Nostalgic Asianism in Postwar Japan

The TV Drama Kaikestu Harimau

Ryoko Nakano, Department of Japanese Studies, National University of Singapore [About | Email]

Volume 14, Issue 1 (Article 2 in 2014). First published in ejcjs on 31 March 2014.


This paper aims to draw some contours of Japanese nostalgic Asianism in Kaiketsu Harimau (Great Hero, Harimau, 1960-1961). Amongst the cultural products that engaged with the memories of the war, Kaiketsu Harimau, one of the earlier television drama produced in Japan, expressed Japan’s nostalgia for a Southeast Asia and Mongolia in which the Japanese were the saviours, heroically fighting against Western colonial authorities and Chinese villains. The reproduction of a Japanese hero in Asia was deeply related to the historical context of the 1950s and1960s. Faced with the challenges of the new international environment, this drama functioned as compensation for the loss of Japan’s national pride, and for an emasculated Japanese male identity within the U.S. hegemonic order. The re-imagination of Japan as a leader in Asia worked to a great extent in the settings of Southeast Asia and Mongolia, which seemed to have less contention with Japan over the memory of war than its closest neighbours, China and Korea.

Keywords: nostalgia, Asianism, nationalism, TV drama, Harimau, postwar Japan.


After the shocking defeat of Japan by the Allied Powers in 1945, Japanese popular culture that engaged with the memories of the war provided a space of redemption, commemoration and resurrection in the form of entertainment. Discussing war-related issues in public was somewhat of a taboo in Japan due to the absence of a common theme to hold all the various narratives together (Seaton, 2007, p. 15). However, cultural products were able to bypass hard questions on Japanese war guilt and responsibility, and selectively used war icons to transform the bitter memory of the war into myth or even into fantasy through a cathartic and fantastic reworking of historical trauma. According to Igarashi Yoshikuni (2000), representing the past in popular cultural forms is not simply remembering the past. It contributes to the redefinition of a national identity and nationhood by erasing and revamping the memories of the war and accommodating the current desires of postwar Japan. On one hand, recently popular films such as Otokotachi no Yamato (Yamato, 2005)and Always—Sanchōme no Yūhi (Always—Sunset on Third Street, 2005) “construct a postwar empty of problems in order to avoid dealing with its traumatic and divisive history, primarily in order to establish the illusion of a more unified present” (Gerow, 2011a). On the other hand, the science fiction film Casshern (2004) provides a more critical and progressive, though problematic, account of Japanese colonialism and wartime human experimentation (Shamoon, 2010). Because there is no single way to come to terms with history in reality, cultural products play an important role in mediating the great trauma of the Japanese nation in various ways.

Amongst numerous cultural products dealing with war memories in postwar Japan, the TV drama series, Kaiketsu Harimau1 (Great Hero, Harimau, 2006 [1960-1961]), was an early example of media nostalgia, which has rarely been studied so far. Employing a traditional formula of superhero story in the settings of Nan-Mō (Inner Mongolia)2 and Nan’yō (South Seas including Southeast Asia), Harimau, with the secret identity of a Japanese military agent, fights against the British colonial authorities and non-Japanese villains to save Asian nations from oppression and exploitation. Although the Japanese Empire ended in 1945, the drama vividly describes images of good and strong Japanese, of insensitive Westerners, and of docile and innocent Asians. Kaiketsu Harimau embodies the nostalgic sentiment of Asian frontier and togetherness. This Asianist vision sustained the postwar Japanese national identity which was positioned between the West and Asia.

To be sure, after Japan’s defeat in the Asia-Pacific War, Asianist arguments lost their appeal, partly because they were linked to Japanese military expansion, and partly because Japan came under US occupation and became part of the West by allying with the United States. Yet, when Japan regained confidence with economic recovery and development, the sense of Japanese mission in Asia revived. As the recent volumes of profound research on pan-Asianism (Saaler and Szpilman, 2011) indicate, ideas of “Asia” or Asian solidarity have been recurrent since Japan’s problematic encounter with the modern West in the mid-nineteenth century. While Japan’s recognition of Asia went as far back as the seventeenth century, the Japanese consciously or unconsciously made efforts to adopt, develop and internalise the term Asia as a way to develop its national identity (Yamamuro, 2001, 32-33). Even after Japan successfully gained great power status by removing the “unequal treaty system,” allying with Great Britain, and winning the war with Russia, Japanese skepticism towards the West continued to exist in parallel with a Japanese sense of belonging in which Asia was a ‘home’ for Japanese yearning for the self-esteem (Iida, 1997). Recognising China’s chaotic situation under the division created by warlords in the first half of the twentieth century, the Japanese government eventually set Asianism as the ideological backbone of Japanese war in Asia and the Pacific. After Japan’s defeat by the allied powers in 1945, Japanese political discourse was geared towards liberal democracy and pacifism, and the arguments on Asian solidarity temporarily disappeared. Yet, a wide range of politicians and intellectuals underscored the ideas of Asian solidarity by elaborating on the cultural commonalities and common heritage in opposition to Western culture and values. Miyagi Taizō (2006) argues that Japanese diplomatic involvement in Southeast Asia in the 1950s and 1960s was marked by a sense of affinity towards Southeast Asia and an Asianist ambition to create friendly and trusting relations with other Asian nations. In other words, Asianism remained as the undercurrent of Japanese national identity and sometimes came out of its submersion in the postwar era.

