During my last year before I graduated from the University of British Columbia, I had the opportunity to attend a World Mythology class. Although most of the class was dedicated to defining mythology and pre-religious belief systems and classical mythological texts such as the Enuma Elish, I did have the opportunity to study Japanese mythology and folklore as part of my personal projects. One such project was my essay Shintoism and Folkloric Wartime Propaganda: Momotaro and World War Two.
Essentially the essay is about the classic folktale Momotaro, about a boy who was born from a peach as a miracle to a childless couple and grew up to become a great hero. However, before the World War Two era (1939 to 1945) Momotaro was one of several original Japanese folktales to be rewritten as propagandistic stories meant to indoctrinate young Japanese into the war effort.
Shintoism and Folkloric Wartime Propaganda: Momotaro and World War Two
The 20th century was rife with wartime propaganda, especially in the decades surrounding World War One and World War Two. In World War Two Japan, this meant Imperialistic and capitalist ideals became critical parts of the dominant ideology, namely allegiance to the Emperor and Empire. The Japanese Empire used kamishibai, oral storytelling with picture cards, including stories of gunshin, war gods, and folk tales such as the popular Momotaro: Son of a Peach to spread more subtle messages of Empire to young Japanese. Of course, counternarratives to Japan’s Imperialism existed as well. Although disbanded before World War Two, the Proletarian Literature Movement aimed to spread anti-capitalist and pro-communist ideologies through stories. Both the Japanese Empire and the Proletarian Literature Movement exploited Momotaro: Son of a Peach to advance their political agendas.
Momotaro was a story uniquely capable of affecting the hearts and minds of young Japanese before and during World War Two. Although rewritten and retold numerous times during the first half of the twentieth century to further the Japanese Imperial and Proletariat movements, a close examination of the original folktale reveals various characteristics of spirituality that predate State Shinto and extremist Imperialist ideals. The spiritual details contained within Momotaro’s beloved folk narrative made the story a powerful weapon of persuasion against the general Japanese population when amplified by State Shinto and subverted by the Proletarian Literature Movement.
The Original Momotaro
Momotaro is a folkloric story rich with Shinto spiritual beliefs, with much of its appeal coming from how, like most folklore, the story is about peasants and the working class. Before Momotaro’s arrival, the story features an old man who “went to the mountain to cut grass” and an old woman who “went to the river to wash clothes” (Momotaro 14-15) and, in doing so, participate in the manual labour typical of peasant life. The absence of any aristocracy in the original Momotaro made it a relatable tale for the unprivileged youth of Japan, especially when the hero of the folk tale, Momotaro, is raised and educated in a peasant household before leaving on his adventure. Secondly, several features surrounding Momotaro himself align with traditional Shinto beliefs. The young boy hero is born when the old woman “cut the peach in two, [and] out came a child from the large kernel”, (19-20) which is a normalized supernatural event. Shinto beliefs revolve around the existence and acceptance of supernatural beings and spirits, including kami, the focus of most Shinto worship. Although Momotaro is unlikely to be interpreted as a kami, he is a supernatural being who was born from a peach, and “became strong and enterprising” (20-21) as he grew up. His intelligence and strength excelled enough to warrant special education despite being part of a peasant family, where educational resources would have been limited if available at all.
The significance of Momotaro’s character and circumstances extends into the origins of Shinto beliefs, the Kojiki and the Nihongi. A section of the Kojiki recalls Izanagi’s flight from the Hags of Yomi, which he fights off using various foods, including peaches. Izanagi gave peaches the title “their augustness great-divine fruit,” which was “the origin of the custom of exorcising evil spirits by means of peaches” (Aston 77). Considering how Momotaro, the son of a peach, later leaves to attack the Island of Devils, which are filled with oni demons, and returns victorious, the parallels between Momotaro and the Kojiki are unmistakable. Momotaro’s uncanny abilities allow him to subdue Akandoji, the devil chief, “without issue”, (Momotaro 34-35) undoubtedly because of Momotaro’s origins as the son of a peach. Additionally, Izanagi naming the peaches in the Kojiki “[implies] that they were kami” (Aston 12). Thus, Momotaro, our folk hero, is not only a supernatural being, but the son of a kami, and inherently an integral spiritual figure in Shinto belief and folkloric practices.
