Viewing the History of Japanese and U.S. Relations through Animation

By: Abigail Wilkinson

“Viewing the History of Japanese and U.S. Relations through Animation”

The history of Japanese and U.S. relations might be summarized as a complex exchange of admiration and resentment. Ever since Commodore Matthew Perry and his fleet first arrived on the shores of Japan in 1854, relations with Japan have been of significant interest to the United States. Our countries continue to enjoy a prosperous alliance first formed in 1960 after generations of tension and conflict. But before then, a mutual interest in film, namely in animation, may have united us. The animator’s ability to exaggerate, create caricature, and illustrate intense emotion makes the animated film an effective tool for artistic expression, but also advertisement and propaganda. Through the medium of animation, historians may gain an understanding of culture and public opinion in a way no other mode of film can offer. We will analyze select animations created in both the United States and Japan in chronological order from the very beginnings of World War II to the 2010’s to gain insight into the evolution of Japanese and U.S. relations.

Our analysis will begin with propaganda pieces from the 1930’s and 40’s: from Japan, Toybox Series 3: Picture Book 1936, and from the United States, Tokio Jokio. These films in particular highlight tensions between the U.S. and Japan before and during World War II, which will inform the rest of our discussion. We will then jump ahead twenty years after the signing of The Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security in 1960, to a work that exists at a peculiar intersection between U.S. and Japanese animation, G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero. This 1983 TV series was created to promote an American toyline, however, Japanese studio Toei Animations carried out the bulk of animation work. G.I. Joe reveals how American portrayals of the Japanese changed after a period of cooperation between the two nations, and how our portrayals of our military did not. This topic leads us into the present-day, in which U.S. and Japanese relations are fair if not generally positive, though potentially offensive stereotypes still permeate our respective animation industries. Samurai Champloo, and Phineas and Ferb: Summer Belongs to You give us a look into how Japanese and American people see each other today. These works were chosen for their unapologetic displays of nationalism and their specific portrayals of Japanese or American people, respectively. We will dissect the films’ contents for examples of propagandist tactics, stereotyping, as well as some less inflammatory nods to culture and history. By using animated films to analyze this complex relationship, we gain an understanding of the more emotional side of our nations’ shared histories, and how viewers’ emotions may have been manipulated in favor of foreign policy.

Toybox Series 3: Picture Book 1936 was directed by Komatsuzawa Hajime in 1934. Little information is readily available on Hajime himself, and the production company behind this short, J.O. Talkie Manga-bu, has suffered a similar fate. Even as a poignant piece of anti-western propaganda, we have little insight into how Picture Book 1936 was received at the time of its release. The Toybox Series itself seems to have fallen into obscurity if it existed at all, with Picture Book 1936 as the sole survivor.

Picture Book 1936 predates World War II. The film is also known as “Momotaro vs. Mickey Mouse” or, informally, “the evil Mickey Mouse cartoon”, due to its interesting choice of main antagonist. This film opens on a peaceful island where its denizens dance through the sound of aircrafts before a shadow glides over them. They look up to find “1936” written in the sky by a character clearly resembling Disney’s own Mickey Mouse, who rides a winged monster with a similar, round-eared head. The mouse drops a threatening banner on the island, an eerily similar parallel to the warning leaflets rained down on Japan by the U.S. prior to the bombings of 1945, almost a decade later. The islanders do not take this threat lightly, and “Mickey” responds by calling in an army of mouse-faced bats, snakes, and crocodiles to arms. In their time of need, the islanders turn to heroes of Japanese folklore and storybooks for aid, such as Momotaro (Peach Boy), Kintaro (Golden Boy), and the warrior monk Benkei. The characters clash in a hectic battle which sees them using their bodies as weapons—transforming into machine guns and tanks. The Japanese heroes eventually triumph over the mouse’s army, transforming the villain into a thin, old man. No longer able to fight, “Mickey” hobbles away, and the islanders return to their dancing while cherry blossoms bloom in the trees above.