The film and TV critic Higuchi Naofumi (2008, pp. 69-70) implies a link between Kaiketsu Harimau and Japanese Asianism. He argues that Nishimura Shun’ichi, the planner of Kaiketsu Harimau, probably shared the adventurous spirit with his father who was committed to the boys’ magazine Shōnen Kurabu (Boys’ Club), published since 1914. Like the magazine, which included novels and comic strips mostly about the adventure of Japanese boys, Kaiketsu Harimau put emphasis on entertainment. However, Higuchi also mentions that Kaiketsu Harimau did not have the element of wartime propaganda that Shōnen Kurabu had for Japanese national mobilisation. This understanding was endorsed by the first and only English work on Kaiketsu Harimau by Leo Ching. He argues that this drama transformed the notion of a “particularistic justice” of late imperialism into a “universalistic justice of righteousness and peace” (Ching, 2011, p. 86). It “compensates for the obvious ‘loss’ of Japan’s imperialist ideal and yet recovers it for Japan’s new configuration of power—a transition from an unruly non-Western imperialist power to a postcolonial stalwart of American Cold War geopolitics” (Ching, 2011, p. 97).

Indeed Kaiketsu Harimau reconstructed the norm of justice and peace based on universalism that Japan subscribed to after the war. I contend, however, it is questionable whether Kaiketsu Harimau served the purpose of redefining Japan as the “stalwart of American Cold War geopolitics” as argued by Ching. It certainly reflected Japan’s ambition to contribute to peace and justice in Asia; and yet, a detailed analysis of the drama will show that it correlated with the nostalgic vision of a Japanese noble mission in Asia. Unlike Ching’s assumption, this drama had a much stronger effect of compensation for the loss of Japan’s national pride, and for an emasculated Japanese male identity within the U.S. hegemonic order. The re-imagination of Japan as a leader in Asia worked well in distant Asian regions, some of which were still under the influence of Western countries. While Ching’s argument is based on his observation of only Part 1 in Kaiketsu Harimau, I will develop these points by taking all the five series as the subject of analysis.

The remainder of this article is divided into four sections. First, I introduce the early history of television drama production in Japan and place Kaiketsu Harimau in this context. Secondly, I present the revival of a war hero, Harimau, as the representation of a national desire for moral leadership in a new postwar world. Combining both traditional and modern masculinities, Harimau demonstrates a hybrid characteristic by which the main characters’ appearance looks similar to that of Western heroes while the content exemplifies solidarity with fellow Asians. Thirdly, I analyse the drama’s description of the Western characters and identify its relevance to the international settings of the Cold War era. In the fourth section, I look into the two types of Asian characters and explain how a nostalgic Asianist vision was brought into the settings of distant Asian regions. In conclusion, I argue that Kaiketsu Harimau reconstructs the image of Southeast Asia and Mongolia to specifically to argue that Japan could be a moral leader once again. This media nostalgia is deeply related to Japan’s political and economic position in the world in the 1950s and 1960s.

Television in Japan and Kaiketsu Harimau

In the late 1950s and early 1960s, Japan was entering its first decade of rapid economic growth. Japanese families, as an emerging new ‘middle class’, began to gain consumer power which allowed them to own modern commodities from electric fans to refrigerators, and to washing machines. Television was becoming a major mass medium of popular entertainment, providing coverage of sporting events and the wedding ceremony of Crown Prince Akihito and Shōda Michiko. Despite the high price of a television set, more than nine million Japanese households had brought television sets by 1960 (Partner, 1999, p. 162). Due to cinema’s predominant position that restricted movie broadcasts and actors’ television appearance, the television industry had to develop its own talent and styles and sought out programming from the United States at the outset (Gerow, 2011b, p. 221). Although it was financially and technically challenging for television companies to develop their own programmes, the gradual support of private companies, as well as the increasing number of television owners, opened up a space for the television industry to experiment with new ideas and techniques in entertainment for national consumption.

The TV drama series Kaiketsu Harimau was created and broadcast in this early period of television industry. It was shown on private TV channels such as Nippon Television and other local broadcasting networks across Japan. To say the least, it was fairly successful, considering that the drama was originally made for one season only but eventually ran 65 episodes in five seasons. The drama received neither criticism nor critical appraisal during the broadcasting period of 1960 and 1961, to the author’s knowledge. Yet, as Kaiketsu Harimau was shown every Tuesday from 19:30 to 20:00,3 it was probably seen as an innocent, adventurous entertainment that families including children and adolescents could enjoy together over dinner. The wide scale of this drama—for example, 3000 extras and 200 horses in Part 4—also attracted the TV audience (Asahi Shinbun, 1960). The publication of its comic book, drawn by Ishinomori Shōtarō, in a weekly boy’s magazine, Shōnen Magajin, further boosted its popularity among children. Following the commercial success of Kaiketsu Harimau, Ishinomori later became one of the most renowned manga artists in Japan.

