Japanese absorb war history via pop culture 

By Barbara Black

Matthew Penney Magnifying glass

Matthew Penney

Matthew Penney studies 20th-century history through the rich popular culture of contemporary Japan. Growing up in Newfoundland, his passion was fired by the classic films of Kurosawa and other directors.

“At first, my interest was trivial and romantic — samurai and so on — but as an undergraduate [at Memorial University], I got interested in it from the point of view of historical development.”

Penney went to Japan on a scholarship. He spent two years in the city of Kanazawa, learning to speak and read Japanese, and then did his doctorate at the University of Auckland. His thesis was on the wide diversity of treatments in Japanese popular culture of that country’s 20th-century war experience.

Non-Japanese academics and journalists tend to characterize the Japanese as suffering from historical amnesia or a victim complex. Not so, Penney says. Popular culture, i.e., movies, manga [akin to comic books], novels and non-fiction aimed at a mass audience and video games, has been used to portray the horrors of 20th-century conflict for over 50 years.

“In Japanese popular culture, images of victims and victimizers, different from those circulated in the political sphere, are not considered to be dichotomous,” Penney wrote in his abstract. “They are frequently utilized in a complementary manner to communicate anti-war themes to audiences.”

Penney can point to dozens, even hundreds, of examples like Barefoot Gen, an autobiographical graphic novel by Nakazawa Keiji about the bombing of Hiroshima and an indictment of the Japanese army for its treatment of the Koreans, or The History of Showa, by Mizuki Shigeru, a multi-volume popular history in graphic drawings of the entire war period.

Japanese educators and politicians have not faced the country’s war record as frankly as those of Germany, Penney conceded, but the popular works he has studied contrast sharply with the viewpoints commonly put forward by Japanese politicians. He feels that the richness, diversity, complexity and sheer number of these popular histories deserves more notice.

In fact, their golden era was in the mid-1950s, not long after the Second World War ended and just after the American occupation was lifted in 1952. A seminal influence was Tezuka Osamu, the creator of the manga Astro Boy. Tezuka brought this arresting art form into the mainstream, where it is enjoyed by people of all ages.

Now Penney is turning in his research to a more upbeat subject: how Japanese popular culture, especially non-fiction, is welcoming the rise of China. Once sworn enemies, these two leading Asian powerhouses, with a combined population of 1.5 billion, are being seen as potential partners.

Penney is excited to be at Concordia, where he taught a course on Japanese popular culture last term and is currently teaching the history of Japan and the history of 20th-century China.

He plans to use the resources of colleague Steven High’s oral history lab and those of the Montreal Institute on Genocide and Human Rights Studies to interview Japanese historians about how their own war experiences affected their scholarly publications about the conflict. He also wants to develop courses on war memory and international war films.


Concordia University