Japan’s Home Front, 1941

From Storm Clouds over the Pacific, 1931–1941, by Peter Harmsen (War in the Far East, Book 1;  Casemate, 2018), Kindle pp. 253-256:

What kind of nation was Japan in 1941? Who were the 73 million people that would soon find themselves in the most devastating war in their island nation’s long history? Foreign affairs writer Henry C. Wolfe visited Tokyo in the fall of 1941 and was shocked by the gloom and dreariness of life in the once vibrant city of 6.5 million inhabitants. Four years of war and accompanying austerity had turned it into a “capital of shadows” with long lines of customers waiting in front of stores selling low-quality products made from ersatz material. Shoes of real leather could not be found. Clothes were made from a little cotton mixed with bark and wood pulp and ripped easily. Wolfe described what happened when an American diner at a restaurant asked for a second helping of pudding, the only part of his meal that was somewhat palatable. The head waiter replied, “Do you want me to go to jail!”

Wartime regulations had started out in a small way. Local governments had introduced rationing of sugar and matches in 1939, and it had become a national policy in 1940. Since then official controls had exploded, and by the fall of 1941 more than 100,000 goods and services were being regulated. Energy shortages were particularly conspicuous. Many vehicles were converted to run on charcoal, although that fuel was also in short supply. Police were soon forced to stop all public vehicles from running between midnight and 5 am. Adding to the woes, trams and trains were overloaded with people, since cars that had broken down could not be repaired due to a lack of spare parts.

The American trade curbs worsened an already steep decline in the standard of living, but they did not cause it. The tougher conditions faced by the average Japanese were equally due to the priorities of the Japanese rulers, which allocated ever larger resources to military purposes, leaving the civilians to pay. The war in China had taken its toll. In 1931, military expenditures had taken up 31.2 percent of the government budget, but a decade later it had increased to a staggering 75.6 percent. Average wages dropped by more than 20 percent from the mid-1930s until 1941. Meanwhile, there was less and less to be had for the shrinking incomes. The light industrial sector, where consumer products were manufactured, saw its share of overall production drop precipitously over the same period.

The finer things in life were, of course, virtually non-existent. Dance halls had been prohibited, despite their immense popularity, along with most jazz performances. Foreign movies were strictly limited, and Japanese cinemagoers, who were once among the most ardent foreign fans of Hollywood and even copied manners and slang from major American releases, were now limited to grim German propaganda fare with titles such as Victory in the West. The lights were out, also, in a quite literal sense. In Tokyo’s Ginza shopping district, the famous glittering neon signs had been turned off to save electricity. Five-star hotels, too, were wrapped in gloom after they were urged to keep lighting at a minimum.

Miyamoto Takenosuke, vice director of Planning Board, argued that “the people should be satisfied with the lowest standard of living.” He went on: “The craving for a life of luxury must be abandoned. At this time, when the nation is risking its fate, there is no individual any more. What remains is the nation and the nation alone. The storm of economic warfare will become more furious. Come rain! Blow wind! We are firmly determined to fight against the storm.” Japan’s largest candy maker Meijing [sic] Confectionary Company chimed in with an ad campaign featuring the slogan “Luxury is the Enemy!” The National Defense Women’s Association also did its part in imposing wartime rigor, posting members on street corners to stop women who were dressed too extravagantly, passing them handbills with stern admonitions about the need for thrift in light of the national emergency.

At the same time, a thriving black market for regulated goods had emerged almost immediately, and a special economic police set up to rein in the activities made more than two million arrests within just 15 months. The vigorous law enforcement did not curb the illegal transactions, but simply encouraged them to be carried out in more ingenious ways. A modern historian gives an example of how it remained possible to trade coal at the black-market price of 1300 yen, well above the official 1000 yen price tag: “To secure the additional 300-yen profit without running afoul of the law, a vendor, for example, might arrange for a customer to ‘accidentally’ drop 3000 yen next to the vendor’s stall. He would then take the money to the nearest official who would instruct the buyer to pay ten percent in thank-you money (300 yen) to the vendor.”

Despite the hardship, the Japanese government pretended it was in a position not only to care for its own population but for the peoples of all Asia.

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Filed under China, disease, economics, energy, Germany, industry, Japan, labor, migration, military, nationalism, publishing, U.S., war

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