Three major factors made Kaiketsu Harimau unique. First, the drama was filmed in colour for the first time in Japan. Although it was later filmed in black and white for a wider audience who did not possess a colour television, experimenting with such a new technology showed the progressive character of those involved, as I will later discuss in detail. Secondly, the settings included Southeast Asia and Inner Mongolia, which was rather unusual for Japanese drama at that time. Since 1945, only a limited number of Japanese novels and films, such as Ichikawa Kon’s Biruma no Tategoto (The Burmese Harp, 1956), Ōoka Shuhei’s Nobi (Fires on the Plain, 1951) and Furyoki (Prisoner’s War Memories, 1948), focused on the wartime experiences of Japanese soldiers in Southeast Asia. Although the Takarazuka Revue, the Japanese all-female musical theatre troupe, produced Jawa no Odoriko (Dancers in Java, 1952), which described Indonesia's war of independence, it was rather a melodramatic entertainment show with an emphasis on exotic costumes and Indonesian music, without any Japanese characters. Kaiketsu Harimau was the first to use Southeast Asia and Inner Mongolia as real locations where a Japanese hero acts for his fellow Asians. Thirdly, the model of its protagonist was a wartime figure, Tani Yutaka (1911-1942). He was known as the leader of a gang in Kota Bharu, Malaya, and later worked as a secret agent for the Japanese army in Malaya (Yamamoto, 2002; Nakano, 1994). The Japanese magazine Shūkan Asahi (Weekly Asahi) and newspapers described Tani as a heroic figure, who provided poor local people with money, food and other necessities, and fought against the British imperialists in Malaya for his fellow Asians. Just after his death, Tani’s story became a main motif of a propaganda film Marai no Tora (The Tiger of Malaya, 1943). As Yamamoto (1994) aptly notes, this film, together with wartime news articles, transformed Tani into a martyr of imperial Japan. This story appealed to the Japanese audience as it was based on a legendary framework through which the Japanese could return to the ideal of a Japanese who carried out his mission with faith and filial piety.

Yamada Katsurō, the author of the original story of Kaiketsu Harimau, may not have consciously based the story on such a legendary framework, yet, his previous works in the wartime era presented some Japanese individuals as legendary figures. The novel Honoo no Shima (The Island of Fire, 2001 [1943]) describes the adventurous experience of a Japanese entrepreneur and the founder of Nan’yō Kōhatsu Kabushiki Gaisha (South Seas Development Company), Matsue Haruji. Yamada vividly demonstrates the frontier spirit of this person who did not give up growing sugar in the difficult soil of Saipan. In his brief biography of Gotō Shinpei (1944), Yamada also described Gotō as a moral and legendary figure who contributed to the development of Taiwan and Manchuria. Yamada published Ma no Shiro (The Castle of Evils), the original story of Kaiketsu Harimau, from October 1955 to November 1956 in Nippon Keizai Shinbun, a daily newspaper. Although Ma no Shiro had a more fictional and entertaining character, it was remarkably similar to that of Honoo no Shima and Gotō Shinpei for his focus on Japanese heroic and admirable activities in Asia.

Those who produced and sponsored Kaiketsu Harimau held a common ground in their sympathy with Yamada’s story-telling and characterisation of Harimau. Kobayashi Toshio, the founder of Senkōsha and the producer of Kaiketsu Harimau, was a seemingly pro-American entrepreneur who had a vision of a new Japan. He briefly served for the Japanese army and stationed in Inner Mongolia in the final year of the Asia-Pacific War. After the war, he succeeded his father’s advertising company and turned out to be an ambitious and far-sighted businessman. Similar to predecessors such as Shōriki Matsutarō, the “father of television broadcasting,” whose vision of Japan mirrored the image of the United States. Kobayashi was greatly influenced by American advertising techniques and culture and wanted to achieve similar results in Japan (Kobayashi, 1959). As the president of an advertising agency, Senkōsha, Kobayashi contributed to a golden decade of Japanese advertising and the ideology of ‘bright new life’ in the 1950s, by introducing to Japanese companies such as Toshiba, Sony and Fujiya the use of neon signs for advertisements. His adventurous spirit guided him to found a TV production company Senkōsha in 1956 and to produce Japanese superhero stories such as Gekkō Kamen (Moonlight Mask), Jagaa no Me (The Eye of Jaguar) and Kaiketsu Harimau. Well exposed to the international cultural scene, he unconventionally used non-Japanese casts and overseas locations such as Thailand, Cambodia and Hong Kong. Reflecting on the making of Kaiketsu Harimau, Kobayashi mentioned, “we did a lot of adventurous things, which others could not think of. I have never scared” (Iwasa, 2011).

The spirit of experimenting with something new and international seemed to be shared by the sponsor of Kaiketsu Harimau, Morishita Jintan. As one of the leading medical companies in Japan that had already started business in China, India and Southeast Asia before 1945, Morishita Jintan took a bold decision to use new advertising techniques, invent a number of new products, and cultivate a new market in Southeast Asia.4 In 1953, Morishita Tai, the President of the company, visited Western Europe and Southeast Asia and secured contracts with its counterparts in the Middle East, Israel and China. Knowing that advertising was crucial to sales, his company sponsored Kaiketsu Harimau and used it to promote their products such as chewing gum and Jintan candies.

