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The Thought War: Japanese Imperial Propaganda
254pp. February 2006
The Thought War: Japanese Imperial Propaganda
Author: Kushner, Barak;
"A major contribution both to the study of Japan and propaganda in the twentieth century. Barak Kushner meticulously and convincingly reveals the full scope of what was assumed to not have existed; namely an organized, multifaceted, and disturbingly resilient system of Japanese propaganda. Based on an impressive array of primary sources, many only recently uncovered, The Thought War provides a fascinating assessment of the complex and often contradictory processes of Japanese propaganda in an imperial context." —Michael Baskett, professor of film studies, University of Kansas

"Barak Kushner has written a first-rate study of propaganda in Japan during the Second World War. In a work of painstaking research, he takes his readers into the heart of wartime Japan, building a compelling argument that Japanese propaganda was sophisticated and effective in rallying the population and, after the war, seamlessly redirecting it to aid the transformation of Imperial Japan into the post-war democracy of today. The Thought War is a superbly competent piece of research that floods light into a place where only generalization, supposition, and stereotype had existed before." —Nicholas J. Cull, University of Southern California, editor, Propaganda and Mass Persuasion: A Historical Encyclopedia, 1500–present

"The Thought War is a unique and remarkable study. Barak Kushner reveals that Japanese propaganda during World War II was astonishingly sophisticated, diverse, and effective. What’s more, the methods, messages, and makers of wartime propaganda proved just as successful at shaping public opinion in the wake of Japan’s defeat as they earlier had been in mobilizing the nation for war. Kushner’s insights on Japan’s path from empire, through war, and into postwar reconstruction are provocative, compelling, and thoroughly convincing." —William M. Tsutsui, chair of the Department of Asian Studies, University of Kansas

The Thought War is the first book in English to examine the full extent of Japan’s wartime propaganda. Based on a wide range of archival material and sources in Japanese, Chinese, and English, it explores the propaganda programs of the Japanese government from 1931 to 1945, demonstrating the true scope of imperial propaganda and its pervasive influence, an influence that is still felt today. Contrary to popular postwar rhetoric, it was not emperor worship or military authoritarianism that led an entire nation to war. Rather, it was the creation of a powerful image of Japan as the leader of modern Asia and the belief that the Japanese could and would guide Asia to a new, glorious period of reform that appealed to imperial subjects.

Kushner analyzes the role of the police and military in defining socially acceptable belief and behavior by using their influence to root out malcontents. His research is the first of its kind to treat propaganda as a profession in wartime Japan. He shows that the leadership was not confined to the crude tools of sloganeering and government-sponsored demonstrations but was able instead to appropriate the expertise of the nation’s advertising firms to "sell" the image of Japan as Asia’s leader and modernizer. In his exploration of the propaganda war in popular culture and the entertainment industry, Kushner discloses how entertainers sought to bolster their careers by adopting as their own pro-war messages that then filtered down into society and took hold. Japanese propaganda frequently conflicted with Chinese and American visions of empire, and Kushner reveals the reactions of these two nations to Japan’s efforts and the meaning of their responses.

13 illus.

"Completely individual and very interesting. . . . Kushner’s book is, I think, the first to treat propaganda as a profession in wartime Japan. He follows it through its various stages and is particularly interested in its popular acceptance—wartime comedy, variety shows, how entertainers sought to bolster their careers by adopting the prewar message, which then filtered down into society and took hold. Using almost entirely primary materials, which have not before been translated, Barak re-creates the wartime world in which propaganda was the truth. In so doing, he has given us an eminently readable account of an unknown aspect of the war and has defined our understanding of it." —Donald Richie, Japan Times (20 November 2005) (Read full review)

"[The Thought War] reveals a good deal more about Japan at war than has been available heretofore in Western languages. If propaganda is understood in its classic sense of truth or falsehood deliberately spread to promote a cause, [it] detects wide evidence of it in political ideology, public relations, advertising, hortatory admonitions to citizens, and even in the coercive tactics of the thought police. This soundly researched book highlights the multiple, often ill-coordinated sources of Japan’s wartime propaganda. . . . [It] should help considerably in advancing the urgent project of defining and assessing responsibility, not only for Japan but for all combatants, and not only for World War II but for all conflicts and modes of political violence." —Journal of Japanese Studies (33:1, 2007)

"Kushner discovers that, contrary to what is usually believed, Japan’s wartime propagandawas rational, depicting Japan as a modern state. It was effective because it appealed to reason rather than to mystical nationalism or to the cult of the emperor. It presented Japan as a progressive, scientific, and hygienic country, ‘the harbinger of civilization that Asia should strive to emulate’ (p. 11). As such, Japan shouldered the obligation to liberate and lead its less fortunate neighbors. This message had a great appeal to intellectuals, who supported the war as a campaign to liberate Asia." —Monumenta Nipponica (61, 2006) (Access full review at Project Muse)

"The emperor figured little, Kushner notes, in Japanese propaganda. What did figure, first and foremost, was ‘modernization.’ This was the overall theme, and it was intellectually respectable. Japan was a demonstrably ‘modern’ country, the only one in Asia. It was a ‘civilizing force,’ the natural leader of a pan-Asian modernity drive. Stalinist, Nazi and fascist propaganda depended upon dictatorial force on the one hand and, in the sense that its messages could scarcely withstand intelligent scrutiny, mass intellectual self-suppression on the other. Japanese propaganda was different. It was credible. Japan had modernized; Japan was more advanced than its Asian neighbors." —International Herald Tribune (15 July 2006)

Author: Kushner, Barak;
Barak Kushner taught Japanese and Chinese history at Davidson College, North Carolina. He currently lectures on modern Japanese history at the University of Cambridge.
Read the table of contents and/or the introduction (PDF).