Since the US engagement in World War II was to a significant extent directed towards Asia, it is no surprise that a large part of American poster art of the war years had Asian themes. The representation of Asians, however, differed greatly depending on whether friend or foe formed the subject matter.
As the examples shown here demonstrate, America’s Chinese allies were treated with great sympathy, and Chinese individuals were depicted in a largely realistic fashion, the way Chinese people really look, although with a slight touch of idealization and romanticization. The Chinese in WWII poster art were a far cry from the cartoon-like images, short of build and with pigtails, that had dominated popular art in earlier decades. It could be argued that the US alliance with China in the early 1940s went a long way towards rectifying some of the stereotypes that had dominated Americans’ view of East Asians in the past.
The Japanese, by contrast, were the subject of exaggerated caricatures that not only vilified America’s enemy across the Pacific, but actually in many cases dehumanized him. It is of course easy to sit at a distance of almost 70 years and dismiss the mentality of a bygone age without taking into account the immense anger that the American public felt after the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor and the subsequent reports of maltreatment of American POWs at the hands of the Japanese. Even so, the racist undertones were such that it is hard to imagine the posters being printed in any media in today’s world – testimony to the vast changes that have taken place in public views about ethnicity over the past three generations.
Below are more examples of posters of the war years, showing how national and ethnic stereotypes were taken to extremes in the intensified emotional climate of war.
China in poster art:
… and the Japanese