Everyone in Japan knows how to do Radio Taiso.
It’s performed as the first task of the morning in a number of corporate and government offices before the official start of early morning tasks. The Post Office has done it the longest, as they were the first to import the practice after a trip to the US in 1928. Americans were treated, at the time, to a 15-minute exercise by the company that is now MetLife Insurance. Americans abandoned the practice, but it lived on in Japan, where it found favor from Emperor Hirohito. It is intended for children and is performed, jauntily, on a piano; each measure comes with a corresponding stretch. In the summer, the kids outside of my apartment do it with their parents on the patio at an appallingly early hour.
Japan’s deceptively charming mass-stretching practice was banned for a short time by the American occupation, worried not, as I’d suspected, by the adorableness of it all, but because in 1938 NHK refused to play songs about anything that didn’t inspire national pride. As such, children’s lyrics had been changed to include lines like “They who bear the burden of protecting Greater East Asia are the children of righteous Japan, we are those children.”
Children’s songs from this era were also restricted to a series produced by MEXT, literally all of which had terribly racist and nationalistic lyrics. Favorites include, “Japan is a good country, it is a strong country, Japan shines brighter than every other country.”
Elementary School Children spent 3 hours a week learning these songs and performing them; then 2 hours a week in junior high. Radio Taiso emerged from a gym class routine that was specifically implemented in 1917, with the Ministry of Education ordering that male “students above middle school should be trained to be a soldier with patriotic conformity, martial spirit, obedience, and toughness of mind and body.” The military would send drill inspectors to schools to make sure this order was being carried out properly.
Radio Taiso doesn’t have much room to be inherently racist or nationalistic, but the way the government treated it was. Japanese newspapers ran quirky, propaganda lifestyle pieces about how the radio broadcast was being transmitted in occupied territories, with pictures of Filipinos and Chinese citizens following the routine, evidence that Japanese sunshine was warming the hearts of Asians everywhere, an image that masked the shocking brutality of the Japanese military.
With the US occupying Japan, many of these songs, including Radio Taiso, were replaced with modern swing tunes for the benefit of the occupying soldiers. Some of the lyrics were changed. Notably, in “The Sunshine Song,” the line “Become a person, a national subject, who is useful to the nation,” was replaced with the much less threatening “Always be smiling, cheerful and energetic!”
Radio Taiso isn’t the only aspect of Japanese children’s culture darkened by the shadow of the second world war. I once had a confrontation with a particularly dreadful teacher over having my students do a performance of “Momotaro,” or “Peach Boy.”
Peach Boy seems harmless enough, and is pitched as a traditional folk tale. It’s not that traditional, dating back to about 1753, and even then the story had many local variants, mostly that a boy was born after a woman ate a magic peach and became young again, the son being named “Peach Boy.”
The Meiji era version, which was popularized during WW2, had Momotaro born from a giant peach. He eats well and grows big and strong. A weary old traveler comes by the teenaged peach boy and tells him about an island of demons that keeps coming to their town, fighting everyone and stealing treasure. Peach Boy joins forces with some animals to raid an island of demons. Fighting the demons until they surrender their treasures, Momotaro returns home with the treasures and is praised as a hero.
You can see why this story would be popular among a nation in the midst of “liberating” other nations in a bid to win their precious natural resources.
Reading this story, and needing a longer script for the students to perform, I proposed an extended version. Peach Boy’s brother, Plum Boy, meets with the beaten demons and comes to understand that Peach Boy had in fact done everything the demons were accused of: He invaded their lands, fought with their people and stole all of their treasure. Plum Boy goes to Peach Boy and says they must return the treasures and apologize for their violent ways, and promise never to fight or steal treasures ever again. Peach Boy is warned against fighting people who are different from him, based solely on what he is told by his elders. While not being explicitly political, I thought the moral of the story would be a good one to share, and the story was told in a breezy, funny manner which praised critical thinking.
