The official surrender of Imperial Japan on September 2, 1945 brought an end to World War II, the deadliest and most widespread conflict in human history. By then, an estimated 1.3 million Japanese soldiers had lost their lives for their country’s expansionist ambitions. Were they really fanatically devoted to the war effort, as so often portrayed? Can their ruthless behaviour which included mass killings of nearly 3 to over 10 million people be simply explained by the notion of fanaticism? If yes, it precludes a critical engagement with the political and ideological forces that drove Japan to total war.
Pushing back at the idea of the straight document in photography, this project explores the aesthetics and wartime ideology of Imperial Japan by coalescing elements of photographic technology, politics, aesthetics and cleaning products.
Writings left behind by many young soldiers who wasted their lives reveal how they desperately sought rationale for their situations. Contemporary photographs taken by me during dusk, “the time for withering” as described in the writings, foreshadow the deaths of soldiers seen in the archive images. This constructed space allows viewers to form and assign their own meanings to what they see, just as the young soldiers did.
The historical event of the 47 Ronin was transformed into a propaganda film demonstrating ultimate loyalty to the state. 47 images of atrocities committed by the Japanese during WWII are rephotographed 47 times each with a cleaning camera. The 47x47 abstractions evoke how the same thing seen from the same distance can be morphed into a different meaning through propaganda, just as individuals were made ready to commit the horrors in the original images.
At Yasukuni Shrine, the war is glorified and 14 convicted Class A criminals are worshipped as deities. Composite prints of the war criminals and the shrine undergo bleaching and scrubbing. Ironically, images of the war criminals endured the cleaning process, mirroring the fallacy of whitewashing. Given how cleanliness is next to godliness and how atonement is sought through purification, the degradation of the images is paradoxical.
Strolling in the dusk with my comrades, we dream of beautiful pastures and orchards. It is marvellous that I can dream of a beautiful utopia when the world is going through vertigoes. I am happy to consider myself to be fighting to achieve the harmony of this universe. I am pleased and happy to provide good and beautiful reasons for my action — our sacrifice.
— Takushima Norimitsu
Entered the Navy in September, 1943
Perished on April 9, 1945
Lieutenant. He was 24.