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June 27, 2020

Gas Mask Parade, Tokyo, 1936

An army of schoolgirls marching through Tokyo, their faces an anonymous sea of gas masks. Perhaps one of the most iconic images of the anxious modernism of 1930s Japan, Gas Mask Parade, Tokyo (Gasu Masuku Kōshin, Tōkyō) by photographer Horino Masao (1907–1998), reveals the vivid yet prosaic inculcation of fear in Japanese daily life through the increasingly pervasive visual culture of civil defense.

(Photo by Horino Masao, courtesy of the Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography Collection)

Japan’s invasion of Manchuria in late 1931—the beginning of its Fifteen Year War—marks the onset of a period of intense social mobilization and militarization on the home front as the warfront expanded on the continent and throughout the Pacific. Surveillance, secrecy, darkness, defensive barriers, physical security, and prophylaxis all became standard visual tropes of communal anxiety and national preparedness.

As a basic instrument of home front civil defense, the gas mask increasingly appeared in the public visual sphere, its use spreading from individuals to families, and even to animals such as dogs and horses. And media historians and sociologists such as Iwamura Masashi and Tsuchida Hiroshige have explored the instrumentality and changing importance of gas masks in the context of air defense. But the complicated and multilayered aesthetic resonance of gas mask imagery still remains uncharted territory.

Perhaps the aesthetics of the gas mask might seem like a contradiction in terms. Yet the visualization of gas masks throughout the 1930s and beyond clearly redefined the physical or “material” body, rendering the average citizen/imperial subject into an anonymous, seemingly inhuman monster of erotic curiosity.

Gas masks anonymized the civil population by obscuring individual physiognomies, and pointed to the posthuman condition of wartime, when people would be unable to survive the potentially toxic atmosphere of the metropolis. It was only the metropolitan centers that were actually threatened by poison gas bombs, but by 1930, nearly a quarter of the Japanese population lived in large cities, so the threat was immense. This alienation of the modern subject from his/her environment on the militarized home front, which necessitated the application of commodity prostheses for survival, eerily paralleled the general processes of modernity that were gradually alienating the modern consumer-subject from the natural environment and replacing this relationship with commodity fetishes that similarly denaturalized the human body.

(via Project MUSE)


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