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10 Japanese Post-War Heroes and Cultural Icons

I've long been interested in many aspects of Japanese culture. I enjoy researching and writing about this topic.

Tokyo after the fire bombing by the Americans

Tokyo after the fire bombing by the Americans

World War II ended for Japan in 1945, but the country had suffered a devastating toll. The entire country had been devoted to fighting with a kind of united national warrior spirit that bordered on insanity. The defeat demoralized the country, causing mass suicides. Many Japanese citizens could not believe that their divine emperor had failed them, and they refused to live in a world where they were not destined to be the supreme rulers of Asia.

However, over time, wounds healed, Japan rebuilt its economy, and the cultural arts of Japan flourished and shone even brighter than they had before the war. Japan became less "closed off" from the rest of the world and more international, allowing its cultural products to spread far and wide, having influence in America and Europe particularly. It was sort of like a second Meiji era.

There are two things that I think history textbooks, at least American ones, get wrong about this time period. For one, they talk about "Japan" as if it were a monolith. Just because most Japanese share an ethnicity and a language does not mean there is no diversity in the country, and there was a broad range of political perspectives following the war. Second, they focus on American policy, almost to imply that America, and MacArthur in particular, was solely responsible for the postwar recovery of Japan. I believe that American authors treat the war that way so that America looks heroic, as if we atoned for our atrocities by doing such a good job of rebuilding Japan.

But I think that's a paternalistic tone to take, that ignores and marginalizes the accomplishments of the Japanese people themselves. Not only did they respond to the devastation wrought by the American army, but they had to look into a mirror deeply as a nation. They had to understand what caused their descent into a nationalistic, jingoistic, fanatically expansionist state, and how they could change their country into a more peaceful and tolerant place without losing their sense of national identity and pride.

So, here is my list of people who could be considered postwar national heroes of Japan. Note: I know I won't be able to list everyone important.

Criteria for This List

  • Made a significant cultural, economic, or political impact during postwar Japan. And, since this is an anime blog, I'm going to focus mainly on film, literature, art, anime, and manga.
  • Made their main contributions between 1945 and 1970. Although some writers and artists made significant work about the war and its aftermath, and represented themes of war in fiction, like Evangelion and Akira, this list is mainly talking about people old enough to have actually survived the war.
  • Had a lasting impact. This is hard, because there were a lot of writers and artists who were certainly talented at the time, but many of them have not had a lingering influence in their field.
  • A lot has to be written about them in English. Sadly, many great Japanese men and women do not have a lot of recognition outside of Japan, so this is also a difficult criteria (but necessary for me because while I have a working conversational vocabulary in Japanese, my ability to read kanji is less developed).

With that in mind, here is my list (in no particular order):

Morihei Ueshiba, founder of Aikido

Morihei Ueshiba, founder of Aikido

1. Morihei Ueshiba: Founder of Aikido

Aikido on its surface seems like it's for hippies. But a demonstration at my local dojo during an anime event held there showed me that it is not for the wimpy. Aikido is a gentlemanly martial art emphasizing the role of the warrior in maintaining peace.

While this sounds contradictory, the idea is that one should take negative, angry energy someone uses to attack you and turn it against them. So if someone charges at you or tries to hit, you throw them to the ground using their own energy. Students practice throwing each other and being thrown a lot, and the importance of this skill is recognized in other martial arts. They also focus on avoiding and redirecting blows.

Morihei Ueshiba was a remarkable man, who never let any external circumstances stop him from pursuing his passion for martial arts. In 1919, when Ueshiba was still a student, his father died. In 1920, he had two children who died of illness at ages 0 and 3. In 1921, Deguchi, his spiritual mentor, was arrested for "lèse-majesté", or the crime of insulting or blaspheming the emperor (or in this case, it was likely persecution for Deguchi's religious beliefs). Three years later, Deguchi journeyed to Mongolia (and Ueshiba went with him), claiming to be a reincarnation of Ghengis Khan and attempting to start his own religious kingdom there. He was arrested by Chinese authorities and returned to Japan, where he was punished for violating the terms of his bail.

