WEAI Author Q&A: Lee Pennington’s “Casualties of History”



We are pleased to announce a new title in the Studies of the Weatherhead East Asian Institute book series: Casualties of History: Wounded Japanese Servicemen and the Second World Warpublished by Cornell University Press. The book’s author is Lee K. Pennington, an associate professor of history at the United States Naval Academy. In this book, Professor Pennington relates for the first time in English the experiences of Japanese wounded soldiers and disabled veterans of Japan’s “long” Second World War (from 1937 to 1945). He maps the terrain of Japanese military medicine and social welfare practices and establishes the similarities and differences that existed between Japanese and Western physical, occupational, and spiritual rehabilitation programs for war-wounded servicemen, notably amputees. 

We thank Professor Pennington for taking the time to discuss his book with us. Please read the following Q&A to learn more about the research and questions that drove the project. 

How did you become interested in the topic of wounded Japanese soldiers?

Studying the visual historical record of the Second World War sparked my interest in depictions of combat and its consequences that existed within Japanese wartime culture.  I came to realize that wounded soldiers commanded a prominent presence within the wartime mass media, and as such, began to investigate the realities that lay behind such representations.  While mucking about in archives in Japan, the world of the wounded serviceman began to grow more apparent and more consequential than I had previously thought!

What kinds of archives and sources did you consult in your research? Did you encounter any challenges in researching this subject?

It was very important for me to examine not only the institutions created to support wounded servicemen but also the views and experiences of those men as depicted in their own words.  Also, I wanted to include popular images of battle casualties as well as official discussions of them.  Important archival sources included the National Diet Library and the Japan College of Social Work.  Then, the Shokeikan archive opened in Tokyo during the later stages of my research and I benefited from its vast collection of historical materials related to wounded Japanese servicemen and Japan’s disabled veteran community.

Could you provide an example or two of ways in which Japanese cultural norms created a different experience for returning soldiers than for American soldiers?

A key difference was that local communities in wartime Japan energetically rallied themselves in support of wounded servicemen.  That’s not to say that such did not happen in the United States during the war years, but in Japan providing aid to battle casualties was in many ways a grassroots rather than a national endeavor.  To tell the truth, I was more struck by the similarities rather than the differences between the two national contexts.  No community wants to see its men (and women!) in uniform suffer, and both Japan and the United States mustered great resources for the benefit of wounded servicemen and disabled veterans.


What surprised you most in the course of your research?

I went into this project expecting to find little in the way of support services for repatriated battle casualties in wartime Japan, but I discovered that historical conditions differed greatly from my preconceived ideas.  I think that for too long we have bought into the wartime propaganda produced in Japan that asserted that it was disgraceful for Japanese servicemen to do anything but die in battle.  In actuality, the same state that spouted such jingoism also created a sophisticated social welfare system that trumpeted the heroism of war-wounded men.

How would you like your book to affect or complicate people’s understanding of Japan’s wartime experience?

One hope that I have for Casualties of History is that it leads readers to reconsider many of their beliefs and assumptions about how Japanese society experienced war and reacted to its effects.  Years ago, during my first year at Columbia as a graduate student, I remember Professor Carol Gluck stating one day in class that we need more social history about Japan during the Second World War.  As I found out during the course of my own research, there’s much about wartime Japanese society that we historians have yet to explore.  A lot of valuable material is out there in the archives, just waiting to be uncovered and unpacked!


WEAI Author Q&A: Akiko Takenaka’s “Yasukuni Shrine”



We are excited to announce a new title in the Studies of the Weatherhead East Asian Institute book series: Yasukuni Shrine: History, Memory, and Japan’s Unending Postwarpublished by The University of Hawaii Press. The book’s author is Akiko Takenaka, an associate professor of  history at the University of Kentucky. Professor Takenaka’s book offers the first extensive English-language study of Yasukuni Shrine as a war memorial. It explores the controversial shrine’s role in waging war, promoting peace, honoring the dead, and, in particular, building Japan’s modern national identity. It traces Yasukuni’s history from its conceptualization in the final years of the Tokugawa period and Japan’s wars of imperialism to the present.

