Know Your Enemy: Japan

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Know Your Enemy: Japan
Directed by Frank Capra
Joris Ivens
Written by Frank Capra
Carl Foreman
John Huston
Edgar Peterson
Narrated by Walter Huston
Dana Andrews
Music by George C. Emick
Dimitri Tiomkin
Edited by Major Aaxton
Frank Bracht
Elmo Williams
Helen van Dongen
Release date
  • August 9, 1945 (1945-08-09)
Running time
63 minutes
Country United States
Language English

Know Your Enemy: Japan is an American propaganda film directed by Frank Capra, commissioned by the U.S. War Department. Completion was delayed by disputes between the Hollywood producers and Washington. The original intention of the film was to prepare U.S. soldiers for war before deployment in the Pacific, though ultimately it never realized this purpose due to the war's abrupt end soon after the film's completion.

The film's first public screening following its initial release in 1945, was in 1977 as part of a PBS special.


When the U.S. entered World War II, Army Chief of Staff George C. Marshall made an official request to director Frank Capra for the production of a series of documentary films to be released to the general public and used for the orientation of American soldiers before and during deployment. Commissioned as a major and placed in charge of the 834th Photo Signal Detachment, Capra produced the film series "Why We Fight," as well as other films, including Two Down and One to Go and Know Your Enemy: Japan.[1]


Production on Know Your Enemy: Japan began in 1942, and was troubled from the very beginning by the inability of the U.S. government to determine what exactly the foreign policy towards Japan should be. Frank Capra hired Joris Ivens to supervise the documentary in early 1943, but after Ivens delivered a 20-minute preview, Frank Capra told Ivens that the U.S. Army not only disapproved of the approach Ivens had taken towards portraying the Japanese, but that they also had requested that he leave the production team. Ivens' approach had been to treat the Japanese as open-minded people being directed by a dictator, vilifying Emperor Hirohito. Allen Rivkin, one of the writers working on the script, commented that a large setback for the film's production was the realization that "we couldn't call Hirohito a war criminal because we knew we had to deal with him later…and it threw us into a tailspin. That's why it took so long."

The scriptwriters ultimately felt a lack of direction coming from Frank Capra, aside from the knowledge that Capra was steering the film in a decidedly racist direction. Although the writers did not realize this, Capra's racist depictions in the film came at the request of the producers.

In January 1945, the film underwent a series of final revisions to remedy an issue pointed out by the Pentagon: the film had “too much sympathy for the Jap people.” The film was released in its final form in 1945.

The film itself was a compilation of footage obtained from newsreels, the UN, enemy film, fictional Japanese movies for historical background, and re-enactments supervised by the war department. This footage was narrated by Walter Huston and Dana Andrews.


"The hour-long film sought to educate American soldiers about their adversary's history and society, particularly the course up to the Pacific War, and the totalitarian nature of the Japanese state. Today, it's used to show the influence of images and sound over narration, and the portrayal of the Japanese people during World War II."[2]


The film's main focus is on introducing the history and customs of the Japanese to the American fighting force. Throughout the film, a great deal of effort is put into juxtaposing the ancient customs with the modern aspects of Japan. This effect creates the feeling of a strange people with overtones of normality.

The film begins by discussing the soldiers of the Japanese army. This section focuses mainly on the appearance and diet of the soldier, much more than tactics and strategy. The film comments on the soldiers of the Japanese army as being, "as alike as photographic prints off the same negative.”

Know Your Enemy then discusses Emperor Hirohito as how the Japanese supposedly see him saying "entrust to one man the powers of the President of the United States, the Prime Minister of Great Britain, the Premier of Soviet Russia; add to them the powers of the Pope, the Archbishop of Canterbury, the head of the Russian Orthodox Church and top it all with the divine authority of our own Son of God and you will begin to understand what Hirohito means to the Japanese."

After going over Hirohito's divinity and saying that his divine origins are shared by Japanese people as a whole, the film then describes Shinto, a Japanese religion, saying that it had been a "quaint religion for a quaint people" until 1870 when a mad, fanatical, conquer-the-world doctrine, based on the commandment of Jimmu, the first emperor of Japan, to "let us extend the capital and cover the eight corners of the world under one roof" was woven into it and called Hakko Ichiu (八紘一宇, literally "eight crown cords, one roof" i.e. "all the world under one roof"). The film describes Yasukuni Shrine, a Shinto shrine where all of Japan's war dead are enshrined and where the spirits of those killed in battle shall return.

