Tag: From Up on Poppy Hill

From Up on Poppy Hill and the Post-War Revival of Japan

From Up on Poppy Hill and the Post-War Revival of Japan

Studio Ghibli’s From  Up on Poppy Hill is a quiet romance set among the turmoil of Japan’s return to the world stage in the form of the 1964 Olympic Games. However, Japan’s economic revival did not come with the frenzy of construction (and destruction) that accompanied the games but with the outbreak of the Korean War. The fate of Matsuzaki Umi’s father is tied up in Japan’s participation in the conflict.

The Korean conflict was a surprise to American military planners, who had banked upon a European start to any Cold War hostilities. American units in Japan were poorly equipped, inadequately trained and generally unready for combat, a consequence of rapid postwar demobilization and a far cry from the military machine that had been instrumental in the victory over the Axis powers in 1945. The South Korean government of Syngman Rhee had been allotted little in the form of weaponry and support by the US government over fears that Rhee would be the aggressor in a Korean conflict. As a result, the surprise North Korean strike across the border reaped rapid gains for the communist forces. Yet early American units deployed to the combat zone were not even ordered to take winter clothing out of an expectation the conflict would be over quickly, shades of early World War One era optimism despite the hard lessons learned since then. The first American unit on the ground, Task Force Smith, suffered devastating losses in the battle of Osan.

As the conflict was far from the staging grounds of Europe and with demobilization still in effect, the American occupation government in Japan (led by the incredibly polarizing and controversial Douglas MacArthur) chose to utilize Japan’s merchant fleet in support of the conflict. This was made possible by the fact the United States was in overall control of Japan’s merchant fleet as it had had fallen to the allied powers at the conclusion of World War Two. During the war, several Japanese ships were hit by mines resulting in many casualties from which Up on Poppy Hill incorporates into its narrative.

Although Japan’s active participation in the Korean War was fairly limited in terms of ships and men, the economic repercussions of the war were far more significant. As the nearest strongpoint of American power, bearing in mind Japan would remain occupied until 1952, war material was needed as the Korean conflict lumbered towards resolution and then stalemate with the entry of China into the war. The need for war material that did not have to be shipped from the States and the urgent need to not let the European theater suffer shortages in order to carry out the fight in Korea meant that Japanese industry received a massive boost from American orders. By the early 1950s both Truman and Eisenhower were willing to use dollars to support the anti-communist policies laid out in NSC-68, the blueprint of American Cold War conduct. The resulting influx of dollars and war orders allowed Japan to rebuilt its industry from the ground up, incorporating new technologies and creating state of the art factories that would prove instrumental in Japan’s economic recovery. As a side effect, US troops taking part in the war spent their leave in Japan, putting more money into the economy and exposing even more Americans to Japanese culture, arguably facilitating the modern American acceptance of Japanese culture compared to Korean or Chinese culture.

Film: From Up on Poppy Hill, (コクリコ坂から Kokuriko-zaka Kara) Studio Ghibli

Suggested Reading: The Coldest Winter: America and the Korean War by David Halberstam

The 1964 Tokyo Olympiad

The 1964 Tokyo Olympiad

The 1964 Olympic Games in Tokyo can regarded as the birth of modern day Japan. Despite regaining independence in 1956 after the Allied Occupation, the Games were a turning point for Japan. Presenting a technologically advanced, modern and peaceful nation to the world only two decades after the end of World War II was tremendous step for Japan and helped fashion an image which has persisted for decades. The event was not merely vital for Japan’s international image.  The Games of the XVIII Olympiad were enough of a cultural touchstone that it continues to appear as an element in Japanese popular culture as recently as in the Ghibli film From Up on Poppy Hill and in the 2011 anime Showa Monogatari. With Japan’s successful bid for the 2020 Games, the amazing success of 1964 stands as both a goal and as an inescapable comparison.

Tokyo had previously won the opportunity to host the 1940 Games as part of a broad range of diplomatic initiatives meant to engage with the international community, particularly in the field of sport, after Japan’s withdrawal from the League of Nations in 1933. Tokyo’s efforts on this front were undercut by the outbreak of war in China, illustrating the serious divisions that had emerged in the Japanese government over the best path for the nation to take. Eventually under hardening international pressure to relinquish the games, quiet hints at  boycotts, especially from the United States, and demands by the military for war material meant the effective cancellation of the Games in 1938. Tokyo gained a second chance to show what might have been in 1964, although this time the stakes and motivations for Japan were much different. World War II was still fresh in the minds of many in 1964 and Japan’s options on the international stage were quite limited. Hard power initiatives were completely off the table while lingering distrust made re-entry into the international community difficult. The apolitical and peaceful nature of the Games made it the perfect opportunity for Japan to move back into world affairs. As Jessica Abel has noted, the Olympics work as a political event because nations have agreed to the myth that it is not. By divesting the Games of politics, ostensibly for the glory of individual sport, it allows for political maneuvering that would otherwise not be possible or be called out. Sochi 2014, Beijing 2008 and Berlin 1936 are but a few occasions where the host nation tended to eclipse the Games themselves. (The Games still are referred to by the name of the host city, despite the fact the effort to host a modern Olympics is a truly national affair. Another way the Games maintain a discrete distance between event and politics as Abel also points out.)

The Games proved to be a resounding success with far reaching impact both internationally and domestically. The technological advancements on display elevated Japan’s world reputation, with milestones such as the first live broadcast of the Games to the world. The desire to present a modern, international city inhabited by an equally modern people led to a wholesale revamp of both city facilities and a drive towards the internationalization of education for the Japanese people.  (The ramifications of the drive for modernization is explored to a degree in From Up on Poppy Hill, echoing earlier anxieties over modernity as seen in the Meiji era.) The shinkansen, by now a symbol of Japan, also saw its inaugural run in time for the Games.  Japanese nationalism, still viewed with suspicion, found an outlet acceptable to the world at large and many Japanese felt justifiably proud of their nation’s new peaceful accomplishments. The Games had a distinctly Japanese feeling to them and Judo was an Olympic sport for the first time, putting another element of Japanese culture in play worldwide. Tokyo 1964 was a resounding success of what Joseph Nye’s deems a soft power initiative, a diplomatic effort which Japan continues to exercise to this day. It will be interesting to see how the legacy of 1964 will impact the 2020 Games in a new era fraught with new tensions as well as the way the run up to the Games will be depicted in popular culture.

Further Reading

  • “Japan’s Sporting Diplomacy: The 1964 Tokyo Olympiad” by Jessica Abel
  • Japan 1941 by Eri Hotta
  • Tokyo Olympiad, a documentary film by Kon Ichikawa
  • You can also check out my own review of Abel’s “Japan’s Sporting Diplomacy” in the 2013 volume of Olympika: The International Journal of Olympic Studies