“In Yedo, nothing is so common as to hear the citizens lament the times that have only just come to an end.” So ran one editorial of “The Far East,” an English-language periodical published in Japan in the 1870s.
A contemporary echo of this sentiment reverberates in the exhibition “Tokyo Olympics and the Bullet Train”, now on at the Edo-Tokyo Museum, which commemorates the 50th anniversary of a key moment in Japan’s postwar history. The exhibition is like opening two dusty shoeboxes at the house of your elderly but incorrigible aunt and uncle to find memorabilia from when they first met. Items such as crockery marked “Made in Occupied Japan,” copies of the racy magazine Avec and posters disseminated by GHQ to promote democracy help give us an impression of the years when the country went from rubble to riches.
There are two shoeboxes, because it is difficult not to notice how the new time-saving technology affected women and men quite differently back then. A display of electrically powered rice cookers, irons and washing machines next to their non-electrical predecessors show how postwar modernity aimed to make life easier for housewives.
On the other hand, the construction of the Tokyo highway system and the revitalization of the railway network, both timed to coincide with the opening of the Olympic Games, in the longer term was a lot about getting more men to work faster, though not necessarily, I suspect, getting them home earlier.
Among the sometimes quirky ephemera in the section dedicated to the 1964 Olympics and Paralympics are reminders that, besides technology, two other disciplines in which Japan punched above its weight were graphic design and architecture. Original maquettes and blueprints for Kenzo Tange’s buildings in Yoyogi and posters by Kamekura Yusaku indicate how deeply Japanese visual design cues have become touchstones in contemporary culture around the world.
Unfortunately the design and execution of the show itself is something of a missed opportunity, and it is more bureaucratic than inspirational. Unlike with the immersive permanent exhibition on the fifth floor, the viewer may have to work harder to get a sense of this watershed year from displays that sometimes rely too heavily on ticket stubs and model trains. For those unable to read Japanese, this problem is compounded by the limited amount of translated text, though we can be grateful that there is any at all.
For some, of course, the exhibition will have a huge impact in spite of any shortcomings; expressions of both melancholy and joy can be seen flitting across the faces of older visitors as they recognize and remember scraps of paper that may have little or no significance to younger generations. Nostalgia — it was ever thus.
“Tokyo Olympics and the Bullet Train” at the Edo Tokyo Museum runs till Nov. 16; open 9:30 a.m.-5:30 p.m. (Sat. till 7:30 p.m.). ¥1,300. Closed Mon. www.edo-tokyo-museum.or.jp