Ph.D. Candidate, Graduate School of Interdisciplinary Information Studies, University of Tokyo
Propaganda is widely understood to mean deliberate efforts to manipulate public opinion in order to further the political agenda of the propagandist (Cull, Culbert, and Welch 2003; O’Sullivan 1990). However, the term’s etymology reveals multiple layers of meaning. Propaganda was first used as a neutral term signifying the dissemination of religious doctrine when Pope Gregory XV established the Sacred Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith in 1622 to counter the influence of the Reformation. The purpose of this organization was not to distort information or propagate falsehoods but rather to disseminate the truths held absolute by disciples of the Catholic Church (Auerbach and Castronovo 2013).
The word propaganda entered more common usage after the onset of World War I. Academic research into propaganda activities dating from the 1920s to 1930s, such as Propaganda Technique in the World War (1927) by Harold D. Lasswell, defined propaganda as the manipulation of psychological symbols. Lasswell’s work on the methods employed by various countries during the war marks the origin of propaganda studies and consists of an analysis of propaganda symbols, content, and strategy. However, Lasswell does not weigh in on whether propaganda is positive or negative, instead suggesting that its validity depends on the perspective of the observer and the credibility of its content. Furthermore, Edward Bernays examined propaganda as a model for later forms of public relations communication. Bernays’s Propaganda (1928) suggests that this word carries a negative connotation, while arguing that the basis for judging whether propaganda is right or wrong lies in the merit of the associated project and the credibility of the information.
Whatever of social importance is done today, whether in politics, finance, manufacture, agriculture, charity, education, or other fields, must be done with the help of propaganda.
During World War II, as countries carried on many of the existing methods of propaganda that had been outlined in research after World War I, propaganda studies also advanced. The Institute for Propaganda Analysis, founded in 1937, defined propaganda as psychological manipulation employed by a certain individual or group for the purpose of influencing the opinions and activities of other individuals and groups. This definition emphasizes the intentional nature of propaganda. As Jowett and O’Donnell write, “the public seems most familiar (and comfortable) with the use of propaganda as a wartime activity, a notion that has contributed to the generally negative connotations associated with the term” (2006, 204), particularly during and after World War II.
During the Cold War, propaganda research gradually began to focus on national institutions, science and technology, and cultural industries, while the end of World War II compelled the United States and the Soviet Union to substitute outright violence with attempts to increase the credibility of their propaganda. Both superpowers used culture and technology to implement national propaganda projects in order to communicate their strength to the enemy and domestic audiences (Rawnsley 1999). Research at this time focused almost entirely on the power of propagandists, who deliberately manipulate information and imagination, and paid relatively little attention to the active nature of the audience. Jacques Ellul’s Propaganda: The Formation of Men’s Attitudes (1962) is a representative work that adopts a sociological approach. Two of the concepts presented by Ellul, “sociological propaganda” and “propaganda of integration,” define propaganda as a society-wide phenomenon inflecting education, consumption, and cultural life, while also constituting a unifying ideology or values that are forced upon the individual through general knowledge or mythology. In contrast to this Cold War-era research that views propaganda primarily according to a top-down model, O’Sullivan (1990) argues that given the emergence of viewpoints that consider propaganda as part of a culture composed of a multitude of media platforms, we should also focus on how propaganda concepts are received by audiences. Henceforth, research has tended to focus on the active nature of propaganda audiences.
At the beginning of the 1990s, the Cold War system collapsed, and new media technologies such as the internet made rapid inroads in society. Suddenly, the public was no longer limited to receiving messages conveyed through unidirectional media and gained the ability to create and disseminate their own messages. Just as this media environment facilitating multidirectional communication was emerging, researchers turned their attention to the relationship between propaganda and popular culture.
Edelstein redefines propaganda as a characteristic phenomenon of mass society that plays a central role in mass communication, proposing a model of “new propaganda” as a form of bottom-up propaganda. In this new propaganda, individuals living within the popular culture have gained the ability to initiate messages as well as respond to them. Contrary to the old propaganda grew that out of mass and totalitarian cultures, the new propaganda expresses the imperatives of participation in popular culture (Edelstein 1997). That is to say, propaganda is an element of popular culture formation that may reflect individual agency. Later, other scholars took the view that when the public actively utilizes propaganda, it no longer adheres to a top-down direction of dissemination. Rather, the public consumes propaganda while also producing and packaging their own information and truth, and that positive feelings such as pleasure, joy, belonging, and pride are essential mechanisms for winning over hearts and minds (Auerbach and Castronovo 2013). These perspectives illustrate a further deepening of the interaction of popular culture and propaganda.
