Dehumanized and Rationalized (5/6)

Dehumanized and Rationalized (5/6) November 29, 2016

More stereotypical humor from World War II is discussed here – again, with warnings that it’s probably offensive (but still worth studying).

Image of Japanese propaganda from WWII. In public domain, from Wikimedia Commons.
Image of Japanese propaganda from WWII. In public domain, from Wikimedia Commons.

Missed the preceding part of this post? Find it here.

Though the above application of projection may have veered off into speculation, I believe that projection can be valuably applied to American humor about the Japanese in response to World War II.  A series of folkspeech items reveal hostility towards the Japanese, specifically as a reaction to their bombing of Pearl Harbor:

Dirty Jap – “anyone who has done something nasty or deceitful”

To jap – said “if a guy would sneak a punch at you, especially if he hurt you”

Harbor Bombers – description for the Japanese

The first two items have taken the concept of the Japanese as sneaky because of their attack on Pearl Harbor and widened it to apply to anybody who has done something dastardly and low.  The informant for the first item said “she would not call any oriental person by this term because she can’t tell the difference between Japanese and Chinese.”  The resentment Americans felt (and still feel?) over the bombing of Pearl Harbor has thus led to the creation of a term which does not even have to be applied to the original perpetrators.  The third item, however, shows that there is still a connection between the injuries suffered at Pearl Harbor and the Japanese for the folk, and this connection is universalized to apply to all Japanese.

See also: Conflating Emotional Guilt with Causal Guilt is Victim-Blaming

Similarly, rhymes and songs about the Japanese do not distinguish between individual Japanese and the Japanese government, leading to synecdochic aggression.

On the seventh of December,

Nineteen hundred forty one,

The underhanded Japanese,

A war on us begun.


My father went to war

In 1944

He set a trap

And caught a Jap

And that was the end of the war.

(chanted to the tune of “I went to the Animal Fair”)


You’re a sap, Mr. Jap

You don’t know Uncle Sammie.

When he fights for his rights

You will take it on the lammie.

For we’ll wipe the axis right off the map.

You’re a sap, sap, sap, Mr. Jap.


The first and third items were taught by teachers in elementary schools, in New York and Arkansas respectively, in 1942 and “the early 1940s,” but the informant data of the second item was scant, so it is unclear when and where it was learned.  Like the folkspeech items above, the first rhyme largely fixates on the attack on Pearl Harbor.  The second item does not mention Pearl Harbor, only the war, and it describes how the capture of one “Jap” is purportedly what ends World War II.  Whereas the second item uses synecdoche to represent the conquest of all Japan by killing one of its soldiers, the third item explicitly states a desire to decimate all of Japan by wiping it off the map.  The meaning of “sap” in this context was unclear and not explained by the collector.  Two definitions of the noun from the Oxford English Dictionary present possibilities: the first is “Applied to stealthy or insidious methods of attacking or destroying something,” and the second is “A simpleton, a fool.”  The second definition seems more widespread, and more probable because the song essentially says that the Japanese are foolish for attacking the United States, but the first definition is also illuminating, given the above discussion of folkspeech.

American jokes about the Japanese in relation to World War II do not seem to occur in cycles like jokes about Jews do, yet they retain the sense of hostility found in other genres discussed above.  The first, a long narrative joke, deals with Pearl Harbor in an updated context:

I heard this one a long time ago, and then I heard an updated version, so I’ll tell you both versions.  Well, both times it’s a U.S. History class, and the teacher is going over famous quotes in American history.  So she says “Who said: Give me liberty or give me death?” Silence.  The kids are sitting there…(imitation of bored student).  Finally, a little Japanese exchange student at the back of the room shyly raises his hand, “Patrick Henry, Virginia Assembly, 1774.”  The teacher says “Isn’t that wonderful!  Here’s an exchange student from Japan, he’s just been here a few months and already he knows Patrick Henry’s speech.”  The kids shuffle.  So she goes on.  “Who said: ‘Four score and seven years ago our forefathers brought fourth a new nation…” Silence. (Yawns).  Japanese boy raises his hand: “Abraham Lincoln, Gettysburg address, 1864.”  “Isn’t this just wonderful! (using very gushy tone of voice adults use with kids when kids do something delightful)  Here’s this Japanese boy, he knows more about U.S. History than you do!  Now you guys ought to be ashamed of yourselves!  Now here you are, you’ve lived in this country all of your lives, and you don’t know these famous quotations of famous Americans.”  Finally, someone in the back says “ah, fuck the Japs.”  “Who said that, who said that?” (in furious tone of voice)  Somebody else piped up: “Franklin D. Roosevelt, December 7, 1941.”

The updated version I just heard recently… “Who said that? Who said that?”  “Lee Iacocca, 1982.”

