Japanese History Professor Redefines Cultural History of Wartime Japan
By Teresa Chen
On November 3rd, The Council on East Asian Studies hosted a talk by Benjamin Uchiyama, Assistant Professor of History at the University of Kansas. Uchiyama is currently in the process of publishing a book on Japan’s cultural history in World War II, and shared the findings of one chapter in his lecture on Thursday.
War. Murder. Death. These are the heavy themes surrounding Japanese history during the Sino-Japanese Wars and the years leading up to World War II. The war crimes committed by Japanese soldiers are socially censored topics Japanese society, even today. In his lecture, Uchiyama sought to break down these social walls in an effort to restart conversation about this period of history. Titled “The Thrill Hunter and the Killing Contest: Rethinking the Cultural History of Wartime Japan,” the talk sought to unpack a sensitive part of history for the Japanese—one filled with war atrocities and war crimes—that many Japanese today try to forget.
Interestingly enough, Uchiyama said, “during this time period of the 30s and 40s, the Japanese celebrated the war. The Japanese media promoted gleefully the killing of Chinese people for sport.” For example, all the Japanese newspapers at the time were feverishly reporting on the death tolls of Chinese soldiers. Headlines sported phrases such as “Chinese soldiers sliced like watermelon.” Other iterations of the phrase included “sliced like daikon” or “chopped like vegetables.”
This sensationalism, Uchiyama argued, climaxed around kill-count stories and, in particular, the Hundred Man Killing Contest. This contest surrounded two Japanese lieutenants, Mukai and Noda, in their quests to become the first Japanese soldier to kill 100 Chinese soldiers. Over a span of weeks, Japanese newspapers would update readers on Mukai and Noda’s kill-count status and place this serialized story on the front page. “But, funnily—or depressingly enough—in the frenzy of war, both men had slaughtered 100 Chinese soldiers, and nobody saw who had reached the count first. And so they extended it to 150,” Uchiyama explained.
Uchiyama takes note of this sharp shift in Japanese war culture during this time period. Previously, war stories were serious and spoke of bravery, with the Japanese soldier typically dying in a heroic fashion. In the wake of World War II, endings of these narratives involved Chinese soldiers dying, not the Japanese. Furthermore, these tales were meant to be funny and celebratory.
When asked why this was so, Uchiyama explained the pivotal role of Japanese journalists at the time. Japanese journalists were highly respected public figures and worked closely with the military to build public trust. In fact, lines were heavily blurred between soldier and reporter. Uchiyama talked about how the same rituals used to thank soldiers for their service were also performed for reporters. Japanese citizens prayed for both soldiers and reporters and donated good luck talismans and amulets to them both. Reporters were believed to seek and spread truth, namely the truth behind The Second Sino-Japanese War. But as the war grew more complex, reporters maintained their public support through a sensationalizing of war stories. “These reporters sought to write with breathless excitement, and often combined both the violence and humor of the war. Their stories became commercialized packages of thrill and terror. Thus, the name thrill hunter.”
But the true thrill of the night was Uchiyama himself. With captivating historical stories and vivid photos from war, Uchiyama kept his audience enthralled during his talk on Japanese war history. History Professor Daniel Botsman, who organized the event, named Uchiyama’s academic charisma as the reason for inviting him. “When I was teaching at Harvard, Uchiyama was often at the center of these captivating conversations in a seminar on gender and Japanese history. And last year, when I heard him speak at the Association for Asian Studies conference, I knew that we had to bring him here to Yale. He’s tonight’s thrill hunter,” Botsman said.
Uchiyama wrapped up his lecture with one last question prompted by an audience member. Why? What led him to study this? After a few moments of thought, Uchiyama answered pensively:
“For the Japanese today, we look at these war atrocities with shame and sadness. We avoid discourse about this cruel, animalistic side of our history. And in some ways, this history explains why Japanese culture today is known to be very respectful and mindful of other individuals, why the Japanese stress peace of mind. But the Japanese have never truly recovered from this period in history. For me, exploring these issues will help us move this discussion forward, and in a different and better light.”
Teresa Chen is a prospective Global Affairs major in Ezra Stiles (’19). You can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.