Propaganda can be defined as the systematic propagation of information or ideas by an interested party in order to encourage or instill a particular attitude or response in an audience. The ideas and doctrines thus disseminated are also referred to as “propaganda.” There is no more blatant an example of this concept than wartime propaganda, in which the homeland is typically praised and uplifted and, the enemy, demonized.

Demonization consists of the portrayal of an enemy or party with opposing viewpoints as excessively cruel, threatening, and inhumane. In his 1927 post-World War I book, Propaganda Techniques in the World War Communication theorist Harold Laswell wrote the following on demonization of the enemy in wartime propaganda:

“So great are the psychological resistances to war in modern nations, that every war must appear to be a war of defence against a menacing, murderous aggressor. There must be no ambiguity about whom the public is to hate. Guilt and guilelessness must be assessed geographically and all the guilt must be on the other side of the frontier.”

A marked example of enemy demonization in U.S. wartime propaganda history comes in the form of American anti-Japanese propaganda during World War II. On December 7, 1941, years of economic tensions between the Empire of Japan and the United States culminated in a devastating attack by the Japanese navy on the American naval base at Pearl Harbor near Honolulu, Hawaii. Over 2,000 American soldiers and sailors lost their lives, and more than 1,000 were wounded. 20 American naval vessels, including eight major battleships, were destroyed along with over 300 airplanes. A few days later, the United States declared war on Japan.[1]

Over the next few years, American mass media – newspapers, radio, film, television, and music – was ridden with war propaganda, glorifying those fighting for the country while showing its enemies to the public as monstrous, inhuman, and savage. The Japanese, who had once been perceived as non-threatening, quickly rose in the ranks of ugliness as an opponent that had to be destroyed at all costs. America had been betrayed, and would now set things straight.

Core Concepts

Americans were not too familiar with the Japanese people and their culture to begin with. This ignorance, however, gave an advantage to the propagandists, whose objective was to dehumanize the enemy and make them seem like a demonic ‘other’ that the American public could not identify or empathize with in any way, shape, or form. The focus of American anti-Japanese propaganda, then, became highlighting the foreign-ness of the Japanese enemy, emphasizing and mocking the latter’s physical characteristics, culture, and beliefs.

In all forms of American anti-Japanese propaganda, the Japanese were derogatively referred to as “Japs” and depicted as violent apes or some form of vermin, referred to as “sneaky little yellow rats.”[2] The Japanese custom of respecting authority was demonstrated by American propaganda as a form of fanaticism, and Japanese immigrants in the United States were also labeled as people not to be trusted. The American public was constantly reminded that the Japanese had attacked Pearl Harbor, “mistreated prisoners of war,” and “committed atrocities.”[3] In propaganda posters, common tropes included depicting the Japanese as monstrous apes threatening the honor of the United States and/or a white American woman. The words “sneaky,” “monster,” and “Japs” were painted in big, bold lettering. A cruiser called Honolulu is remembered to have had a sign on its bow that read, “Kill Japs. Kill Japs Kill More Japs.” Admiral William Frederick Halsey of the U.S. Navy is quoted as having publicly spoken of the Japanese as “bestial apes” and saying, “We are drowning and burning [them] all over the Pacific, and it is just as much pleasure to burn them as to drown them.”[4]

Devices used in American anti-Japanese songs included ridiculing the Japanese accent when speaking English, rhyming the derogatory term “Japs” with as many negative English words as possible, and drawing on stereotypical racist images. There were constant reminders of the Pearl Harbor attack, as well as war atrocities that the Japanese were said to have committed. In the rare occasions where U.S. propaganda referred to traditional Japanese music itself, the works were presented as an example of Japanese “fanaticism” and a highlight of the foreign-ness and otherness of the Japanese culture.[5]

Film was an extremely popular medium of entertainment during the 1940s, and was thus used for the purpose of wartime propaganda. Newsreels regarding the progress of the war and calls for contributions of scrap metal for the war effort and purchase of war bonds, along with other relevant announcements, would precede the film itself. Around 25 anti-Japanese films were released in the United States in 1942 alone. In both film and television productions, the Japanese would usually be depicted in the form of a plane in the sky, a ship in the horizon, or a mass of anonymous infantrymen, all approaching with danger-evoking music in the background. Individual Japanese soldiers were depicted as sadistic individuals who delighted in torturing American prisoners. The racist propaganda in these films was accomplished through both the depictions of the Japanese characters’ villainy and extensive dialogue about it, as well as the repeated use of derogatory terms such as “Japs” to describe the Japanese people, all for the purpose of dehumanizing the group and cutting off any possibility of empathy in the American mind.[6]