This joke, collected in 1984 from a teacher, reveals the ongoing resentment of the Japanese over Pearl Harbor.  The joke almost seems to take a reverse superiority approach to humor: an American audience would identify with the American schoolchildren, and conceivably not be able to match all the quotations with their exact contexts either.  The overly enthusiastic teacher adds to the shame of the American schoolchildren, and is probably meant to be irritating to the audience as well.  So when the incongruities appear—both that a child swears in a classroom and that another child cleverly locates a matching historical context—the audience is prepared to empathize with the clever, all-American kids rather than the too-smart Japanese child.

A Japanese overachiever and an American underdog are also featured in the next joke:

There was this P.O.W. being interrogated by the Japanese.  The Japanese officer said, “We’re going to give you 30 lashes, and if that doesn’t work, we’ll stick bamboo splints under your finger nails, and if that doesn’t work, we’ll light them, and if you still won’t talk we’re going to torture you.”

This joke feels has the feel of propaganda, though it was collected in 1974.  The Japanese are pictured as sadists, and the American is a helpless victim.  Humor stems from the incongruity between the American’s concept of torture and the Japanese’s concept of torture, which is so savage to the American mind that the teller and audience could also find humor in feelings of superiority to the barbaric Japanese officer.

The last American joke about the Japanese in World War II that I could locate in the Folklore Archives follows:

What’s the name of the last living Kamikaze pilot?

Chicken Sukiyaki.

This joke accomplishes a few purposes for American audiences: it makes them feel superior to Japanese suicide-bombers, it degrades the Japanese who might’ve objected to suicide bombing by calling them cowards, and it is a pun, which from a semiotic perspective “can be seen to be a signifier that stands for two signifieds” (Berger 1993, 45).  Here, the signifier, “Chicken,” means both a type of meat and a coward, and “Sukiyaki,” besides being a Japanese-sounding name to an American, is a Japanese dish (though often cooked with beef).  Ironically, the fullest appreciation of the joke only comes with knowledge of Japanese cuisine, which is perhaps a sign of the presence of some aspects of Japanese culture in mainstream American culture.

I have not discussed projection in the Japanese jokes very much because there appears to be a direct correlation between how Americans felt about the Japanese during World War II and the images of Japanese that appeared in the jokes.  However, I believe that beneath the surface content of all the Japanese-related folklore I have discussed is a deeper level of meaning.  I have already examined Holocaust jokes that I found in the Folklore Archives, but I did not encounter a single joke about the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  I was able to elicit one joke about Hiroshima from a member of an online community who recalled learning it in middle school or high school (between 1991 and 1993) in western Pennsylvania:

Guess what Sadako said about my class when we sent 1000 paper cranes to her?

Nothing you idiot, she’s dead.

Understanding this joke requires knowledge not only of the events of World War II, but also of the aftermath, in which citizens of Hiroshima and Nagasaki who survived the bombing developed symptoms from proximity to the radiation.  The story of Sadako Sasaki, a girl who believed she would recover from leukemia if she folded 1000 paper cranes, is known worldwide, and people continue to send cranes to her monument in Hiroshima.  This joke operates on two levels: the American narrator is first seen as sympathetic to the representative of Japanese suffering after Hiroshima, but then the point is driven home that Sadako did, in fact, die, and believing that she had any reason to hope to live longer makes one an “idiot.”  The only other joke I was able to elicit is less related to the actual suffering experienced by the Japanese; though both versions I collected are from Americans, I was unable to obtain further informant data.

What do Hiroshima and (insert location here) have in common?



What do Hiroshima and Afghanistan have in common?



These jokes have little to do with American feelings towards the Japanese, except perhaps for a feeling of superiority, and security in the knowledge that the United States has the power to atomically destroy whole regions at will.

The paucity of American jokes about Hiroshima and Nagasaki is puzzling compared to the abundance of German jokes about the Holocaust.  Clearly, there is a different aggressor/victim dynamic operating in both relationships, with different sets of historical circumstances leading up to each event.  However, I suggest that the same psychological rationalization is evident in both situations: the folklore shows projective inversion being utilized to blame the victims and thus evade guilt.  American folklore about the Japanese portrays them as underhanded, sneaky, and despicable enemies, significantly not bothering to distinguish between different classes of Japanese during the war—soldiers, civilians, or otherwise.  These depictions of the undifferentiated Japanese people makes it seem as though they are wicked enough to deserve something terrible, and yet that “something” is rarely if ever mentioned in American folklore.  I argue that these folkloric representations are used by Americans to subconsciously justify the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and one possible reason for the scarcity of jokes involving the atomic bombing is that most Americans are not living in close proximity to its effects, unlike the Germans, many of whom participated in the Holocaust in varying roles, with varying degrees of responsibility.  Americans have proven to willing to create jokes about plenty of other tragedies, both large and small, but perhaps they shy away from mocking the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki because of a sense of collective guilt.  The joke about Sadako shows an underlying American reluctance to be empathetic with the victims of a uniquely American act.

Stay tuned for Part 6, the final installment of this post series…

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