Ueshida intensified his spiritual training, and his reputation grew. He gained students and followers from people who tried to fight him, who he defeated. During the war, his Tokyo dojo became a shelter for people fleeing the fire bombing. Martial arts teaching was banned after the war immediately, but Ueshida and his students persevered, and the ban, for aikido at least, was lifted in 1948. Many of his students went on to become great teachers of aikido in their own right. In some ways, aikido represents exactly what Japan needed following World War II: to redirect violent energy.

Tsumesaburo Makiguchi and Josei Toda, founders of Soka Gakkai

Tsumesaburo Makiguchi and Josei Toda, founders of Soka Gakkai

2. Tsumesaburo Makiguchi and Josei Toda: Founders of Soka Gakkai

Tsumesaburo Makiguchi was dedicated to education reform. During the 1930s, the Japanese education system was heavily militaristic and nationalistic. Makiguchi sought to change it into a more liberal, humanistic system focused on helping students reach their full human potential instead of conceptualizing the education system as a machine for producing soldiers and housewives.

His "value creation society", Soka Gakkai, was about education reform, inspired by Nichiren Buddhism. His organization emphasizes the teachings of Nichiren, who stressed the supremacy of the Lotus Sutra, and so Soka Gakkai members chant the mantra "Nam Myōhō Renge Kyō" which means "I devote myself to the mystical law of the lotus sutra." They believe that chanting this mantra can help them accomplish anything. It's a positive message. However, Makiguchi was, as you might expect, persecuted for his beliefs by the nationalistic Japanese government. He died in prison in 1944.

However, his mission did not die with him. His successor, Josei Toda, took over the organization after his own release from prison in 1945. After the war, his Buddhism and his educational beliefs were no longer treated with hostility by the government, so he was allowed to openly teach and share his opinions.

Over time, the lay Buddhist organization Soka Gakkai also spawned Soka Gakkai International, or SGI, which spread to many parts of the globe. Here in Chicago, we have a street named after the organization's third president, Daisaku Ikeda, because there is a major SGI center in Chicago. Although the organization faces allegations of cult-like behavior, I know for a fact that they are not oppressive or extreme as you might think of when you hear the word "cult" (my family practices SGI Buddhism). Certainly, the fervor of Makiguchi and Toda helped Japan spiritually heal during its traumatic reconstruction. SGI is misunderstood to mean "a cult of personality following Daisaku Ikeda", but it's really just about carrying on with Toda and Makiguchi's belief in human value creation, their belief that people can make the world a better place. To date, Ikeda, their successor, has not only made his organization grow and spread throughout the globe, but has been recognized with many awards from many different countries for his efforts as a peace activist.

Ishirō Honda, director of "Godzilla"

Ishirō Honda, director of "Godzilla"

3. Ishirō Honda: Director of Godzilla

Anime—especially anime from 1950–90—owes a lot to Ishirō Honda. As director of Godzilla in 1954 as well as some subsequent sequels, he launched one of the most iconic franchises in Japanese cinema. Neon Genesis Evangelion, Akira, and most "giant robot" anime owe a great deal of their inspiration to Honda's work.

Like many people on this list, Honda also suffered immensely during the war, as a prisoner of war in China. His work uses gigantic monsters as metaphors for the destruction wrought by armies in war. At the same time, he deeply humanizes his monster characters, attempting to get the audience to sympathize with them. A famous quote of his states, "Monsters are born too tall, too strong, too heavy—that is their tragedy." It carries a deep, symbolic meaning that a "monstrous" army of invaders is still made up of human beings. Using monster metaphors, Honda was able to delve deeply into the psychological drama surrounding war, but he's able to strike this correct balance between having a movie be enjoyable and entertaining and having it also convey a deeper message.

4. Akira Kurosawa, director of "Seven Samurai" and others

4. Akira Kurosawa, director of "Seven Samurai" and others

4. Akira Kurosawa: Director of Seven Samurai and Others

If you asked any film studies major in America to name a Japanese director, every single one is likely going to name Akira Kurosawa. Kurosawa without a doubt had a tremendous impact on film.

Kurosawa was influenced by American Western films, but he in turn influenced American film, including Star Wars, as the video below describes. I enjoyed Kurosawa's Seven Samurai for its realistic depiction of human conflict, and its ability to build suspense.