Propaganda posters focused on monstrously emphasizing the foreign qualities of the Japanese, especially their physical characteristic, in a negative way. Derogatory terms such as “Japs,” “enemy,” “monster,” and “sneaky” accompanied these images of cruel demon-like creatures. The American public was constantly reminded of the Japanese alliance with the Germans – who were collectively labeled “Nazis” in propaganda –, told atrocity stories of how Japanese officers tortured and killed American prisoners of war, and called to action in the name of patriotism and protection of homeland honor – this honor usually depicted as a white American woman in distress.

stay-on-the-job this-is-the-enemy1

this-is-the-enemy this-monster


Music played a massive role in wartime propaganda. One of the most enduring Pearl Harbor songs, “Remember Pearl Harbor,” was written by Don Reid and Sammy Kaye, and recorded by American bandleader and vocalist Eddy Howard. The following is an excerpt of the lyrics:

As we go to meet the foe.
As we did the Alamo.
We will always remember
How they died for liberty.
And go on to victory.

Popular, more overtly racist titles included the following:

  • “We’re Gonna Have to Slap the Dirty Little Jap”
  • “Taps for Japs”
  • “We’ll Nip the Nipponese”
  • “We’re Gonna Change the Map of the Jap”
  • “We’re Gonna Play the Yankee Doodle in Tokyo”
  • “You’re a Sap, Mister Jap”[8]

The following is an excerpt from another popular song, “Goodbye Mama (I’m off to Yokohama),” written and composed by Fred J. Coots ten days after the Pearl Harbor attack:

Goodbye, Mamma,
I’m off to Yokohama,
For my red, white and blue,
My country and you.
Goodbye, Mamma,
I’m off to Yokohama,
Just to teach all those Japs,
That the Yanks are no Saps.
A million fightin’ sons of Uncle Sam,
if you please,
Will soon have all those Japs right down,
on their Jap-a-knees.

The 1944 song “A-Bombing We Will Go (Right over Tokio)” by Lu Earl featured the following lines:

Look out, you yellow Japs
You thought that we were saps,
We’re gonna blast you away up high.
Now you bombed Pearl Harbor in your mean and sneaky way,
So we’re gonna jar your little island night and day.

Note the repeated remembrance of Pearl Harbor and the usage of racist derogatory terms such as “Nipponese,” “Jap,” and “yellow.” Furthermore, this was all underlined by a sense of patriotism and duty towards one’s country and honor.

Film and Television

In film, the Japanese were depicted as guilty of starting the war; Americans were simply retaliating to the betrayal of the Japanese. In the 1944 production The Purple Heart, an American soldier is depicted arguing in a Japanese court, saying, “You wanted it, you asked for it, you started it! And now you’re going to get it, and it won’t be finished until your dirty little empire is wiped off the face of the earth.”[11] The image of Japanese immigrants in the United States as being treacherous was also common in film and television. In The Purple Heart, a Japanese chief of army intelligence reveals that he had lived in California in the 1930s and spied on the United States. The 1942 film Little Tokyo, U.S.A. emphasized the idea that Japanese Americans posed a threat because “anyone of Japanese descent, whether alien or American citizen, was loyal to the emperor of Japan and a potential traitor to America.”[12]

Popular characters in media such as Superman and Dr. Seuss were also added to aid anti-Japanese propaganda. In a 1943 Superman cartoon called Japoteurs, distributed by Paramount Pictures, an exaggeratedly stereotypical Japanese man – featuring thick glasses, buck teeth, and extremely heavy accent – living in the United States is demonstrated feigning loyalty to the country by day, with a picture of the Statue of Liberty hung in his office, and engaging in treachery in the dark, when that picture is replaced by a portrait of the rising sun, to which the man bows deeply as ominous music plays in the background. The Japanese man turns out to be a traitor (obviously) and threatens not only the safety of the country but the honor of a white American woman as well. Naturally, Superman arrives just in time to save both the country and the damsel in distress.[13]


In the above screenshots from Japoteurs,[14] the Japanese immigrant is depicted faking loyalty to the United States by day and bowing to a picture of the rising sun (symbol of Japanese flag) by night.