We thank Professor Takenaka for taking the time to discuss her book with us. Please read the following Q&A to learn more about the research and questions that drove the project. 

What is the significance of the Yasukuni Shrine in Japan? How did you become interested in focusing your book on it?

Yasukuni Shrine is one of the main focal points in the international debates on how Japan remembers its wartime past. It is also deeply intertwined with Japan’s domestic politics in the postwar decades as a result of the strong ties that the Liberal Democratic Party has forged with the shrine and all its meanings.

But most writings on Yasukuni Shrine treat it as a political problem rather than a war memorial and an actual space, an actual shrine, with a long history. I wanted to examine its history as well as the spatial practices that took place within the shrine grounds as a way to think about how it became such a complex political issue. I was also interested in the ways the shrine contributed to the making, strengthening, and transforming of Japan’s national identity.

Brian Connors Manke Photography (c) UK College of Arts & Sciences

Brian Connors Manke Photography (c) UK College of Arts & Sciences

What kinds of archives and sources did you consult during your research for the book? Did you encounter any challenges in researching this history?

Key primary sources include publications by the shrine, including a number of photo albums produced for bereaved families’ visits, newspaper and magazine articles, and memoirs. I conducted interviews and held discussions with numerous people who lived through the Asia-Pacific War in order to better understand the experience of a total war and of the loss of a family member on the battlefront. I also interviewed shrine personnel, and visited the shrine grounds and the Yūshūkan museum numerous times for fieldwork. Secondary sources are countless and continues to appear. I find that they are driven by politics for the most part, but wanted to make sure that I incorporated the arguments that had been made previously. Weeding through as many of them as possible was an enormous task.

How would you like your book to affect or complicate people’s understanding about Japan’s postwar history?

I think that a key contribution that my book can make is its coverage of the entire history of Yasukuni Shrine from its pre-Meiji conceptualizations to the present. I attempted undertake the history in a way that would highlight the varying roles and meanings the shrine has had for different people, and how the meanings have transformed over time. My goal here was to demonstrate why Yasukuni Shrine became, and still is, such a political problem, rather than to offer critique or solution, which is what most publications on the topic do. This attempt also involves a critical understanding of the reasons why both supporters and critics of the shrine strongly believe what they do. I took this approach because I believe that a resolution to such a complicated and contentious issue must involve an understanding of beliefs of the other side. I hope that this approach will also be useful in thinking about other pressing matters that Japan faces, including the recent controversies over the “comfort women” issue.

WEAI Author Q&A: Jessamyn Abel’s “The International Minimum”



We are excited to announce a new title in the Studies of the Weatherhead East Asian Institute book series: The International Minimum: Creativity and Contradiction in Japan’s Global Engagement, 1933-1964published by The University of Hawaii Press. The book’s author is Jessamyn Abel, an assistant professor of Asian Studies and history at Pennsylvania State University. Professor Abel tells the history of internationalism in Japan from the 1930s to 1960s, shedding light on the deep connections between modes of diplomacy during times of aggressive imperial expansion and of peaceful cooperation. Her book traces the evolution of the internationalist worldview in Japan by examining both official policy and general discourse surrounding epochal moments such as Japan’s withdrawal from the League and admission into the United Nations, the failed and successful attempts to host a Tokyo Olympiad, and wartime and postwar regional conferences in Tokyo and Bandung, Indonesia.

We thank Professor Abel for taking the time to discuss her book with us. Please read the following Q&A to learn more about the research and questions that drove the project. 

What is the significance of your title “The International Minimum?”

