Wartime propaganda in pop culture

Asahi has a neat article with an unfortunately small, if tantalizing, photograph of an exhibit currently being held at the Marunouchi branch of Maruzen (I’m still bitter over you guys closing the Kyoto store!) in Tokyo until Monday, on the way that kimono designs of the pre-WW2 and wartime period reflected the political consciousness of the time. For example, in this photograph you can see a design reflected the tripartite alliance between Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy and Imperial Japan. Unfortunately, I’m nowhere near Tokyo so I’ve asked Adam if he could drop by and get some photos, or perhaps pick up whatever pamphlet or art book they have available because I would love to see more of these, and in some detail.

War-theme designs often mirrored current events. Inui found a kimono that depicted Adm. Heihachiro Togo, who was credited with Japan’s 1905 victory over the Russian fleet in the Sea of Japan.

She also found a design that spelled out the name of Yosuke Matsuoka–in romaji alphabet–then ambassador, when he pulled the Japanese delegation out of the League of Nations in Geneva in 1933.

Heartwarming stories and tear-jerkers also made it into kimono.

The story of the heroic Nikudan Sanyushi (Three human bullets), or Bakudan Sanyushi (Three human bombs)–three engineering corps soldiers who reportedly perished in a suicide bombing during the Shanghai incident in 1932–were given sweeping coverage by the media. Headlines and parts of the articles from The Asahi Shimbun and The Mainichi Shimbun became part of kimono designs.

This article  immediately made me think of one I had seen on BBC news a couple of weeks ago, on a similarly unexpected yet unsurprising penetration of wartime propaganda into popular culture: British boardgames of the World War II era.

Take the early wartime game Battle of the River Plate, for example. Based on the first major confrontation between German and British naval forces, it is one of the earliest known games to reflect the international conflict. Players tried to score points by firing wooden sticks at the ship with a spring action. A direct hit caused the gun turrets on the ship to “explode”.

Another, Bomber Command, depicts bombing squadrons and invites players to bomb Berlin, at the centre of the playing board. Players take turns to throw dice to move toward the target. When materials were in short supply, the dice were replaced by a numbered spinning card.

“It was a game you can easily imagine people playing sitting in the air raid shelter while being bombed by the Luftwaffe during the Blitz,” says historian and author, Robert Opie.

The article then goes on to mention the way in which WW2 comic books incorporated anti-Nazi and anti-Japan motifs, a number of examples of which I posted some time ago. And of course, one can’t forget what you must agree is the best comic book cover of the war, if not all time. That is, unless you like Hitler-and you don’t like Hitler, do you?

What would be some good examples of popular culture reflecting enemies and conflicts in the world around us today? Off the top of my head, there’s naturally “24,” which I’ve never seen but I understand is about how Arab terrorists want to kill us. And then of course there’s the video game Mercenaries: Playground of Destruction, in which a disaffected North Korean general stages a military coup on the eve of reunification with the South in some near future year, or on a similar but slightly more afield topic, take the third season episode of the fairly recent Justice League Unlimited cartoon show, in which a number of DC superheroes travel to a fictitious militaristic Northeast Asian nation, clearly modeled after North Korea, to stop a rampaging nuclear powered robotic monster which they claim they had built “to protect us from the foreigners,” clearly modeled after North Korea’s metaphorically rampaging nuclear (non-robotic) monster.

All of these are in fact less examples of government sponsored propaganda than grass roots, genuinely popular culture expressing such things as a society’s popularly held fears and hatreds regarding their enemies at that time. I recall during the first Gulf War, when I was 10 or 11 years old, I saw someone at a flea-market selling “Desert Shield” branded condoms, which exclaimed on the package something along the lines of “Don’t you wish Saddam Hussein’s father had worn one of these?” Perhaps it is due to the fact that I was out of the country during the early stages of the recent Iraq invasion, but I can think of no examples of similarly popular expressions of support for the current war. Is it wrong of me to think that the initial support for the invasion was, however high the level, generally a grudging and ambivalent sort of support, lacking the level of enthusiasm needed to generate items along the lines of the pro-Axis kimono, the Hitler-face dartboard, or the “Desert Shield” condom?

