Setsuko Hara in Shido-Monogatari (指導物語, 1940) Dir. Hisatora Kumagai

Many people believe that an oppressive, totalitarian government is designed by a group of devils wearing human skins. The nation is hypnotized by cunning propaganda, led to believe the blood-tainted doctrine, and subliminally conditioned to sacrifice their life for those devils. Today, we would notice these devils when we see them. A modern democratic society will not tolerate such a diabolical political process. So we believe.

The problem is, some totalitarian regimes were the products of democratic process. Nazi party won 230 seats in Reichstag as a result of the 1932 federal election. In Japan, though no particular political party represented the militarist Imperialism, there were civil activism and grassroots movements to support Imperialistic expansionism and military control of the Nation. Some grassroots movements seem so innocent and community-driven, you would rather not to voice your concern and fail to notice its transformation into a machine of social oppression.

“Greater Imperial Japan Women’s Society for Homeland Security (Dai-Nihon Kokubo Fujin Kai, KFK)” was one of the most influential grassroots movement during war years. In 1932, it started as a local women’s society in Osaka with 30 members. In 1940, it reached 10 million membership, with hundreds of branch chapters throughout Japan. Their main activities? Sending off the soldiers at railway stations. Their weapons? White aprons and logo belts (1). Their slogan? “Homeland security begins in our kitchens.”

Tadatoshi Fujii describes this organization as “completely apolitical”, a trait that had made it acceptable and popular among women in urban areas (2). Though supported by Army, KFK was essentially a grassroots movement until unification with other two smaller movements in 1940. Its visible activity mainly focused on military send-off rallies, sewing talismans (Sen-nin bari) for soldiers and fund-raising. During the years of 1931 to 1945, draftees were sent to camps in the strategic cities scattered across the islands, until they were mobilized to fronts by trains and ships. There were send-off rallies at these large cities before the mobilization, and the members of KFK worked as “mothers” to those young souls. An apron was a symbol of motherhood to remind soldiers that whole country was parents to them. It is amazing, and shocking at the same time, to know that maternal instincts were structuralized into the mechanical process of killing and destroying. And it did not evolve slowly. KFK quickly found its place in the process as if it had known its role all the time.

Because of its role as an emotional building block in war machine, KFK is frequently glimpsed in Japanese cinema to underscore “public” nature of soldier-family relationship. Fujii discusses two films by Keisuke Kinoshita, “Army (陸軍 1944)” and “Twenty-Four Eyes (二十四の瞳, 1954)“.

In “Army”, it is the city street of send-off rally in Ogura. The camera captures the mother (Kinuyo Tanaka) following her son, now a soldier, marching from the camp to the railway station, in a long, long sequence, until its “The End” credit. The street is filled with women of KFK waving flags. In “Twenty-Four Eyes”, … women are wearing aprons, with KFK logo belts,… follow the column of soldiers with somewhat somber expressions.


Hideko Takamine in “Twenty-Four Eyes (二十四の瞳, 1954)”, Dir. Keisuke Kinoshita

Fujii emphasizes the contrast between two films; a mother without a symbolic white apron in “Army” and a woman buried in rows of white aprons in “Twenty-Four Eyes”. Kinoshita did what only courageous artist would do; He pictured an individual with personal emotions in the middle of totalitarian regime, while, in later years, he observed the burial of personality under silent oppression, to suggest the dubious nature of “community”. Fujii also points out the fact that KFK did not exist in the times described in both films. “Army” is set in 1932, the year of the Shanghai Incident, shortly before KFK started as a local group in Osaka. The scene in “Twenty-Four Eyes” is set around 1943, after KFK was disbanded into the larger “The Great Japan Women Association” in 1940. The audience in 1944 thought KFK had existed well before Japanese entry into the 15 year war. The audience in 1954 accepted that KFK existed until the end. In memory of audience, KFK represented the community they had lived in during the years of turmoil.

As a propaganda film supported by the Imperial Army, “Army” follows fairly routine propaganda rules, including many preaching of morals and loyalty. However, it stops at the final 10-minute mark. The famous closing sequence in “Army” was considered Kinoshita’s anti-war protest in the middle of war propaganda. Reminiscent of the similar sequence in King Vidor’s “The Big Parade”, it is one of the most emotionally charged film-making of 1940s. When the mother finally finds her son in the marching troops and tries to exchange a few words with him, the blasting soundtrack of the military song erases their words. Nothing is more explicit than this. As Fujii observes, the mother’s dark kimono is starkly highlighted against the wall of bursting whiteness. The wall of KFK women and waving flags. She is the mother, an individual, not another person in “mother’s community”, not another white apron in the wall of white aprons. An idea of individual begins when a child leaves mother’s womb, divided into two separate beings. Kinoshita knew this. The mother strongly feels sense of an individual with relation to a child. No matter what the others say, no matter what the others impose on her, no matter how hard the others hit her, she holds what she has to hold. There is nothing wrong with mother caring her child. Only her child. Kinoshita pushed that button. That’s why military censors grudgingly passed this film, but never let him make another film till the end of war. It is said that one of the officers, after the screening of the film, yelled at the screen “I slash that bastard, Kinoshita!”, with the saber in his hand.

Kinuyo Tanaka in “Army (陸軍, 1944)”, Dir. Keisuke Kinoshita

NHK, National Broadcast Company, has a large collection of recorded interviews on war experiences on its website. Interviewees are just ordinary people who were young soldiers, school girls and students at the time of war. In one of the interviews, the lady talks about “mobilization” for send-off parades. Frequently, girls were ordered to gather around the railway station, to send off soldiers. Waving flags, mainly. When the parades were over with banzai calls to departing trains, the “mobilized” people went their ways as if nothing had happened. But there were always a group of people hiding in the shadow of the station avoiding public eyes. They were soldiers’ families. They had to cry in the shadow. They were not allowed to express sorrow in public since their sons were now serving the greater cause than familial matters. “How sad, I felt so sorry for them”, the old lady says in the interview.

It has been a underlying issue in Japanese society, even to this day. We are yet to rebuild the community of individuals. Grassroots movements, neighborhood communities, and civilian groups are sometimes looked upon as “nuisance”. I sense that many fear they may lose their “individuality” if they become a part of such a community. In a sense, I believe they are right. It’s not the sense of a community that is not developed, but it’s the sense of an individual. Conformity is ingrained in our psyche. And when it presents itself, sometimes it is ugly.

(1) Actually, it is called “kappougi“. It was designed to wear over kimono.
(2) Tadatosi Fujii, “Kokubo Fujinkai”, Iwanami Shinsho, 1985


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