It is intriguing that as television became a new medium of entertainment in Japan, war icons came back as a basis of a new adventurous story that the postwar generation could enjoy. Those who engaged in the production process had war experiences one way or another and held the memory of Asia. By no means does this imply that the producers and sponsors of Kaiketsu Harimau consciously aimed to propagate Japan’s wartime vision. Kobayashi’s ambition for creating a national television drama, for example, can be simply explained by his entrepreneurial character. Thus their intentions should not be regarded as equivalent to anti-Western Asianism expressed by imperial Japan. As Tamura Shozō, one of the directors of Kaiketsu Harimau, also reflects, they refrained from creating a hero story of chūshin aikoku (the emperor’s loyal and patriotic subject) (Asahi Shinbun, 1985). Nonetheless, precisely because they lacked an conscious effort to propagate naked nationalism in Japan, it is worthwhile examining how they used the wartime legendary figure in Asia while adding a new value and style to attract the young audience. The next three sections will analyse how the actual characterisation and dramatisation reflect the mixed values of the past and the present.

Harimau as a modern man of justice

Harimau has many qualities of a superhero: athletic, intelligent, brave and compassionate. His mission is to set matters right for Asian people and to bring justice to the community. The identity of Harimau is not known to the public but his sincere and genuine attitude towards local Asians is famous all across Southeast Asia. He is a good shot but he fires only to correct wrong-doers. Harimau’s slender, slim physique and sunglasses are reminiscent of taiyōzoku (sun tribe), a popular icon of Japanese postwar male youths in the 1950s (Shamoon, 2002). Represented by Ishihara Yūjirōin Taiyō no Kisetsu (Season of the Sun, 1956) and Kurutta Kajitsu (Crazed Fruit, 1956), taiyōzoku are a postwar generation who wear modern Western clothes and use technological and cultural commodities from the West. But Harimau’s exotic turban and batik-looking shirt clearly show his sympathy with local ‘Asians’, described in this drama as poor and oppressed under Western imperialism.

Together with his fellows and assistants, Harimau exemplifies a righteous ideal of Japan. His right-hand man called Dongorosu no Matsu (Matsu afterwards) is a more comical and athletic figure who is dressed in Japanese traditional down-to-earth clothes with hachimaki (Japanese headband) and geta (Japanese traditional footwear). Although Harimau’s slender physique and adroit demeanour is linked to modern superheroes in Western films and television drama series, his care and compassion for his subordinates is projected as a neo-Confucian masterly attitude towards his disciple. Another assistant of Harimau is Tarō, a Japanese boy who has lost his parents and tries to save his sister from villains. With good morals and great skill in shooting, he joins Harimau’s mission. He is brave, diligent and cheerful, and most importantly, he introduces the idea of “overcoming a challenge.” When Tarō is whipped by the villain, even the enemy character is impressed by his courage and patience, saying, “The kid has a Japanese spirit. He is prepared for any punishment and remains cool” (Part 1, episode 3). Since Tarō easily wins trust from others, he is asked to safeguard a big treasure (the Arafura Pearl) by the captain of a ship in Part 3. A number of dialogues also contribute to the definition of the Japanese characters. For example, Harimau and Matsu encounter a Japanese businessman, Miyake. They immediately establish a connection and show trust in, and understanding of, each other.

Harimau: Actually, I ask a favour from you since you are Japanese.
Miyake: What is it?
Harimau: I want you to take this girl to the hospital.
Miyake: Ok. No problem.
Harimau: Oh, that is great. I really appreciate it.
Miyake: Harimau. You have just said that you are being chased by somebody. It may be dangerous for you to go to town. I will take care of her.
Matsu: Wow. You are surely Japanese. Quick of apprehension! (Part 1, episode 7)

When Harimau and Matsu’s identities are revealed as secret agents of the Japanese military, one notices that their noble mission is innately connected with Japanese aspiration to moral leadership in Asia. Not tied down by the rules of the establishment, he even corrects the wrongdoings of his fellow Japanese. In Part 4, for example, Inner Mongolia is on the brink of civil war. A Japanese lieutenant tries to take the opportunity of guiding his army to cross the border between Japanese-controlled territory and Inner Mongolia. Harimau intervenes. The lieutenant eventually admits his misjudgement and apologises. This story is reminiscent of the Mukden Incident (1931) or the Marco Polo Bridge Incident (1937), in which Japanese military personnel tried to expand the Japanese-controlled area in and beyond Manchuria. Harimau, working for the Japanese Army in Inner Mongolia, corrects the wrongdoing of the military officer without denying the importance of Japanese commitment to Mongolian affairs. In other words, Harimau saves the Japanese military from taking a reckless and regrettable path. In the sense he behaves unconventionally for a greater benefit of the Japanese society, Harimau does not differ so much from the main characters of period drama such as Mito Kōmon (1954-), Onihei Hankachō (1969-2001) and Abarenbō Shōgun (1978-2002). Like Mito Kōmon, a retired lord, with his two servants, Harimau, together with Matsu, fights against wrong-doers across Southeast Asia. Harimau therefore belongs to what Seaton (2007, pp. 137-138) categorises as ‘good Japanese’ heroes, who can exercise ethical responsibility against injustice.

