Consumption, Empire, and Total War: Commodities and Spectacle in Japan’s Wartime System

AHA Session 151
Saturday, January 9, 2016: 9:00 AM-11:00 AM
Room A704 (Atlanta Marriott Marquis, Atrium Level)
Noriko Aso, University of California, Santa Cruz
Mark Driscoll, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Session Abstract

Following the Japanese army’s seizure of Manchuria in 1931, the imperial Japanese state increasingly sought to explain the significance of its military actions to the populations throughout the empire. Scholars have written a great deal about how the wartime ideology admonished individuals to sacrifice themselves in the interests of the nation. As is also well known, the state actively policed dissent through such vehicles as the secret police. The papers in this panel stress, however, that the creation of the wartime Japanese subject did not simply happen in a negative fashion. In addition to policing dissent, the state also cultivated and channeled individual desire in the process of national mobilization. It is often overlooked that consumption remained an important aspect of the creation of the imperial subject into the late 1930s and 1940s. While forms of consumption were certainly circumscribed, the commodities that were in circulation played an important role in disseminating ideologies of militarism and empire. By preserving and encouraging certain forms of consumption, the wartime state sought to harness individual desire to the cause of imperial mobilization and expansion.

This panel explores important consumer practices in interwar and wartime Japan. The projects analyzed by the different authors reveal the ways consumption functioned to mobilize the population for total war across the Japanese empire. While a famous slogan from the wartime period exhorted that "luxury is the enemy," the individual papers demonstrate some of the important ways in which consumption continued to serve as a vehicle for promulgating ideologies and practices of empire. Noriko Aso examines ways in which Mitsukoshi Department Store’s collaboration with the Japanese state in waging war has not only been obscured by its reputation as a Western-style consumer mecca, but also opens up an opportunity to rethink its role in organizing production as well as consumption. Ryan Moran's paper explores the importance of life insurance to wartime mobilization, as the Japanese state used life insurance to extract economic resources from the body of the populace. Life insurance, moreover, played an important role in orienting the populace towards a perfectible future in which the wartime state's promises of peace and prosperity would be actualized. Max Ward’s paper explores the “Thought War Exhibition” held at department stores throughout the Japanese Empire in 1938, and how the exhibition revealed constitutive contradictions in imperial ideology. Together, the papers make an important intervention into our understanding of how practices of consumption and the stimulation of desire worked to transmit ideologies and practices of empire.

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