“One of the great advantages of Army service is the opportunity for travel to far off lands. The American Service Man has a serious job to do overseas. But off duty time often finds him enjoying his stay almost as if he were a tourist.”

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Sgt Stuart Queen, screenshot from The Big Picture: The Soldier in Japan

Thus begins the film, “The Big Picture: The Soldier in Japan”, one of a weekly series of television films produced by the US Army about 60 years ago. This film probably served a few purposes: as a training film for soldiers headed to Japan in the late 1950s, as a recruiting film for potential Army soldiers, and as general PR for the US Army.

The film is amazing in its coverage of Japan, commenting on almost everything you could think of: the mystique, the life of the farmer and fisherman, Shintoism, sushi and sukyaki, the coastlines and the mountains, Hakone, Hiroshima, Osaka, rush-hour traffic, tea ceremony, sumo, industry, etc. etc. etc.

There is a bit of subtle ridicule and patronization as you can imagine:

  • Yes, it could almost be the USA, if not for the proof to the contrary that strikes your eye. Those signs may be just a lot of chicken tracks to you, but to the Japanese, they mean a lot.
  • Sushi is boiled rice with a slice of raw fish on it. It tastes just like, well, boiled rice with a slice of raw fish on it.

There is also considerable praise:

  • Roads are the among the “best in our country”. The shoreline is comparable to the Rivera and the coastline in Florida and California coastlines.
  • There is almost no illiteracy in Japan.
  • What strikes you about the Great Buddha (in Kamakura) is the poise, the steady quiet calm of the face, the way the hands are laid in the lap, palms upward, thumbs touching. Poise and calm – you’ll see these qualities in the face and manner of Japanese everywhere.

The film begins with a description of two US Army archetype newbies to Japan, exaggerated but with elements of truth: Worrying Willy and Paradise Pete.

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How Worrying Willy sees the Japanese, screenshot from The Big Picture: The Soldier in Japan

Worrying Willy: He remembers in WWII great stretches of Japan were leveled to rubble by American bombs. Willy still has the idea that Japan is like this (video of bombed out landscapes). Or maybe like this, carry overs from WWII – a hostile country , where down every dark winding alley looms the mysterious menace of the Orient. A straight shooter like Worrying Willy has to keep his wits about him, and his hand on his six-gun partner. Yes that’s Worrying Willy’s impression of Japan, as accurate as thinking that cattle graze on Fifth Avenue in New York City.

Paradise Pete: He has an idea that Japan is an Oriental Paradise where all a fellow does is lounge around in a Never Never Land – all play and no work. Well this version of Japan, to quote a phrase he hears a lot when he gets here, “nebber hoppen”. He’d be better to approach Japan with an open mind, to get rid of phony impressions and start fresh.

The Big Picture_Paradise Pete
How Paradise Pete sees Japan, screenshot from The Big Picture: The Soldier in Japan

During the explanation of Japan’s industrial strength comes the American military’s raison d’etre in Japan: “Japanese industry ranks among the leading industrial powers in the world. Right now, Japan is the only non-communist country in Asia that can build a diesel engine. It is this giant industrial power of Japan that is a prime target of international communism. To see that this prize keeps clear of communist hands is the main reason American fighting men are in japan today.”

Ah yes, the good ol’ Cold War days. True, the film is dated. But one phrase from the film is eternal: “The way Japan affects you will depend a lot on you.”