“Akiba-kei” nerd to run for the upper house: ZAKZAK is there


An Akihabara Nerd to Run for the Upper House… Tarui Dresses Like a Fantasy Warrior on RPG-like Homepage

The LDP’s Foreign Minister Taro Aso is well-known for being popular among the Akihabara (read:anime/manga/video game nerd) set, but there is one man in the DPJ who considers himself an “Akiba-kei” (Akihabara-style otaku). That man is 39-year-old Yoshikazu Tarui, a former Lower House member. He is gaining attention for his uniqueness in such odd moves as putting pictures of himself dressed like a fantasy warrior on his business cards and homepage and displaying images of DPJ President Ichiro Ozawa dressed as “King Zawa.”

t2007021310tarui1_b.jpgOpen Tarui’s homepage, and a story on the theme of “a country built on entertainment” will begin. It’s set up like a role-playing game, and King Zawa asks “Warrior Tarui”: “Hey, what happened Tarui? What is it?” as the story progresses.

Tarui is well known as a professional wrestling and kickboxing fan in the DPJ, and “Killer Kan” a great general played by Acting President Naoto Kan also shows up. This is a pun on the famous wrestler Killer Khan who was big in New Japan Pro Wrestling and famous for his special move the Mongolian Chop. DPJ Secretary General Yukio Hatoyama’s appearance is still in the planning stages, reportedly.

Tarui is running in this summer’s upper house race as a proportional representation candidate, but in response to questions from Yukan Fuji (=ZAKZAK), he explains, “Since there are no Akiba-kei Diet members in Nagata-cho, I thought that I’d try and grab the segment of people who are interested in pop culture and digital contents, so I made this site.” His campaign promise is “promotion of the entertainment content industry.”

t2007021310tarui2_b.jpgHe has a fold-out business card with the word “Tarutsu” on the cover in the style of famous video game magazine “Famitsu” along with a photo of Tarui dressed as a warrior. Open the card, and along with pictures of Tarui with “King Zawa” and “Killer Kan” there is a pun-filled message: 「かったるい国政、変えたるい!!」 (I’ll change the tired old national politics!). On the back is the strong slogan: “Bring the first akiba-kei Diet member in history back to national politics!”

You’d think he’d have confidence in this masterwork, but Tarui actually seems to be keeping his distance: “I gave this to Kan, but I’ve been too scared to show it to Ozawa since I made it without asking. This might freak regular people out, so I am not giving it out so much. I am mostly just giving it to people in the industry.

Certainly, there are those in Nagatocho who are cool on the wacky concept, saying “all we can do is laught,” but a source close to Tarui explains that he’s “a totally serious person.”

Actually, in Tarui’s own running column in “Weekly Famitsu” magazine, he seriously explains his ‘pet project’: “Promotion of entertainment not only has economic effects for the country, but will also help to raise [Japan’s] image. Would you want to fire a missile at Korea after having seen Winter Sonata? If you consider those feelings, you can understand that entertainment content is truly the best diplomat for prevention of wat and boosting tourism and economic exchange!”

Even Aso must be surprised at this guy!

ZAKZAK 2007/02/13

Both sides are likely to run celebrities and other fluff candidates for the national PR seats this summer, but a seasoned policy wonk with a taste for the absurd? I like.

ZAKZAK on why Dragon Quest is back on Nintendo

The Dragon Quest/Dragon Warrior series (one of my favorites) has made the move back to Nintendo from Sony, starting with Dragon Quest 9 on the DS. Why?

According to ZAKZAK, an industry insider explains: “The key can be found in the DS’s surprisingly strong sales. Currently, the cost of developing a game ranges from 300-500 million yen, but that will jump to 800 million – 1 billion yen with next-generation systems such as the PS3. Most developers who got a look at the PS3 when it made its first appearance as a demontration system at the Tokyo Game Show were intrigued by the clear images but did not get it in their heads to go that far themselves in game design. It would just cost too much.”

Games on portable systems cost much less to develop. And the DS is already a monster product, clocking 12 million units in sales since its release in December 2004. And of course games for that system have been hits as well, such as the “New Super Mario Brothers” and “DS Brain Training.” Add the latest installment of Dragon Quest, one of the top console series ever, to that lineup would be tantamount to “arming an ogre with an iron staff” in ZAKZAK’s vernacular (an analogy akin to “pouring gasoline on a fire”). Future DQ games will be released on the Nintendo Wii.

However, DQ series developer SquareEnix is not putting all its eggs in the Nintendo basket. The new Final Fantasy games will continue to be released on the Playstation as the company announced in May. SCE is also a major shareholder in SquareEnix.