Therefore, rather than simple untruthful manipulation on the part of the propagandists, propaganda unfolds mutually between producer and audience. As political persuasion takes the form of popular culture, pleasure is used to manipulate popular culture, and popular culture itself develops in tandem with propaganda. This is evident in numerous examples from World War II, particularly propaganda films, which were closely related to popular culture. Communications technology advanced rapidly during the war, and sound film and radio became a means for governments to form a direct link with domestic and foreign audiences. Propaganda thus became an alternative to diplomacy (Taylor 2003). As a medium of communication and a technological/economic system, film and cinemas were particularly capable of overcoming boundaries of education and class in much the same way as the oratory medium. Interwar leaders such as Lenin, Stalin, Hitler, Mussolini and the Japanese government regarded the cinema as a singularly powerful medium for propaganda (Pronay 1982). Additionally, the US military employed Frank Capra during the war to produce Why We Fight (1952–45), the first series of propaganda documentary films. The United States Office of War Information, established in 1941, regulated the film industry and increased the scale of propaganda film production in Hollywood. In addition to some popular films, such as Mrs. Miniver (1942) and The Boy from Stalingrad (1943), produced in Hollywood, Disney also made a series of animated films, including Der Fuehrer’s Face (1942) and The New Spirit (1943), to support the national propaganda campaign.
Radio was the other primary medium for propaganda that was utilized by countries during World War II. Because of its high penetration rate, radio saturated popular culture more completely than other media and played a crucial part in transforming the public and cultural arena into a wartime culture. During the Pacific War (1941-1945), the Japanese government created and used the voice “Tokyo Rose,” a female broadcaster of radio propaganda targeted at Allied soldiers. Her seductive voice was employed to cajole Allied soldiers to quit fighting the Japanese and demoralize them by appearing to know their ships’ missions and destinations.
Imperial Japan also employed other female characters as crucial disseminators of propaganda and wartime ideology. This essay will discuss in more detail one such female symbol in wartime Japanese propaganda, Yamaguchi Yoshiko (Ri Kōran or Li Xianglan), who became a film star famous throughout East Asia during the 1930s. Born in Mukden in northeastern China in 1920, Yamaguchi became a foster daughter of Li Jichun, the brother-in-law of her father Yamaguchi Fumio, at the age of thirteen and was given the new name “Ri Kōran.” In 1938, at the recommendation of a Kwangtung Army officer, Ri Kōran became a contract actress for the Manchukuo Film Association. On screen, she played mostly the non-Japanese roles of a Manchurian girl, a Beijing girl, and a Taiwanese girl. In the process, she became the female face of the Japanese colonies and led many to believe that Ri Kōran was a Chinese, not Japanese, actress (Yamaguchi 2000).
The Treaty of Portsmouth, which brought an end to the Russo-Japanese War in 1905, transferred the tip of the Liaodong Peninsula, known as the Kwantung Leased Territory, from Russian to Japanese rule. Afterwards, in 1932, one year after the Manchurian Incident, Japan’s Kwantung Army occupied northeastern China and founded the puppet state of Manchukuo. In order to govern the country’s multiethnic population, the Japanese authorities sought to propagate their ideology both domestically and abroad. In this context, the Manchukuo Film Association was founded in 1937. The Manchukuo Film Association was tasked with the mission of producing national propaganda and seen as an essential element of constructing Manchurian culture. Yamaguchi Yoshiko (aka Ri Kōran) was its main female star.
Why did the Manchukuo Film Association conceal her Japanese identity and promote her as Manchurian? At the time, more than 90% of Manchukuo’s population resided in rural villages (Ichikawa 1941). Beginning soon after the founding of Manchukuo, the government employed mobile film screenings as a means of disseminating national propaganda to the rural populace (Okita 1939). However, many audiences in rural areas could not understand the actors’ words, the story, or the visual images of Japan or modern life (Yamanaka 1932). Additionally, Manchurian audiences at urban cinemas complained that films produced by the Manchukuo Film Association lacked the entertainment value of flirtatious female stars (Oda 1941). Therefore, in 1938, a year after its establishment, the Manchukuo Film Association gradually adopted a production philosophy of emphasizing Manchurian elements and language in order to “appear Manchurian,” a strategy that was institutionalized as part of the film production plan known as “Overview of Films in the Empire of Manchuria” (Tsuboi 1939).
