Japanese Propaganda in World War II

By Russell Horton, Reference Archivist

From the Sterling W. Schallert Collection, WVM Mss 104

When thousands of Wisconsin soldiers, part of the 32nd “Red Arrow” Infantry Division, arrived in Australia in May 1942, they inadvertently created an opportunity for Japanese propagandists to attack the morale of Australian troops and attempt to sow discord and distrust among the Allied forces in the Pacific Theater. A colorful collection of Japanese propaganda leaflets brought home by Wisconsin World War II veteran Sterling Schallert reveals a surprising theme of focus in this fascinating but little known aspect to the War in the Pacific.

From the Sterling W. Schallert Collection, WVM Mss 104

By the time American troops began arriving in Australia in early 1942, the Aussies had already been involved in the war for over two years. Initially sending forces to support Great Britain in Europe, North Africa, and the Mediterranean, they recently had begun fighting the Japanese closer to home as well. Already having experienced significant loss of life, they watched the seemingly unstoppable Japanese forces approach nearer and nearer. These war-weary people then saw tens of thousands of American troops who were culturally similar, but still very different, arrive in their country. Their interactions under this highly stressful and emotional situation were not always smooth, as evidenced by the riotous “Battle of Brisbane” between Australian and American soldiers. Japanese propagandists used this unique situation to attack the morale of Australian troops.

Effective battlefield propaganda can use stereotypes, rumors, and half-truths to play upon the hopes and worries of soldiers. For example, a leaflet exaggerating or inventing huge military victories for the opposition can undermine soldier morale. Leaflets with photos of POWs being treated and fed well, especially when paired with images of soldiers suffering in the field, can affect a soldier’s desire to continue fighting.

But one of the most sacred things to a soldier in the field is home. Men and women join the military to protect their families, friends, and homes. Letters written from the field reflect this and are full of questions about issues like health and happiness of family members, the condition of houses and cars, and the status of jobs and harvests. Therefore, propaganda that touches upon the concept of home and brings into question the safety and happiness of loved ones can be especially devastating for soldiers in the field. The Japanese picked up on this idea. They developed a series of leaflets aimed at Australian soldiers that suggested their home was not safe. But in a unique twist, the threat to home was not Japan, but the United States.

One sub-theme focused on the American presence in Australia and questioned their motives, suggesting that they were letting the Australian troops fight and die while they remained safe behind the lines. These leaflets often portrayed President Franklin Roosevelt in a sinister light, intimating that he had aspirations to claim Australia for the United States, or that he was allowing the Australian troops to die and “soften” the Japanese forces to make it easier for American troops.

From the Sterling W. Schallert Collection, WVM Mss 104

A second sub-theme of Japanese propaganda built on the presence of the American troops, and suggested that while Australian soldiers were fighting and dying, the Americans were chasing their wives and sweethearts back home. Many of these leaflets were fairly graphic, but the message was simple: stop fighting and go home to be with your girl before she leaves you for an American or before an American takes her from you. One can imagine how the presence of tens of thousands of US troops on their home soil could contribute to the effectiveness of these lines of propaganda.

Ultimately, this Japanese propaganda effort failed, as American and Australian troops fought together effectively from Buna toward the Japanese mainland, winning the war in the Pacific. But the unique angle of this propaganda campaign, which had an effect on the way Wisconsin soldiers stationed in Australia were perceived, is one of interest. Wartime propaganda is a fascinating topic, and a forthcoming WVM exhibit in May 2016 will show how the United States used propaganda posters during World War I to influence the way people on the home front felt about the war, the “enemy,” and military service.