Toybox Series 3: Picture Book 1936 arrives on the Japanese animation scene at a time of sweeping militarism and accompanying feelings of nationalism in the country. The choice of antagonist here is no accident, either. Mickey Mouse is not just a Western icon but an American one. The United States forced Japan to open for trade to the rest of the world at the Convention of Kanagawa in 1854, and thus is directly to blame for this “invasion” of Japanese culture. Picture Book 1936 reads as an emotionally-charged expression of frustration and disdain for the U.S., spurred on even further by conflicting political interests and the mistreatment of the Japanese people by the U.S. for decades prior to the film’s conception.

After World War I, Japan proposed an amendment to the Treaty of Versailles for racial equality in response to an international immigration law that discriminated against Japanese immigrants. Urged on by U.S. legislators, President Woodrow Wilson helped the opposing members of the League of Nations squash this proposal. Calvin Coolidge would effectively ban all Japanese immigration to the U.S. in 1924. U.S. opposition to Japan’s occupation of Chinese territory Manchuria would only worsen the situation, while Japan desired control of the U.S. occupied Philippines, seeing the western occupation as an encroachment on their own imperialist motives. Tensions would come to a head at the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor.

Interestingly, the art in Picture Book 1936 is reminiscent of the rubber hose-style of U.S. cartoons. Characters in this film resemble the likes of Felix the Cat and Olive Oyl from Popeye. It is possible that the creators could not help but show their appreciation for American cartooning even in a piece of anti-U.S. propaganda. Or perhaps, the style was a deliberate choice to lure “victims” of U.S. globalization into screenings, only to witness how corruptive western media truly is.

America fired back in 1943 with films like Tokio Jokio, directed by American animator Norman McCabe. Tokio Jokio is a part of the Warner Bros. series of Looney Tunes, and was created while McCabe served in the army by producing propaganda films. Presenting itself as a captured newsreel from Japan, the highly controversial Tokio Jokio features exaggerated caricatures of Japanese people who bumble about while the narrator introduces civilian defenses to the viewer. The film ultimately reduces Japan to a non-threatening joke, though an informed viewer would know the attacks on Pearl Harbor and the Philippines in 1941 sufficiently shook the nation, as well as the Bombardment of Ellwood in Santa Barbara in 1942 and the Pacific War that would last well into 1945. In a way, this film reads as a coping mechanism, laughter in the face of danger—though this idea would not absolve it of perpetuating dehumanizing stereotypes. Gags in Tokio Jokio drip with dark humor, poking fun at important Imperial army figures, including the likes of Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto and General Masaharu Homma, as well as other Axis power leaders.

Tokio Jokio is rife with anti-Japanese sentiment. The film was released roughly two years after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, an event which prompted the previously neutral United States to enter World War II. A spike in anti-Japanese propaganda would see a mass media movement to dehumanize the Japanese people overall, which increased support for devastating warfare against the nation and ultimately fostered deep, racial hatred, which had already been present in the United States long before the war. Cartooning lent itself to the mischaracterization of Japanese people by exaggerating their physical features to the point where Japanese characters did not look human. Comics and animation proved themselves to be effective tools for U.S. powers to foster distrust and animosity towards Japan and, sadly, anyone of Japanese heritage in the United States. Within the animation industry alone, Famous Studios and Disney would feed into this anti-Japanese propaganda frenzy alongside Warner Bros. Famous Studios produced the Superman short Japoteurs with a highly alarmist plot featuring antagonists living in America that were still loyal to Japan. Disney’s Commando Duck situates Donald Duck in Japanese territory, where he is stalked by incompetent Japanese soldiers that speak overly politely and frequently interrupt each other to observe “customs” such as bowing, or shooting enemies in the back.