Ri Kōran blurred the boundaries of ethnicity and nationality in East Asia and, improbable as it was, became a visual symbol of the Great East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere and its mission of unifying Asia under Imperial Japan and ridding the continent of Western colonialism. After her debut as the Manchurian star Ri Kōran, she played heroines in a series of films produced by the Manchukuo Film Association in 1938. These films shaped her image as a “Manchurian girl who can speak Japanese fluently.” Beginning with Song of the White Orchid (Byakuran no uta; 1939), a coproduction between the Manchukuo Film Association and Tōhō Pictures, Ri Kōran also became famous in Japan. Song of the White Orchid is a love story set in Manchuria, in which a young engineer played by Hasegawa Kazuo falls in love with the daughter of a well-to-do Manchurian family (Ri Kōran) who helps him to protect the railways from anti-Japanese saboteurs. The success of this film was followed by China Nights (Shina no yoru; 1940) and Vow in the Desert (Nessa no chikai; 1940), in which Ri Kōran again costarred with Hasegawa. This series of films, produced in collaboration with Tōhō Pictures, was later named the “Continental Goodwill Trilogy” or the “Continental Trilogy” (Nagayama 2009). Each of these films portrays the drama of a Chinese/Manchurian woman fluent in Japanese who falls in love with and later marries a Japanese man after overcoming familial opposition. The narrative structure of a Japanese man who enlightens and rescues a Chinese/Manchurian woman can be read as a symbolic representation of the hierarchical relationship between Japan and China (or East and Southeast Asia in general). Moreover, the Chinese/Manchurian female characters played by Ri Kōran willingly submit to the control of their Japanese suitors (Wang 2007).
After becoming widely popular in the Japanese homeland, Ri Kōran turned to the film industry in Shanghai, a city occupied by Japan and known as the “Chinese Hollywood.” Though still unknown to Shanghai audiences, Ri Kōran costarred with two top actresses in Shanghai, Nancy Wan-Seung Chan and Meiyun Yuan, in Eternity (Wan shi liu fang; 1943). This film was a coproduction between Japanese-controlled film production companies, the China Film Company, the China United Film Production Company, and the Manchukuo Film Association. Eternity was composed as a propaganda film espousing the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere’s principle of resistance to Anglo-American imperialism. The film depicts the struggle of a Chinese hero, the Qing imperial commissioner Lin Zexu, against British imperialism during the Opium War in 1839. However, many Chinese viewers took the film to suggest resistance against the Japanese aggressors, and indeed, some Chinese producers who worked on the film sought to subvert the propaganda message by imbuing the narrative with an ambiguous antiforeign tone (Fu 2003). Ri Kōran became famous in China due to the popularity of Eternity. In 1944, when Ri Kōran released the song “Fragrance of the Night” (Ye lai xiang; 1944) and held a concert in Shanghai, she came to be known as one of the “Seven Queens of Music” in the Republic of China. Ri Kōran also grew famous in the Japanese colonies of Taiwan and Korea after playing a Taiwanese aboriginal girl in the propaganda film Sayon’s Bell (1941) and participating in entertainment performances for the Japanese military in Korea.
Ri Kōran, “Evening Primrose / Fragrance of the Night”
Yamaguchi Yoshiko thus became a representative of popular culture in wartime East Asia as the Manchurian Ri Kōran. Her identity was deliberately crafted as a form of propaganda to appeal to audiences in occupied and colonized areas. Hence, the public played an indispensable role in the creation of her stardom. Pain and fear permeated wartime social life, and it was the pleasurable characteristics of actresses and films tailored to audience desires that helped to relieve and assuage the stresses of war. This facilitated a unique interrelationship between propaganda and popular culture in wartime East Asia.
This case shows that “participation in popular culture,” today defined as new propaganda theory, can also be seen as early as wartime films, a medium that has been regarded as “old propaganda.” However, the bottom-up, active participation of the public that is emphasized in new propaganda theory was a deliberate part of the strategy of national film companies in Japan—as a method to strengthen their control over the colonies and occupied areas. The stardom of Ri Kōran was a product of this kind of propaganda that unfolds mutually between producer and audience. The popularity of Ri Kōran illustrates that a multitude of actors contribute to the production of ideology, rather than propaganda being defined completely by the state’s control of media. Nowadays, these actors may include the role of PR firms, think tanks, and lobbyists in the production of consent in order to avoid the appearance of official channels of state propaganda. While the case of Ri Kōran embodies the peculiarity of wartime popular culture and Japan in East Asia, it also offers us an allegorical reference for understanding the forms of propaganda that persist today.
* Translated by Samuel J. Holden.
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