Why the ‘Tokio Kid’ Wore Glasses, and Other Adventures in Anti-Japanese WW2 Propaganda

In early 1942, the Japanese Army still had a chance of winning. But in America, people of Japanese ancestry faced a hostile homeland and later, internment. Propaganda at the time was blatantly racist toward the Japanese. Most posters at the time have the Japanese represented by a yellow-faced, buck-toothed (sometimes fanged), mustachioed man with glasses in military uniform. Essentially, it’s a caricature of Tojo Hideki, the general of the Japanese Army. Posters at the time did the same to Hitler, albeit with less miscegenation-laced paranoia.

However, with the Japanese, the very distinct stereotype, down to the mustache, served another purpose: Americans couldn’t tell the difference between Chinese and Japanese. No, really. It was enough of a concern that in December 1941 Life Magazine published an article titled “How to Tell Japs from Chinese.” In this article, Life sought to inform its readers how to “distinguish friendly Chinese from enemy alien Japs” solely by physical characteristics. For example, it’s helpful to know that the Chinese are “parchment yellow” while the Japanese are “yellow-ocher”. (Perhaps someone could invent a parchment paper bag test?) In addition, Japanese were said to be more closely related to “aboriginals” and could therefore grow a beard and mustache, while the Chinese had less facial hair.

Note the fangs, drool, and pointed ears. “Tokio Kid Say” posters were put up in Douglas Aircraft Co. factories to help decrease waste of materials.

But here’s where it gets a little funky: at least one poster designer was Japanese himself, Kuniyoshi Yasuo. Okinawa-born Kuniyoshi was in his 40s when WW2 started, and already an established artist in the United States, where he had lived since he was a teenager. But as the war progressed he, like others of Japanese ancestry, was classified as an “enemy alien”. His bank account was frozen, but he was able to avoid internment. At this time, he began working for the US government designing propaganda posters. This is a portrait of Kuniyoshi, below.

It feels a little awkward that he himself is wearing glasses, and has a mustache, but hey, it was the 1940s. The posters Kuniyoshi sketched for were never made. And in the sketch for one, below, you can see that the Japanese soldier looks quite different than most posters at the time would have shown him: his face, in fact, is half covered, his eyes looking away from the viewer rather than confronting. If it weren’t for the flag of Japan attached to the bayonet (and note that it’s not the Japanese “rising sun flag” used by the military) it’d be hard to know the soldier’s ethnicity.

Kuniyoshi never became an American citizen. Due to his Japanese birth, he was not eligible for citizenship until 1952, when he was already sick with stomach cancer. He died in 1953. Despite this, he always remained fiercely loyal to the United States. Yet he also remained trapped between two worlds, particularly during the war. In his art, there is also similarly a sense of disease, a precarious balance. And of course there’s also more obvious references, like a brooding 1939 piece called “Between Two Worlds.”

Kuniyoshi wasn’t the only one feeling the unease. How did most Japanese Americans at the time feel, with these Tokio Kids and murderous “Japs” on posters everywhere? Not entirely unlike Muslim Americans feel today, I would imagine, when presidential candidates say they need to be registered in a “national database”. Regardless of their education, or how long they have lived in the United States, they are still being characterized as a nefarious “other”, another Tokio Kid. And if you’re worried about mistaking one of the “good ones” for a terrorist, there’s even a handy-dandy illustrated guide to turbaned brown folks, Life Magazine-style.

Mustaches = Indian. Got it.