Harimau’s conservative nature is similar to the late image of Ishihara Yūjirō, who formerly represents taiyōzoku. While taiyōzoku’s life is filled with violence and sex, Ishihara transforms his image from that of a tough gangster towards a domesticated nice guy (Raine, 2000). After receiving much criticism from the social and cultural establishment such as the Parent-Teacher Association and the highbrow literary world, Ishihara has to create a more publicly acceptable image and gain more popularity. Even though his body remains as ‘big’ and ‘ugly’ in the conventional eye of masculinity in the 1950s, his content is still a lovable one. In a similar way, Harimau is an exotic figure:wearing a turban, his light physique and avant-garde costume including sun glasses and an exotic shirt apparently are similar to taiyōzoku. Yet, families can comfortably watch his heroic, moral actions where he subscribes to the traditional morality that can be accepted by the public.

The representation of Harimau’s moral character is also sustained by gender positioning. Part 3 ends with a grand revelation of Harimau’s secret identity as a Japanese military person: Ōtomo Michio. Although he has strong feelings towards his fiancée Akie, he chooses to behave as Harimau because of his willingness to work for the oppressed and the poor in Asia and the world. Justice for Asian nations is presented as more important and supreme than private pleasure. While Japanese male characters are portrayed as strong, brave and smart, Japanese female characters represent the ideal woman in modern Japan: modest, enduring and wise. When Akie tries to find her fiancée Ōtomo Michio (Harimau), she reflects:

Akie: Michio. Where are you now? Akie is a Japanese woman. Whatever difficulty and pain I come across, I will not be defeated. I will be cheerful and live in a righteous manner until I see you again. (Part 1, episode 11)

Although female characters are physically fragile, they share a mental strength with Japanese male characters. Compared to local girls such as Maiya, they remain calm even at a time of crisis. When Harimau’s secret identity is revealed as Ōtomo, a serviceman in the Japanese Navy, in the final scene of Part 3, Akie looks proud and supportive even though his mission does not allow the couple to stay together. She understands and accepts his mission to work for peace and justice in the world. Through her eye, Harimau is a respectful man who can sacrifice his private pleasure for the lives of Asian people.

As the story can be traced back to the legendary wartime figure Tani Yutaka, Kaiketsu Harimau exemplifies a Japanese aspiration to moral leadership in a new, post war world. In this sense, the drama is not particularly “new,” as suggested by Ching (2011, p. 88). His existence addresses moral discipline and the importance of devoting one’s life to justice, which is, to a great extent, similar to a moral character promoted by imperial Japan. Kaiketsu Harimau is reminiscent to the legendary framework through which the Japanese could return to a collective ideal. Especially, in a world where Japanese militaristic heroism and masculine identity are suppressed, this legendary framework functions for restoring Japanese national pride.

Countering the West

The opening scene of Kaiketsu Harimau in Part 1 illustrates the coercive nature of Western rule over Asia. The British colonial officers force local people to walk along the coast, sometimes whipping them. As people cry out for help, Harimau arrives. He is the saviour of Asians, not a friend of Westerners. The Japanese reluctance to identify themselves with the West is evident in the characterization of Westerners as the coercive imperial rulers of Asian ‘domin’ (barbarians) in Kaiketsu Harimau. In Part 1, the chief of the Java governor’s office, Koppal, is only interested in exploiting local people in Southeast Asia and maintaining a hierarchical colonial structure. With the aim of establishing total control of Southeast Asia, he deliberately creates a staged revolt by the locals and attacks them as legitimate retaliation. In Part 2, Circuit, the leader of the organised crime network, uses local Asians to construct a secret arms factory and aims to confiscate an oil reserve on their land. He even kills his subordinate to save his own life. Although the drama portrays the Caucasians less negatively than the pre-war or wartime comic books and satire, it nonetheless demonstrates the evil and exploitative character of the West which needs to be confronted by Harimau.

The theme of countering the West is even more prominent in Part 5, in which Burma is the central location. The world is divided into two powers: the GF allies and the QI allies.5 Both parties try to obtain the engineering design draft of ‘light beam’ weapons of which the Japanese secret laboratory in Burma has created. The Red Lizard, a secret society of bandits, also aims to obtain this draft to gain money and power while some local Asians cooperate with them, believing that it is useful for future national independence. Harimau and his new subordinate, Murasame Gorō, fight against the agents from the two allies as well as the Red Lizard to regain the draft. Their victory confirms their belief that peace and independence cannot be achieved by the outside powers.

The setting of the divided world is in parallel with the geopolitical situation in the 1950s, of which the producers must have been aware. Great powers such as the Soviet Union, the United States and even communist China, were heavily involved in, or even were the main instigators of, the Korean War and the Vietnam War. While some Asian political leaders were willing to collaborate with those superpowers for their own interests, the majority of populations in Asia were ‘entrapped’ in great power conflicts against their will. It was in this power political structure that Japan could be in solidarity with Asia. Like those Asians, the Japanese were also entrapped by great power politics against their will. Although Japan was an independent, sovereign state, the Japanese government had to plan for rearmament as a protégé of the United States. Japanese socialists, pacifists and even ordinary citizens voiced strong opposition to the security cooperation with the United States as it might entrap Japan into an American war. Japan’s aspiration to standing apart from the United States was in synthesis with the non-alliance movement and the Bandung Conference in 1955, which epitomised an aspiration to the liberation of Asia from Western colonial rule and post-colonial influence. By virtually describing Asia’s ill-fated destiny, Kaiketsu Harimau demonstrated a deep sense of frustration with the lack of autonomy in Japan.

