homeJappy Rhymes with Happy

In the period before World War II, a Japanese doll was often called "Jappy," "Jappie," the "Jap doll," or "a little Jap."

It was a shock to me the first time I saw the label "A little Jap." This was on a 5-inch paper folder (now used as my "home" button on this website, above) enclosing a foldout of photographs of the 1910 British Japanese Exhibition in London; the front and back of the folder represented the front and back of a very nice girl ichimatsu. I bought it, and started trying to understand what "Jap" meant, when referring to a person, in English in 1910.

The easiest comparison I can think of is "Yank"--a term of familiarity that may imply affection or disgust, depending on who is speaking (interestingly, this analogy is made by a character in the 1888 novel, Yone Santo). A useful parallel is the "pronoun of intimacy" in some European languages (tu, du), which indicates that the speaker is addressing someone who is either an equal and a friend, or an inferior; it might be used by an adult to a child.  In some classes and historical periods, the pronoun was considered an insult (which is why it has disappeared from English!), while in others it indicated acceptance or love. As I have gone on collecting references to "Jappy" from the 19th and early 20th century I have come to the conclusion that the term was almost always affectionate, but in a somewhat condescending way--a true diminutive, meant to emphasize the smallness but also the familiarity and even intimacy of the person referred to. I have tried to note as I read novels from the period the use of the term, and I have collected some observations on the  "Jap" in literature page. Yet another possibility was opened up by the Making of America websites, which allow a fuller sampling of the use of the term in popular printed matter. When the person was a doll, of course, no insult could be implied.

Clifton Bingham poem, The Jappy Dolly
However, it is worth considering for a moment the problem of dolls and children's books in the context of racism. Racial hatred or at least fear of black-skinned people did not prevent some black figures from becoming commercially significant trademarks; see the Jim Crow Museum for examples and more detail.
    The famous Golliwog doll, hero of a book of dolls' adventures by Florence and Bertha Upton (1895), was based on a black "minstrel" doll; he played many roles through the years, including the continuous one as a trademark for Robertson's jams and preserves. Whether Golly was an athlete, a gallant hero, the object of a child's overwhelming affection, or a shiftless schemer, he reinforced one racial idea: that black doll is UGLY. And Golly was easily adapted to racial hatred even in Britain.  Another example is the book Little Black Sambo, written in 1898. Here the little black hero is a resourceful and witty character, as Golly sometimes was, but the drawings of him ranged from ugly to uglier, and because of this "Sambo" was not someone with whom anyone, white or black, could easily identify. Sambos, Gollys, and Mammys (along with Dinah and Belinda dolls) appeared in popular and commercial art, often as benign and virtuous figures. I could find black-doll parallels for many of the items I present on this website.
    Evidently a black doll, like a minstrel show, was considered a part of the social structures which could teach racism to children. An ad for cloth yardage (see below) which could be made up into various kinds of dolls, including a nicely-dressed and well-proportioned "Darky," tells us that the child will understand some unspecified truth by comparing the Darky doll with the "white girl doll";  interestingly, a white boy is also shown, but no comparison is invited. It must be that the girl is to look at the white girl doll and say "like me" and at the darky doll and say "not like me."  Another illustration from the 1880s shows a Black minister commenting on a little Black girl's Christmas  parade of two dolls, one white and one black, in a doll carriage,  "What's the color line coming to?" The love of the child for dolls irrespective of color is still meant to be a preparation for being able to place real people of color in  a hierarchy in society.
    However, there are plenty of differences, too: (1) the American and European fascination with and admiration of things Japanese; (2) the coherent list of virtues attributed to the Japanese, making them appropriate models for behavior and consumption; (3) the fact that the dolls were mostly produced by the Japanese, not by others as a racial caricature. Japanese dolls were sometimes considered homely or ugly (as in the picture above!), but in many cases the artists had charming dolls as models and exploited that charm.
Dary doll ad; click for whole ad.

American Impressions of "the Japanese" before about 1910

The Japanese themselves were perceived as admirable in the late 19th and early 20th century--rarely of course as superior, but often as capable of "evolving" into the equals of Westerners. However, racism grew up in the American West in the first half of the 20th century (culminating in the 1924 National Origins Act, and then, after Pearl Harbor, the shameful dispossession and internment of anyone deemed Japanese). So long as there was little Japanese immigration, "Japs" were fine, and they continued to be approved in other parts of the country even after virulent racism developed in California. In fact, "orientalism" (using the differences of Japanese culture to fantasize about alternatives to one's own) was important to many Western intellectuals, and Japan, with its relatively coherent and comprehensible culture, provided Americans with much food for thought, consumption, and imagination.