My co-teacher was unimpressed with this rendition, and it was censored in an act reminiscent of the good old days. The performance went on as the original was written, with Momotaro returning, victorious, after vanquishing demons he’d never seen before and stealing all of their stuff. Tradition!
Another curiously lingering echo of World War II in Japanese culture is the continued popularity of the science fiction anime series, Battleship Yamato. Historically, the Battleship Yamato was sunk outside of Okinawa in what many see as the symbolic tipping point of World War II, the point where Japan could only inch its way to surrender.
In the 1970s Japan was a few decades removed from the war and seeing a shiny, rich future on the horizon. An animated series (compiled into a much more popular film) called “Space Battleship Yamato” bridged the gap between the past and hopeful future. The premise: Earth is radioactive, and aliens, called Gamilans, are trying to invade the planet. The government of Japan (it seems to have escaped every other nation’s problem-solving checklist) decides that now is the time to revive the sunken, 1940’s Imperial battleship Yamato.
Yamato, like Peach Boy, has a historical lineage: The name is the old name for Japan, and the idea of “Yamato Spirit” long predated the ship. But Yamato was the largest battleship in the world at the time, and was the last line of defense protecting old Japan from occupation. In the series, the sailing of the original ship, with its freight of Imperial hopes and dreams, is juxtaposed with crews pulling the old ship out of the sea. The ship is then heralded as a savior once it is relaunched as a spaceship which goes on to save the world.
Space Battleship Yamato is a weird one, because it’s, in one sense, whitewashing the past – the ship, had it been victorious, would have expanded the reign of terror over Asia. But in the series there is also an element of redemption. The ship is transformed from wartime defender of national horrors into a savior of the entire planet, redeeming itself and Japan’s image to the world. In some strange way, the idea of Battleship Yamato almost plays out as a “sumimasen,” an apology and a wish for atonement.
That said, one could hardly imagine the Germans dusting off the Luftwaffe imagery and refitting it for fighting an invading army of aliens. Furthermore, the Spaceship Yamato’s constant plot device of steering directly into practically suicidal collisions with enemies (including the sun) only to escape unharmed is a spooky echo of a notorious wartime tactic.
All of this plays out quite differently for someone who knows these histories only from the American perspective, who was introduced to these concepts as symbols of Japanese atrocities. None of this should imply that Japan’s dark past is alive today, except in the most extreme corners of frustrated political losers.
Nations have tricky relationships to their ugliest histories. This can be unsettling in Japan, until I remember my own textbooks. It’s hard to find much righteous indignation with the country’s coping mechanism of looking the other way. I grew up in a high school where we were still able to imagine being kind white slave owners – “I’d have been nice to my slaves,” – and where the Trail of Tears is presented alongside weirdly fawning appraisals of Andrew Jackson’s presidency, as if the mass relocation and deaths of a native ethnic minority and the transfer of their land wasn’t enough to render any other accomplishment of Jackson moot. And then, of course, there are the internments at Manzanar, all but ignored in our own history books.
Far from finding myself an apologist for the actions of Japan, or of my own – or any other – country, it’s interesting to note the places where these ideas are allowed to linger, even if it is hidden within an innocuous tradition. Radio Taiso has been stripped of its past as a symbol of cultural transformation in occupied lands. Now it’s about stretching your body, not your empire. But sometimes, something in the old culture creeps in, teaching a backwards ideal that matches an old past we wish would be left alone. For me, Peach Boy is that kind of story, a story where the hero invades, conquers, and takes what he wants.
We can acknowledge context and use the shadows cast over our own culture to remind ourselves of the greater lessons of the era from which it came, forgiving the embrace of some symbols of the past while holding people accountable for embracing the dangerous ideologies they’ve come to represent. That’s the nasty bit about war: You can’t expect a country to eradicate itself in apology, but every lingering reminder will always carry the unfortunate connotations of the past.
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