DRAFT: This module has unpublished changes.

Critical Analysis of a Minority Group as Represented

in Graphic Design, Advertising, or Illustration

Emmy Kim

Professor Kerri Steinberg

AHSC 222: History of Graphic Design

28 February 2011

Portrayal of Japanese Americans through Visual Communication

     On December 4, 1941, Pearl Harbor was attacked by the Imperial Japanese Navy, and the United States declared war on Japan the following day. With the nation fully engaged in the War against both Japan and Germany, the production of propaganda posters rocketed. It was a matter of time for Japanese Americans to become the nation’s enemy. Surprisingly, by the end of 1960s Japanese Americans had become the “model minority,” meaning an ethnic minority that has achieved success within the parameters of a dominant culture (“Model Minority”). In the United States from the 1940s to the 1970s, Japanese Americans were portrayed in many different ways through visual communication, including posters and mass media, and life of Japanese Americans changed rapidly and enormously.

Between 1861 and 1940, over 270,000 Japanese people immigrated to the United States and Hawaii. Most of them arrived between 1898 and 1924, the year that the United States ended Asian immigration. Many were recruited by the American agricultural industry to work in the sugar cane fields of Hawaii and the fruit and vegetable farms of California. They excelled in the cultivation of the lands and became successful farmers, fishermen, and small businessmen (“Story Experience”) while political tension between Japanese and American was growing. When Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, the government recognized that American participation was necessary, and quickly stepped up pro-war propaganda. Figure 1 and 2 show fiery messages in bold letterings and red color. These posters are illustrating that Americans should avenge for the bombing of Pearl Harbor. The American in the poster is portrayed as a powerful man. These posters were to motivate Americans to join the army so that they can fight against the Japanese.


Figure 1. Perlin, Bernard. Avenge December. 1942. U.S. Office of War Information.

Figure 2. Unknown Artist. 1942. U.S. Office of War Information.

     During the World War I, posters and newspapers were the primary form of public communication, but by 1940s posters had been replaced by radio, billboards, and films. Why then did the American population use posters more than any other method of broadcasting propaganda (Witkowski 72)? First, people would encounter posters in places that other media could not reach—schools, store windows, and post offices. Second, posters had democratic appeal—they could be made by anyone. Posters were ideal for encourage support the war. Images have lasting impact, the anti-Japanese images of propaganda posters stirred up negative emotions in the viewer.

  President Franklin Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 on February 19, 1942. The Executive Order was to remove and incarcerate “any and all” Japanese Americans. Over 110,000 Japanese Americans were forcibly sent to relocation camps (“Story”). Propagandas for Japanese American internment were created as well. The internment caused many Japanese American families to suffer financial losses by having to abandon or sell businesses, homes (“Japanese American Redress”). They also struggled with the discrimination and dehumanizing effects of being imprisoned during wartime.

  Poster was not the only form of propagandas that was created against Japanese. Graphic media for children such as comic books and cartoons were also used to portray Japanese people. Figure 3 is one of Looney Tunes series cartoons made in 1943 to depict Japanese as a complete joke. The cartoon showed Japanese as dwarfish and with monkey like faces, and showed different acts of stupidity. In many propaganda cartoons, humor was used as a tool to take away the fear against the enemies. American war propaganda and the media succeeded in creating a negative profile of the Japanese.

Figure 3. “Tokio Jokio.” Looney Tunes. Prod. Leon Schlesinger. Warner Brothers, 1943.

  With the end of World War II, Japanese Americans were finally free to return to their homes from January 1945, but the last special internment camp did not close until 1952 (Irons 27). Even with their freedom, because of all the personal losses, they had to suffer economically and socially (“Story”).

  In the 1950s, an overwhelming majority of Hollywood films with Asians focused on interracial romance, mostly with women as war trophies (see fig. 4). With the goal of re-portraying Japanese American in such a way that it would not be a threat to democracies, film industry was considered as a potential tool for cultural change (Brightwell, “Asian-American Cinema”). With numerous war romance films and their movie posters, Japanese Americans began to retrieve positive cultural identity.

Figure 4. Japanese War Bride. Dir. King Vidor. 20th Century-Fox, 1952.