The production of this drama also coincided with Japan’s attempt to strengthen its tie with Southeast Asian countries. For the political leaders of the time, it looked strategically useful to show Asian solidarity to the United States. Faced with the dominance of the United States, conservative politicians such as Kishi Nobusuke, Prime Minister of Japan from 1957 to 1960, saw Southeast Asia favourably and aimed to contribute to its economic development, believing that Japan could and should play a leading role in Asia. In an English article in Foreign Affairs (1965/66, p. 92), Kishi argued that, compared to Western countries, Japan was better positioned to understand and sympathise with the past and present ‘predicament’ of Asian nations, and that Japan was able “to act as a bridge between Asia and the Western world.” In an interview in 1982, Kishi said that his interest in Asia had not changed even after 1945 (Hara, 2003, p. 355). In order to better position Japan in negotiation with the United States, he visited Southeast Asian countries both before and after his visit to the United States. He argued that it was important to obtain some support from other Asian nations for the proposition that Japan was a leader in Asia. These testimonies show that his vision of Asian prosperity under the Japanese leadership remained intact even after 1945 (Kobayashi, 2006). Harimau, with a priority on the life of the local Asians, comfortably sits with the ideal role that conservative Japanese like Kishi desired to play at that time.

While the United States had dominated the central stage of Japan’s foreign relations in the Cold War era, Kaiketsu Harimau provided a space where a Western confrontational character is transformed to enter a good relationship with the Japanese. Reconciliation looks almost impossible with Western male characters who work either for their own interests or the benefits of their homeland. However, the drama gives a new window for cooperation with Koppal’s daughter, Zama. She has the individual mission of finding the killer of her father and taking revenge. She originally fights against Harimau, but eventually changes her position after discovering that Harimau is not the killer. As taking revenge for a father is often considered a moral act in Japan, she is understood and accepted as a person who shares the same moral code as the Japanese. Kaiketsu Harimau therefore demonstrates that it is possible to change a former enemy into a friend of Harimau.

In a nutshell, the key aspects of Harimau are ingrained in the cultural notions of Japanese morality while demonstrating his capability of confronting the Western enemy in a modern world. His heroic role is defined by the obnoxious male Westerners who are associated with the world of imperial rule, organised crime, gangs and mobsters. Although Leo Ching argues that Kaiketsu Harimau creates a Japanese self-image as an American stalwart, the characterisation of Western male characters in this drama suggests the opposite. The only exception which does not fall into the stereotypical image of the West is a female character. In Kaiketsu Harimau, a Western woman appears as a new gender category to alter the sense of antagonism with the West and provide the starting point of true friendship and cooperation.

Japanese Nostalgic Asianism

If the racial expression of the Western male remains antagonistic, how is ‘Asia’ described? In fact, in Kaiketsu Harimau, Asians are divided into two types: local Asians and the Chinese. Local Asians are the original residents of Southeast Asia and Inner Mongolia. They are mostly portrayed as a helpless but friendly population and are the subject of exploitation by Chinese merchants and Westerners. Tadon Kozō, the comical and lovable Malay character on the side of Harimau, does not possess any particular skills and witty ideas. As he calls Tarō ‘Aniki’ (Brother), he relies on the Japanese boy in a troublesome situation.

Tadon Kozō: Hey Brother. What shall we do? If we do not say that we will help them, we will be whipped and killed like those slaves.
Tarō: Yes… but Chin and Plague are ruthless. Even if we say again that we will help them, they will not easily believe us.
Tadon Kozō: I am scared of the whipping. Hey Brother. Can we escape from this room? Brother! Brother. Hey Brother (Part 1, episode 3).

The same quality can be observed in Maiya, a local girl. She repeats her fear but does not provide ideas on overcoming a challenge. Compared with Japanese female characters, local women are portrayed negatively as friendly but uneducated. They are the subject of protection by male characters.

Some of the local Asian male characters are courageous enough to launch an armed revolt. Mejaru, the head of the independence party in Indonesia, challenges the imperial authorities and prepares for a surprise attack. However, the internal pressure of his party members makes Mejaru take to arms rather too quickly, despite Harimau’s cautioning against any unprepared, uncontrolled action. As a consequence, his army is totally defeated. The theme of Asian recklessness is repeated in Part 2, in which the young head of the aborigine group ‘fire tribe’ is easily tricked by a sinister plot created by Circuit. In Part 4, the Mongolians are portrayed as being about to enter a civil war due to their internal divisions and vulnerability to conspiracy.

In contrast to these local Asians, Chinese characters hold a special position. Chin Shūmei, a Chinese arms and slave merchant, is the astute and remorseless villain in Part 1-3. He plays a key role in looting and exploiting local people and the land of Southeast Asia and tricks locals and even his business partner by giving alcohol with sleeping pills or by just simply giving no detail of his plan. His dialogue with Circuit shows a close but untrusting relationship between Westerners and Chinese:

Circuit: Chin-san. How is it going? Have you got enough [people as slaves]?
Chin: Yes, as I promised.
Circuit: Great. You never missed a chance to make money.
Chin: Ha-ha. I am notoriously the most skilful in this area (Part 2, episode 3).

