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The Showa days: Were they really that good?

by Kaori Shoji

True to their inherent sentimentality, the Japanese often get all misty-eyed about times past. Lately the phrase “furuki yoki Showa (the good old Showa days)” has been bandied about. But, one is inclined to ask, were the Showa days really as good as the media would have us believe?

The Showa Emperor’s reign (1926-1989) was, for all intents and purposes, a pretty happening era. The Great Depression of Showa, followed by the rise of military dictatorship, World War II and the rebuilding of the country to Western specifications are some of the major milestones.

Add to that inventions like the Walkman and Nintendo and you get six solid decades jam-packed with incident. As 82-year-old Tani-san in my neighborhood likes to say: “Jigoku mo tengoku mo minna Showa ni ajiwatta (We tasted both hell and heaven during the Showa years.)”

But Tani-san is honest enough to say that she never wants to go back, and that compared with present-day Heisei, Showa was the Dark Ages.

“In those days, there were no such wondrous things as hybrid cars, disposable diapers and the Washlet (the automated toilet few Japanese seem able to live without),” she says. “Showa living was a lot of hard work, not to mention those inconvenient toilets!” Tani-san divides Showa into three distinct periods: the surrender, which made her weep with relief; the first day in the postwar, black market years when she was able to eat three meals consisting of ginshari (pure white rice, so rare during the immediate postwar years as to be compared with gin, or silver), and when the family toilet was converted from kumitori (cesspit-style) to suisen (flush).

Indeed, there’s a lot about Showa that makes us glad it’s gone. Those of us Japanese who came of age in the last decade of the Showa Era were mortified by all the dasai (tacky) phenomena, such as keikoto (fluorescent lighting) in the home, heavy doses of ajinomoto (monosodium glutamate) in food and way too many kids per classroom, which just jacked up the level of competition for the notoriously difficult nyushi (entrance exams). Our hair was still pitch black (coloring is a Heisei thing), our school uniforms were unsexy, and the grown-ups around us still talked of the deprivation years during World War II like it happened yesterday, which meant we could never leave food on our plates or throw away half-used notebooks without causing a minor hemorrhage or two in the elders. “Mottainai! (What a waste!)” was a prominent Showa refrain, and if we close our eyes and listen, we can still hear it in the wind.

And in that pre-cell phone/e-mail period, phone calls from friends were closely monitored. One of the most typical images of a Showa teen would be him or her carrying the family phone as far away as possible from the living room and into the hallway (freezing in winter; suffocatingly hot in summer) and yakking with friends while being interrupted by yells of: “Itsu made denwa shite iru no? (How long are you going to be on that phone?)”

Having said that, there was a certain innocence to the Showa Era that’s lacking in Heisei, fueling our nostalgia for times past.

Those Japanese who had experienced the economic “kodo seicho (Rapid Economic Growth)” years from the mid-’60s to the ’70s generally say that, although the work was hard, there was a wonderful sense of purpose and achievement. The entire nation was united in a common desire for prosperity, which immediately translated into consumer items like suihanki (electric rice cookers), zenjido sentakki (fully automatic washing machines),” refrigerators, air conditioners, family cars (remember the Nissan “Familia”?). Urban apartments gradually evolved from the typical rokujo, yojohan (six tatami mat room combined with a 4.5-mat room)” to the “3LDK (three rooms plus a living/dining area and a kitchen),” allowing kids to have their own rooms, with perhaps their own TVs.

Now, of course, in a nation jaded by consumer goodies, desiring material goods is about the tackiest thing one can admit to. The younger generation is marked by its apathy toward “shusse (getting ahead)” and “okanemoke (working for wealth)” — both terms that had been so fashionable in the Showa Era.

“Nani-mo hoshii mono-ga nai (There’s nothing to want)” seems to be the general attitude these days, one that causes older Japanese to sigh with disgust or resignation and point to it as a major symptom of the “Heisei no higeki (Heisei tragedy).”