Japanese Soldiers and Civilians during the Second Sino-Japanese War

In 1937, the Empire of Japan invaded the Republic of China, setting off the Second Sino-Japanese War. This conflict–later a part of the much larger Pacific War, the Asian theater of World War II–was the result of many years of Japanese imperialist expansion into Chinese territory, which was fragmented and under the control of various regional governments. Military maneuvers began with the Japanese invasion of Manchuria in 1931, after which Japan established the puppet state of Manchukuo to exert influence and extract material resources from Northeast China. In the years between this invasion and the outbreak of war in 1937, Japan made further territorial gains, using the justification that these areas were under the historical jurisdiction of Manchuria and, therefore, Manchukuo. In 1937, the Japanese conducted a full-scale invasion, capturing Beijing, then Shanghai, and finally Nanjing.

All of these military maneuvers were widely popular among the Japanese people. Indeed, Japanese control over Manchuria was seen as the reward for winning the Russo-Japanese war. Manchuria existed in the popular Japanese imagination as something like the Wild West did for Americans: an untamed place where a Japanese citizen willing to endure some risk could go and earn an enormous amount of wealth. On societal level, Manchuria was seen as Japan’s economic lifeline in the midst of a worldwide depression–which allowed the Japanese state to describe their territorial expansions as necessary to defend Manchukuo from “Chinese aggression.” The popularity of the Manchurian invasions, which had been brought about by the Japanese military in direct contravention of civil orders, also consolidated military control over Japan’s civil government.

At the Kislak Center, we are privileged to have several fascinating photo albums collected by Japanese soldiers during the Second Sino-Japanese War. These albums provide documentary evidence of battles in Manchuria and Northeastern China, as well as candid shots of soldiers in the field and in camp. Some of the albums document the moment after 1941, when the American entry into the conflict inaugurated the Pacific War, the larger Asian theater of World War II. All of them document the home front as well the battlefield, as all sectors of Japanese society were mobilized in the war effort.

(One of the first thing one notices in these photographs is the extreme youth of the enlisted soldiers. Seen here in military dress with his family, this enlisted youth seems like he couldn’t be a day over fourteen.)

During the 1930s, there was little civilian resistance among the Japanese to the drive towards war. Part of this had to do with the suppressing of Japanese left-wing movements; another part had to do with the central role Manchuria played in the popular imagination. Many soldiers who travelled to Northeast China as part of the war effort shared these cultural assumptions about Japan’s own “Wild West,” which are reflected in the camera’s gaze. (One could be forgiven, lacking proper context, for imagining these photos were of a group of miners in a camp far from home, and not soldiers.)

In fact, there was a war on–and photographic representations in mass media played a crucial part in sustaining domestic consensus around the Japanese army’s invincibility and its sovereign rights in greater East Asia. Carefully selected photographs reinforced the narrative of smooth, continuous victory. This desire for manufactured images of victory extended even to the photo albums of regular soldiers. Examine the posed shots below (most likely around the Battle of Shanghai) and wonder: who demanded these men play these roles? Commanding officers? Did the soldiers themselves stage a reenactment for family members at home, having internalized the need for images of victory?

At this point in the 1930s, there was little need to manufacture consent. All segments of society had been mobilized for wartime production, and patriotism ran high. The Greater Japan National Defense Women’s Association, formed to support the initial invasion of Manchuria, organized funding drives for military efforts, recycling initiatives, and other resource conservation strategies.

Men who were not enlisted had other opportunities to contribute to the war effort. Some of them were part of Civil Engineering corps, such as the Ishikawa Civil Engineers.

Even Buddhist monks, who one might have considered pacifist by definition, found ways to fit their contemplative work into an imperial context, reviving the links between Zen and the martial state. The banners in this snapshot include the phrase from the Buddhist sutras, “engage in ascetic practices with a dauntless spirit,” invoked in the Bushido ethic.

Even in the midst of a nationwide drive towards military imperialism, there were, of course, cracks in the facade. These albums are notable for the way in which they both uphold and subtly undermine official visions of civil consensus and military dominance. Among the posed shots of women’s societies, we also find candid shots of women’s groups leading air raid evacuation and bucket brigade drills: a kinetic, messy process that showcased both preparedness and fear.

In other photographs, spontaneous emotions appear in the midst of otherwise formal setting. Here, an enlisted man about to embark on his assignment in the Japanese Navy betrays emotions we can only guess at. Fear of battle? Sadness at leaving home?

As one would expect from personal photograph albums, this series of photographs from regular enlisted men are perhaps most notable for the information they give about the day-to-day lives of soldiers. Underneath the cultural conceptions of Japan’s imperial project and the propaganda around the war itself, the daily life of a soldier allowed for moments of boredom, reflection, and even strange beauty. These albums are full of such moments, in which we briefly find ourselves confronted by a glimpse of what it meant to be living on the edge of one of history’s most extensive military mobilizations. One of the latest photos from these albums, taken in November, 1944 by a Japanese pilot, shows the last stages of the Pacific War. Here, as pilots wait for their turn to fly, their body language betrays a shared exhaustion that would never appear in official images. Surrender was less than a year away.

Collections Cited

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