His character seemingly replicates the image of Chin Bunkei in the wartime propaganda film, Marai no Tora. Unlike the Chin Bunkei in the film, who killed Tani’s sister, Chin Shūmei in Kaiketsu Harimau does not have any personal antagonism with Harimau. However, not only the names, but also the mysterious cunning of the characters of Chin Shūmei and Chin Bunkei are similar. Eventually, both of them become the archenemies of the protagonists.

Other Chinese characters gain a chance of redemption and eventually decide to stop their evil actions. For example, Chinese subordinates switch their positions after they are impressed by the sincerity of Harimau and Matsu (Part 3). Kōren, a Chinese woman, who is part of the horse-riding bandits in Inner Mongolia, originally fights against Harimau but later takes his side (Part 4). Her conversion to Harimau’s side represents a disappearance of the boundary between the Chinese and other Asians and implies the emergence of a new Asian spirit. In other words, this drama describes the Chinese as suspicious but potentially a subject of conversion.

The ethnic representations of local Asians and Chinese are similar to those in Shimada Keizō’s Bōken Dankichi (Adventure of Dankichi, 1931-1939), a picture story published in the popular children’s magazine Shōnen Kurabu (Boys’ Club). Bōken Dankichi portrayed the strength, morale and advanced knowledge of the Japanese through the character of Dankichi. In this story, Dankichi replaces the native king of a tropical island kingdom in Nan’yō because of his knowledge and skills of navigation, harvesting, and in managing people. More important, he is willing to take care of the helpless, obedient locals with delight and affection. As a big brother in Asia, Dankichi is “characterised by hard work, dedication, and humanitarianism, combined with deference toward the paternal figure of the emperor” (Dvorak, 2008, pp. 73-74). Through Dankichi’s experience, the young Japanese readers are induced to believe that they are carrying a civilising mission for those “barbarians” (Kawamura, 1994, pp. 25-26). Although Harimau is an outsider who helps locals, and Dankichi is a king who governs and controls the locals, both of them share their attributes such as cleverness, strength, wisdom, morality, fairness and modernity, and they look after helpless and docile local populations in Asia. Thus, like the story of Bōken Dankichi, Kaiketsu Harimau can be seen as an agent of Japanese Asianism in postwar Japan.

A postwar social and cultural critic and China-specialist, Takeuchi Yoshimi, famously asserted that healthy Asianism would lead Japan and other Asian nations in the right direction. He wisely defined Asianism as an “inclination” or “a mood of the soul” (shinteki mūdo)and Asia itself, not as something which possessed any innate spirit or cultural essence, but as a “means” or “method”(Takeuchi, 1993, pp. 442-470). Asia was a useful container in which to include diverse nations and to realise a dream of bringing the resources and manpower in Asia together in prosperity. It does not necessarily have antipathy and resistance to the West at its core, but simply can represent a sense of affinity towards Asia, whatever Asia means. Kaiketsu Harimau probably shows Japanese scepticism towards the West, and more vividly describes Japanese affinity towards Asia. This Asia derives from the past image of Japanese frontiers, such as Southeast Asia and Mongolia. In this sense, Sasaki Mamoru (2005, pp. 115-116) insightfully contends that the world of Asia described by Senkōsha reflected the world of the Greater East Asia Co-prosperity Sphere rather than the world of Shōnen Kurabu. The producer Kobayashi experienced the vast space of the steppes as a soldier stationed in Inner Mongolia during the war. Horse-riding bandits, a vast and desolate grass land and the Japanese army in Part 4 were probably not so different from the images of Inner Mongolia that he constructed at that time.

The Cold War environment again fits in with this Asianist vision. The Japan-U.S. security pact was an obstacle to opening diplomatic relations with communist China. To gain access to the external market and natural resources for its economic recovery and development, negotiating with non-communist political leaders in Asia was the only possible option for Japan as it would not contradict the U.S. objective of creating a ‘free Asia’. Since Japan’s interest in its own economic advancement was compatible with the yearning of Asian countries for independence and development, Japan signed a series of reparation or economic assistance agreements with Indonesia and other newly independent countries in Southeast Asia (Suehiro, 1999). Local nationalists in Asia, such as Sukarno, had already developed ties with Japan for their own purposes of independence from European imperial authorities. Although the United States regarded Sukarno as a present or future communist, Japanese policy makers used the pre-1945 legacy of Japan-Southeast Asia. Thus Miyagi argues that “Japan’s postwar impetus to favour the collapse of Western European colonial rule in Southeast Asia—before moving into the resulting vacuum to discover a ‘frontier’—was consistent with its pre-war impulse” (2006, p. 8).

