Yearning for the golden Showa days

Is life in postwar Japan too often remembered through rose-tinted glasses?


An American friend once described the conflict between his desire to leave Japan and his inability to rouse himself to do so by saying that living here was akin to soaking in a warm bath. For many people, soaking in the nostalgia of the Showa Era is a little like that.

SHOWA JAPAN: The Post-War Golden Age and Its Troubled Legacy, by Hans Brinckmann. Tuttle Publishing, 2008, 195 pp., $27.95 (cloth)

Writer and businessman Hans Brinckmann arrived in Japan in 1950 when the cinder of war still covered much of the country, but hope was beginning to stir. Brinckmann, who spent many rewarding, formative years here, readily admits to nostalgic yearnings for the period, to share many of the emotions of that generation of Japanese. Fortunately for us, Brinckmann keeps a cool head and a firm hand, producing a work of eminently readable journalism, but also of scholarly scope, an engaging mix of analysis and memoir.

Was the Showa Era a soulful or soulless time? Did it lay the foundations for today’s prosperity, or Japan’s social erosion? Work was a glorious thing, but was it also a surrogate for normal family life and were colleagues substitutes for true friends? Was the time well spent or irretrievably lost? Did national development produce progress or rural and urban devastation? These are some of the questions Brinckmann attempts to address.

Period TV and film dramas recreate a Showa Japan that airbrushes out of the picture some of the less palatable realities of the time, such as the cramped, Soviet-style public housing — some of the dreariest urban environments ever dreamed up in the developed world — that many people had to endure. Of the employment system, the sacrifices made by salarymen for the betterment of company and nation, Brinckmann writes, “this strange institution, a modern form of indenture, is now seen as an enduring and, yes, cherished symbol of the Showa age.” As the author says, “Nostalgia breeds on perception, not fact.”

For a people accustomed to years of political oppression, the certainties of the Showa Era must have seemed a blessing. It also provided a welcome change from what the author calls the historical uncertainties, the “welter of undigested experiences and conflicting value systems” undermining the calm exterior of the first half of the Japan century.

Brinckmann feels the need, however, to counter Japan’s over-soothing moods, past and present. The benefits of clear remembrance help. When you read Brinckmann’s description of the 1960s’ demos in Tokyo, a far from mollifying Showa interlude — “The deafening chant of the large crowds of demonstrators still rings in my ears” — you know the writer is a witness to the facts of history.

Another incisive chapter explores the lamentable failings of the Japanese press and the reluctant acquiescence of a largely docile public, whose lack of gumption in confronting leadership in the public arena, ensures little fundamental change. At a time when impartial assessment of the era should be possible, many Japanese seem to be sliding into the escapism and revisionism. The political establishment, Brinckmann concludes, is attempting to negate the realities of an increasingly pluralistic and diverse society by resorting to models from the past. Ultimately, however, Showa values may have to remain in the domain of nostalgia. As Brinckmann says, “trying to run Heisei with a Showa mind-set is like retrofitting a Boeing 780 with propeller engines. It won’t fly.”

Perhaps the ideal Showa life was the one lived by Brinckmann himself, a full participant in the period but one who, as an outsider, was able to enjoy the warm bath, but get out before the plug was pulled.