Graphic design propaganda arts in the Japanese-occupation era

A cheerful Indonesian girl playing with an Ichimatsu doll, a traditional Japanese doll in a bob-styled hair wearing a kimono.

Three days after the Japanese landed in Java, an artist named Saseo Ono, known for his cartoon illustrations & sketches created a mural “United Nations of Asia” in the city of Serang. Six months after the Dutch surrendered to Japan, August 8, 1942, the Japanese made a first very important move by changing ‘Batavia’ city to ‘Djakarta’. Rebranding the city of Batavia with a new term that becomes popular until now was intended to help alleviate unpleasant memories of the Dutch oppression that have lingered for hundreds of years, with a new name ‘Djakarta’ that would hopefully give spirit and a fresh new start to the Indonesian people.

The 1-year Medal Award for Djawa Baroe magazine, teaches us to be unselfish and considerate about others.

Propaganda art in the Japanese era was known for its very detailed and meticulous designs, involving many experts from various creative fields such as fine arts, literature, photography, illustration, and graphic design. One of the key figures, Takashi Kono, was a modern Japanese graphic designer, or known as the ‘advertising expert’. Through a cultural approach, propaganda was delivered through various media ranging from radio, newspapers, magazines, fine arts, films, to fashion. Japan realized that this program would not be successful without involving local artists, designers, and writers. Well-known artists and writers such as Hendra Gunawan, Affandi, Sudjojono, Agus Djaja, Oto Djaja, Barli, Rosihan Anwar were hired to support and implement this propaganda program.

An example of propaganda through fashion, featuring children dressed in the Japanese Imperial Army uniform.

The arrival of Japan in Indonesia had intended to give an impression by liberating Indonesia from the Dutch and bring prosperity to Asia. One of the important events that were most often immortalized in the form of art was the Japanese attack on the city of Palembang, South Sumatra. The area was considered very strategic because it has the Plaju Oil Refinery which was owned by the Bataafsche Petroleum Maatschappij (BPM) company or now known as Royal Dutch Shell that was also a source of oil for America and its allies. The Japanese occupied this city on 14 February 1942 through air raids, by deploying thousands of troops via parachute. Painters such as Fujita Tsuguharu & Tsuruta Goro and many others have immortalized this colossal attack into a work of propaganda art.

Japanese troops landed by parachuting in Palembang, oil on canvas by Tsuruta Goro.
A spectacular view of the Japanese troops landed in Palembang by parachuting, one of the unforgettable moments during the second world war that was most often captured in many artwork of Japanese propaganda
Several artworks depicting Palembang invasion made by several different artists with different styles.

‘The Responsibility of not thinking about your own good interests but others’ is an old Japanese inscription that was written on the 1-year anniversary medal of Djawa Baroe Magazine, translated as 爪哇 → Java → new → festival. The medal for the 1 year anniversary of Djawa Baroe was designed in the form of 8 flower petals using a visual language that is familiar to both Indonesians and Japanese, i.e. Volcano, Rice, Factory, and Sun. The similarity between Indonesia and Japan among others are having hundreds of volcanoes that are considered to be a sacred places. Japan has Mount Fuji, a cultural icon that is often called ‘Fujiyama’, or the ‘eternal mountain’. Indonesia also has many volcanic mountains with myths related to their respective origins and are generally represented as a symbol of divinity, spirituality, and fertility. For Japan, the symbol of rice & rice fields represents a symbol of creation and preservation, as well as blessings and joy, in Indonesia, the meaning is also similar, i.e. prosperity and fertility.

Some examples of graphic design works from a short period during Japanese-occupation era. From postage stamps, cigarette packaging, to school textbooks, elements and traits of Indonesian characteristics are strongly visible, blended subtly with the Japanese propaganda. 

The first Djawa Baroe magazine was published on January 1, 1943, had gone through a long process and thorough preparation. Japan took about 10 months to build and establish the magazine after the Dutch surrendered to Japan on March 8, 1942. Published every twice a month on the 1st and 15th, the magazine features the greatness and victory of Japan in the Pacific War, thus they also occasionally feature Soekarno & Hatta and many other national figures.

The “Useful Advice” rubric in this magazine aimed to build a strong national character and principles such as honesty, optimism, diligence, frugality, and modesty. The rubric also discusses the daily habits of Indonesian people and giving positive insights to the Indonesian public. In addition, there was also a rubric called “Djamoe Djawa” that reviews the many benefits and potency of traditional Javanese medicinal herbs which can be cultivated and self-sustained.

Djawa Baroe Magazine was written in a manner that prioritizes Bahasa by displaying a larger typographic design and its Kanji translation was relatively smaller in size. The magazine cover shows a red nameplate on the background, featuring a white logotype. The cover display always hints at subtle propaganda in a covert manner. For example, the cover published in June 1943 features an Indonesian woman cheerfully holding an Ichimatsu doll (traditional Japanese doll) with bobbed-cut hair and a signature kimono. The luxurious cover was printed on a fine-textured paper made in Indonesia, thanks to the result of years of training from Japanese experts.

For the inside of the magazine, the paper used was newsprint, which could be considered low-cost considering that Japan was at war at that time and of course it cost a lot of money. After Hiroshima and Nagasaki were bombed by American aircraft on August 6 and 9, 1945, Djawa Baroe Magazine was last published on August 1, 1945.

all magazines, books, labels and postcards are private collection