Dr. Seuss was the Chief Editorial Cartoonist for the New York-based newspaper PM during World War II, and he himself supported the American war effort and engaged in anti-Japanese cartoon propaganda without reservation.[15]


This image was published in PM on October 13, 1942.[16] Note the way that an annoying depiction of a Japanese man is used to fuel the American viewer’s anger and persuade them to contribute to the war effort.


This image was published in PM on December 12, 1941.[17] Note the attack on American patriotism and the honor of American soil and history.

Propaganda was also present in magazine covers. A striking example and embodiment of demonization is the following cover of Collier’s magazine in its December 1942 edition:[18]


This picture, drawn by Arthur Szyk, depicts a demon with a bomb flying over what presumably (note the date at the bottom left corner of the image) is Pearl Harbor. The demon not only features Japanese-looking garments, but is also decorated with Nazi swastikas.


In the form of colorful, grotesquely memorable images in print, television, and film, and catchy, patriotic lyrics in music, American anti-Japanese propaganda successfully steered the sentiments of the American population toward the hatred for the Japanese and the continuation of the war effort. Japanese immigrants in the United States, as well as Japanese-Americans, were automatically suspected of being spies and put into internment camps. Viewing American action as retaliation for the “betrayal” of Pearl Harbor, Americans fought against Japan until the latter surrendered in late 1945, after the United States dropped two atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.[1]

World War II ended with approximately 418,500 military and civilian deaths for the United States, and around 2,600,000 to 3,100,000 for Japan.[2]

Discussion Questions

  • Why is it so important to highlight the otherness of an enemy in demonization propaganda?
  • Why is the specific image of the ape used in demonization propaganda?
  • Why is the image of the damsel in distress so often used in propaganda?
  • What effect would this type of propaganda have on a contemporary American audience?

For More Information


[1] From History.com (2009). Pearl Harbor. Retrieved from: http://www.history.com/topics/world-war-ii/pearl-harbor

[2] Sheppard, W. (2001). Anti-Japanese Musical Propaganda in World War II Hollywood. Journal of the American Musicological Society, 54(2), 303-357. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1525/jams.2001.54.2.303

[3] Brcak, N., Pavia, J. (1994). Racism in Japanese and U.S. wartime propaganda. Historian, 56(4), 671 – 684. Retrieved from http://eds.b.ebscohost.com/eds/pdfviewer/pdfviewer?sid=a68ac817-6478-423d-b598-5a2e66bec407%40sessionmgr106&vid=2&hid=120

[4] Brcak & Pavia, p. 674

[5] Sheppard, p. 305

[6] Sheppard, p. 307

[7] Smith, K. (2003). God Bless America: Tin Pan Alley Goes to War. p. 14. Retrieved from https://books.google.com/books?id=J68fBgAAQBAJ&printsec=frontcover#v=onepage&q&f=false

[8] Sheppard, p. 306

[9] Smith, p. 14

[10] Sheppard, p. 306

[11] Austin, A. (2011). Superman Goes to War: Teaching Japanese American Exile and Incarceration with Film. Journal of American Ethnic History, 30(4). 51-56, Retrieved from http://eds.a.ebscohost.com/eds/pdfviewer/pdfviewer?sid=5000c738-67d8-4cd2-8494-4fcda605549d%40sessionmgr4007&vid=2&hid=4211

[12] Austin, p. 54

[13] Austin, p. 54

[14] Full video here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0E0ss_jeAeg

[15] Minear, R. (2012). Introduction. In Dr. Seuss Went to War. Retrieved from http://library.ucsd.edu/speccoll/dswenttowar/index.html

[16] Minear, R. (2012). In Dr. Seuss Went to War. Retrieved from http://library.ucsd.edu/speccoll/dswenttowar/index.html#ark:bb3618599q

[17]Minear, R. (2012). In Dr. Seuss Went to War. Retrieved from http://library.ucsd.edu/speccoll/dswenttowar/index.html#ark:bb6792686z

[18] Brcak & Pavia, p. 682

[19] From History.com. Bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Retrieved from: http://www.history.com/topics/world-war-ii/bombing-of-hiroshima-and-nagasaki

[20] By the Numbers: World Wide Deaths. In The National WWII Museum. Retrieved from http://www.nationalww2museum.org/learn/education/for-students/ww2-history/ww2-by-the-numbers/world-wide-deaths.html?referrer=https://www.google.com/


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