I’d Like to Thank the Academy…

Well, I’d like to thank the Academy, but it turns out there’s no need, since this year’s best animated feature competition at the Oscars is Encanto, Flee, Luca, The Mitchells vs the Machines and Raya and the Last Dragon.

The longlist was a different story. There were six Japanese animated features eligible for consideration there, but then again, the longlist is always a bit of a mug’s game, as everybody tries to cram as many titles in there as possible. So, it would have been nice, say, if Fortune Favours Lady Nikuko, which won the Judges’ Award at October’s Scotland Loves Anime, had made it over the penultimate hurdle. Considering Hollywood’s love of self-referentiality, I’m a little surprised there wasn’t a smidgen of love for Pompo the Cinephile, which is a gleeful celebration of movie-making.

And then there’s the giant, speaker-laden blue whale in the room, Mamoru Hosoda’s Belle, which is sending critics worldwide into tailspins of praise, garnering five-star reviews in the mainstream press, and has been resoundingly ignored.

You may be wondering why anyone really cares. The Oscar-voters’ frames of reference are plainly blinkered beyond belief, limited to whatever their kids are watching and a sop to the woke Danes. But as Ichiro Itano once sagely said, there’s no medal for coming fourth. Come third, be an also-ran in the race, and you’re still part of the conversation, you’re part of the news cycle. People see you on the podium and wonder who you are, and maybe they Google you, and maybe they give your movie a try. I’m sure there’s no coincidence that Belle’s UK cinema run was timed to coincide with the shortlist announcement, in the hope that its distributors could slap the words “nominated for an Oscar” on the posters.

If you read this magazine, then you presumably have an interest in Japanese cartoons, and can probably name one or two that might have deserved an Oscar in the twenty years since Spirited Away took one home. The Oscars might be conservative and parochial, but so is much of the world’s movie-going audience, and that’s why we keep coming back with our fingers crossed, hoping that senpai will notice us.

Jonathan Clements is the author of Anime: A History. This article first appeared in NEO #218, 2022.

The Divine Sky Warriors

In January 1942 Japan deployed paratroopers in battle for the first time during the Battle of Manado. Horiuchi Toyoaki, a flamboyant, bearded officer nicknamed “The Octopus” for his love of and promotion of gymnastics in the Navy, led a strike force of 507 parachutists, dropping behind enemy lines to seize the Dutch forces’ airfield and seaplane base. In a tactic that would have surely attracted more notice had it not been overshadowed by the parachute achievement, a sea-plane on an inland lake, allowing an anti-tank unit to penetrate deep into enemy territory.

The idea of soldiers bodily hurling themselves out of a flying machine into the middle of enemy territory had an electric effect on the Japanese public. The Yomiuri Shinbun dubbed them the “Divine Sky Warriors” (Sora no Shinpei), prompting a journalist at the rival Mainichi Shinbun to write a poem about the romance of their achievement. Before long, “Divine Sky Warriors” had been set to music, broadcast on the radio and released as a gramophone record, becoming a nationwide hit.

In the great sky, bluer than blue

It is as if, suddenly a hundred thousand white roses bloom

Behold! Parachutes descend from the sky.

Behold! Parachutes conquering the sky.

The parachute is the most glorious flower in the world.

On its purest white, our soldiers regret not the spilling of red blood.

The divine soldiers, so young that they still look like children, are repeatedly likened to blossoms fluttering in the sky, descending from the heavens, to magically reclaim territory held in enemy hands.

In something of a low blow, the Army fought back by rushing out a propaganda movie, Divine Sky Warriors (1942, Sora no Shinpei) a documentary about the training of an Army paratrooper unit that not only presented close-up imagery of technology and procedures that the Navy still proclaimed to be classified, but blatantly used “Divine Sky Warriors” as its theme tune, as if to imply that the achievement on Manado had been an Army operation. The Ministry of Education, keen to distract the population from increasing Japanese losses in the war at sea, gave the film a cultural award, and decreed that it should be compulsorily screened in every cinema in the country.

In response to the insult, the Navy retaliated with cartoons – Momotarō’s Sea Eagles (1943, Momotarō no Umiwashi), celebrating the contribution of Navy pilots to the victory at Pearl Harbor, and Japan’s first ever feature-length animation, Momotarō’s Divine Sea Warriors (1945, Momotarō, Umi no Shinpei), a.k.a. Momotarō, Sacred Sailors.

