japan starves -- 2/17/16

Today's selection -- from Japan 1941 by Eri Hotta. In 1941 -- before the attack on Pearl Harbor -- the United States imposed sanctions on Japan as a response to the Japanese invasion of China, aggression in French Indochina, and its alliance with Germany and Italy. Japan was crippled by these sanctions. First, luxury goods disappeared. Then, the more fashionable adopted plain and simple dress. Next, Japanese rice -- a revered cornerstone of Japanese society -- was rationed until it practically disappeared, replaced by imported rice. Finally, rations were reduced to fourteen hundred calories a day and the population was advised to be creative with supplementing their diet.

"In everyday life, luxury goods had quickly disappeared, and there was a shortage of food, most noticeably the main staple, rice. As the conflict in China went on and on, those remaining in the countryside -- the best men had gone to the military and war-related industries -- faced increased pressure to produce more food for the troops. Starting in the summer of 1940, even the fanciest restaurants in Tokyo resorted to serving cheaper imported rice -- the drier kind some scornfully called 'mouse poops' -­mixed with potatoes. After April 1941, in six major metropolitan cities once replete with all the conveniences of modem life, people could obtain rice only with ration coupons. By December 1941, this system applied to 99 percent of Japan. In a country where domestically grown rice occupied an exalted, almost sacred place in the national diet, this was seen as a scandalous hardship.

"Luxury is our Enemy" banner by the National
Spiritual Mobilization Movement

"Life was becoming monochromatic -- or 'grave yard-ish,' in the words of a contemporary observer. Fashionable men and women, who until recently dressed in colorful kimonos or the latest Western-style clothes and spent their time in cinemas and dance halls, now tried to look as inconspicuous as possible. ... Volunteers from patriotic women's associations took to the streets, leading this campaign. These righteous women admonished those who, in their vigilant eyes, wore the kind of lavish clothes they themselves had given up, and they handed out note cards asking them to 'please exercise self-restraint.' Women who wore permed hairdos, rings, nail polish, lip· stick, or gold-rimmed glasses were also targeted because they were seen as endorsing a 'corrupt' and 'individualistic' Western lifestyle. There was some angry resistance to this type of witch-hunting. One woman was spot­ted crying and shouting hysterically, 'I can't stand this!' A young man strutted down the street wearing makeup, daring the patriotic fashion police: 'Well, aren't you going to say something?' But these were very small acts of defiance in the larger scheme of things.

"Department stores, once places where dreams were sold, came under strict surveillance, too. Every store was told to enforce a one-item-per-­customer policy to discourage excessive spending, which was deemed disrespectful of the general austerity efforts. In 1935, the cosmetics com­pany Shiseido began having beautifully presented 'service girls' give free makeup lessons to customers at its department store counters, increasing sales of its beauty lotion twenty-three-fold within two years. But as the China War dragged on, 'wartime care packages' replaced cosmetics as top-selling products. These packages, filled with little snacks, handker­chiefs, pencils, and notepads, were sent to soldiers at the front as a show of moral support from home. ...

"[A]s the months and years passed ... the rationing system wasn't working because there was too little to be distributed to begin with. Longer and longer lines formed, and fresh products such as vegetables and seafood became impossible to find. ...

"The caloric consequences were undeniable by the second and third year of the war. The rationed diet alone provided only about fourteen hun­dred calories a day. (A 140-pound adult male requires twenty-four hundred calories daily.) The government told individuals to be 'inventive' in the way they procured food. This meant, for instance, buying on the black market, growing their own vegetables, and using straw, sawdust, or rice husks as fillers when baking 'bread.' "


Eri Hotta


Japan 1941: Countdown to Infamy


Vintage Books


Copyright 2013 Eri Hotta


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