EAFA in the Classroom - The Everyday in Wartime: Imperial Japan

EAFA in the Classroom - The Everyday in Wartime: Imperial Japan

Unit Introduction

 "Fifth Anniversary of the Manchurian Incident," 1936, Poster.

1930s Japan: Imperialism and Modernity

In 1929, Japan, as with most of the world, was in the throes of an economic depression. Nonetheless, under the direction of its increasingly powerful military, Japan was steadily testing its imperial might throughout East Asia. Japanese imperialists had already begun colonization efforts as early as 1895, with the annexations of Taiwan and assassination of Korean leader, Empress Myeongseong, followed in 1910 by the annexation of the Korean peninsula. In 1930, Japanese colonists also brutally slaughtered Aboriginal tribes following the bloody Musha/Wushe Uprising in Taiwan (see EAFA Episode 4 for more information). In 1931, the Japanese Army staged a railway explosion, dubbed the "Manchurian Incident," to justify the invasion of northeastern China.

Ero-guro nansensu and the U.S. Fire-bombings

Though colonial expansion marched on in Korea, Taiwan, China, and Micronesia, the lives of average Japanese subjects did not change much as a result. Domestically, the democratic movements and mass culture of the 1920s gave way to a culture of materialism and commodification labeled "erotic, grotesque nonsense" in the 1930s. In urban areas such as Tokyo and Osaka, there was an explosion of neon-lit cafes in which patrons could indulge in sensual and erotic favors from waitresses. The rural economy, however, struggled throughout the 1920s and 1930s as commodities such as rice were overproduced and international silk demand dropped. In such dire economic times, young rural girls were often sent to work in brothels and factories by their families. 

In March 1945, the United States began fire-bombing Japan, starting with its most densely populated area: the capital, Tokyo. Eighty-eight thousand people, mostly civilians, perished from this first U.S. attack. The next targets were also major cities: Nagoya, Osaka, Kobe, Hiroshima, and Nagasaki. The U.S. fire-bombings killed upwards of 330,000 people, seriously injured nearly half a million, and displaced 8.5 million from March to August of 1945. The atomic bombs, dropped by the U.S. on the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945, killed nearly 160,000 people.

Nosaka Akiyuki: Victim-Victimizer

Those who came of age at the close of WWII in 1945 - the yakeato generation - had complex and variegated remembrances of everyday life during wartime. None described the suffering, anguish, and horror of the final days of the war more perfectly than the widely celebrated 1967 novella, Grave of the Fireflies [Hotaru no haka]. The author, Nosaka Akiyuki, based the story on his own experiences as a young teenage boy struggling to survive U.S. fire-bombings of Kobe, Japan. Though the details of Grave of the Fireflies strayed at times from reality, much of the narrative drew from real events; particularly one of the tragic final moments of the novella and anime: the death of the protagonist Seita's malnourished sixteen-month-old sister in his own arms. 

Grave of the Fireflies introduces us to an ethereal but cataclysmic world filled with intimate moments between siblings navigating a fiery, and deadly, landscape. Although the novella, and the 1988 anime of the same name, are not primary sources, a careful analysis of both reveals how Nosaka, and members of the yakeato generation, struggled to come to terms with a history in which they, as Japanese subjects, felt like victims, collectively acted as victimizers, and, after colonizing much of East Asia, were subsequently occupied by the U.S. military.


  • Tipton, Elise K. Modern Japan: A Social and Political History. Routledge, 2017.
  • Downes, Alexander B. Targeting Civilians in War. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2008. See especially Chapter 4, "Strategic Bombing in World War II: The Firebombing of Japan and the Blitz"  
  • Rosenbaum, Roman. "The 'Generation of Burnt-Out Ruins,'" Japanese Studies, 27:3, 281-293.
  • Hiroko Cockerill (2007) " Laughter and Tears: The Complex Narratives of Shōwa Gesaku Writer Nosaka Akiyuki," Japanese Studies, 27:3, 295-303.

Lesson Objectives

Upon completion of this lesson plan, students will be able to:

  1. Distinguish a primary source from a secondary source.
  2. Discuss the benefits and limitations of using literature and film as historical sources.
  3. Express the complexities of narratives of identity for Japanese imperial subjects.
  4. Produce a mini-podcast of their responses to the lesson.

Suggestions for High School Students

The secondary source reading suggested here may not be accessible for high school students. Instead, we suggest that the instructor gives the students a historical timeline of imperial Japan through our short lesson introduction or other sources, such as Asia for Educators, and stick closely to the anime film, short story, and American wartime newsreels.

Lesson Instructions

  1. Instructors should begin with a timeline of modern Japanese history to give students general background knowledge. Read the lesson introduction (above) together.
  2. Have students read an excerpt of the short story "A Grave of Fireflies" (1978) in class. 
  3. Have students use Google Maps to locate the places of the story. Refer to the EAFA Google Mapping project.
  4. Watch the "Japanese Films of Air Blasts at Hiroshima" from Japan Air Raids Newsreels.
  5. Have students fill out a source analysis worksheet on both "A Grave of Fireflies" (short story) and the "Japanese Films of Air Blasts at Hiroshima" newsreel. Share and discuss.
  6. Watch Grave of the Fireflies anime film (1988).
  7. Listen to EAFA "Episode 2: Nosaka Akiyuki and Legacies of Imperial Japan."
  8. Have students each individually record an audio file responding to one of the lesson-wrap up questions or questions of their own. Students can use free smartphone apps, such as Voice Memo (Apple), Cogi (Android) or Audacity (PC/Mac/Linux). Individual files can be stitched together into a single file in Audacity.

Literature, Film, and Primary Sources

  • Grave of the Fireflies, film (1988)
  • Akiyuki Nosaka, "A Grave of Fireflies," trans. James R. Abrams in Japan Quarterly, 25.4 (October-December 1978), 445-462. 
  • Japan Air Raids Newsreels ("Secret Maps Guided U.S. Bombers" embedded below)

Secondary Sources (for college students)

EAFA Google Mapping Project

Discussion Prompts

  1. What do you think of the choice to use anime as the medium for telling stories about wartime Japan?
  2. In what ways are Akiyuki Nosaka's short story and the anime film different?
  3. What are Seita and Setsuko's lives like in either the short story or anime film? How do their lives change as the story progresses?
  4. What parts of the story feel fantastical or surreal? How are they portrayed differently in the short story and the anime film?
  5. University students: How would you explain the term “victimizer consciousness" (as used in the essay "Laughter and Tears" by Hiroko Cokerill)? How does this term apply to the author, Nosaka Akiyuki?
  6. How did the U.S. newsreels portray the impacts of fire-bombing on the Japanese people?

Additional Podcasting Sources for Reference

PDF Handouts

  • Unit Instructions, Objectives, Discussion Prompts (for instructor) - COMING SOON
  • Unit Introduction Handout - COMING SOON
  • "A Grave of Fireflies" short story, excerpt - COMING SOON
  • Source Analysis Worksheet - COMING SOON
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