An extract from Japan at War in the Pacific: The Rise and Fall of the Japanese Empire in Asia (1868-1945) by Jonathan Clements.

Military Consequences of Women’s Fashion

Much of Japan’s economy was bolstered by sales of a single commodity – silk. From the 1890s, when the US overtook France as the main export market, a huge proportion of Japan’s foreign currency earnings derived from the export of raw silk and related products to the United States. Fully 10% of Japan’s arable land was taken up with mulberry orchards to feed silk worms, while by 1929, the United States accounted for 95% of Japan’s silk trade, and the silk trade accounted for up to 54% of all Japan’s exports. The introduction of Coco Chanel’s “Little Black Dress” in 1926 was not merely a revolution in fashion, but in international commerce, delivering a sharp blow to Japan’s export prospects, which had previously relied on intricate and bulky gowns. So, too, was the widening availability of rayon, an artificial fibre perfected in 1924 and soon undercutting silk on the market. The onset of a global depression, which impacted the United States in 1929, had a predictable effect on the sales of luxury items, including silk clothing, causing Japan’s silk exports to the US to plummet during the 1930s to a mere eighth of their former level. Only the rise of the silk stocking, a mass-production item after the invention of all-in-one knitting machine, offered any respite to Japan’s troubled export market.

While the battles of Kalkhin Gol were still raging in 1939, a far quieter, but arguably even more destructive blow was struck against Japan in New York, where the new wonder-fiber nylon was unveiled at the World’s Fair. Nylon would soon be offering a cheap alternative to silk stockings, which, in the decades since women’s dresses began to use less material and ruffles, had become the main use for Japanese silk. The arrival of nylon spelled disaster for Japan’s own industrial calculations, suggesting that the silk-stocking industry, Japan’s last big source of export revenue, was about to take a tumble. Without the $100 million per year that Japan earned from silk exports to the United States, the nation would have to rely solely on its dwindling gold reserves, and whatever revenue it could scrape from the drugs levies of Manchukuo.

How much longer could Japan afford to fight its China war? US analysts believed that Japan might still have enough gold reserves to push on for another two years. After that, it was confidently predicted, Japan would be out of money, and out of time… sometime in the autumn of 1941.

But the US was also heavily reliant on the Japanese for certain commodities – silk, for example, was not simply a luxury item, but also a crucial component in the manufacture of American parachutes. With China in a state of crisis, the best sources for it were Japan and Manchukuo! Fortunately for the US, there was enough raw silk stockpiled in the US already to adequately equip 200,000 parachutists, although there were still concerns that the US might run short of the coarse spun silk required in munitions’ igniter cloth and lacing for artillery. Already in 1940, the supply of waste silk from Japan had become suspiciously thin – it was believed that the Japanese were stockpiling their own silk. The most crucial of the US needs for silk was for use in naval cartridge cloth – the material used in powder bags for large-calibre ships’ guns. This need was met by massive purchases from China, often of the off-cuts from Japanese-owned mills.

An extract from Japan at War in the Pacific: The Rise and Fall of the Japanese Empire in Asia (1868-1945) by Jonathan Clements.

The Lord of Mice in the Year 2600

On 2nd February 1940, a frail old man rose to his feet in the Japanese Diet and commenced a ninety-minute speech. Saitō Takao was seventy-one years old, an obscure politician who only occasionally spoke out on controversial issues, leading to one cartoonist to call him “the Lord of the Mice.” But today, he could reasonably be said to have had enough. Saitō was no pacifist – he was a conservative, broadly supportive of Japan’s expansion into Korea and Manchuria. The problem was, he began, that the stated aim of securing Japan’s resources and materials had been accomplished. He simply couldn’t see the point of the latest adventures in China, which were a costly and endless money pit.

Saitō’s problem was with a revolving-door of governments that seemed to think that their responsibilities were discharged by resigning at the first sign of trouble. A million Japanese men had been sent overseas; a million more faced the same fate. A hundred thousand Japanese had died, and all for what? Saitō took apart the government’s directives and policies, pointing out that they were riddled with contradictions. How could they claim to support China, while also trying to undermine it with rival regimes? Were they going to save China by destroying it? Is this what they meant by the “New Order in Asia,” some misguided rip-off of what Hitler was doing to Europe? How could the Prime Minister embark on a costly war in Asia, while also promising that he would demand no indemnity from the Chinese if they surrendered – who was going to pay for all this?