This phrase refers to a central idea of the book: that, after the 1919 Paris Peace Conference, countries aspiring to become or to remain great powers had to engage in a minimum level of international cooperation.  The internationalist imperative meant that when Japan withdrew from the League of Nations in 1933, political and intellectual leaders could not abandon the forms and rhetoric of Wilsonian internationalism that had taken hold during the 1920s, but instead twisted both the ideals and policies of internationalism to accommodate the realities of aggression and imperialist expansion.  Though postwar Japan has been neither militarily aggressive nor territorially expansionist, the patterns of international cooperation developed during the wartime period (such as non-governmental cultural exchanges and regional frameworks) continued to shape foreign policy in the decades after the war, even to the present day.  In order to adhere to what had become the “international minimum,” Japanese leaders had to be creative in their foreign policy-making, which sometimes resulted in seemingly contradictory policies.

What drew you to the topic of Japan’s international cooperation and to the time period that this book covers?

I came to the field of Japanese history via international relations, where the tensions between Japan’s strong economic position and constrained international contribution captured my curiosity.  I planned to study the historical background of contemporary Japanese foreign policy in the postwar period, but when I learned about Japan’s continued cooperation with the League of Nations for several years after its withdrawal from the organization, I began to wonder about the fate of internationalism and its proponents in wartime Japan.  A closer look at the wartime period revealed many fundamental continuities with the postwar years, and I decided to do a transwar study in order to highlight those continuities and consider their significance for our understanding of internationalism in the twentieth century.


What kinds of archives and sources did you consult during your research for the book? Did you encounter any challenges in researching this history?

The Foreign Ministry’s Diplomatic Archives (Gaikō Shiryōkan) is probably the archive I used the most for this book, as it contained materials for almost every chapter.  Other archives were very specific to a single chapter.  For instance, I used the archives of the Kokusai Bunka Shinkōkai (Society for International Cultural Relations), now housed in the Japan Foundation Library, for the chapter on that organization.  In order to get at general views of international relations (as opposed to official government policies or efforts by a specific organization), I read a lot of the popular journals of opinion of the times, to see what people would have been reading about the big international questions of their day.  And this gets at my biggest challenge in researching this topic.  It’s very difficult to get a sense of the regular person’s view of a topic like international relations, because it’s not something that people tend to write about in their diaries or letters to the editor or that sort of material.  For the most part, the people who wrote about theories of international cooperation were intellectuals or government officials.  Of course, these are the people most involved in making policy, so their voices certainly matter.  But what I think brought me closest to a grassroots view was the concept of cultural internationalism, which involved international exchanges and ideas that (though mostly controlled by elites) made their way into everyday life via textbooks, poetry, films, music, and sports.

What surprised you most in the course of your research?

There weren’t surprises so much as a steady shift in my approach to the question.  I started off wanting to know about how internationalists continued their activities, so I was looking for things like that initial point that captured my attention, the continued participation in the League of Nations after withdrawal.  I gradually realized that the things I was pegging as internationalist were neither antiwar nor anti-imperialist.  So I had to realize that the people who claimed to be and sounded very internationalist were not that different from the ones whom historians usually label as imperialist or militarist.  And the question became, really, what aspects of internationalism continued through the war, and how did they change the ways in which the Japanese government and people pursued internationalist activities?

 How would you like your book to affect people’s understanding about Japan’s diplomatic history?

I hope the book will change people’s understanding of Japan’s diplomatic history in a few ways.  First, I hope to provide a sense of Japan as contributing to the internationalist imagination.  The black-and-white sense of wartime Japan as acting unilaterally obscures the creative policy-making that took place in the various efforts of Japanese internationalists to remain engaged with the world in the context of imperialist war.  Second, I am joining several other scholars in working to soften the sense of 1933 as a disjuncture in Japan’s international relations.  While  the rift with the League of Nations had a powerful impact on Japanese foreign policy, there was not a clear turn from internationalism to isolation, but rather a variegation of internationalism to suit national circumstances and goals.  The continuities across 1933 are at least as important as the changes.  Third, beyond the field of Japanese diplomatic history, I am contributing to trends in international history more broadly by bringing cultural materials into the study of diplomacy and by linking the international and domestic realms.

