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Monday, May 31, 1999

Prange exhibit recalls Occupation's censorship


Staff writer

KYOTO -- In an age when censorship of the media is a pressing issue, an exhibition currently being held at Ritsumeikan International Peace Museum here shows the convolutions such information control took over half a century ago.

The Allied Occupation of Japan that began in September 1945 was the start of one of the most ambitious experiments in the history of nation-building, and its purpose, according to leaders, was nothing less than depriving the nation of the means to wage war again and the re-education of the Japanese.

Occupation authorities were convinced that much of the blame for Japanese aggression before and during the war lay with educators and the mass media, and they were determined to ensure that both promoted their objectives.

Thus, ironically, one of the Occupation's first democratization steps, taken barely two weeks after Japan's surrender, was decidedly undemocratic -- the establishment of censorship authority over all textbook and media publications and radio broadcasts.

The Civil Censorship Detachment, as the censorship bureau was known, was a huge bureaucracy that reviewed and censored thousands of documents between 1945 and its abolition in 1949. Literally every publisher and broadcaster had to clear their book, magazine, newspaper, pamphlet, advertisement or radio program with Occupation officials before publication or broadcast.

One of those who worked for the Occupation was history scholar Gordon Prange. In 1951, he persuaded Occupation authorities to allow him to ship censored documents back to the University of Maryland for safekeeping.

Eventually, 16,000 newspaper articles, 13,000 magazines and nearly 700,000 pages of wire reports were brought back, forming the Prange Collection, now one of the largest Occupation-period archives in the world.

A small part of the collection is currently on display at the museum, offering a rare glimpse into the minds of both conquerors and conquered during the period immediately after the war. The display consists mostly of books, magazines and newspaper articles, and is divided into five sections.

As the first section explains, the censors could take three actions against a document -- withhold it, delete parts of it or entirely censor it -- all for reasons that weren't necessarily made clear. As the exhibition shows, however, decisions were often based on a desire to portray the Occupation and its soldiers in as positive a light as possible.

For example, an article in one economic journal that appeared in late 1945 was censored for covering a form of international trade that was then embarrassing to both the Occupation officials and the Japanese authorities: the black market. The article noted the emergence and fierce business tactics of Chinese and Korean black marketers in Osaka's Umeda district. It was written by a Japanese company president who worked in the area.

The black market was one taboo for Occupation authorities. Mention of fraternization between soldiers and Japanese women was another.

In an interview with a Japanese who worked around American soldiers, a writer notes that foreign, especially American, men often bought their dates fancy bracelets or other jewelry. The interviewee responds that dating rituals in the West and Japan are quite different and hints that such girls are very easily approached. The entire passage was ordered cut.

While it can be argued that the censorship was due to the reactions of prudish missionaries, there were other considerations. Venereal disease among soldiers and their Japanese girlfriends was then a recurring problem. Some soldiers married on a whim and then discarded their wives when returning home, often leaving behind children as well. Senior Occupation officials also felt that, given prevailing racial attitudes in the United States toward Asians in general and the Japanese in particular, such liaisons should be discouraged.

In addition, as has been noted by some American specialists of the period, such as Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor John Dower, the authorities had to win the trust of millions of former Japanese soldiers disgraced by defeat. Many were no doubt none too happy to watch smiling, laughing American soldiers strolling arm-in-arm with Japanese women.

In short, there was a perception among senior Occupation officials that stories of such relationships would make life more difficult for both parties. Of course, censorship utterly failed to prevent such liaisons, but the official line stood.

Some acts of censorship were covered up with arguments about democratic ideology or public morality. But others appeared to have little justification beyond one censor's opinion of what constituted proper manners, and this extended to articles on the English language.

As one display shows, one censor considered it all right to say, "Could you tell me where the restroom is?" but not, "I want to take a leak." Of course, writers who worked with American soldiers and attempted to share knowledge of certain four-letter words and terms descriptive of the human anatomy picked up in conversation found their lessons blue-penciled by censors.

Occupation authorities fervently believed that one of the keys to preventing future Japanese aggression was to ensure proper education from an early age. Textbooks and learning materials were screened closely, and anything judged to promote nationalism or militarism was squelched. One section of the Ritsumeikan display is completely given over to children's books and magazines that, for one reason or another, were deemed inappropriate.

Overall, the exhibition does an admirable job of showing the wide variety of censored documents.

Visitors will no doubt smile at some of the samples on display and shake their heads in amazement at others. There will be flashes of recognition as well, as some censored publications, including several racy weekly magazines, remain in business today.

The exhibition's biggest flaw is that it is history in a vacuum. Museum authorities spent a lot of time setting up the display of the documents and explaining details of the bureaucratic structure of the CCD, complete with charts of various bureaus.

But no attempt has been made to explain the ideological reasons for the censorship. When asked about the lack of historical background, a museum official said the exhibit's purpose was to show the collection so people would think about how to prevent such censorship in the future.

For those who lived through and were directly affected by the Occupation, or for specialists of the period, such explanations might be unnecessary. But ordinary visitors are likely to leave the exhibition only puzzled, unable to fully comprehend not just what happened at that time but also why.

The Prange Collection exhibition runs until June 10. For more information, contact the museum at (075) 465-8151.



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