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This summer the scent of Showa will linger in the heat

by Kaori Shoji

There’s a distinct whiff of nostalgia in the air and it’s coming from the general direction of the subway and JR stations. Also from the kaden ryōhanten (家電量販店 discount shops for consumer electronics) now doing excellent business with items like the senpūki (扇風機 electric fan) and nisōshiki sentakki (二層式洗濯機 old-fashioned washing machine with no tumbler dryer or other functions) in preparation for the setsuden no natsu (節電の夏 the summer of saving electricity) that’s looming right around the corner.

Those of us born and bred during the Showa Era (1926-1989) are familiar with the smell, though it seems like years and years since it’s been this strong.

The Showa smell is comprised of a lot of different elements but suffice to say, the notes consist of sweat and mildew, of old wood and damp corners in the house, of oshi-ire (押し入れ Japanese style closets), mothballs and ammonia-based toilet cleaning solutions. It’s the smell of diesel fumes and cheap domestic brand perfume, of bad plumbing and wet concrete. And among people over 60, many say the chief smell of the Showa Period is the koyashi (肥やし fertilizer made mainly from cow, horse and human dung) that reigned supreme over the farms and fields of Japan for centuries. Apparently, the GHQ was so put out by it that they ordered the Japanese to import more flour, stop relying so much on rice, and start using chemical fertilizers by the tankload. The ploy worked and koyashi disappeared but odd, Showa-ish turns of phrase like miso mo kuso mo issho (味噌もクソも一緒 everything blends into one eventually, so distinguishing miso from excrement is often meaningless) have stuck around. In fact, a reporter from one of the domestic dailies used it to explain the state of the Japanese parliament.

In any case, Showa smells and the particular Showa atmosphere of having to make do with what we’ve got — is prevalent in the air. Public transportation systems, office buildings and shopping facilities are cutting back on power by turning off (or toning down) the kūchō (air conditioning system) which means the chances of being assailed by real-life scents of sweat, mud and Mild Seven cigarettes now far outweigh the chances of strolling down the corridor of a swanked-out skyscraper and basking in the floral fragrances wafting from the ventilators. Smoking, by the way, is staging an unobtrusive comeback. In cafes and restaurants the norm is now shifting away from kinen (禁煙 no smoking) to bunen (分煙 divided smoking) so nonsmokers across the room get a full dose of secondary smoke which is, of course, another distinct Showa sensation.

As for the all-out “Cool Biz” campaign of getting businesspeople to wear lighter, more casual clothing — Showa has been there, done that. Until the 1970s, dads went to work during the summer in kaikin shatsu (開衿シャツ open-collar shirts), with their sensu (扇子 paper folding fans) stashed in their front pockets to ward off the heat. By the way, the shirt pockets of Showa fathers were always bulging — with tabako (たばこ cigarette packs), matches, fans, possibly a baken (馬券 racing tickets) or two and the ever-present tsūkin teiki (通勤定期 commuting train pass). Showa moms were always darning pocket holes, sock holes, fixing belt loops on suit pants, sewing name tags on their childrens’ taiikugi (体育着 school gym wear) — all Showa tasks that few women have the patience for anymore.

All things considered, Showa wasn’t bad. In Tokyo especially, it seems that people were kinder and a little more relaxed than we are today — with no smartphones, laptops or convenience stores, and with families crammed into danchi (団地 communal apartments) rooms with just one little TV, Tokyoites had little choice but to get along. Mothers stayed home and cooked real meals and the whole family talked to each other over a little shokutaku (食卓 dining table) with the windows wide open to let in the breeze.

Admittedly, growing up in the era had its moments of misery — like having no caramel macchiatos to ease the hardships of bukatsu (部活 extra-curricular sports) and juken (受験 entrance exams), no Roku-Hiru (六本木ヒルズ Roppongi Hills) to hang out with one’s boyfriend and, in my case, always having to fight for a spot in front of the one and only mirror in a household of boys.

There was also nothing nifty like the josei senyō sharyō (女性専用車両 women-only train cars) to help out women on long, hard commutes to work and school. Back then, there was no choice but to endure the loud, wet coughing of oyaji (おやじ middle-aged men) which often happened right onto the back of one’s neck. Yuck.

Showa wasn’t glamorous and it certainly wasn’t wealthy, but there was the comfort of having one’s feet firmly on the ground, and knowing that tomorrow was bound to be a little bit better than today. Sadly, that’s more than you can say for the present state of things.