February 26 Event: “Makers and Markets: Drivers of Fashion in Chinese History:” Photos and Audio



Photographs and audio are now available from the February 26, 2015 event “Makers and Markets: Drivers of Fashion in Chinese History.” The event featured a lecture by BuYun Chen, Assistant Professor of History at Swarthmore College and Rachel Silberstein, Lecturer at the Rhode Island School of Design. Their presentation was moderated by Dorothy Ko, Professor of History at Barnard College and faculty member of the Weatherhead East Asian Institute.  The event, co-sponsored by the Department of East Asian Languages and Cultures, is part of the Weatherhead East Asian Institute’s Museums & Material Culture: East Asia lecture series.

During the event the three panelists held a captivating discussion about the development of Chinese fashion and its economic, social, and technological history.

The Museums & Material Culture: East Asia lecture series aims to engage New York-based museums, galleries, and art institutions and their key players, experts, and artists in conversation about a variety of issues and topics, from museum anthropology to collecting and selling art. The final lecture in this series is on Tibetan material culture and will be held on April 30, 2015.

For audio of the event on iTunes, please click here.






October 8 Event “Around 1948: Human Rights & Global Transformation:” Video, Photos, and Audio



Photographs, audio, and video are now available from the October 8, 2014 event “Around 1948: Human Rights and Global Transformation.” The event featured Rashid Khalidi, Edward Said Professor of Modern Arab Studies, Columbia University; Lydia H. Liu, Wun Tsun Tam Professor in the Humanities, Columbia University; Samuel Moyn, Professor of Law and History, Harvard University; and Deborah Nelson, Associate Professor of English, University of Chicago. Their discussion was moderated by Eugenia Lean, Director of the Weatherhead East Asian Institute and Associate Professor of Chinese History, Columbia University.

During the event, these scholars discussed the advent and the global impact of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Professors Khalidi, Liu, and Moyn wrote essays surrounding these issues in the Summer 2014 volume of Critical Inquiry titled Around 1948, which Professor Nelson edited with Brown University professor Leela Ghandi. To read an extended interview with Professor Liu about her essay on human rights pioneer P.C. Chang, please click here. 

The event was co-sponsored by the Center for International History, Critical Inquiry, the Department of East Asian Languages and Cultures, the Department of History, the Institute for Comparative Literature and Society, and the Middle East Institute.

Video of the complete event is available here: 

 “Around 1948” is part of the Weatherhead East Asian Institute’s Human Rights in East Asia and Beyond: Critical Perspectives series, a year-long critical examination of the issue of human rights which includes lectures and panel discussions. The next event in the series is “The North Korean Human Rights Conundrum” on Nov. 6, 2014.

For audio of the event on iTunes, please click here.











October 14 Event “Japan: East Asian Historical Thought in Comparative Perspective:” Photos and Audio



Photographs and audio are now available from the October 14, 2014 event “East Asian Historical Thought in Comparative Perspective: What History Is, Knows, Does: Japan.” The event, co-sponsored by the Department of History and the Japan Study Student Association, featured Narita Ryuichi, Japan Women’s University, Carol Gluck, George Sansom Professor of History at Columbia University, and Harry Harootunian, Senior Research Scholar at the Weatherhead East Asian Institute. 

Professors Gluck, Harootunian, and Ryuichi participated in a two-hour panel discussion on Japan. Their conversation, in English and Japanese, included a question and answer session with the standing room only audience and time for informal discussion over light refreshments.

This event was the first in a three-part series that explores the historical study of Japan, China, and the West in a comparative perspective. The second lecture, on China, is Tuesday, November 18 at 6 p.m. The talk features Viren Murthy of the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

To listen to the panel discussion on Japan, please click here.