Contact between Japan and the US between 1854 and the turn of the century mostly occurred in 3 ways:

(1) Displays sent by Japan to various expositions and fairs, such as the Centennial of 1876, and imported Japanese goods in general. Japan invested a good deal in these displays, and the fascination of entering a teahouse, complete with landscaped garden inhabited by geisha and maiko, or of seeing spectacular bronzes, porcelains and lacquer-work, made a strong favorable impression on Americans in general. The Japanese were seen as a cultured, polite, highly civilized people, sometimes compared favorably with the Chinese, and sometimes confused with them.

(2) Japanese visitors to the United States. The immediate response of the Japanese to treaty negotiations was to send an embassy to the United States: in 1860 a group of "princes" and their interpreters and servants traveled via San Francisco to Washington D. C. and New York. They made a huge if somewhat confusing impression in a country where race had seemed a simple matter of superior and inferior. Over the next decades, Japan itself went through horrendous civil wars and misery trying to establish itself as a world power with rights and responsibilities recognized by the West, but there were always Japanese interested in Western education who came to study or live in Europe and America, sometimes with government sponsorship. Men able to communicate in English were important to trade and diplomacy. Since such people were by definition educated and impressive, they contributed to the idea that the Japanese were a superior people. The Japanese male student in the West became a figure in romantic fiction.
    On the other hand, American entrepreneurs began bringing Japanese entertainers to America in 1867; they traveled throughout the country, earning their living through fairs and vaudeville. Here again, the Japanese and the Chinese were easily confused; the more so, because Japanese performers may have used a  Chinese-style hairdo and clothing, that of the karako, which is traditional in some kinds of performance in Japan! At any rate, we often see images of Japanese acrobats and jugglers in the 1880s and 1890s, for example on the Little Jap* cigar box. Obviously, circus performers were a low group on any social totem pole.
    However, by 1908 it was possible to perceive the "Japanese Schoolboy" as a threat.  When Japanese began immigrating to the West Coast to make new lives, successfully establishing businesses and communities,  they became a people to be feared and despised by the "white" Americans. Whereas earlier the Chinese had been the threatening "Yellow Peril," now it was the "brown"  Japanese who had to be kept from "taking over."

(3) Western reports of visits to Japan. There was a rich literature of fact and fiction, with a wide audience interested in the strange ways of the Japanese. The Japanese were often depicted as doll-like,  childlike, or  literally "backwards" (doing things in the opposite way from Americans, such as reading and writing from right to left). However, most of the descriptions (especially those written for children, or novels) emphasize Japanese competence, virtue, and artistry.
    Another important element was the success of the Japanese army and navy in defeating China and Russia in the 1890s and early 1900s. These conquests were admired but also made some Americans uneasy. They were willing to identify the Japanese as the "good guys" in both conflicts but disturbed by such a striking demonstration of power. The "little Jap soldier"* was to be admired, and yet the term reminded Americans that we were bigger (physically) and could afford to use a friendly but slightly denigrating term for the Japanese. However, one did not need the term "Jap" to convey this message. For example, the British author Herbert Strang's "ripping yarn" Kobo: A Story of the Russo-Japanese War (1905) is dedicated "To Lilliput, with all due respect, Brobdingnag" (most obviously interpretable as "to little Japan from Great Britain"). Strang presents war as a game in which the character of a nation is tested--the Koreans and Chinese, for example, are simply dismissed as being poor soldiers, while the Russians are admired and the victorious Japanese are the heroes of the story; yet in the account of the battle of the Yalu River (pp. 285-291) he refers three times to the Japanese army as "(sturdy) little soldiers."

The  little boy at left is one of a series of Playmates of Other Nations in a 1924 coloring book with verses by Edmund Vance Cooke. All the other children are in some kind of fancy dress--the American boy is dressed like Uncle Sam, the Chinese boy has monster finger nails, etc. The Japanese boy, who ought to wear a kimono and geta to fit this pattern, is however depicted in a military uniform, with instructions on how to color the sunburst emblem on his hat. Thus Japan is presented as a nation both modern and military. However, the verse for the picture begins, condescendingly, "I am a happy Jap..."  (click for whole page).
     Another favorite idea in the years just after World War I was the presentation of a "parade of allied nations" as women holding the flags of their countries. Japan was one of these allies, and examples in postcard form are shown below. As with the "plucky little Jap" and  the child soldier "happy Jap," presenting a woman or girl as a military emblem helps hide the potential threat of a rival Pacific empire. The card on the right, with the French motto "For the liberty of the world," is by Xavier Sager (click for two more examples of his series of women soldiers); the motto emphasizes the idea that Japan did not join the Allies out of self-interest but from a generous friendship.