In 1936, Kurosawa began working in the film industry for Photo Chemical Laboratories, which would later become Toho. He mainly worked as an assistant director, most notably under Kajiro Yamamoto. For Yamamoto's film "Horse" in 1941, Kurosawa took over most of the production, as Yamamoto was busy with a different film. According to WIkipedia, "One important piece of advice Yamamoto gave Kurosawa was that a good director needed to master screenwriting." So from then, Kurosawa worked on screenwriting in addition to directing.

During the war, Kurosawa felt enormous pressure from the government to make only propaganda films. In one, The Most Beautiful, a movie about female factory workers, he enforced realism by having the actresses live at a factory, eat factory food, and call each other only by their characters' names. Kurosawa would continue to push this strict method acting in later films, achieving great results. This is probably what Satoshi Kon's Millenium Actress is a commentary on, the idea that actors and actresses doing this sort of thing could end up losing their own sense of identity in the process.

After the war, he was able to make films that more openly criticized the political oppression of the former Japanese government, starting with a spy drama No Regrets for Our Youth in 1946, which is remarkable for having a female protagonist. In 1947, he came out with Drunken Angel, a gritty story about a doctor trying to save a yakuza member with tuberculosis. That film's actor playing the yakuza member likely had an influence on the acting style of Marlon Brando. It was considered by critics to be the best film of its year.

However, during this time, he still faced censorship, this time from the occupying Americans. The main American concern was that anything too pro-Japan would be nationalist propaganda and undermine their peace-making efforts. Unfortunately for Kurosawa, that included samurai films, because samurai imagery was considered nationalistic symbolism.

He came close to a samurai film with the historical-setting crime drama, Rashomon. In 1950, this movie, "... marked the entrance of Japanese film onto the world stage; it won several awards, including the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival in 1951, and an Academy Honorary Award at the 24th Academy Awards in 1952, and is now considered one of the greatest films ever made." according to Wikipedia. This film was highly praised internationally, but wasn't as well-liked among some Japanese critics. The film is like a contemporary crime drama, but set in the past. The story shows many people giving different accounts of events, so that the audience has to think about what's true and what's a lie and who's lying and what actually happened.

In 1952, Kurosawa began writing Seven Samurai. This film would mark the start of the samurai films for which Kurosawa would become most recognized. Later, Kurosawa broke from Toho and established his own production company. Kurosawa's later films criticized the elites in society, perhaps establishing the Hollywood pattern of reducing large-scale political conflicts to the struggle of a single hero.

Kurosawa will always be remembered, always be talked about in dark rooms by film students, and always enjoyed as a master writer and director. You might even go as far as to call him the Shakespeare of Japanese film.

Soichiro Honda, founder of Honda Motor Co., Ltd.

Soichiro Honda, founder of Honda Motor Co., Ltd.

5. Soichiro Honda: Founder of Honda Motor Co., Ltd.

Soichiro Honda went from working as a mechanic to running a small business selling parts to Toyota, which he then turned into a global billion-dollar motorcycle and car company. Not bad, considering that he had to endure not only the war, but an earthquake in 1945 that almost ruined him.

But Soichiro Honda was always motivated by his pure love of machines. According to Wikipedia, "Even as a toddler, Honda had been thrilled by the first car that was ever seen in his village, and often used to say in later life that he could never forget the smell of oil it gave off. Soichiro once borrowed one of his father's bicycles to see a demonstration of an airplane made by pilot Art Smith, which cemented his love for machinery and invention."

Nowadays, we take it for granted that cars are everywhere, in Japan and in the rest of the developed world, and even in most developing countries. But the dominance of the automobile as a mode of transportation was never ubiquitous until the efforts of auto manufacturers pushed it to become affordable for more and more people throughout the latter half of the 20th century. Honda's legacy shows how one man can help humanity make the transition between bicycle and car. The rise of the car can be seen as a metaphor for human progress.

Isao Takahata and Hayao Miyazaki, animation directors, Studio Ghibli

Isao Takahata and Hayao Miyazaki, animation directors, Studio Ghibli

6. Isao Takahata and Hayao Miyazaki: Studio Ghibli

It's hard to imagine how anime would be different without the influence of Studio Ghibli. These pioneers did children's films that also enchanted adults, creating beloved classics like Kiki's Delivery Service, Princess Mononoke, My Neighbor Totoro, and Spirited Away. Takahata also directed the heart-wrenching tragedy Grave of the Fireflies.

