because its depiction of graft and corruption might give a false impression of American democracy. And portrayals of the extremes of poverty and wealth in America were censored. As Hirano tells us, a montage in The Great Gatsby (1949) of young people joy-riding, drinking, and running speak-easies had to be cut for distribution in Japan.

The race factor, then as now a central issue of political correctness, tied SCAP’s censors into intricate knots. During much of the Occupation, fraternizing with the former enemy was forbidden to the American occupiers. Inevitably, however, a great deal of fraternizing went on. But the problems involved in affairs between American soldiers and Japanese women could not be shown on screen. On the other hand, Hirano mentions a film, entitled Sorrowful Beauty, which raised objections against an interracial marriage. This had to be revised, the censors decided, “on the ground of racism.”

Perhaps most serious of all was the matter of the Japanese emperor. Representative government was all very well, but the emperor, in whose name war had been declared in 1941, had to protected “from ridicule, vituperation or virulent criticism.” This was the official guideline. SCAP, in the best tradition of Japanese Shoguns, thought he could rule Japan most effectively with the emperor as a symbolic figure who was unassailable from below and easy to manipulate from above. So protection was essential. Not only could the emperor not be called as a witness, let alone be tried as a defendant at the Tokyo War Crimes Trial, but his innocence during the war could not even be questioned. Hirano discusses at length the case of The Japanese Tragedy (1946). It is an unusual case, since it concerns a film passed by the censors at first, only to be banned later. The Japanese Tragedy, directed by Kamei Fumio, was a montage of newsreels, films, photographs, and newspaper cuttings suggesting that Emperor Hirohito was formally responsible for going to war. The point Kamei and other critics of the imperial system sought to make was that to be democrats, the Japanese had to be weaned from emperor worship. This could not succeed without a critical analysis of the imperial role during the war.

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