Beyond Momotaro himself, elements of Shinto beliefs are evident in Momotaro’s interactions with his companions, the dog, the monkey, and the pheasant. In Shinto, these animals are worshipped for their association with different deities. Dogs are “guardians, like the Buddhist Niō” and are found outside many Shinto shrines, while pheasants are “messengers of the Gods” (Aston 53). In Momotaro, these animals seek the folk hero on his journey and offer to help him in exchange for one of his millet dumplings. Depending on the translation, the dumplings might also be read as mochi, which are pounded rice cakes, one of many accepted offerings meant to “propitiate the God[s]” (168). In Momotaro’s exchange of his dumplings, or rice cakes, with the dog, monkey, and pheasant during his travels, he is enlisting the support of other spiritual or kami-affiliated beings like himself.
The original tale of Momotaro, then, was rich with folkloric and spiritual elements long before the influence of outside political agendas. In particular, the implications of Momotaro being a hero born from divine peaches meant to ward off evil oni, and him enrolling the dog, monkey, and pheasant to aid him in his quest. Along with Momotaro being a popular folk tale among the general Japanese population, it is these elements that appealed to Imperialist and Proletariat movements as a potential source of propaganda.
Shintoism and War Propaganda
Shintoism and associated spiritual beliefs were employed as a source of nationalistic identity from the beginning of the Meiji period in 1868 to the abolishment of State Shinto at the end of World War Two in 1945. At the beginning of this era, the Imperial regime emphasized the importance of the Emperor and his divine descent from “Amaterasu Ōmikami, the ancestral kami of the emperor” (Okuyama 168) and one of the primary deities of Shintoism. As such, this resulted in divine worship of the Emperor and “Shinto-inspired ideas … propagated by agencies of the Japanese state or government … to strengthen the sense of national loyalty” (169) and eventually provided holy justification of Japanese expansion and colonialism into Asia. Spiritual practices of the Japanese people were regulated and shifted to focus on the Emperor, including folklore and oral storytelling.
The Japanese Empire exploited oral storytelling with picture cards, known as kamishibai, to indoctrinate young Japanese to the national cause. Such storytelling events displayed a range of stories from old folklore and mythologies to “historical stories that extolled the history of Japan and its emperors, the warrior code, and allegiance to the flag” (Horner 23) after the injection of government influence in the 1930s. Children adored kamishibai stories and often attended multiple each day, making them an efficient method of indoctrinating younger audiences. Of special interest were stories on war and bushido, the Japanese warrior code, which “framed death in battle as one of the most honorable and glorious things that could happen to anyone” (25). The concept of bushido, although existing in Japan before the Meiji era, became a part of the common ideology and associated with allegiance to Emperor and Empire and Shinto spirituality. Combined, Shinto beliefs and bushido created a genre of kamishibai known as gunshin, war gods, which “signifies both the Shinto gods of war, including Amaterasu, … and the soldiers themselves, some of whom were believed to achieve a god-like status if they died in battle” (25). Stories of war gods were of young men, like the audiences of kamishibai, who fulfilled their dreams of serving and giving their lives for their Emperor as dictated by altered Shinto beliefs. By taking folkloric and Shinto elements and applying them to kamishibai stories laced with Imperial war propaganda, the Japanese Empire created easily consumed media which instilled nationalistic attitudes into young Japanese.
Momotaro as War Propaganda
During an era of rising war propaganda, shifting Shinto beliefs, and extreme neo-nationalism, Momotaro: Son of a Peach, a folkloric story rich with Shinto spiritualism, became a prime target of Imperialist rewritings. Although there have been many retellings of Momotaro, none were as influential as the 1894 version written by Iwaya Sazanami, where Momotaro’s “victory is obtained by virtue tied to the imperial institution” (Henry 218). The original Momotaro refrains from mentioning any authoritative figures besides the old man and woman. Momotaro’s decision to go to the Island of Devils occurs when he “find[s] that he excelled every body in strength” (Momotaro 24). This description indicates that Momotaro’s quest is more a trial of strength rather than a divine mission. In Sazanami’s version of the story, however, Momotaro’s intentions are explicit when referring to the Island of Devils: “I have often heard how they invade this land, kill and rob the people, and carry off all they can find. They are not only very wicked but they are disloyal to our Emperor and disobey his laws. They are also cannibals” (Ozaki 2271-72). Here, Momotaro’s reasons for venturing to the Island of Devils anchor on the wickedness and disobedience of the oni rather than personal motivation. The assertion of the Emperor’s authority is presented as a given “even over foreign lands” (Henry 222) and not in need of justification or thought. Momotaro’s attack itself, however, is justified in this version, concluding the story with “the country was now freed from the robber devils who had been a terror of the land for a long time” (Ozaki 2384-85). In comparison, the original version of Momotaro does not comment on the status of the country; only the implications for Momotaro and his accomplishments. By claiming victory over the Island of Devils, Momotaro “became a leading man, a man of influence, very rich and honorable” (Momotaro 44-5). In the original story, then, Momotaro accomplishes a heroic feat of strength, while in Sazanami’s version, Momotaro defeats an overseas enemy for the sake of the Empire.
