the cluster project

Militarization is Cute

How do you sell intensified militarization to a population that prizes peace and abhors war? If you’re Japan, you do it with adorable creatures, like this little fellah.

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While every other military in the world seem to use strength, macho, power, and grit for its war propaganda, the Japanese Self Defense Forces (JSDF) has chosen pure pop culture cuteness – kawaii.

Awww…look at that funny figure standing in front of the Patriot missile battery. And that Cobra helicopter is super cool!

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Kawaii, in various forms, is enormously popular among young people in Japan, and throughout the world. It is a part of anime, manga, video games, toys, bands, fashion…the list goes on. And now it is a part of the military, and remilitarization.

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Kids, do you like to play games on your smart phone? Sure you do! And here at the Self Defense Forces, we’ve got the funnest one yet — your mission is to protect your house with the most up-to-date weaponry on the planet.

In every case, the effect of this kawaii campaign is to soften the violence of military hardware, and signal that the Japanese self-defense forces are harmless and beneficial. Below please find the JSDF Okayama Provincial Cooperation Office’s gleeful military mascots. They’ve helped boost recruitment by 20%.


To get a sense of why Japan uses cute iconography to push the military, we have to consider its unique history. Less than a century ago, the Japanese Empire was fiercely militarized, conquering surrounding nations in a frenzy for control and expansion. Its power was marked by atrocities such as the Rape of Nanking in 1937, in which hundreds of thousands of civilians in the Chinese capital were assaulted, raped, or killed.


By the end of World War II, the military aggression of the Japanese empire came full circle. Japanese civilians faced both war-time deprivations and ferocious bombing by the United States. 60 cities were hit with incendiary bombing raids and effectively burned to the ground. The firebombing of Tokyo alone killed over 100,000 civilians. Finally, the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki brought radioactive devastation to the empire of the rising sun. War decimated the entire nation.


The post-war constitution of Japan brought an enduring commitment to peace. And so it has stood for almost 70 years. But the current government under Shinzo Abe wants to change all that. With the prodding of the USA, they want to manufacture popular consent for a more potent military force. Part of this campaign involves a systematic campaign to revise the past and give a makeover to the Empire’s past crimes.

The Abe government has denied accusations of an international campaign that the Imperial Military systematically used “comfort women” or sex slaves, during its historic reign. At home, it has revised textbooks to minimize war crimes, and legitimize war aims. The 1910 annexation of Korea with its thorough subjugation of the Korean people is described by new textbooks as “necessary to protect the security of Japan and its interests in Manchuria.” The Japanese military aggression of WW2 is glorified and depicted as honorable.


But it’s the cute characters of kawaii that make the most insidious propaganda for war. Former JSDF member and author Takumi Yanai wrote a fantasy series called Gate, where the JSDF travel through a portal to another world to team up with cute girls and take down monsters. It became a manga (illustrated) version, and more recently was made into an anime TV series. In style, the illustrations feature realistic JSDF hardware and soldiers — along with elves and dragons. The JSDF has made its own promotional posters that reference the fantasy series, and is almost indistinguishable from commercial publicity for the series itself.


Even the Japanese Defense Industry has used kawaii to highlight its deadly technology. Its neon pink and yellow poster, complete with sparkles and oversized cartoon eyes, announced its defense technology symposium, a showcase of industry military wares, organized by the government’s new department of military procurement.


Will Japan succeed in remilitarizing? It’s not clear. There is strong, popular opposition to this campaign. In July of 2015, 120,000 protested in Tokyo against removing pacifist passages from the constitution. Protests also occurred in over 200 more locations, making it the largest antiwar protest in decades. Nevertheless, in am middle-of-the-night vote, the ruling Abe government was later able to remove the constitutional prohibition on overseas military operations


Will the future of Japan be a cute figure in military fatigues?

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[This entry was sparked by Matthew Brummer’s excellent article Manga, the Japanese Military].

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Depravities of War

The United States has been at War for more than 12 years — longer than any other period of US history — and there is no end in sight.  But few American artists bother to look at this war or depict its impact on their country.

Artist Sandow Birk is an exception.


Birk has a 20-year body of work that investigates American life, with a particular eye to U.S. militarism and its inseparable connection to domestic events.

His Depravities of War series stands out as one of the most thoughtful and visually striking statements of the entire “War on Terror” period. Fifteen large woodblock prints make up the series, showing the Iraq war from start to “finish.” [click on images to make large]


Many of the prints depicting the U.S./allied invasion hardly look like historical battle paintings. There are no wide angles of massive competing armies, no glorious explosions or dramatic combat. Instead, the Iraqi government’s forces are seen as almost nonexistent — an accurate representation of “enemy” forces at the time.


In Birk’s prints, the focus is not on the overwhelming military force of the invasion – the night vision spectacle of cruise missiles destroying a major urban center so beloved by TV news – but on the lengthy and violent period of occupation that followed. The print “Destruction” is followed by Desecration, Occupation, and Detention, in which truckloads of prisoners are taken away to an uncertain fate.


When leaked photos from Abu Ghraib first revealed the torturing of prisoners by American forces, the official response was to charge a few low-level soldiers as “bad apples,” while insisting torture was not policy. In Degradation and Humiliation, however, Birk shows the notorious and horrific scenes of torture as organized and normalized actions.


Towards the end of the series, Birk suggests an overarching process at work in the war – criminal occupation provokes opposition and, in turn, that opposition is met with depravity. In Insurrection, the chaos and social instability of Iraq is depicted with a weary inevitability. There is no sense that any kind of “peace” could possibly emerge from these operations. The final image from Iraq showing the execution of Saddam Hussein seems a continuation of the institutionalized violence, not an end.

The 4×8 foot size of these prints create a stunning effect when viewed in person, a harsh and epic look at grim events that have been persistently buried, distorted, or mythologized by the media and the state. Now that the war in Iraq is “over,” it has generally vanished as a subject of American interest or concern.


But it is not over. Repercussion is the final print in the series, reminding us that the effects of the war continue for millions of Iraqis, Americans and others. It also raises the question – what is the lasting impact of this conflict?

For the folly, brutality, and profit of war is nothing new. Birk’s inspiration for the series was Jacques Callot’s Miseries of War. Published in 1633, Callot’s 18 small etchings offer incredibly honest and direct depictions of actual war. The overall structure – war hysteria and battle, then urban conflict, torture, and depravity – parallels that seen in Birk’s work. In both visual narratives, civilians and soldiers bear the cost of the grand designs of generals, noblemen, and kings.


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