As the world edged towards war in the later part of the 1930s, new found alliances were formed between various ambitious powers that had designs on reshaping the world and the Axis countries set about propagandising the virtues of their new found friends. Japan, ruled by a military clique since the early 1930s with a figurehead emperor providing popular legitimacy, decided it wanted part of the action and had already invaded Manchuria during this period (after grabbing Korea earlier in the century) and staked its claims in Asia. For European fascist regimes it was important that propaganda differentiated their new Asian ally (racially, culturally and historically) from other societies in the region, demonstrated that Japan shared certain core values that were compatible with fascism, and generally presented them in a favourable light in the face of outside criticism.
First published in 1937 (this is the 2nd paperback edition missing the dust jacket) Gross-Japan (Greater Japan) is a photobook in the standard country survey style, that uses the time honoured formula to create a picturesque vision of an exotic land for a distant audience. Here, ancient traditions coexist with the modern world, while historical buildings and unchanging scenes of Arcadian tranquility provide contrast for the progressive new developments and images of industrial might that will lead to a brighter future. Military prowess and images of a disciplined, ordered society show strength of purpose and convery a sense of national destiny that particularly resonated during this time. Looked at from this perspective, this book is quite unremarkable from a wide range of similar 1930s propaganda publications but what is particularly interesting, from my point of view, is the author, Yônosuke Natori.
Although early Japanese documentary photographers, such as Ken Domon and Ihei Kimura are well known, Natori’s legacy has gone largely unremarked (at least outside Japan). Born in 1910, Natori left for Germany in 1928 where he studied in Munich before starting work as a jobbing photojournalist in 1931. Returning to Japan in 1933 he founded the group Nippon Kobo which is credited with influencing the development of Japanese documentary practice. Thanks to Natori’s exposure to photographic developments in Germany, where he would have undoubtedly become aware of the New Vision techniques that were then in vogue, as well as his adoption of the small format Leica camera, Natori can be regarded as a bridge between East and West, bringing the latest European developments to a Japanese photographic audience who in turn adapted them to their own particular cultural viewpoints. As well as working with the German Ullstein press machine, Natori was the first Asian photographer to have his work appear in Life magazine (his work appeared in two issues of Life in 1937; an extensive spread on Vermont appeared on 19 July followed by pictures of the Japanese invasion of China on 20 December) before helping establish the propaganda magazine Nippon, also designed for a foreign audience, in 1934
Natori’s use of the Leica and the influence of the new vision style is evident in a number of the images within the book; the neat, ordered lines of prams and rickshaws he depicts upon the streets, Natori’s view through the wheels of the rickshaw in the financial area of Tokyo and the images of massed ranks of military recruits and schoolchildren practicing their martial skills stand out as particularly good examples of the new vision aesthetic applied to Japanese subject matter. These images introduce a dynamic tone the book which, as well as preventing it from becoming another coffee table tome, serves to move the narrative forward as well as informing the viewer that Imperial Japan is on the march.
Like other photographic surveys of distant lands, where the viewer is presented with a vision of the exotic-picturesque designed to emphasise the cultural and national specificity of the country in question, Natori’s book is filled with images that could have come straight out of a 1930s tourist brochure. However, like Nippon magazine, Gross-Japan was clearly designed as a piece of propaganda to disseminate Japanese cultural and national achievements to a foreign audience, in this case Nazi Germany. Undoubtedly assisted by the close contacts Natori had with the German press and his association with Japanese officialdom (the ambassador has written the forward to the book) this book was carefully tailored to present a vision of Japan that would appeal to a heavily politicised audience gearing up for war.
In the specific context and time it appeared, Gross-Japan had a specific political function to serve; it was important that the book not over emphasise the differences between the two countries. The German viewer had to be able to admire the traditional ceremonial and ritual aspects of Japanese culture whilst also being able to appreciate and identify with the disciplined social structure and values that are also presented as an integral part of Imperial Japan. In this way the two aspects are interlinked; present day strength is presented as a function of a long and deep historical tradition, which in turn serves to bolster expansionist claims over other countries and peoples. Concepts of social unity, discipline, a strong work ethic, industrial development, the veneration of tradition in the face of outside forces and a sense of national destiny would have struck a chord with the German viewer of the time.