Columbia’s Gregory Pflugfelder on Godzilla’s Global History



Advertisements for the new “Godzilla” are ubiquitous this summer. Weatherhead East Asian Institute faculty member Gregory Pflugfelder is well acquainted with such images.  Pflugfelder, a professor of Japanese history at Columbia University, has collected around five thousand posters and promotional materials for Godzilla films and other Japanese monster flicks. His archive of advertisements is intended to help us understand how these globally circulated movies were received in different countries during the Cold War era. We recently sat down with Professor Pflugfelder, who teaches a popular course on “The Cultural History of Japanese Monsters,” to discuss the origins of Godzilla and the insights his collection provides into the dynamics of globalization. 

GodzillaKingWhat led you to build your 5,000-piece collection of advertisements and promotional materials about Godzilla and other Japanese monster movies?

Around 2003, I began thinking of organizing an event to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the original “Godzilla,” which was released in 1954. To mark the anniversary, I tried to think of ways to illustrate the global impact that made-in-Japan monster movies had in Cold War culture—not only in the so-called Free World but also behind the Iron Curtain. I began to collect examples of posters and publicity materials that were created to market these made-in-Japan films to audiences under very different cultural and political circumstances around the world. I curated an exhibit called “Godzilla Conquers the Globe” in 2004 at Columbia and created a website as well. I have since gathered a variety of additional materials from all continents, aside from Antarctica, and have begun to explore the ways in which we as scholars can understand some of the dynamics of globalization as well as the less commonly explored byways of Cold War culture. With the current interest in Godzilla due to the new movie, I am putting these materials online for all people interested in Godzilla movies, Japanese monster movies, and Japanese popular culture more generally.

Before I began collecting these materials, I had started thinking that it was not literally true that the first kind of Japanese culture that came my way was the Japanese court poetry I studied in college—in fact, there were these Japanese monster movies I watched as a kid in suburban Pennsylvania. I was not terribly conscious that they were Japanese at the time. That became interesting to me: why were those movies marketed not to seem Japanese? What is the larger cultural history of Japanese popular film in international circulation? Another personal aspect was that—because I have a complicated background—I speak and read about a dozen languages. My parents actually arrived in the U.S. in 1954, the year “Godzilla” came out. My mother’s family is from Russia and Ukraine. My father’s family is from Germany. I assumed that my multicultural background could not help me in Japanese studies. But when I began working on Godzilla, I learned it can actually be helpful to read Slavic languages. If you look at the scholarship in Japan and the U.S. on the first “Godzilla” film, it’s usually told as a story of U.S.-Japan relations from World War II to the new geopolitical alliance. If that is what the film is all about, then what did the movie mean to people watching it in, say, communist Poland in 1957? I want to begin the process of understanding the Godzilla films outside of how U.S. and Japanese viewers watched them. I want to tell a more global and variegated story about Godzilla’s significance. We don’t yet have the data—even with IMDB—about when Godzilla was released in each country. The dialogue and editing in each country is different, too.

Godzilla-film-posterI also wanted to go back into global cultural history and look at the 1950s and 1960s with the unsentimental eye of an archaeologist. This is a time, if you’re growing up in the U.S., when Japan was not seen as “cool” or sophisticated. In my youth, Japan was not regarded as being on the cutting edge but as a place that, at best, copied the cultural products of other places and was perceived as doing so in a relatively crude matter. We watched “Speed Racer” and shows like that on TV without being aware they were products of Japan. American distributors disguised or erased their Japanese origins to make them more palatable to audiences in the U.S. This has come 180 degrees in my lifetime—now we see American TV and movie producers affixing marks associated with Japanese culture to their own films and series to enhance their appeal. I want to recover the “uncool” Japan—a time in global cultural history when Japan supplied much popular culture to the world but was still struggling with its own cultural and political history. Of course, the 1950s were a time when it was a recent memory in the U.S. that the two countries had been at war. It required a deliberate marketing effort to make the products of Japanese culture enjoyable to American audiences without historical and political barriers.

Why study Godzilla? 