The Imperialistic connotations of Momotaro’s conclusion are deepened, however, with the consideration of the altered wording of Momotaro’s birth. In Sazanami’s version, Momotaro’s birth also presents a monologue where he declares that “Heaven has had compassion on [the old man and woman]” (Ozaki 2254) and sent him to be their son. Through the lens of Shinto folklore and mythology, we already read Momotaro’s birth as divine because of the association of peaches with kami and the creator god Izanagi. However, this explicit addition of Heaven, and later his proclaimed allegiance to the Emperor, make him read more as a mercy given by the hand of the divine Emperor and less of a typical folkloric supernatural being. With these simple changes, Sazanami’s Momotaro transformed the tale of a peasant folk hero into the journey of an Imperial soldier on a divine mission for the Emperor.
Although the addition of Imperialistic elements made Momotaro a folktale with powerful subliminal messaging to aid the Japanese Empire, the edited interactions between Momotaro and his dog, monkey, and pheasant companions further develop the expected relationship between soldier and Empire. In Sazanami’s Momotaro, the dog threatens to “bite [Momotaro] till [he] kills [him]” (Ozaki 2289) to which Momotaro responds with an equal threat. Although the exchange with all Momotaro’s companions in the original story occurs with little eventfulness, each of the initial meetings in the edited version comes with threats of violence, which are then subdued by Momotaro’s will. For example, during his encounter with the dog, the dog’s threats cease when he learns of Momotaro’s identity, and he says: “I have often heard of your great strength. Not knowing who you were I have behaved in a very stupid way. Will you please pardon my rudeness?” (2293-94). Like the previous indication that the Emperor’s laws are absolute, Momotaro exudes authority without explanation. In this respect, Momotaro acts as an extension of the Emperor’s divine will. Additionally, the exchange of rice cakes in this version of the story is notably different. In the original Momotaro, the dog, monkey, and pheasant join Momotaro’s party when each one says, “Give me [a dumpling] and I will go with you” (Momotaro 29-31) respectively. This wording implies an explicit exchange or offering for the animals’ companionship and support in the coming fight at the Island of Devils. In comparison, the dynamic between Momotaro and the animals in Sazanami’s version is different in that the dog, monkey, and the pheasant only ask for rice cakes after agreeing to serve Momotaro (2308 and 2326-27). Momotaro also says to the dog that he “cannot spare you a whole one; I will give you half of one” (2297). If we interpret the animal companions from the original version of the story as spiritual messengers of kami, the offering of the rice cakes in Sazanami’s version reads more like the rations given to a soldier who will accept what the Emperor’s will gives him without complaint.
In the context of the cultural and historical landscape of World War Two Japan, youth who grew up with Shinto spiritual beliefs ingrained into their lifestyles experienced stories of kami and spirituality twisted into neo-nationalist ideologies. Be that through Sazanami’s Momotaro or stories of war gods, the messages portrayed to youth during the era were drastically different. As noted by Aonuma, “the story of [Momotaro’s] conquest had been featured in every state-authorized, grade school level textbook … until 1945” (Aonuma 388). What youth could have resisted frequent and persuasive media tapping into fundamental Shinto beliefs to portray the expected deference to the Emperor and Empire?
The Proletariat Literature Movement also employed the spiritual elements and popularity of Momotaro to portray anti-imperial and anti-capitalist ideals to young Japanese. Although the movement ceased in 1934, was short-lived in comparison to the Imperial regime, and resulted in many members being “arrested and tortured to death” (Aonuma 394), their altered versions of Momotaro are significant for their creativity. Like the Imperial regime, the Proletariats carefully selected Momotaro for its cultural and spiritual significance to Japanese commoners, especially children. Aonuma argues that this decision is crucial because revolutionary symbolism will “depend on the subverting use of traditional material” (384). Although the success of the Proletariat Literature Movement was questionable at best, several authors succeeded in rewriting compelling versions of Momotaro with anti-Imperialist ideals integrated into the text. Kiyoshi Eguchi’s 1927 version, for example, is significant because of its drastic change in point of view: “the story is narrated from the perspective of the demons Momotaro conquered” (390). In doing so, Eguchi positioned his version of Momotaro against Sazanami’s Imperialist vision by making the oni, Momotaro’s enemies, sympathetic protagonists. Instead of Momotaro, a representative of the Empire, being wronged by the oni, Momotaro’s attack on the Island of Devils is unprecedented. Although the oni are upset about Momotaro’s attack, and the acclaim he gets in his homeland as a result, the demons pity Momotaro because “life in the human world is really worthless. We are the luckiest to be able to be born and live in the land of demons” (391). By shifting the meaning of Momotaro’s success into something to be pitied or looked down on, Eguchi and the oni question the power and methods of the Empire.
