Japan’s actions during and the Second World War are well known, as is the following American occupation and the ways in which the Japanese economy and government was deconstructed and rebuilt. The effects of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki have been studied extensively, from medical effects to economics to how Japan transformed from a militarily aggressive country into a nation of peacekeepers. But something that has not received much attention or scholarship is how experiences of the Second World War and the bombs have been lodged in the historical memory of the country, and the ways in which it has reshaped Japanese identity and psyche. Japanese society had been devastated by the war, their pride shattered by their surrender, their souls shaken by the horror of America’s new super weapon.  Even their conception of their own history was altered, divided into “before” and “after.”[1] From the ashes of their great cities, the Japanese had to learn how to redefine themselves based upon the difficult lessons they had learned. Who were they now, the vanquished, the conquered, the nuked? Who would they be once the occupying Americans left their shores and turned their new government over to them? Key to the rebirth of a new, post-war national identity is the extraordinarily popular phenomena of Japanese cartoons, better known as anime. “Japan’s experiences during the Pacific War have had a profound effect on its animated culture as well as its national identity.”[2] In a country which considers the bombs taboo, which does not teach the war in their classrooms, which refuses to acknowledge or accept responsibility for certain actions, one must look further than textbooks if one wishes to understand the true Japanese perspective on things.[3] The historical memory of the Pacific War and the response to being the only victims of nuclear weapons have been preserved and explored in the medium of Japanese comics and animation.

Cartoons, regarded in America strictly as children’s entertainment, may seem an odd topic for scholarly study. However, in Japanese culture, these cartoons are so much more than just a way to distract the kids while attempting to cook dinner or have a quiet moment to ones’ self. Anime appeals to a wide demographic in Japan, from the youngest children to grown adults. When taken as a whole, anime reflects the evolving ideals of particular Japanese age groups as they grow and mature.[4] Universities in both Japan and America have even begun to offer courses in anime for just that reason: the brightly colored cartoons reveal much about Japanese culture and society.[5] Even in America anime has a wide following, its fans ranging in age from early teens to fully grown, intelligent, educated adults. This is because, unlike American cartoons with their formulaic plots and clear, simple delineation between good and evil, anime deals with complex themes and features fully-developed characters with depth and complicated motives.

Given that the Japanese written language has evolved from pictograms, telling stories through the medium of pictures is, for them, quite natural.  Perhaps this is why comics, known as manga, make up the largest portion of the Japanese publishing industry and animated features account for half of Japanese box office revenues.[6]  Hayao Miyazaki’s animated feature Princess Mononoke is the highest grossing Japanese film of all time.[7]  It is for all these reasons that anime must be taken seriously as a window into the Japanese psyche.

World War II as Seen Through Animated Eyes

Anime developed from manga, which in turn developed from the early 19th century wood block prints of Katsushika Hokusai. Other artists added captions to his images to express themselves in ways that had been forbidden by the government.[8]  Manga and anime have carried on this tradition, their artists frequently using vivid characters and engaging story lines to convey opinions which otherwise might be considered too taboo, political, or controversial for polite conversation. In Japan, the war and especially the bombs have long remained a painful topic.  Like the way anger over the American Civil War is often passed down through generations of Southern families, or rage over slavery is passed from parent to child in African-Americans, the deep psychological wounds from the Pacific War have been passed from survivors to their descendants.[9] These scars, and the issues causing them, are frequently expressed symbolically in the popular medium of anime, leading to the repetition of particular themes across the genres.

Using the cover of science fiction or fantasy, anime often portrays the events of World War II and explores Japanese feelings about them.[10]  A study of anime over the past sixty years reveals not only these feelings, but how they have evolved.  Immediate post-war manga, from which anime developed, focused primarily on heroics and dedication, skating over the issues of loss, surrender, and the bombs. Even today anime generally avoids overt mention of these painful topics, yet as time has passed more and more animators have chosen to tackle the issues head-on. This growing boldness can be seen as indicative of Japan’s returning confidence as the nation has become reestablished as a world power.[11] Yet even today, most anime only deals with the war and the bombs in terms of symbols, leading to recurring themes that can be traced across the genre.

[1] S.T Cartledge, “Rebuilding Neo-Tokyo: The Search for Normality in the Apocalypse of Akira,” http://themanifold.wordpress.com/2012/01/20/rebuilding-neo-tokyo-the-search-for-normality-in-the-apocalypse-of-akira, (accessed May 5, 2014).

[2] Jack Singleton, “Japanese Animation, the Pacific War, and the Atomic Bomb,” http://www.impactnottingham.com/2011/08/japanese-animation-the-pacific-war-and-the-atomic-bomb, (accessed May 5, 2014).

[3] Shelia Fling, “Psychological Impact of Hiroshima/Nagasaki Bombings: Photograph and Film Teaching Materials,” (speech, San Marcos, Texas, June 24-27, 2003).

[4] Frank Robert Fuller, “The Atomic Bomb: Reflections in Japanese Manga and Anime,” (PhD diss., Clark Atlanta University, 2012), 16.

[5] Ibid., 70.

[6] Ibid., 7.

[7] Susan J Napier, Anime: from Akira to Howl’s Moving Castle (New York: MacMillan, 2005), 232.

[8] Fuller, 7.

[9]  “Nuclear Weapons Taboo,” TV Tropes, http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/NuclearWeaponsTaboo (accessed May 5, 2014).

[10] http://www.impactnottingham.com/2011/08/japanese-animation-the-pacific-war-and-the-atomic-bomb