“If we ignore this reality, or camouflage it with the words ‘holy war,'” he said, “pointlessly neglecting the people’s sacrifices for an array of elusive pretexts such as ‘international justice’ or a ‘moral foreign policy,’ or ‘co-existence and co-prosperity’ or ‘world peace,’ and thereby lose a rare opportunity and thereby end up ruining the great state plan of the century… today’s politicians will commit a crime that we cannot compensate for with our deaths.”

Saitō had witnessed the Army coming to his own district near Kobe, and ripping up the local railway tracks, taking them away for some unspecified industrial venture in South-East Asia. How was this helping the Japanese? In what possible situation could the Japanese be compensated for the sacrifices they had already been called upon to make?

He conceded that there were exceptions: not all Japanese were being crushed by austerity. There were “boom firms” that were making a killing supplying the war effort, gobbling up military contracts.

“I do not understand the cause of this war,” he said. “I do not understand why we are at war. I do not know. Do you gentlemen know? If you have it figured out, then explain it to me.”

Saitō was heckled throughout by his fellow politicians, and much of the latter part of his speech was cut from the official record at the instigation of the Army’s observer in the council chamber. Politicians and the press derided him as a blasphemer against Japan’s “holy war,” and he received death threats and hate mail. He resigned from his party and was ejected from the Diet – his speech marked the moment when any further criticism of Japanese militarism was purged from the government.

And yet, there were still glimmerings of hope. Among the letters calling for him to do Japan a favor and kill himself, accusing him of being anti-war or anti-military, or even of being a British or American stooge, there were letters of support, thanking him for standing up for the common Japanese people. Despite a smear campaign in the media, he would later win re-election as an independent, although the Diet he re-entered was little more than an echo chamber for propaganda by that point.

At one point in his speech, Saitō referred to his belief that the China Incident was the largest war that Japan had fought with China in 2,600 years. His choice of numbering was quite deliberate, since the year 1940 in the Christian calendar had been determined by the Japanese government to mark a momentous occasion – the 2,600th anniversary of the legendary coronation of Japan’s first-ever ruler, the Emperor Jinmu. Jinmu’s very existence was a matter of unsubstantiated myth, while the dating of his enthronement to 660 BCE was the vague pronunciation of a medieval chronicle, but ever since 1873, his achievements had been celebrated in National Foundation Day, which fell on 11th February. This, in turn, might sound at first like harmless legend, except it had already been used as a further argument for the superiority of the Japanese race. Ōkawa Shūmei (1886–1957), a former South Manchuria Railway employee, now a university professor, only released in 1939 after serving time in prison for his involvement in some of the attempted coups of the 1930s, had written a much-reprinted book arguing that since Japan was the oldest state in the world, it was its destiny to rule it.

1940 was hence a year of grand ceremonial importance to Japan’s state Shintō religion. On New Year’s Day, the people not only of Japan, but also of Japan’s empire overseas, had been ordered to bow, at precisely 9am, in the direction of the imperial palace in Tokyo, and to shout: “Long Live His Majesty the Emperor.” There was no possible way that anyone could claim not to know their duty – the directive was printed in newspapers and broadcast on the radio. It was also written into neighbourhood round-robin newsletters, which could not be passed on between households until the head of each family had affixed his seal. This was merely the first of a dozen timed mass rituals that would unite the Japanese in 1940, including moments of silence to mark Army Day, Navy Day and the anniversary of the Marco Polo Bridge Incident, and the twice-annual days when the Emperor conducted ceremonies for the war dead at the Yasukuni Shrine.

The state broadcasting corporation, NHK, held a competition to come up with a “national song” to mark the occasion. Masuda Yoshio beat 18,000 contenders with his stirring lyrics for “The Year 2600” (Kigen Nisen Roppyaku-nen), which were set to music by Mori Yoshihachirō, and began with a reference to the Golden Kite of Japanese legend, which blinded the enemies of the Japanese, and settled on the bow of the legendary Emperor Jinmu.

Our bodies receive the divine light of the glory of Japan

Shining from the Golden Kite

We pray at the dawn of the Year 2600

A hundred million breasts swell with pride.

Standing firm on the jubilant earth

We await the imperial decree in the Year 2600

The clouds clear after the founding of our nation

Growing up in a fractious world Our gratitude burns with a clean flame, in the Year 2600.