Moreover, by turning the oni into the protagonists, Eguchi questions the spiritual integrity of the story and Shintoism in general. If Momotaro is a divine representative of the Emperor and Shintoism, and yet he fails to subdue the demons completely, the power of the Emperor and Empire is not as absolute as claimed. Are the Shinto kami, and therefore the Emperor, as capable as Momotaro represents? Such failures, emphasized in Eguchi’s version, “expose contradictions inherent in any capitalist society” (Aonuma 391) and create space to imagine a communist world outside of the rule of Japanese Imperialism. Ultimately, because of the Proletariat Literature Movement’s untimely disbandment, the true extent of Proletariat Momotaro’s persuasiveness remains untested. However, it takes little imagination to recognize how these stories could have been successful when measured against the core spiritual qualities of the original Momotaro and further Imperialist versions.
The folkloric tale Momotaro: Son of a Peach integrates core spiritual beliefs from Shintoism, including recognizable elements from Japan’s first histories, the Nihongi and the Kojiki. Namely, the presence of spiritual beings and Momotaro’s relations with kami, and Momotaro’s birth from a peach. These elements made Momotaro a story especially popular with the general population and a prime target for political revisions to indoctrinate Japanese youth. The Japanese Empire exploited Momotaro with the rewritten 1894 version by Iwaya Sazanami, which repurposed Momotaro’s quest and interactions with his animal companions into a story dictating ultimate allegiance to the Emperor. Many other Imperialistic war propaganda stories appeared alongside Momotaro. Most notably, the kamishibai oral storytelling events, which, during World War Two, invented the gunshin, or war god, genre which fascinated young children and promised opportunities to become a kami if they lost their lives serving the Empire. The Proletariat Literature Movement also rewrote Momotaro to aid their political agenda, although the movement did not last long under the constant watch of the dominant Imperial ideology. It did, however, alter the meaning of Momotaro’s quest and provided a perception of Momotaro, which questions the strength and significance of the Japanese Empire by undermining some of the spiritual qualities which form the basis of Momotaro and the core of the Empire’s strength through State Shinto.
Shintoism, and worship of the Emperor as a kami, strengthened neo-nationalist ideals in Japan during World War Two. However, it was through exploiting the richness of Momotaro’s subliminal Shinto messaging, which provided the Japanese Empire with a viable route to indoctrinating peasants and Japanese youth. Without the long history of Shinto beliefs in Japan, and the previous popularity of the Momotaro, the story would have been less successful at capturing the hearts and minds of Japanese youth into the Imperial cause. Japan, however, is not the only nation to exploit the cultural significance of folklore and mythologies to change perceptions. Also in World War Two, “the Third Reich appropriated folklore and mythic narratives to promote Nazi’s ideology and its theory of a master-race” (Aonuma 383). Likewise, the record of altered folklore and mythologies spreads far back into ancient histories and will likely continue as leaders around the world find cause to realign the historical, cultural, and spiritual memories of the common people.
Anonymous. Japanese Fairy Tale Series No. 1: Momotaro. Project Gutenberg, 2010. Kindle Edition. <http://tinyurl.com/uonm5ca>.
Aonuma, Satoru. “Momotaro as Proletarian: A Study of Revolutionary Symbolism in Japan.” Communication and Critical/Cultural Studies 11.4 (2014): 382-400.
Aston, W.G. Shinto: The Way of the Gods. Project Gutenberg, 2014.
Henry, David. “Japanese Children’s Literature as Allegory for Empire in Iwaya Sazanami’s Momotarō ( The Peach Boy ).” Children’s Literature Association Quarterly 34.3 (2009): 218-228.
Horner, Emily. ““Kamishibai” as Propaganda in Wartime Japan.” Storytelling, Self, Society 2.1 (2005): 21-31.
Okuyama, Michiaki. “Rethinking “State Shinto” in the Past and the Present.” Numen 66.2 (2019): 163-184.
Ozaki, Yei Theodora. Japanese Fairy Tales. Project Gutenberg, 2009. Kindle Edition. <http://tinyurl.com/rprdycl>.
Although I can’t speak to how groundbreaking my essay was, I’ve always been really interested in Japanese war history as well so this was an opportunity for me to combine my curiosities into one project. Hope you enjoyed reading!