  With continual use of graphic art in promoting political and social messages during the wartimes, the art of graphic design underwent a new revolutionary phase. Before the 1950s, many Japanese designers represented history and not modern technology. If they were to receive international recognition for their activities, the designers needed to portray an industrially active and modern Japan. Other than traditional letterforms, they used few graphic images that provided recognition of their country. Abstract symbols for modern technology were more evident than views of traditional Japanese art. Many Japanese graphic designers started to be admired by many people throughout the world from the 1950s (Thornton 13-14). Numerous Japanese Americans also started to take part in poster design history. Most posters featured political, social and environmental messages. Takashi Kono was considered as one of the Japan’s first modern poster designers (Thornton 11). Figure 5 is a silkscreen poster he made in 1953. Japan is represented by 13 tiny fishes trailing a big American shark. The two red fishes swimming in the opposite direction represent the Soviet Union and China. Kono seems to have critical opinion towards the Cold War.

Figure 5. Kono, Takashi. Sheltered Weaklings. 1953. Aichi: Prefectural University of Fine Arts.

  From the late 1950s through the 1970s, an increased presence of Japanese Americans in Congress set the stage for the Japanese American Redress Movement (“Historical Overview”). Also the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s lead a significant change in the nation’s political environment when it came to battling racial discrimination and acknowledging the rights of minorities. Japanese Americans were able to be politically and socially involved by the 1960s. Furthermore, the peace and anti-war movement were rising in the United States. Yoko Ono, Yayoi Kusama, and Shigeo Fukuda, were among the many Japanese anti-war artists. Fukuda’s most famous poster, Victory 1945, shows a bullet aimed back towards the barrel from which it was shot (see fig. 6). Yoko Ono and Yayoi Kusama were more active in performance arts, but they were very influential as well.

Figure 6. Fukuda, Shigeo. Victory 1945.

Figure 7. Kimura, Tsunehisa. Give Us Back Man. 1969

  The success of Japanese Americans as a group had occurred despite severe discrimination in the previous century prior to the 1950s, being stereotyped as cheap, uneducated laborers. During World War II, anti-Japanese paranoia led to thousands of Japanese Americans being held in internment camps in the United States. However, by the end of 1960s, discrimination against Japanese Americans had remarkably decreased, and stereotype began to give way to recognition of the racial group’s economic accomplishments. As more media coverage of the increasing success of Asian Americans began in the 1960s, Japanese American did not have to struggle for their life.


     The art of persuasion is a valuable tool, which could turn the collective minds of a large group people toward or against a single idea or concept. The media and propaganda were powerful and silent weapons that targeted human emotions during the wartime. After war, because of that Japanese voice of visual communication was strong enough, Japanese Americans could rise up again in shorter period of time than any other minority groups. Visual communication, such as propaganda, film, and posters, without any doubt took an important part in portraying Japanese Americans in the United States.

Work Cited

Brightwell, Eric. “Asian-American Cinema.” amoeba.com. Amoeba, 24 May 2009. Web. 26 Feb. 2011.

Irons, Peter. Justice at War: The Story of the Japanese Internment Cases. New York: Oxford University Press, 1983. Print.

“Historical Overview.” jacl.org. Japanese American Citizens League, 2002. Web. 26 Feb. 2011.

“Japanese American Redress.” janm.org. Japanese American National Museum, n.d. Web. 27 Feb. 2011.

“Model Minorities.” Encyclopedia of Race and Racism. Ed. John Moore. Vol. 2. Detroit: Macmillan Reference USA, 2008. 311-312. Global Issues In Context. Web. 26 Feb. 2011.

“Story Experience.” americanhistory.si.edu/perfectunion. Smithsonian Institution, n.d. Web. 26 Feb. 2011.

Thornton, Richard S. “Japanese Posters: The First 100 Years.” Design Issues 6.1 (1989): 4-14. Print. The MIT Press. PDF file.

Witkowski, Terrence H. “World War II Poster Campaigns: Preaching Frugality to American Consumers.” Journal of Advertising 32 (2003): 62-82. Print.

DRAFT: This module has unpublished changes.