At first I was unsure about whether to add Takahata and Miyazaki to this list. Arguably their most influential works have been more recent, and Hayao Miyazaki was born during the war, so unlike most other people on this list, he did not have the same kinds of setbacks caused by the war and its aftermath, although his parents did.

But I chose to include them on this list because many of their films, while entertaining, are also trying to convey a deeper message about war and the national Japanese psyche's need for purification and healing. Grave of the Fireflies is a semi-autobiographical account of children starving during the firebombing of Tokyo, so that one is the most directly connected.

But others, like Spirited Away and Princess Mononoke, are about spiritual renewal. They're about returning the religion of Shinto to its roots as a peaceful, earth-centered religion, before the Japanese government made it into a militaristic, racial supremacist, nationalistic movement of hate.

Studio Ghibli films often show non-human entities as important characters, and children interacting with them and learning important life lessons through them. Sometimes, there is a theme that modernity and industrialization are destroying nature, such as Aku being a spirit of a polluted river in Spirited Away. Staying true to their principles helped them make great movies, that entertain and have deep emotional value.

Hayato Ikeda, prime minister, 1960–64

Hayato Ikeda, prime minister, 1960–64

7. Hayato Ikeda: Prime Minister (1960–64)

There are probably a lot of politicians who deserve to be listed for making great contributions to Japan's national efforts to rebuild after World War II. But much of the economic recovery of the country is owed to this prime minister, Hayato Ikeda.

Hayato Ikeda started his career in politics with the Ministry of Finance, working for local tax offices in Hakodate and Utsonomiya. This expertise he picked up in finance helped him with the all-too-important task of revitalizing the devastated Japanese economy after the war and occupation. That is why Ikeda is credited as responsible for the country's "Golden Sixties" period of economic growth.

Wikipedia says, "Takafusa Nakamura, an economic historian, described Ikeda as "the single most important figure in Japan's rapid growth. He should long be remembered as the man who pulled together a national consensus for economic growth." His plan predicted a 7.2 percent growth rate (thereby doubling GNP over ten years), but by the second half of the 1960s, average growth had climbed to an astounding 11.6%. In addition, while Ikeda's "income-doubling plan" called for average personal incomes to double within ten years, this was actually achieved within seven years."

That is an amazing accomplishment for any politician. Hayato Ikeda also expanded Japan's exports, which in turn caused the country's culture to be known more broadly throughout the world. So you can thank this man for the fact that statistically speaking, there is a piece of Hello Kitty memorabilia somewhere in your house. And you probably own a Japanese car.

Aside from emperors, Ikeda was one of only six Japanese citizens to receive the highest honor in Japan, the "Supreme Order of the Chrysanthemum", although he received it posthumously; he died of cancer in 1964, shortly after he left office.

Shigeru Mizuki, manga artist and non-fiction author

Shigeru Mizuki, manga artist and non-fiction author

8. Shigeru Mizuki: Manga Artist and Non-Fiction Author

Ever watch Pokemon? How about its spiritual successor, Yokai Watch? Well, thank this guy for being one of the first manga artists to popularize the use of Yokai as fictional characters, which is now a commonly recurring idea in anime and manga. This all started with Shigeru Mizuki's GeGeGe no Kitarō, which follows the title character Kitarō, a ghost, who has to tangle with all sorts of creatures from Japanese folklore and some from other countries as well, including Dracula.

But it's not just that he was his culture's R.L. Stine. He's also written manga geared more toward adults, including the critically acclaimed graphic novel Onward Towards Our Noble Deaths, an autobiographical account of World War II from a Japanese soldier's perspective. Mizuki was drafted and fought in Papua New Guinea, where he lost his left arm and several of his comrades died. So he wrote Onward Towards Our Noble Deaths as a somewhat fictionalized account of this traumatic experience.

Shigeru Mizuki is highly interested in history. He's done a manga biography of Adolph Hitler, and the semi-autobiographical Showa: A History of Japan. This was highly praised by critics for making history accessible and interesting. Although he died in 2015, his legacy lives on through his manga, and he was a true inspiration for artists and writers worldwide.