U.S. animosity towards Japan would not last forever. Japan’s surrender in 1945 led to a western occupation mainly by the United States, which would officially end in 1952. In 1960 the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty was signed to establish a more equal, military alliance. Cooperation between our two nations saw a booming post-war era of consumerism that fostered international trade for decades to come. In the field of animation, there was significant exchange between the U.S. and Japan—a back-and-forth of culture and ideas new to domestic audiences, who were far less wary of the implications than foreign policy makers. The lines between western and eastern animation blurred significantly as U.S. companies like Rankin/Bass Animated Entertainment, known for popular holiday specials like the 1964 stop-motion animation Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, outsourced the bulk of their animation work to Japanese studios in order to keep production costs low and turnaround high. Many Americans unknowingly consumed Japanese anime throughout their childhoods before anime came to be its own recognized genre. On a similar vein, nationalist sentiments did not necessarily apply to the Japanese animation industry as western influences trickled into their media. Series like 1979’s Akage no An (Anne of Green Gables), a Canadian novel, and 1971’s Lupin III, based on a character created by French writer Maurice LeBlanc, were successful broadcasts despite their western origins. Japanese audiences were definitely not opposed to stories with western characters and settings. Still, it proves difficult to find any points of inspiration or representations in anime from the United States specifically—unless the work was outsourced by a U.S. company. By the 1980’s, one would be hard-pressed to find animation made completely in the United States. Animation work for television series and films was often outsourced to Japanese studios in favor of lower production costs, if not other studios in Asia.

One of the most interesting examples of an outsourced animation would be the series G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero. G.I. Joe is a multimedia franchise and toy line owned by Hasbro that saw its first animation production in 1983. A collaboration by Sunbow and Marvel Productions, the show was geared towards young boys, and revolved around an American special mission force fighting against “Cobra”, a terrorist organization of ambiguous national origin. Elements of action and science-fiction play into clean-cut storylines of good versus evil, with the “Joes” always on the side of good. One of the most notable aspects of the show is that people are seldom injured in combat. Characters are able to jump out of the range of explosions in seconds or parachute from aircrafts shot down in the midst of on-screen action. Perhaps in an attempt to spare young viewers from the horrors of war, no one gets hurt. But in this way, the image of the U.S. military is subtly bolstered. In the first 30 seconds of the original opening alone, the show’s high-octane, patriotic air becomes evident. But perhaps G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero was not as all-American as viewers may recall.

Toei Animations is the same studio behind some of the most globally popular Japanese animations such as Dragon Ball and Sailor Moon, and performed all animation work for the 1983 G.I. Joe cartoons. This fact did not really hinder G.I. Joe’s reach—the show was even broadcast in the United Kingdom and rebranded for U.K. audiences as Action Force. However, because G.I. Joe was written in the United States, there are no specific American stereotypes present beyond those self-imposed by the U.S. crew. If anything, the show and overall franchise contain Japanese and Asian stereotypes. While these stereotypes are not quite as dehumanizing as the ones utilized in works like Tokio Jokio, they reveal a level of ignorance regarding Japanese culture, and perpetuate potentially damaging ideas surrounding Asian cultures in-general.

When Asian characters appear in the show, they are often martial artists. They use nunchucks and swords instead of artillery. Some are descendants of ninja clans. The popular character Snake Eyes is a uniquely perplexing character. Snake Eyes exhibits mastery of tae kwon do, kung fu, jujitsu, and even samurai swordsmanship, and yet he was never portrayed as an Asian man until the 2021 origin story film Snake Eyes. These characters are representations of a homogeneous “Asian culture” constructed by the west, that lumps even the most vastly differing cultures into one identity, which allows for a disregarding of national origin. There is a clear effort being made to portray a diverse cast, to allow children to see themselves in the characters on-screen and hopefully seek out the toys in stores. This is a stark contrast from the pointed propaganda of World War II, that would have illustrated any activities originating from Japan as suspicious. However, consider global tensions and conservative politics of this period under the Reagan administration—everyone serves the Joes and U.S. military with few qualms about foreign relations. The show is pro-military, and makes it clear that regardless of heritage, anyone can join the U.S. military and be a force for good—or at least buy a G.I. Joe action figure while you wait to enlist. Still, any thoughts the animators at Toei had on the matters of stereotyping, or the deeply false idea of no-casualty war efforts by the U.S., are not made evident in the show.

Two decades later, Manglobe Inc.’s historical fiction anime Samurai Champloo, would allow Japanese animators to express some of their own views of the U.S. in 2004, harkening back to the earliest point of contact between the two nations: the Convention of Kanagawa.

Directed by Shinichiro Watanabe, best known for his work on the highly successful anime Cowboy Bebop, Samurai Champloo aired at a time of vastly improved Japanese relations with the United States and continues to receive generally positive reviews from critics and casual watchers across the globe. Younger generations of people in Japan would have been more inclined to associate the U.S. with its popular culture than the atrocities committed in World War II or imperialism. The same can be said on the side of the United States, where people were more easily able to engage with materials from Japanese sources, rather than U.S. texts portraying Japan from an outside perspective as they had in the past. Still, a mix of admiration and resentment for the United States may be evident in Samurai Champloo’s western subject matter and character designs, which alternate between celebratory and contemptuous.