Representing Japanese nostalgia and desire for a frontier, an open space where they can explore their morale and mission, Kaiketsu Harimau fed the Japanese audience with Asianism, an old theme of Asian cooperation and justice, though it was no longer military-oriented. It reflected Japanese interest in taking the side of Asia whilst critically distancing itself from the West. The Asian otherness provides a stark and positive contrast to the Japanese moral self. The world of Kaiketsu Harimau particularly appealed to those who had a nostalgia for Japan’s Greater East Asia Co-prosperity Sphere but also to the young audience who were interested in exploring a new world in Asia. In their imagination, Southeast Asia and Inner Mongolia was a playground on which the Japanese could test their manhood in the quest of justice and independence for Asian nations. For Japan, Southeast Asia was particularly comforting as a region in which Japan was welcome. Inner Mongolia was a politically unreachable terrain for Japan.6 But, because of the absence of physical contact between Japan and Inner Mongolia at the time, Kaiketsu Harimau could also use this region as a stage on which Japan pursued its mission in the way it had done in Manchuria. This was a feeling that Japan could not easily gain from the United States, the former enemy and an overwhelmingly powerful security partner to Japan.

Concluding Thought

Kaiketsu Harimau vividly described a fictional image of the Japanese as the saviours of Southeast Asia and Mongolia, heroically fighting against Western colonial authorities and Chinese villains, and expressing nostalgia for an idealised version of Japan’s Asia. It emphasised the image of Japan as essential to peace and prosperity in Asia by showing the importance of good Japanese characters, such as Harimau, Matsu and Taro. Through such characterisation, Kaiketsu Harimau would satisfy an inner Japanese desire for the restoration of the spiritually sublime and physically strong Japanese masculine national identity. This drama did not have to differentiate between Japanese leadership and peace and prosperity in Asia because its target audience was limited to the Japanese, not other Asians. Its primary focus was set on the heroic activities of the Japanese.

The reproduction of a Japanese hero in Asia was deeply related to the historical context of the 1950s and 1960s. After its defeat by the Allied Powers, Japan adopted a subservient and apologetic posture to soften the harsh memory of Japanese wartime aggression and to earn U.S. support for the economic recovery of Japan. Yet, this political stance was hardly based on a sincere, and perhaps time-consuming, effort to develop a Japanese consensus view over war-related issues or the Japan-U.S. security cooperation. Due to the lack of such consensus, there was a psychological space for the Japanese to doubt the legitimacy of the existing hierarchical relations between Japan and the United States in the postwar era. At the same time, Japan was entering the period of rapid economic growth. While Japan could enjoy its economic development, its moral leadership remained lacking. It was in this context that the old formula of Asia versus the West was recovered and reproduced in Kaiketsu Harimau. The drama functioned to recover and reinforce Japanese national pride and confidence outside Japan. The re-imagination of Japan as a leader in Asia worked to a great extent in the settings of Southeast Asia and Inner Mongolia, which seemed to have less contention with Japan over the memory of war than its neighbouring countries such as China and Korea. Virtually imagining the common uneasiness with Southeast Asia over the U.S. hegemonic power, the drama put forth the old theme of Asian unity against the West. In this sense, Southeast Asia and Inner Mongolia served as a compensation for the loss of Japan’s national pride within the U.S. hegemonic order. Kaiketsu Harimau worked an agent of Japanese Asianism, attempting to protect the people in Asia in a paternalistic manner and to recreate a new order in Asia without Western interference.

The continuity of Japanese pan-Asian nationalism is not a story of the past. The nostalgic image of Japan in Asia continues to appeal to an audience experiencing economic recession, social problems and the diplomatic strains with neighbouring countries in the post-Cold War era. As the Cold War environment allowed the Japanese to indulge in a nostalgic image of development and cooperation between Japan and Asia, nostalgic sentiment towards Asia, though by-passing China and Korea, may provide Japan with a comfortable feeling towards approaching these areas once again. However, if Japan continues to do so without facing the hard question on how to confront the suffering and humiliation of the Chinese and Korean people under Japanese military aggression, nostalgic Asianism will become not just an innocent dream of Asian unity and prosperity but a slogan to bolster parochial patriotism. This may not be a picture that a real Asian man of justice would wish for.


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[1] Although the official Roman translation of the main protagonist is ‘Harimao’, this paper instead uses ‘Harimau’, the spelling used inside the drama.

[2] Nanmō literally means ‘southern Mongolia’. There is no clear definition of what it geographically covers, just like other terms such as Mongolia and Eastern Mongolia. Yet, considering that it is the southern part of Mongolia, I use Inner Mongolia as its translation.

[3] According to Yoshimi (2003), a so-called ‘national timetable’ emerged and defined separately timeslots for men and women in the 1950s.

[4] See the website, Morishita Jintan Rekishi Hakubutsukan [Morishita Jintan History Museum],

[5] The drama does not explain what GF and QI stand for.

[6] Only after 1972, Japan established diplomatic relations with Mongolia, which was under Soviet influence, and with the People’s Republic of China, which governed Inner Mongolia.

About the Author

Ryoko Nakano is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Japanese Studies at the National University of Singapore. Her research interests include international political thought with a particular emphasis on Japanese perspectives. She is the author of Beyond the Western Liberal Order: Yanaihara Tadao and Empire as Society (Palgrave Macmillan, 2013), and published articles on the Japanese perspectives in the twentieth century. She received her DPhil in International Relations from Oxford University and MScEcon from Aberystwyth University.

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