Gas Mask Nation: Visualizing Civil Air Defense in Wartime Japan

People in gas masks
Gennifer Weisenfeld

An army of schoolgirls march through Tokyo, their faces an anonymous sea of gas masks. Photographer Horino Masao’s Gas Mask Parade, Tokyo (1936), perhaps one of the most iconic images of the anxious modernism of 1930s Japan, reveals the vivid yet prosaic inculcation of fear in Japanese daily life through the increasingly pervasive visual culture of civil defense.

Japan’s invasion of Manchuria in late 1931—the beginning of its Fifteen Year War—marks the onset of a period of intense social mobilization and militarization on the home front as the warfront expanded on the continent and throughout the Pacific. In 1933, the government launched its official movement to “Protect the Skies” (Mamore Ōzora 護れ大空) across the cultural field. Airplanes, gas masks, and bombs, the trifecta of wartime motifs, were regularly featured, conveying a myriad of anxieties and allures, which must be evaluated within the broader global context of the militarizing Axis and Allied powers.

This book project explores the multilateral construction of an anxious yet perversely pleasurable visual culture of Japanese civil air defense or bōkū 防空 as seen in a diverse range of media from modernist and documentary photographs, popular print culture, cartoons, and commercial design to government hortatory and propaganda publications and posters. Such imagery linked the inculcation of civic preparedness with consumer goods and entertainment, revealing a complex web of cultural entanglements that complicates our understanding of wartime Japan.