The conflict in China, however, had been limping along for almost a decade, leading several satirists to come up with parody versions. Some of the most enduring refashioned Masuda’s lyrics so that instead of declaring the divine providence of the Japanese Empire, they complained about the rising prices of cigarettes – not the free Onshino packs handed out to military men, but the everyday brands on sale to the general public. These included the super-cheap Golden Bat (Kinshi) brand produced by Mitsui, renamed Golden Kite in 1940 to reflect rising patriotic fervor. At the former price of 4 sen a packet, smokers had previously been able to buy 500 cigarettes for just one yen.

[A pack of] Golden Kites is 15 sen

It’s 30 for a pack of Glorys.

These days, prices are going up

In the year 2600

100 million people weep.

An extract from Japan at War in the Pacific: The Rise and Fall of the Japanese Empire in Asia (1868-1945) by Jonathan Clements.

New Book

A surprise Fedex delivery tonight — the book that is likely to ruffle a lot of feathers, a history of Japan for the era of Brexit and Trump.

‘I was drawn to see different parallels, not only to the sight of a nation readily destroying itself while moderates looked on aghast, of robber barons making a killing while the weak suffered, of oligarchs and billionaires rushing through new laws while hoping to remain beyond their reach, and of political opportunists ready to use extremist violence to either assert or combat “the will of the people,” but also of a movement that sought to reclaim the agency and power of an entire race from its oppressors.’


Animeta is a fascinating worm’s-eye view of the animation business in Japan, happy to spend a chapter literally focussing on the way to draw a line, drawing the reader into the physicality of working in an anime company. Hanamura covers everything from finger cramps to the studio canteen, the differing ranks of various workgroups, all in the process of assembling a cartoon from the first pencil to paper to the final broadcast product. It is no surprise to me that the book has become mandatory reading at Studio Trigger, recommended to new staff as a glimpse of the horrors that lie ahead.”

Over at All the Anime, I review Yaso Hanamura’s manga about the anime business.

Thursday 11am (UK time)

Jonathan Clements will examine the life and achievements of one of Japan’s first modern international celebrities, Admiral Togo Heihachiro (1848-1934), from his teenage participation in the “Anglo-Satsuma War” of 1863, through his youth as a student at a British maritime school, and his long career in the Imperial Japanese Navy. In 1905, after Tōgō’s defeat of the Tsar’s fleet at the Battle of Tsushima, he was hailed as the “Nelson of the East” and an honorary Englishman; his flagship, the Mikasa, can still be found at the Yokosuka dockside.

Jonathan Clements is the author of many books on Asian history and culture, including Admiral Togo: Nelson of the East, Japan at War in the Pacific: The Rise and Fall of the Japanese Empire 1868-1945 and A Brief History of Japan. He has presented three seasons of Route Awakening, a TV series about icons of Chinese history and culture for National Geographic. After speaking to us last year about the samurai, Dr Clements returns to YCAPS to discuss the famous “silent admiral” who charmed the British, sank the Russians, and scolded Theodore Roosevelt for inadequate care of a samurai sword.

Eavesdropping on the Emperor

‘In the first 23 years of its operation, the institution then known as the London School of Oriental Studies (today’s SOAS) only produced two graduates in Japanese. This was despite repeated pressure from policy wonks like one Colonel Grimsdale, begging the establishment to have a ready supply of linguists to hand in case of any trouble in the East. The problem was, Grimsdale noted, “a number of chaps just can’t take these languages, and either take to drink or go a bit potty.”’

Over at All the Anime, I review Peter Kornicki’s Eavesdropping on the Emperor.

Easter 1638

“Vital documents about the rebel state of mind were ignored until after the Rebellion because they used terms in Latin, the secret cant of the Christians, unintelligible to non-believers. Biblical allusions in rebel correspondence and rhetoric sailed completely over the heads of their enemies. Jerome Amakusa held his army together through a long siege that lasted through Lent 1638, only to discover that his most trusted lieutenant was plotting to betray him on Easter Sunday. This irony escaped the notice of the government troops, who did not know what Easter Sunday was.”

From Christ’s Samurai: The True Story of the Shimabara Rebellion.

Tenpu Abu (1882-1928)

“Fritz becomes actively involved in espionage, scuttling a freighter to block the Panama Canal and hobble the US naval response. It is Fritz’s execution by the vengeful Americans that leads to an outright declaration of war by Germany. Japan frees India from British oppression, in part owing to the Nitahara-class aerial warships able to cross the Himalayas in a surprise attack…”

Over at the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, I write up the author Tenpu Abu (1882-1928), part of the spinoffery from my work on my new book, Japan at War in the Pacific.