Godzilla is instructive because he has lasted over decades. You can see in very clear ways how the single genre or vehicle that is the kaiju (monster) movie gets mobilized to generate public opinion on a variety of social ills. Of course, in the 1950s, nuclear danger and nuclear proliferation were things that were of great concern to the Japanese public and the original “Godzilla” movie provides a very subtle vehicle for raising awareness and creating opinions regarding nuclear issues. When one moves into the 1960s—what one called the era of high economic growth—the dangers of rampant capitalism and crass commercialization then get increasingly picked up on as social dangers that monster movies can speak effectively about.


I don’t think we should look at the makers of the Godzilla films as saying, “How will we mobilize public opinion?” I think it’s more a matter of the culture industry being very sensitive to public sentiment. The ways that kaiju eiga (monster movies) come to figure their monsters as battling against economic evil are actually picking up on themes and anxieties that are already out there among the public. The culture industry uses them to generate profits—that’s the very first goal. All these kinds of ethical and political meanings are secondary in the long run to the process of generating profit by appealing to the anxieties of your audience. Filmmakers use the monster movie as a vehicle for them to satisfyingly engage these anxieties in ways that produce not just anxiety but viewing pleasure. In the 1970s, as public discussion over pollution expands, the creators of kaiju eiga very deftly switched from imagining Godzilla’s enemies as nuclear warriors or as amoral businesspeople. Instead, the new antagonist for these existing monsters increasingly became environmental degradation, as seen in “Godzilla versus the Smog Monster.”  I don’t think it’s a historical accident that there has been a conspicuous revival of interest in the kaiju eiga (monster movie) genre in the past few years.  On a certain level, although we’re accustomed to thinking of monster movies as being somehow removed from serious political concerns, in fact, they take on directly-–in allegorical form—the pressing issues of any moment in time.


What is the origin of the Godzilla story?

In March 1954, Japanese fishermen on a boat called (ironically enough) the Lucky Dragon Number Five were irradiated by a particularly large nuclear explosion caused by American testing. The men were not fishing in a restricted area but were nevertheless exposed to massive amounts of radiation—leading to one death. News spread around the world. It was particularly disturbing to Japanese because Japan was the only country on earth to experience atomic bombing. It’s curious that this incident didn’t leave as prominent a mark on the historical record as some others have. If you were a member of the Japanese reading public in 1954, you would probably have regarded the Lucky Dragon incident as Japan’s third experience of atomic bombing. The incident also led to the emergence of a very active anti-nuclear citizens’ movement in Japan. By 1955, anti-nuclear conferences were being held in Japan yearly. The Lucky Dragon fishing boat was eventually relocated to a park in Tokyo that you can now visit. This unfortunate history was the inspiration for the first “Godzilla” movie. The film was planned entirely after the Lucky Dragon events. Toho Company, Ltd.—the major Japanese studio—was supposed to do a war picture, but problems came up in Indonesia, where it was going to be filmed. The producer was in a bind around March 1954 and was looking for a theme for a new movie just around the time the Lucky Dragon incident made huge headlines. By November 1954, “Godzilla” was in Japanese theaters.


How does Godzilla fit in the history of monsters in Japanese culture?

Godzilla fits into a lot of different categories—that may be part of his popularity. It’s possible to view Godzilla as a descendant of much older dragon lore. There are long folkloric traditions surrounding sea monsters; there are also new understandings of biological life and zoology circulating in Japan from the late nineteenth century onward that Godzilla is made to conform to in ways that traditional monsters did not have to do. I’m interested in the generic differences between monstrosities but I place a lot of emphasis on continuities over time.

