Face Value: How World War II stereotypes of the Japanese linger on to this day

In this article Manfred Gabriel argues that as a result of World War II propaganda, some people in the West expect Japanese people to ‘appear’ a certain way…


I was watching the Japanese Anime film, The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, the other night, when a question popped into my head that American and European fans of the genre have been asking for decades. Why do Japanese animators make their characters look Caucasian? Why the light skin, the round eyes, the light colored hair?

Academic papers have even been written on the subject and what it says about Japanese culture. Some have posited that the reason is the influence of Disney Movies on early anime artists. Others have claimed it is to do with an envy the Japanese have for all things Western.

The answer, however, can be summed up simply – they aren’t Caucasian at all.

Now, let’s get one thing straight. Not all Japanese look alike, no more than all South Africans, Mexicans or Canadians look alike. While there may be some shared characteristics due to genetic factors, there is no one particular look for any one people. I myself can trace my German heritage back four hundred years on both sides of my family, yet among my two brothers and three sisters, there isn’t one blond haired, blue eyed person.

That said, look at the photo to the right of a real life Japanese girl and an anime character. Once you account for the lighting, the resemblance is uncanny.

And how about the image to the left of the Japanese fashion model Sosaki Nozomi? 

World War II propaganda

The job of the soldier is to kill the enemy. But killing someone is no easy task. Those who train snipers will tell you that they can teach almost anyone to shoot another person through the head at five hundred yards. The hard part is finding people with the proper temperament to pull the trigger. One of the reasons for Nazi death camps, besides them being the most efficient means for mass slaughter, was that many of the men ordered to shoot the Jews (the method used before gassing) were having mental and emotional difficulties from shooting others.

The solution is to dehumanize the enemy. Turn them into monsters. You aren’t killing a person, you are killing an animal. And this is exactly what the US propaganda machine set out to do.

On June 13, 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt established the Office of War Information (OWI). Headed by the popular CBS radio newscaster Elmer Davis, it was created by combining several separate government departments into one. Its 3,000 employees were charged with controlling all news about the war and motivating Americans both at home and abroad.

World War II was total war, and everyone was expected to do his or her part to ensure victory. The OWI used short films, newspaper articles, newsreels, radio broadcasts and especially posters to encourage people to recycle, conserve fuel, maximize factory production, buy war bonds and write to troops. It promoted enlistment and continued to remind the troops on the front why they were stuck in muddy fox holes or storming some remote Pacific island.

All information regarding the war that came to the public had to go through the OWI. Among its output was 100,000 cable wireless words a day, 350 daily radio programs and 50 movie shorts per year. Over its three year history, it became the largest pamphlet and magazine publisher in the world.

The poster encourages employees not to call in sick to work.

Not many people complained about the OWI’s control over media. In fact, many in the military self-censored, seeing it as their patriotic duty to show America, and its armed forces, in the best possible light.

The OWI’s message was simple – this was a fight of good versus evil. Nothing was shown or communicated that could undermine this message. Maimed soldiers were never depicted, the dead only shown towards the end of the war. The enemy was always shown in a negative light. The OWI enlisted film-makers from Hollywood and advertisers from Madison Avenue to help hone this message. And to reinforce this message, they made the enemy look as evil as possible.

The inherent idea was this: the Japanese aren’t human. You can shoot them, bayonet them, even drop an atomic bomb on them with a clear conscience.

An actual photo of two young Japanese soldiers.

Remove the uniforms and swords (you can just see the hilts at the bottom of the photo) and what you have are a couple of good looking young men, who could be your neighbor, your co-worker, the clerk at the corner grocery. Certainly no one who deserves death.  

Don’t get me wrong – I’m not saying that Imperial Japan didn’t deserve to be defeated in World War II. I’m also not saying that US Propaganda was unique in this tactic. The Nazis, for example, were excellent at depicting Jews as ugly, rat-like creatures, helping them to justify mass extermination. But the OWI did use some methods that leave a sour taste in the mouth.

The OWI was dissolved with the war’s end in 1945, with most of its duties going to the State Department. All these decades later, its depictions of enemies who are now our friends still linger on.


By Manfred Gabriel


Enjoy this article? Well, another article from Manfred is here. It is about the story of how a car defined a nation.