Press Censorship in Wartime

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A recurring theme in A Boy Called H is the extent to which the Japanese newspapers during wartime did not report the truth. H gets frustrated with what he reads about the war because he senses, as does his father, that they are not getting the whole story. When the first air raids are made on Kobe, the newspaper headlines read, ‘‘The Neighborhood Association Spirit Beats the Raiders.’’ This puzzles H because he knows that, in fact, the air raid had taken the Neighborhood Association by surprise and that, in practice, the hazards of putting out fires were nothing like the smooth drills they had been regularly practicing. Also, someone is killed in that first raid, but the newspapers fail to report it. H decides that the newspapers ‘‘are just a pack of lies!’’ and he does not change his opinion from then on.

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On the overseas battle front, the Japanese press enthusiastically reports Japanese victories but engages in subterfuge whenever there is a Japanese setback or defeat. One example in particular is quite amusing, illustrating as it does the extent to which language can be manipulated to disguise meaning. In 1943, Japanese forces were facing stiff opposition in the islands of the South Pacific. One morning the newspapers report the following:

Our forces operating on Buna Island in New Guinea and Guadalcanal Island in the Solomons, which had been smashing persistent enemy counterattacks despite a shortage of manpower, have now achieved their objects and in early February were withdrawn from the islands and ordered to advance in another direction.

Behind the welter of difficult words, H concludes that this means Japan is losing in that area of the war. He asks his father, ‘‘Does ‘advancing in another direction’ mean retreating?’’ His father does not give him a satisfactory answer.

As H and his father guess, the newspapers in Japan during World War II were indeed subject to government and military censorship. This pattern was a matter of some importance, since Japan was (and still is) a nation of newspaper readers. Before Japan went to war against the United States in 1941, daily circulation of newspapers was about nineteen million, which was more than one newspaper per household. Newspapers were not controlled by the government, and they were free to criticize politicians, although even before the war they tended to be supportive of the government’s foreign policies.

After the war began with China, the government expected the press to be loyal to the Japanese cause, and restrictions were placed on it. Any news regarding the economy or foreign events was considered to be a state secret and could not be published without permission. (In A Boy Called H, H frequently expresses annoyance and frustration at the number of things that are declared state secrets.) Further regulations made it a punishable offense to deviate from official guidelines or to reveal any information considered helpful to the enemy.

In Politics and Culture in Wartime Japan, Ben- Ami Shillony states that as long as Japan was successful, press reports of the progress of the war were largely accurate. But when the tide turned and Japan experienced defeat after defeat, official bulletins printed in the newspapers were glaringly false. Shillony uses the decisive battle of Midway in June 1942 as an example. In that battle, Japan lost more than twice as many ships and planes as the United States and nearly twelve times the number of men. But the Japanese press was obliged to present Midway as a victory for Japan, denouncing any other view as enemy propaganda.

The defeat on Guadalcanal was also initially reported as a success, until, as H found out, it was conceded that Japanese forces had made a ‘‘sideward advance’’ (which as Shillony shows is a translation of the Japanese word tenshin and is the equivalent of the phrase...

(The entire section contains 5940 words.)

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