Another JASRAC arrest

JASRAC, the copyright enforcement association for Japan’s music industry, has described criminal charges and arrests for copyright violators as rare. Yet less than 3 weeks after reports came out of a JASRAC-inspired arrest of a restaurant owner for singing the Beatles comes another arrest. This time, a man has been thrown in jail for distributing mobile phone ring tones on his website without permission.

CNET reports that similar to the recent arrest, JASRAC had repeatedly warned the 45-year-old suspect from Sasebo, Nagasaki Prefecture, since June 2002 to stop allowing people to download copyrighted songs from his website. In February 2003, the organization got the man’s ISP to delete the ring tones under the “ISP Liability Restriction Law” (author’s translation). However, the man continued to operate his website by linking to the files from a different source. The ISP shut down his site again in 2004, but JASRAC noticed the site was back up in April 2006. The association called the police after the man ignored a warning letter, and on November 27, the man was put in jail, charged with violations of reproduction rights and rights of public transmission as defined in Article 119 Section 1 of the Copyright Law.

In other JASRAC related news, the association recently co-released a report with the Association of Copyright for Computer Software (ACCS) estimating that monetary damage from copyright infringement of software, music, films, manga, etc, using the Winny peer-to-peer file sharing software (whose creator was arrested in 2003) amounts to about 10 billion yen (about USD$86 million), based on an estimate of the retail value of each file currently available for download using the software as of October 10. This is a pretty sloppy estimate, and it only goes to show how comparatively well-policed piracy is in Japan, especially when you compare that to the RIAA’s estimate that piracy loses the US music industry $4.2 billion annually in worldwide sales.

Colbert: “I want you to address my pachinko analogy”

Recent exchange from the Colbert Report:

Biologist/god critic Richard Dawkins: [Evolution] is a highly non-random process. The big thing that everyone misunderstands about Darwinism is they think it’s chance, they think it’s an accident, and it’s not an accident.

Colbert: Well, it’s too complex for us to perceive, you know, it’s like, I know a pachinko machine isn’t an accident, either, there’s a reason why it bounces from nail to nail, but it looks random to me, right?

Dawkins: Nothing in nature looks random.

Colbert: I want you to address my pachinko analogy!

Dawkins: I’ve never even heard of it, what is that?

Colbert: You’ve never heard of pachinko? Oh, it’s like Japanese pinball. It’s great, they make pornographic versions of it over there.

The Colbert character proves once again to be more complex than meets the eye. Just when you thought you knew his aggressively ignorant conservatism, off he goes and admits not only to an interest in other cultures but even a playful love of pornography!

But anyway, I’d like to show you a little of what Colbert was talking about. Yes, pachinko is similar to pinball, but unlike in the US where pachinko continues a slow fade into near-extinction, the vertically played Japanese game remains Japan’s top gambling institution, beating out horse betting and lotto-type games (not necessarily in that order). The gambling business side of pachinko is only semi-legal and the parlor owners are well known for ties with North Korea.

As for the machines themselves, my personal favorites are the ones featuring the chinful mug of the game’s biggest promoter, wrestling legend and former Diet member Antonio Inoki, who incidentally also has close ties with the North Korean elites:

inoki pachinko.jpg

Are there pornographic pachinko machines? The Cutie Honey series, featuring big-breasted anime women, may count:

More famously, there are numerous machines featuring 80s anime sensation Urusei Yatsura:


The game features the bikini-clad character Lum, and the outside of pachinko parlors are often plastered with her image. Similarly, you’ll also see some risque shots of Fujiko-san from Lupin III to advertise pachinko games based on the seminal anime series:

If you want to call these games pornographic I wouldn’t object, but at worst they are the softcore stuff similar to what you’d find in American comic books. The difference, I think, is that Americans visiting Japan (like myself) would probably feel uneasy with the flagrant, in your face placement of these images in public outside pachinko parlors, especially placed in the context of plentiful pornography (bikini shots in kid’s comics, men reading newspapers featuring full nudity on the train) and casual misogyny found throughout Japan’s pop culture.

Incidentally, there’s been a recent (2004-ish) release of a pachinko version of the epic anime title Neon Genesis Evangelion, for those who might like that sort of thing:

eva pachinko.jpg

Lord, save me from bad diary entries posing as journalism

Newsweek.com has an article about “Japan’s addictive arcades’ entitled “Zeon Attack!” which is apparently of such high quality that instead of putting it on the worthless physical pages of their magazine that people actually pay money for they made it WEB-EXCLUSIVE COMMENTARY so that only the most elite, web connected readers that can understand high tech edgy things like Japan and video games would be able to read it.

