Cultures of Creativity in Wartime Japan

AHA Session 183
Saturday, January 5, 2019: 10:30 AM-12:00 PM
Salon 7 (Palmer House Hilton, Third Floor)
Franziska Seraphim, Boston College
Laura E. Hein, Northwestern University

Session Abstract

Historians of Japan have begun to move past the notion of the wartime years as a simple “dark valley” of aggression abroad and oppression at home. Wartime Japan was indeed a time of great oppression, and a time when “American” forms of leisure (from jazz to Hollywood movies and dance halls) were under attack. But as recent research has shown, the wartime years were also a time of great consumption, the emergence of new political forms, and of new cultures or modes of play. This panel hopes to contribute to this reassessment of the wartime years by highlighting a vibrant culture of creativity that spanned both political and cultural life throughout Japan’s war for Asia.

Specifically, the panelists explore two cultures of creativity in wartime Japan. First, Benjamin Uchiyama’s paper emphasizes a creative use of leisure in the service of state goals. His paper focuses on the Imperial Rule Assistance Association’s Culture Movement, which engaged in an imaginative promotion of vaudeville theater across urban and rural Japan throughout the entirety of the Pacific War. Cultural activists, he argues, promoted vaudeville for highly conservative ends. They believed that a culture of leisure and pursuit of joy would improve public morale and ensure a willingness among Japanese subjects to sacrifice their livelihoods in the name of Empire, Emperor, and Nation.

Second, this panel highlights a creative culture of political imagination and order-building. Both Jeremy Yellen and Andrew Levidis highlight the creativity of various state actors, who saw the war as a unique opportunity to reorder the world and make Asia anew. Yellen’s paper focuses on the “stargazing diplomacy” of Japan’s irascible and bombastic Foreign Minister, Matsuoka Yōsuke. He argues that Matsuoka used what is best thought of as “sphere of influence diplomacy” in a creative if misguided attempt to build a world of pan-regions that would emerge after war’s end. Andrew Levidis tells a similar story from the point of view of Japan’s wartime parliamentarians. Diet members, he argues, embarked on an imaginative and ambitious project of refashioning the Japanese constitution to consolidate and reinvent the legal order of Japan’s expanded empire. In all, these papers highlight a vibrant culture of creativity across cultural and political life that punctuated even the darkest days of Japan’s World War II.

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