This anime follows ronin samurai, Mugen and Jin, and their young accomplice Fu, who embark on a journey across Edo-era Japan to find a “samurai who smells of sunflowers”. Unlike G.I. Joe, this show is not intended for children. Samurai Champloo recontextualizes and situates historical events into a unique remix of Japanese history that includes the experiences of sex workers, vagabonds, and graffiti artists that are a century ahead of their time. In Episode 23, “Baseball Blues”, the main characters are roped into the unfamiliar western game of baseball by a mysterious man named Kagemaru. Kagemaru coaches them on how to play the game, and with a ragtag group composed of themselves, an old villager, a random spectator, and a dog, the three are pitted against an American team that plays dirty. The head of the team is a mashed up caricature of Alexander Joy Cartwright, widely known as the father of baseball, and Commodore Matthew Perry. “Admiral Joy Cartwright” conducts the infamous instance of American gunboat diplomacy through this absurd game of baseball, which, in a fit of dark humor, leads to Kagemaru’s death by an American bat’s broken-off shards. The protagonists hardly seem surprised at this turn of events—another morbid comedic choice that doubles as a reflection of the real threat of violence made against Japan at the Convention of Kanagawa. The characters ultimately triumph over the American team, Mugen giving them a taste of their own medicine by playing dirty, himself. The Americans head back to the U.S. with their tails between their legs.

The episode’s ending is a particularly interesting writing choice that’s fitting with Samurai Champloo’s “alternate history” narrative, but dissonant enough to make the show’s inclusion of western art and hip hop culture all the more puzzling. Watanabe challenges the ideas of national identity and reconfigures both Japanese and U.S. history into a unique narrative that subverts race. That being said, the show is rife with negative stereotyping. On the character design front in “Baseball Blues”, we observe that the Japanese team is far more individualized than the American team, who are all pale, blue-eyed blondes in drab-colored baseball uniforms—not so unlike the portrayal of Japanese citizens in Tokio Jokio, who all exhibit a sameness in their offensive appearances. This specific brand of “same-face” stereotyping is unique and supposedly rooted in human psychology, so it can be harder to pin down as willful dehumanization or simply ignorant design choice. Time Magazine revisits a study done in the Journal of Criminal Law and Police Science, which suggests there is increased difficulty in distinguishing members from one another outside of one’s own race. However, in the case of “Baseball Blues”, it would seem this design choice was not compulsory. The American team already behaves rather inhumanely—they are vicious and aim to emerge victorious no matter the cost. The way they are portrayed could imply some level of animosity held towards the U.S. or more specifically, the historical United States. Samurai Champloo’s reimagining of the Convention of Kanagawa, and Japanese history in-general, portrays the Japanese people with the agency and wherewithal to manage their own foreign engagements. Our protagonists manage to scare off the “foreign invaders” and get back to business as usual.

In comparison, Robert F. Hughes and Dan Povenmire’s 2010 Disney TV special, Phineas and Ferb: Summer Belongs to You, will likely seem patronizing of Japanese history. Phineas and Ferb was a popular Disney cartoon following the adventures of two step brothers on summer vacation with their older sister Candace. The three strive to make the most of every vacation day along with their friends and pet platypus, Perry, who is a secret agent assigned to defend the tri-state area against the evil Dr. Doofenshmirtz. Phineas and Ferb come up with elaborate ways to spend their time far beyond their grade level, like building giant roller coasters in their backyard, and Candace wants nothing more than for their mom to catch them in the act.

Phineas and Ferb: Summer Belongs to You was a two part special set during the Summer Solstice, and the brothers have decided to have the most fun possible on the longest day in the season by taking an aircraft around the world in 24 hours. Their first stop is Tokyo, Japan, which we spend no more than a few minutes in. During this time, the brothers and company stop by the home of a friend’s relatives to refuel their ship. Ferb greets the family matriarch in Japanese before the group’s arrival is announced to the rest of the family via a gong on top of their pagoda-style home. A crowd rushes out to greet them, breaking into a musical number titled “Welcome to Tokyo”. The song break is packed with references to Japanese subcultures and internet memes. Perhaps one of the more offensive stereotypes present in this scene is in the lyrics: sung completely in broken English.