Here are a few choice quotes to give you an idea of how awesomely insightful this article is.

  • Though I can’t grasp the Japanese way of counting, I still remember the precise way to defeat Bald Bull in the old boxing game Punch Out. Those old-school games are nowhere to be seen in Japan today. The modern arcade is an exotic, sensory-overload, nearly impenetrable to foreigners.
  • Kazuki and Mizuki, two high school sophomores at a Shibuya arcade, told us they play purikura about once a week to capture “memories.”
  • He said he plays about twice a month at about $3 a game, though the stack of character cards in his hand betrays a deeper addiction. “I can learn all the background and histories of the characters,” he said, adding he also reads manga related to the Sangokushi saga. [Ed: Clearly he wouldn’t be playing the game because of a pre existing interest in the Chinese history/classical literature upon which it is based.]
  • My Japanese interpreter, fighting as a boxing-gloved Kangaroo with a snowboard on its back and scuba fins on its feet, was defeated in the game by a tattooed girl. [Ed: Wow! A Tattoo!! Japanese arcades really are so much cooler than the US, where you would never see a kid with a tattoo!]
  • young people dubbed neets (who live with their parents and refuse to get jobs), and freeters (who only have part-time work) are much-discussed social groups who exacerbate the population and workforce imbalance. [Ed: Gosh, I wonder what “neet” and “freeter” stand for. I bet the explanation would be way too complicated for foreigners like Newsweek writer Brad Stone or me to understand. ]
  • Adults want Japanese kids to leave the arcades, go to work and save the country. But they’re too busy saving the world, one Gundam battle at a time. [Ed: He’s right! Nobody goes to arcades if they actually have a job or classes to go to! Arcades are probably causing the population decline!!]

Columbine diaries

The diaries of the Columbine killers are at last online for the world to see. Here‘s a link to the PDF, and here’s the Smoking Gun site. While I of course condemn what Eric and Dylan did, as someone who also harbored misplaced resentment of the “popular kids” as a high school student I can’t help but feel a certain empathy toward them. Had I not found some positive encouragement and an outlet for my energy (studying Japanese of course) I could have ended up doing something similarly stupid. I think Matt Stone in Bowling for Columbine put it best when he said that if only someone could have told them that all the bullshit from high school ends almost from the day of graduation they might not have gone through with it.

My favorite part so far is the “Hell Dog” on page 79. He has two extra arms in addition to his four legs: one’s a chaingun, the other a rocket launcher. Sweet! Maybe we’ll see that monster in Doom 4.

A gift horse?

I spotted this
on a few gaming related blogs, but I think it’s important to note the similarity to Koizumi’s subtle attack on the President’s war policy.

President George W. Bush received an early birthday present on Wednesday from Nintendo. The game developer sent the president one of their DS Lite portable gaming machines and a copy of Brain Age: Train Your Brain in Minutes a Day.

No word on whether Bush, who turns 60 today, is a fan of the company or video games.

In the letter addressed to the presidential birthday boy, Nintendo points out the game will help the president “keep your mind sharp” and suggests President Bush should try it out on his next long flight aboard Air Force One.

Included in the gift pack was this letter:

Dear President Bush:

Happy Birthday!

Don’t worry, turning 60 is an exciting milestone. As you know, you’ve joined millions of other baby boomers in an invigorating new decade of your life. And, like many boomers, you may be looking for ways to keep your mind sharp. That’s where we come in.

Please accept our gift of a new Nintendo DS Lite system and a copy of Brain Age: Train Your Brain in Minutes a Day. You now join millions of people around the world who have fun challenging themselves with Brain Age. If you have never played a video game before, don’t worry. Brain Age is part of our new Touch Generations brand, which includes games that are easy for people of any age – regardless of their video game experience – to pick up and start playing immediately.

It’s obvious you don’t have a lot of time to play games, which makes Brain Age such a great activity for you – just a few minutes a day with more than 15 daily training tests will help keep your mind sharp. Training tests include categories like math, reading and memorization. Try it for a few days and watch your score improve. Brain Age also comes with more than 100 sudoku puzzles – these could make your next long flight on Air Force One a bit more fun! (Perhaps copies of Brain Age for journalists joining you on your next flight would be a nice distraction!)
Have fun exploring Brain Age with your Nintendo DS Lite and be sure to let us know your brain age!

Have a tremendous birthday!


Your Friends at Nintendo