There is an array of imaginary creatures that have had a variety of roots—whether from the religious imagination or from popular folklore—by the early-modern Tokugawa period (1600-1868). Japan historically provides one of the earliest examples of a “monster industry.” Already, in the publishing world of the Tokugawa era, a great deal of profit is being generated and a great deal of ingenuity is being exercised for the purpose of producing monsters and producing knowledge about monsters and their imaginary existence. Edo—today’s Tokyo—was the largest city in the world in 1700. Bustling metropolises like Edo, Osaka, and Kyoto harbored large numbers of urban commoners who were willing to part with their cash in order to purchase visual representations of monsters, or view staged spectacles of monstrosity in the Kabuki theatre or in sideshows, or acquire knowledge about monsters through the medium of print. The monster industry is the most profitable industry in the world in the sense that its raw materials cost nothing—they are entirely imaginary.

Japanese cultural producers were quite adept early on at producing an ever-expanding inventory of monster representations and monstrous knowledge. That tradition—that history—is what the kaiju eiga (monster movie) picks up on and perpetuates. It’s one of many ways in which these kaiju—though they may look and behave very differently from traditional monsters—nevertheless are being spawned from the same cultural matrix and the same culture industry. Pokemon cards are produced by Nintendo, which descended from a company that made other playing cards. The special effects for which Japanese monster movies were renowned or notorious in the 1950s and 60s are aligned with the history of special effects on the Kabuki stage. People in Japan had been used to watching eye-opening spectacles. The technologies producing them may have changed, yet there’s a direct link between World War II propaganda and the kaiju eiga. Tsuburaya Eiji—who did the special effects of the early Godzilla films—honed his craft staging battle scenes, like Pearl Harbor, in miniature. I’m trying to connect the dots between kaiju culture and the various forms of monster culture that had preceded it in Japan.


 How has Godzilla been received in different countries? 

We like to think that “Godzilla” is a U.S.-Japan story. That’s not really what was going on in the world if you cast your eyes more broadly. I’m just starting to look into how Godzilla was marketed in Eastern Europe. The fact that the films are made in Japan does not dictate how they’re received elsewhere. In the 1970s, a Japanese-made film called “Legends of Dinosaurs and Monster Birds” finally got shown in the Soviet Union. It became a cult classic in Russia. For many Russian viewers, this was a rare glimpse into everyday life in a capitalist economy. People were not taking note of the dinosaurs and monster birds—it was the Polaroid cameras! People came away talking about the camera that could take instant pictures. That’s one example.

In Eastern Europe—the satellite states—the version of the first “Godzilla” movie that people were watching was the one adapted by Hollywood—the Raymond Burr 1956 “Godzilla: King of the Monsters!” However, publicity for the film in Eastern Europe insists that it was the product of Japanese studios so as to take away the political unsavoriness of showing audiences an American-made film.

Another example is when the Germans get “Godzilla” in 1955. They’re watching a German-dubbed version of the Japanese version. In that German version, an entire plot point is retained even though the American version would minimize it: in the original film, one of the central characters—a physicist—had been involved in research with Nazi Germany during the war. This is something Hollywood decides is not useful for its own purposes. For a German audience, a whole recent history is being invoked that is still very meaningful to German audiences. If you focus on the Japanese version and the American version of the film, you miss a large part of how a German viewer would interpret the story. Similarly, the German poster for “Godzilla” is dominated by this fiery urban conflagration and it must have been a visually powerful thing for audiences in a nation subjected to firebombing. You have to think beyond the U.S.-Japan level. The U.S.-Japan relationship is central to the Godzilla story—but to stop there is to miss much of the power of that icon in world history.

Gregory M. Pflugfelder (Ph.D. Stanford University) is associate professor of Japanese history in the Department of East Asian Languages and Cultures and the Department of History at Columbia University. He is also on the faculty of the Weatherhead East Asian Institute at Columbia University.   His books include JAPANimals: History and Culture in Japan’s Animal Life, co-edited with Brett L. Walker (Michigan Monograph Series in Japanese Studies, 2005), and Cartographies of Desire: Male-Male Sexuality in Japanese Discourse, 1600–1950 (University of California Press, 1999). His short video about the 1954 Lucky Dragon Number Five event is available on the Criterion Collection‘s “Godzilla” (1954) DVD and Blu-ray.