Summer Belongs to You and the “Welcome to Tokyo” song were hardly created for the same purposes as works like Tokio Jokio, or even G.I. Joe. If anything, we may view this as a misguided attempt at cultural appreciation. Phineas and Ferb is meant to be entertaining and comedic, even if the gags are sometimes a bit short-sighted. The show was not specifically created to garner support for the U.S. military, or to sell action figures. However, this very brief stint viewers spend in Tokyo is a glaring instance of stereotyping that reduces Japanese culture down to cutesy aesthetics, internet memes, and Harajuku fashion. This portrayal of Japanese people is not inherently negative because of our amicable international relations, but it does lack a level of nuance afforded to the American characters.
Our media analysis ends with a work created in the 2010’s, but it is important to acknowledge the changing social landscape of the 2020’s. Within the animation industry, and the film industry at large, more and more conversations are being held about the ways in which we portray ethnicity and culture. As we shift away from some of the more harmful caricatures present in our animated media, it’s possible that the portrayals of Japanese people in even our most recent example of Summer Belongs to You, will prove unacceptable by today’s standards. Heavy emphasis is placed within the animation industry on gaining viewers, rather than selling war bonds or toys. As the animation industry continues to grow and change, there is value in studying and growing our understanding of the role animation, and entertainment in-general, informs our way of thinking about others.

Even the “low-brow” art form of animation can offer us valuable insight into international relations and history. A working knowledge of U.S. and Japanese relations would be bolstered by the animations we’ve covered in this discussion. During and prior to World War II, tensions between the two nations were arguably at an all-time high, and the propaganda films produced on both sides reflect this. It would only be after World War II that this relationship would steadily improve. Interest in Japanese history and culture would increase in the U.S. as more Japanese entertainment made its way across the Pacific, and vice versa. Still, our most recent media sources show that our two countries are not in complete understanding—Japanese animators have recently portrayed Americans as cruel and imposing, while American animators drew Japanese people as doe-eyed anime characters. Is this a significant change from the propaganda pieces of the 1930’s and 40’s? Perhaps we can continue to examine our relationship through the mutually beloved medium of animation. The animated work as comedy, art, or our childrens’ afternoon baby-sitters, can influence audiences profoundly while flying under the radar as harmless entertainment. Historians would be remiss to disregard animation as any less powerful than it is, steering the way we think about other countries and their people.

Annotated Bibliography

Axelrod, Josh. “A Century Later: The Treaty of Versailles and Its Rejection of Racial Equality.”
NPR, NPR, 11 Aug. 2019,
https://www.npr.org/sections/codeswitch/2019/08/11/742293305/a-century-later-the-treat
y-of-versailles-and-its-rejection-of-racial-equality
.
The author covers the rejection of Japan’s proposed racial equality clause to the Treaty of Versailles. This article explains why the proposal was shot down, giving us insight into Japan’s increasing resentment of the west, in particular the United States, in the years leading up to World War II.

“Baseball Blues.” Watanabe, Shinichirō, director. Samurai Champloo, season 1, episode 23,
2005.
Series protagonists Mugen, Fu, and Jin are dragged into a baseball game against a fleet
from the shores of America, who wish to conduct business with isolationist Japan, by force if necessary. The outcome of the game determines whether the “Yankees” are allowed to stay or go.

Benzon, William L. “Postmodern Is Old Hat: Samurai Champloo.” Mechademia, vol. 3, no. 1, 2008, pp. 271–274., https://doi.org/10.1353/mec.0.0031.
Benzon analyzes Samurai Champloo, citing two specific episodes in this article, including the one we discuss in the essay. This work offers some additional insight into “Baseball Blues” and how it plays into the series’ subversion of chronological and national history.