Particularly in the US, which was just working out its "Manifest Destiny" of dominance from coast to coast, it was stimulating to make the acquaintance of a non-European culture which was as old, rich, and complex as the European model. This implied that alternatives to the European way of doing things could be valid and productive. Japan (along with China) gave America a new perspective on its own "growing pains" as a country and a culture. With Japan's rising imperialism, however, came increasing consciousness that the American domination of the continent might be threatened by this rival Pacific power. It became harder and harder to see Japan as a lovely woman or a bright little boy--a doll to be played with.

Japanese virtues and their commercialization

So-what were "Japs" like? Here are some generalizations which American (and to a lesser extent European) enterprises exploited in illustrations and advertising. I try to include products that used the term Jap, or Japanese images, in their names or advertising. For illustrations, see the Advertising Page*:

  • The Japanese love tea, of course, and tea comes from Japan. Likewise Japanese silk, or silk in general, naturally is advertised with Japanese images.
  • The Japanese love to smoke-hence Little Jap cigars and cigarettes, Jap Rose cigars, and geisha on cigar bands and boxes.
  • The Japanese are very clean and take care of their bodies; they take hot baths every day. So we have Jap Rose Soap and Talcum, Fisk's Japanese Soap, the Pears Soap ad with the "Happy Jappy," Jap Tooth Silk (Floss), Jap Ammonia, Japo Borax. (There may also have been some confusion here with the Chinese, famous in America for their skills in laundering linens.)
  • The Japanese are not only clean but sophisticated about scents and perfumes (this is connected with the general knowledge of Japanese love of flowers, but also with incense). Many talcum powders used Japanese themes in their packaging, as did some perfumes.
  • Japanese tidiness may also have influenced Bissell Carpet Sweepers to choose Japanese motifs; it could be behind the name of the Jap kitchen cabinet (a variation of the Hoosier cabinet).
  • The Japanese are artistic. Jap-a-lac paint in particular trades on this, though there are also Japanese watercolors for children. Of course the fans, lacquer work, and silks imported from Japan would reinforce this idea.
  • The Japanese are very clever mechanically. Americans were amazed by the Japanese ability to analyze and build their own engines, once they had models. Presumably this is why Japanese women were so often shown in connection with typewriters,  sewing machines, and gramophones.
  • Jap nuggets or Jap candy-this is coconut candy with a variety of flavors. Perhaps it was so called to emphasize the exotic quality of the main ingredient.
  • The Japanese are romantic--and sexy! Ideas about this sprang  from knowledge of the Yoshiwara pleasure quarters and the institution of the geisha, and was reinforced by the sad story of Madame Butterfly and other exotic romantic fantasies.  Note also  the interesting fact that the Japanese doll was often the only male on the toyshelf.

  • The Japanese love children and childhood. Exhibit A is the Jap doll!

    Note: Colliers magazine in 1907-8 published a series of "letters" purportedly from "Hashimura Togo," under the title "Letters of a Japanese Schoolboy." Actually written by Wallace Irwin, and later collected in book form, they satirized American life from the point of view of a Japanese visitor, but their strongest object of satire was the Japanese author himself, who is arrogant, aggressive, violent,  and physically ugly (in the illustrations). His English is a grotesque pidgin. He is not a college-age youth at all, but a mature man who is working at various low-wage, temporary jobs while supposedly soaking up American language and culture.
        This type of "Japanese schoolboy" is presented as a menace to California in Gene Stratton-Porter's 1921 romantic novel, Her Father's Daughter. The villain is a mature Japanese man who is attending a Los Angeles high school, exploiting the public services of California in order to gain skills and intelligence to take back to Japan. The spunky, wise heroine sees it as a disgrace that a "Jap" should lead the class, and incites a young friend to excel him, which is possible because the "Japs" are supposedly capable only of imitation, not of original thought. Eventually the Japanese student shows his true colors, trying to murder the young man and, with his countrymen, the young woman as well; he is sent to his death over a cliff by the heroine and her trusty Irish housekeeper (a woman who knows her place is in service), like "a rattlesnake" or "a mad dog." The heroine is much preoccupied with the need of the white "race" to assert supremacy both by individual excellence and by having lots of babies; of the "colored" races threatening, the Japanese are particularly dangerous because of their eagerness to learn, though the Negroes of the South are also defined as a threat should they have access to education. American Indians are praised as an ideal, though one which is fortunately no longer a threat.