Duncan Ryuken Williams’s new book, American Sutra, explores Japanese Internment with a focus on Buddhism. Most Japanese immigrants and Japanese Americans were Buddhists, and before and during internment these members of the Japanese-American community were treated very differently than those who’d converted to Christianity. Buddhists in internment camps found ways to practice their faith, despite it being discouraged, and Buddhist soldiers were crucial to the American war effort, both in Europe and the Pacific.
Japanese occupation changed North Korea, with various citizens either collaborating with or actively resisting it. One of those resistors was a guerrilla fighter named Kim Song Ju, who would later be known as Kim Il Sung. If you believe North Korean propaganda (which you shouldn’t) Kim Il Sung was born of humble farmers and formed a secret Korean resistance during the occupation. In fact, his grandfather was a Protestant minister, he spent most of his youth in China, and the units he fought with were organized either by the Chinese or Russians.
This episode is a little different. It’s about a topic that I’ve previously written and spoken about, though not on the podcast. Vanport was one of the largest federal housing projects in the United States during WWII. It went up hastily and cheaply just outside of Portland, Oregon, producing supply ships in less than two months, and was Oregon’s first major African-American population center. In 1948, though, it was destroyed by a cataclysmic flood that wiped the then second-largest town in Oregon off the map entirely.
In February of 1943 the Nazi regime arrested between 1500-2000 Jewish men in Berlin, and imprisoned them in a former Jewish community center with the address of Rosenstrasse 2-4. These men had, up until this point, avoided deportation to death camps because they were married to non-Jewish women, and instead had been forced to work in German factories up until that point. Their wives, though, showed up in force outside the building where they were imprisoned, and soon a group of hundreds of women were able to mount an effective street protest against the Reich. It was the only effective popular protest in Germany mounted against Hitler’s regime.
After the Kingdom of Italy surrendered to the Allies in 1943, Mussolini was a prisoner. But, during a German invasion of Northern Italy, he was sprung from his cell by German commandos and put in charge of the Italian Social Republic, a Nazi puppet state. Mussolini’s new assignment would prove to be short-lived. In less than two years the former dictator would be executed, and his body ripped apart by an angry mob.
Italy did not perform well in WWII. The Italian economy was not able to support an effective industrial war machine, and Italy saw defeat in Greece, Ethiopia, and in North Africa. In 1943 Allied forces invaded Sicily, and with the noose gradually tightening, the High Council of Fascism voted Mussolini out of power.
Italy was not well-positioned going into World War II. The Italian economy was still largely agricultural, and its industrial output was small compared with every other European great power. Also, Mussolini felt himself more and more unable to control Hitler. At the 1938 Munich conference Mussolini brokered a deal between Nazi Germany and the other European powers that gave Hitler the Sudetenland in return for not invading Czechoslovakia. A few months later, Hitler invaded Czechoslovakia anyway. Mussolini’s deal was kaput, and the Italian dictator was revealed to be powerless over Hitler.
Despite being a regime birthed in martial rhetoric and symbolism, fascist Italy was in no shape, economically or diplomatically at the start of World War II. Instead of leaping into the conflict alongside it’s ally, Germany, Italy wouldn’t join the war until 1940.
Belief that one’s blood type affects personality is common in Japan. Dating sites, celebrity profiles, and vital statistics for fictional characters often include blood type, and belief that it affects personal attitude or character is somewhat akin to belief in astrology in the United States. The beliefs have their roots in pseudoscience from before World War Two. In the 1970s a series of Japanese self-help books claimed that understanding blood type was the key to understanding personality, and a phenomenon was born.
It’s easy for an outsider to mock beliefs in pseudoscience like this, but humans do have a persistent desire to put themselves into boxes and groups, and to assign themselves certain group characteristics. This can take the form of astrological sign or blood type, but it also shows up in online quizzes, debates about which Ninja Turtle you are, or deciding which house you’d be sorted into if you went to Hogwarts.
This week’s episode is an interview with author Bill Lascher about his upcoming book Eve of a Hundred Midnights, about two American war correspondents covering the East Asian theater of WWII. In it, Lascher details how they got into journalism, what it was like to cover wartime China, and their various encounters with and escapes from the dangers of war.
Eve of a Hundred Midnights comes out on June 21st, 2016.
Before Batman, before Superman, before even the Phantom, there was the Golden Bat. “Ogon Batto” (as he’s known in Japanese) is, arguably, the world’s first costumed superhero. The skull-headed, ruff-wearing, sword-wielding hero’s backstory was one that would fit in any of the wackier comics that Marvel and DC would later publish: He was a dweller of Atlantis from 10,000 years in the future, and sent back in time to fight injustice. In particular, he battled against Nazo, the evil Emperor of the Universe.
Golden Bat wasn’t a comics character. Not exactly. He was from a form of storytelling called “kamishibai,” a words-and-pictures form of public performance popular in Japan during the first half of the 20th century. Kamishibai storytellers would set up in public spaces and tell tales of samurai, ninja, pulp heroes, cowboys, and superheroes to crowds of eager children, thrilling them with outrageous tales from the worlds of history and science fiction. The medium produced, among other characters, the Golden Bat, a superhero who proceeds Clark Kent by almost a decade.
In 1959 the United States had a secret plan to explode a nuclear weapon either on or near the surface of the moon. The plan was known as Project A119 and the hope was that a nuclear explosion on the moon would kick up a cloud of dust visible from the Earth, and would act as a demonstration of American power and technology. The project was shelved (obviously) and classified for years, and the only reason we know about it now is because Carl Sagan, who was involved with A119, let slip the existence of the plan to nuke the moon on a job application.
While it might sound absurd, the idea of a nuclear demonstration to awe the world was a common idea among scientists in the waning days of WWII and the early days of the Cold War. There were multiple proposals for detonations on desert islands or other, similar uninhabited areas to show off the power of nuclear weapons and, hopefully, impress America’s enemies into submission.
Defining what is and is not a country, state, or nation can sometimes be sort of difficult. China, obviously, is a country. So are Brazil and Morocco. Some states, like Kosovo, East Timor, and Vatican City, are independent and sovereign on paper, yet don’t seem to have the ephemeral legitimacy of an established state, the kind of undefinable real-ness that Frank Zappa alluded to when he said that “you can’t be a real country unless you have a beer and an airline. It helps if you have some kind of football team, or some nuclear weapons, but at the very least you need a beer.”
And then there are some states which just declare independence and call it good. Like Sealand, for example, an ostensible principality off the coast of Britain that has endured as one of the world’s most successful micronations.
Before and during World War II Japan (just like Britain, France, and the United States) had a considerable empire. The Greater East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere encompassed the Korean peninsula, several Pacific Islands, and holdings in China. Probably the strangest part of the Japan’s empire was Manchukuo, an artificial country in northern China that Japan made by (among other things) bombing a train and kidnapping the former Chinese emperor.