Cloud, John. “They All Look the Same: How Racism Works Neurologically.” Time, Time, 24 Nov. 2010, https://healthland.time.com/2010/11/24/they-all-look-the-same-how-racism-works-neurologically/.
The author revisits a study done in 1914 and speculates on why outsiders from a particular race describe members as “all looking the same”. Without expressing an authoritative ruling on the subject, this piece offers up a potential explanation for the specific instance of cookie-cutter, racial character design in animation without condoning the practice.

G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero. Created by Hasbro, 1983.
The show was created by American company Hasbro in 1983 to promote the G.I. Joe toyline. The essay canvasses the series overall, created and produced in the U.S. but animated in Japan, putting it at the intersection of American and Japanese media within our discussion.

“Invasion of Manchuria.” Invasion of Manchuria | Harry S. Truman, https://www.trumanlibrary.gov/education/presidential-inquiries/invasion-manchuria.
An article on the Japanese invasion of Chinese Manchuria, giving background information on another key factor playing into negative U.S. and Japanese relations prior to World War II. Published on the Harry S. Truman Library/Museum of the National Archives, a government website.

Komatsuzawa, Hajime, director. Toybox Series 3: Picture Book 1936. YouTube, 1934,
https://youtu.be/Eu7_P5aIyzQ.
Mickey Mouse represents American Imperialism in this propagandist film by Komatsuzawa Hajime, featuring a myriad of popular Japanese characters from folklore and books.

McCabe, Norman, director. Tokio Jokio. YouTube, Warner Bros., 1943,
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sy9rGAO-qfc&t=174s.
A World War II “Looney Tunes” propaganda film produced by Warner Bros. circa 1943.
The cartoon features a series of short, gag-filled segments that all feature exaggerated
caricatures of important Japanese figures and civilians.

McKevitt, Andrew C. “‘You Are Not Alone!’: Anime and the Globalizing of America.” Diplomatic History, vol. 34, no. 5, 2010, pp. 893–921., https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-7709.2010.00899.x.
The author explores the cultural globalization of a postwar United States through Japanese animation. This article was published in Diplomatic History, the official journal of the Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations. The subject matter connects to the topic of the paper through its analysis of international relations through American appreciation of anime.

Miles, Hannah. “WWII Propaganda: The Influence of Racism.” Artifacts Journal // University of Missouri, Mar. 2012, https://artifactsjournal.missouri.edu/2012/03/wwii-propaganda-the-influence-of-racism/.
The author looks into racist tools of World War II propaganda. This article dissects specific pieces of visual, anti-Japanese media created to challenge the humanity of the Japanese people, enhancing our understanding of the effects of propaganda.

Mills, Ted. “‘Evil Mickey Mouse’ Invades Japan in a 1934 Japanese Anime Propaganda Film.”
Open Culture, 22 Sept. 2016,
https://openculture.com/2016/09/evil-mickey-mouse-invades-japan-in-a-1934-japanese-a
nime-propaganda-film.html
.
Mills describes and provides some additional historical/cultural context for the Picture
Book 1936 film analyzed in this essay. The Open Culture website serves as a place for
centralizing cultural and educational media.

Povenmire, Dan, and Jeff Marsh. “Summer Belongs to You.” Phineas and Ferb, season 2,
2010.
On the day of the summer solstice, Phineas and Ferb build an aircraft to fly around the
world in 24 hours. This essay addresses the stereotypes present in a specific segment from the show, a musical number called “Welcome to Tokyo”.

Sapre, Erin E. “Wartime propaganda: enemies defined by race.” West Virginia University
Philological Papers, vol. 51, 2004, pp. 91+. Gale Academic OneFile,
link.gale.com/apps/doc/A144049931/AONE?u=orla57816&sid=googleScholar&xid=25a
71ffd
.
The author analyzes the use of propaganda to define enemies of the United States by race.
The article supports the argument made in this essay about the dehumanizing potential of anti-Japanese propaganda. The author makes a solid point about McCabe’s film delegitimizing the power of the Japanese military, cited in the essay.

Stevenson, Rick. “Snake Eyes Should’ve Been Asian from the Start of the Comics, Says
Creator.” ScreenRant, 24 June 2021,
https://screenrant.com/snake-eyes-asian-gi-joe-comics-larry-hama/.
The article provides supplemental information for our coverage of the G.I. Joe series and
how it portrays Asian characters.

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