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HOME  > Past issues  > 2017 September 13 - 19  > Imperial gov’t used patriotic toys to mobilize children for war
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2017 September 13 - 19 [SOCIAL ISSUES]

Imperial gov’t used patriotic toys to mobilize children for war

September 13, 2017
During World War II, the Imperial Japanese government tried to use everything to mobilize the general public for war. Even card games, board games, and other toys for children were introduced.

The earliest version of militaristic toys came after the Sino-Japanese War (1894-5) and the Russo-Japanese War (1904-5). Various playing boards for the “sugoroku” game were produced to hail the war victories and justify Japan’s expansionist actions. Sugoroku is Japan’s traditional board game and its rules are similar to that of snakes and ladders.

In addition, “karuta” card sets designed to improve home-front morale for war hit the market. In karuta games, players use a set of cards on which different poems or proverbs are written and compete to collect as many cards as possible. Karuta card sets sold at that time used militarist slogans and poems praising war heroes.

As Japan’s invasion of China went into full swing in the early 1930s, toy manufacturers were pressured to sell patriotic products. Along with toy guns, cannons, tanks, war ships, and airplanes, companies produced dolls of three Japanese soldiers who had carried out a suicide attack at a battle with the Chinese military near Shanghai in 1932. The Japanese military promoted them as “the three brave soldiers”.

On the other hand, police authorities restricted mahjong, a Chinese game that was popular in Japan, based on the claim that the game is unpatriotic and makes workers demoralized and unproductive. For example, the number of mahjong clubs in Kobe City fell from 128 in 1936 to 18 in 1940 due to police crackdowns.

Japan entered the Pacific War in 1941. The regime tightened its control over almost all aspects of people’s livelihoods. The authorities criticized popular “iroha” karuta card sets as not patriotic enough for wartime on the grounds that this type of karuta features common proverbs such as “the proof of the pudding is in the eating”. More “appropriate” karuta decks included cards with slogans like, “Now is the wartime” and “Let’s serve the nation.”

Game boards for sugoroku circulated during WWII were closely linked to the imperial government’s effort to encourage children to become loyal soldiers. In one game board, players race to become a tankman. In another board, game participants play a role of a fighter pilot and shoot down enemy planes. Evidently, these toys were meant to entice children into proudly entering the military.

The government authorities banned card sets for traditional “hyakunin issyu” karuta on the grounds that this variety mainly deals with classic poems depicting romantic love. Instead, the government recommended ones that contain poems stressing loyalty to the Emperor.

Companies had no choice but to lend a hand to the militaristic regime because if their products were rejected by government approval committees, they were prohibited from purchasing paper and authors might be arrested for unpatriotic acts.

These toys might have contributed to, at least to some extent, inspiring children and teenagers to enlist for military service. Of 3,000 Japanese sailors killed in the 1942 Sea Battle of Midway, more than 200 were aged 16 or younger. It is likely that some of them had played patriotic karuta and sugoroku before joining the navy.

Past related articles:
> Wartime newspapers volunteered to become war-promoting instruments [July 12, 2017]
> University students 72 years ago mobilized for war [October 21, 2015]
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