Masaru Ibuka, founder of Sony

Masaru Ibuka, founder of Sony

9. Masaru Ibuka: Founder of Sony

When we think of Sony, it's easy to think it's an American company. After all, it owns the rights to many American intellectual properties. But the company wasn't always the giant scary corporation that will probably sue me for talking about it today.

Masaru Ibuka graduated from Waseda University in 1933, when he started working for Photo Chemical Laboratory, which should sound familiar because that's also where Kurosawa and Godzilla guy got their start, it was a film processing company later turned film studio. During World War II, Ibuka joined the Japanese navy. According to Wikipedia, "In 1946, he left the company and navy, and founded a bombed-out radio repair shop in Tokyo."

With Akio Morita, who he met in the navy, he founded Sony in 1946, which was originally called the Tokyo Telecommunications Engineering Corporation. The company was one of the first to use transistor technology for uses outside of the military, as part of a long post-war global trend of turning what had once been military technology into consumer goods.

The name "Sony" comes from sonus, the Latin word for "sound" that is the root of words like "sound" and "sonic", and it also came from the loan word "sonny boys", a term for nice, presentable young men, which is what Morita and Ibuka considered themselves. Even though their first product was the transistor radio, it was important that they made sure the company name was not tied to any particular product. This has turned out to be useful to this day, as Sony is not only a leader in music but also in video games, television, and other consumer electronics.

Ibuka has received numerous awards, including honorary doctorates.

Osamu Tezuka, the father of manga

Osamu Tezuka, the father of manga

10. Osamu Tezuka: The Father of Manga

When I first heard about Osamu Tezuka, I thought, Astro Boy? Kimba the White Lion? So, he mainly did stuff for little boys right, so why are so many people gung-ho about him? It really hasn't been until recently that I've revised my assumptions about the "father of manga". It wasn't until Black Jack got a rebooted anime, and I checked out his mature graphic novel Ayako which was set after World War II, that I caught a glimpse of how Tezuka is not just "little boys' stuff" and that I should care about it, that his work can appeal to everyone.

And, even if Astro Boy may not be exactly my cup of tea, I have to give it credit for the huge way it's impacted the rise of anime. According to Wikipedia, "He created the nuclear-powered, yet peace-loving, boy robot first after being punched in the face by a drunken GI. In 1963, Astro Boy made its debut as the first domestically produced animated program on Japanese television. The 30-minute weekly program (of which 193 episodes were produced) led to the first craze for anime in Japan. In America, the TV series (which consisted of 104 episodes licensed from the Japanese run) was also a hit, becoming the first Japanese animation to be shown on US television, although the U.S. producers downplayed and disguised the show's Japanese origins." So not only was it the birth of anime, but it was also the origin of that "localization" crap American companies sometimes do to anime, to make it appear less Japanese.

Osamu Tezuka's body of work is large and diverse, but human compassion remains a constant theme throughout. War is often a subject of his work. Astro Boy is nuclear-powered, but tries to make the world a better place, for example. His work seems to capture the Japanese struggle to mend itself after World War II and to become a beacon of hope and peace in a world mired in ugly conflict.

Honorable Mentions

NameLifeMajor Accomplishment(s)

Aiyuki Nosaka

October 10, 1930 – December 9, 2015

Writer, "Grave of the Fireflies" and other war-themed stories, was a singer and lyricist and involved in politics.

Jiro Yoshihara

January 1, 1905 - February 19, 1972

Artist, co-founder of "Gutai group", abstract art and later avante-garde calligraphy.

Yoshimi Takeuchi

October 2, 1910 - March 3, 1977

Non-Fiction Writer and Scholar: wrote essays about Chinese culture, considered the founder of modern Sinology in Japan.

Yukio Mishima

January 14, 1925 - November 25, 1970

Author, poet, playwright, actor, and film director. Considered one of the most important authors of the 20th century. Has an award named after him. Mishima was a nationalist, who committed seppuku (ritual suicide) after a failed coup d'etat.

Kōbō Abe

March 7, 1924 - January 22, 1993

Influential writer, playwright, photographer and inventor.


Rachael Lefler (author) from Illinois on February 28, 2017:

Hey Owlcation, why the hell are most of my pictures not working?