After saying repeatedly, "If you are Japanese, you believe these things," the film then shifts gears slightly with the question, "But if you're not Japanese, then what is the real Japan, the Japan of the geographer, anthropologist, and historian?" After a brief geography lesson, the idea of Japanese "pure divine blood" is ripped to shreds with accusations that it is nothing more than a "plasma cocktail," and then begins the history section. Here the emperor is portrayed as having little political power with the real power being in the hands of daimyos and their armies of samurai. The samurai are vilified along with their code of Bushido, with the narrator saying that it "not only sanctioned double dealing and treachery but looked at it as an art to be cultivated." Then the arrival of Christianity and the warlords' reaction to its teachings of peace and equality by throwing out the West and totally isolating Japan for 200 years is used to further vilify them.

The film then juxtaposes the Enlightenment, scientific and artistic advances that occurred in the West with Japan's stagnant isolation during the same period, broken by Commodore Perry's forced opening of Japan in 1853. The Westernization of Japan is discussed but always in the context of how the warlords were using it to further their own ambitions. The elimination of the position of Shogun and the elevation of the previously powerless Emperor as a rallying point in 1868 with the warlords "reserving for themselves and themselves alone the right to speak for him and guide his policies" give the impression of Hirohito as an effectively powerless figurehead. The film invokes the Tanaka Memorial, now generally accepted to have been a forgery, as Baron Giichi Tanaka's secret blueprint, Japan's "Mein Kampf."[3] The power of the warlords continues to be emphasized in the rest of the film and is summarized by the statement that they never adopted the moral or ethical principals that went with the ideas they borrowed and that all information is filtered down to the Japanese people, having been first approved and altered to suit the purposes of the warlords. This is emphasized by showing how, despite Japan's modernization, most of the Japanese people still lived and worked in ways effectively unchanged since the 17th century, and that even the white-collar Japanese man, once he arrived home, lived like his ancestors did in the Middle Ages.

The warlords' control over the Japanese people is used to explain the current expansionist and warlike actions of the Japanese, and the film ends with the wartime circumstances of 1945 Japan.


The film's main purpose was to keep the fighting spirit alive in the United States and to spur on the final push against the Japanese. However, the film's release date turned out to utterly destroy its value. Released on August 9, 1945, Know Your Enemy: Japan came out three days after the bombing of Hiroshima and on the same day as the bombing of Nagasaki, which some historians believe ultimately ended the conflict between the U.S. and Japan; though others claim the war was in fact prolonged in order for the bombs to be dropped. What is beyond contention is the fact that Japan had started trying to negotiate surrender before the bombings.[4] General MacArthur decided to withhold the film from the troops and he recommended that it not be released to the public. The bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were a turning point for American foreign policy in the Pacific, and when policy switched from war to negotiation, a movie persuading the American people to continue fighting became undesirable.

The historian John W. Dower comments that the film "was a potpourri of most of the English speaking world's dominant clichés about the Japanese enemy, excluding the crudest, most vulgar, and most blatantly racist." The film thus "captured the passions and presumptions that underlay not only the ferocity of clash in Asia and the Pacific, but also the sweeping agenda of reformist policies that the Allied powers subsequently attempted to impose upon defeated and occupied Japan."[5]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ John W. Dower, War without Mercy: Race and Power in the Pacific War (New York: Pantheon, 1986), 18–19.
  2. ^ That claim is made by an anonymous author at the Real Military Network, in review of Know Your Enemy: Japan. [1]
  3. ^ John Stephan, "The Tanaka Memorial (1927): Real or Spurious?" Modern Asian Studies 7.4 (1973): 733–45.
  4. '^ Paul Ham, Hiroshima Nagasaki – the real story of the atomic bombings and their aftermath (Transworld, 2011)
  5. ^ Dower, War Without Mercy pp. 23,20.


  • Carney, Ray. American Vision: The Films of Frank Capra. Hanover: Wesleyan UP, 1986. Print.
  • Know Your Enemy: Japan. Dir. Frank Capra. Prod. U.S. War Department. 1945.
  • "Know Your Enemy—Japan (WWII) (VHS)." Military-World War II-Nazi-Soviet-Propaganda Videos-International Historic Films. Web. October 27, 2009. <>.
  • McBride, Joseph. Frank Capra the catastrophe of success. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1992. Print.
  • Schatz, Thomas. Boom and bust the American cinema in the 1940s. New York: Scribner, 1997. Print.
  • Springer, Claudia. "Military Propaganda: Defense Department Films from WWII and Vietnam." Cultural Critique 3 (1986): 151–67. JSTOR. Web. October 21, 2009.

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